Images of a Nordic Drama Challenges the Elitism of the Art World
Nils Gaup’s latest film highlights one man’s journey to rescue and preserve a contemporary of Edvard Munch.
Hot Docs 2022: Images of a Nordic Drama Review
What begins simply enough as a documentary about a painter whose work was found posthumously turns into a fascinating look at the art world as gatekeepers of culture. With a more grotesque and rough subject matter, Aksel Waldemar Johannessen’s paintings shock and repulse with their images of a poverty-stricken Norway and its inhabitants. Images of a Nordic Drama not only challenges the art world to view a less clean aesthetic, but also highlights the impossible journey to bring an unknown contemporary of Edvard Munch into the canon of Norwegian art history.
The history of a place is often seen through the works of art preserved through time – something which Haakon Mehren recognizes when he is led to a treasure trove of works by Johannessen sitting in a barn and bound for the dump. Immediately impacted by the discovery, Haakon begins a surprisingly difficult journey to have the works preserved and to add a painter with a distinct body of work canonized by the Norwegian art world.
As much a star of the film as Johannessen’s art, Haakon is a stubborn force of nature – as well he would need to be to deal with the inner politics of art. Charting his discovery of the paintings to the ups and downs along the way, Haakon’s life almost takes the forefront of Nils Gaup’s documentary. There are very few people with the ability to weather as much rejection as Haakon does, and his dedication to preserving Johannessen’s works ends up the heartbeat of Images of a Nordic Drama.
However, the paintings themselves also leave an indelible impression. An artist painting images of starvation, prostitution and drunkenness to acclaim at the time, finds his work forgotten decades later. Which is a shame because the imagery Johannessen is painting illustrates a darker side of Norway’s history intimately captured on canvas. It’s precisely that reason why Haakon finds constant dismissal at every turn, despite the rougher technique used to paint the images matching the crude scenes depicted. They leave an impression, even if they’re not particularly “nice” to look at.
It’s that reining in of Norway’s history through the lens of art and what gets preserved that makes Images of a Nordic Drama a potent glimpse into culture being written by the elite. Institutions like the National Museum in Oslo and the Munch Museum each bring art to the masses and they have the power to bring to light new discoveries that reframe the way we look at the world. Which is what winds up the sticking point in Gaup’s film as elitism and the status quo reign supreme.
There’s a tiredness to Haakon’s quest that can be felt pretty early on in Images of a Nordic Drama. It’s a thankless task of trying to recognize art that no one deemed important wants to recognize. It results in a somewhat redundant experience, only accentuated by the brief moments of respite and hope. Haakon ends up a bit too much of a main character and Johannessen’s life’s work feels more like accents to a painting that drives you towards the focal point. Even then, Haakon’s persistence and the repetition of rejection solidifies the need to maintain one’s own opinion and not rely on others to tell you how to think. Just because something is not loved by all doesn’t mean it deserves to be forgotten.
The Hot Docs Film Festival runs from Thursday, April 28 until May 8. Visit the official website for more information.