Christen Sveaas Art Foundation: a Year of Exhibitions at the Whitechapel

Over the past year, exhibitions of works from the Christen Sveaas Art Foundation selected by contemporary artists have been intriguing visitors to London’s Whitechapel Gallery. As the fourth exhibition enters its final weeks, Christian House looks back on the series.


“The hidden, the mysterious, the unspoken, the uncanny – are all elements that I am drawn to as artistic qualities,” notes Christen Sveaas, the Norwegian collector, businessman and philanthropist. Over the past year, those strange and alluring aspects have been shared with the public across a series of free exhibitions at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. The series has offered British audiences an opportunity to survey a wide range of Norwegian art, both past and present.

Whitechapel Gallery in London (photo: courtesy of the gallery)

December sees the culmination of the project as Whitechapel’s fourth specially-curated show enters its final weeks. Each of the Sveaas Foundation Collection exhibitions has each been assembled by an international artist represented in the collection, an approach initially suggested by the Whitechapel’s outgoing director Iwona Blazwick.

Over the year, the selections have united works from the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and juxtaposed oil paintings, drawings and sculptures and objects. It has been a dynamic experiment in arriving at a collection through many doors.

The final display has been assembled by Donna Huanca, the American artist known for her multi-sensory installations. At Whitechapel, the result is more of a creation than a curation, as she turns the gallery space into ‘Portal de Plata’, what she describes as “a meditative space of intimacy and reflection.” Huanca incorporates paintings, sculpture, set decoration and sound, even spoons from Sveaas’s collection of Norwegian antique silver. Walking through the gallery, I overhear one visitor describe the experience as “like being in a womb.”

Christen Sveaas Art Foundation: Portal de Plata, Selected by Donna Huanca. Whitechapel Gallery, London. 26 August – 31 December 2022 (Photo: Damian Griffiths)

The year-long project between the Christen Sveaas Art Foundation, Whitechapel and the four artists has delivered four very different interpretations of the collection. Talking to me at his Oslo offices this summer, Sveaas explained that this was precisely the point: “I think it’s interesting that they’re not curators by profession, they are artists, so they have a different view.”

They certainly do. The first exhibition – titled ‘This is the Night Mail’ – found the Norwegian artist Ida Ekblad, a painter, sculptor, performance artist and filmmaker, bring her maximalist sensibility to a show that completely wrapped the gallery’s walls in works, high and low and all around in the salon fashion (Blazwick described it as a wunderkammer). Its theme was the night time (with all its horrors and splendours) and the title referenced the WH Auden poem Night Mail (1936), another artistic ride through the darkness. Works from Norwegian greats – including a crepuscular landscape by Edvard Munch and a moonlit forest troll by Theodor Kittelsen – appeared alongside more contemporary nightmares and dreams by international artists such as Theaster Gates and Sophie Calle.

Installation view of Christen Sveaas Art Foundation: This is the Night Mail, Selected by Ida Ekblad at Whitechapel Gallery (Photo: Stephen White)

One of the highlights of Ekblad’s selection was a monumental painting of an archivist up a ladder, surrounded by document boxes. The work, A la Galcante (2015), is by Paulina Olowska, the Polish artist who curated the second Sveaas show. Olowska explained that her exhibition, ‘The Travel Bureau’, aimed to explore the collection as if “looking through the eye of a journey. Looking at paintings as a metaphor of longing, wishing to be somewhere else.” It was a voyage that visited the American vistas of Ed Ruscha, Oluf Wold-Torne’s Norwegian seascapes and the imaginary worlds of Pierre et Gilles.

In their own very different ways, both Ekblad and Olowska provided viewing platforms – or, like Huanca, portals – on a series of places and situations. The focus of the third exhibition, selected by the British painter Hurvin Anderson, was more social and psychological. For his selection – ‘The Unseen’ – Anderson took what he calls “a tour of the unexpected” touching on subjects such as race, commerce and colonialism and in particular how a figure can be present even when it is missing. “I am interested in an interior or a portrait in which there is a hint, a barely-there suggestion of an inhabitant, a fragment or a ghost,” Anderson writes. In the Sveaas Collection, he finds these hints in the works of Norwegian figures such as Thore Heramb and Jakob Weidemann as well as artists from further afield (including Howard Hodgkin and Robert Rauschenberg).

Låst Dør by Else Hagen featured in Christen Sveaas Art Foundation: Portal de Plata, Selected by Donna Huanca. Whitechapel Gallery, London. 26 August – 31 December 2022 (Photo: Damian Griffiths)

Candy Stobbs, the curator at Whitechapel who oversaw three of the four exhibitions, explains that the artists had a counter-intuitive attitude to curation: “They’re not bound by the rules of curators, things that curators bear in mind. Maybe they’re more fluid, not always thinking how that connects to that. Maybe they’re more personal, more responsive.” The Sveaas Collection, observes Stobbs, is shaped by an idiosyncratic combination of abstraction, figuration and the profoundly strange, with a strong river of colour running through the mix. In the hands of these four artists, it allows for an eerie miscellany.

“They’re not bound by the rules of curators, things that curators bear in mind. Maybe they’re more fluid, not always thinking how that connects to that”
– Whitechapel curator Candy Stobbs

The Sveaas/Whitechapel collaboration introduced Stobbs and her colleagues to many Norwegian artists. “Aside from Munch, we were aware of Harald Sohlberg and Nikolai Astrup through recent exhibitions in London but many of the Norwegian artists were new to us,” she says. “We have enjoyed learning about the work of wonderful artists including Anna-Eva Bergman, Thorvald Hellesen, Theodore Kittelsen, Christian Krohg, Per Krohg and Edvarda Lie.”

Stobbs says that Interior with Marble Niche (1914) by the Danish master Vilhelm Hammershøi – which appeared in Ida Ekblad’s display – was one of her favourites from the year. “It is such a beautiful, quiet and contemplative interior,” she observes. Something similar could be said about Donna Huanca’s current space at Whitechapel. And of the many Norwegian works from the Sveaas Collection, she singles out Per Krohg’s Natt (Night, 1916) in which Krohg depicts a woman reading in bed with the shadow of her profile reflected on the pages of her book.

Tracing Absence. Whitechapel Gallery, London. 20 August – 31 December 2022. (Photo: Damian Griffiths)

As an addendum to the final artist-selection, Whitechapel has also staged ‘Tracing Absence’, an exhibition of photographic works from the Sveaas Collection, curated by students from the MA Curating Art and Public Programmes (jointly run by Whitechapel Gallery and London South Bank University). Viewers are encouraged to confront their “discomfort” over thoughts of emptiness. Major works by Andreas Gursky and Wolfgang Tillmans are shown alongside lesser-known works by Nordic photographers, such as Ola Kolehmainen and Mikkel McAlinden, to emphasise the universal nature of this most philosophical of subjects. And, with its compositions of empty stages, blank mirrors and anonymous crowds, it is appropriately mysterious.

Following its London run, ‘Tracing Absence’ is set to be shown in a new iteration next spring at Kistefos Museum, Sveaas’s celebrated museum and sculpture park outside Oslo. It is an indication that, while the Whitechapel collaboration might be drawing to a close, this enigmatic collection is set to enthuse and intrigue for a long time to come.

Christen Sveaas Art Foundation: ‘Portal de Plata’, Selected by Donna Huanca, and ‘Tracing Absence’ are both on at the Whitechapel Gallery until 31 December 2022.

Top photo: Christen Sveaas Art Foundation: Portal de Plata, Selected by Donna Huanca at the  Whitechapel Gallery (Photo: Damian Griffiths)

Interested in staying in touch with Norwegian Arts and receiving news of upcoming Norwegian cultural highlights in the UK? Sign-up for our newsletter.