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Kunsthall Oslo

Kai Fjell

Kai Fjell, Scenes and Stages
30th September-27th November
Opening 30th September 7pm
Munchmuseet in Movement: Kunsthall Oslo
Dronning Eufemias gate 34 0191 Oslo

The Munch Museum and Kunsthall Oslo are pleased to welcome you to the exhibition Kai Fjell: Scenes and Stages, the first major presentation of Fjell’s work in Oslo since the memorial exhibition at Kunstnernes hus in 1990.

Kai Fjell (1907-1989) was educated at the Norwegian National Academy of Craft and Applied Art in 1927 and the National Academy of Fine Arts from 1928 to 1929. After his debut exhibition at Oslo Kunstforening in 1932, at least one critic advised him to give up painting for good. Instead, Fjell returned to the studio and redoubled his efforts. The result, a major exhibition at Kunstnernes hus in 1937, was an instant critical, public and commercial success which placed Fjell amongst the foremost artists of his generation.

Fjell’s oeuvre is extensive and varied; as well being a prolific painter and printmaker, Fjell produced sceonography for several productions at the National Theatre in Oslo, and public works for government buildings, churches and the Fornebu airport. But the starting point for this exhibition is Fjell’s work in drawing, and in particular the series of drawings he made in 1946 for an unusual edition of Arthur Rimbaud’s poems. Spinn etter Rimbaud [Inventions after Rimbaud] was written by the Norwegian art collector, financier, poet and essayist Rolf Stenersen. Stenersen did not attempt to produce a faithful translation, but rather – with Fjell’s assistance – to render his experience of the poems, as he writes in the preface:

Arthur Rimbaud’s poetry has captivated me. I see pictures when I read him, and pictures want words. I know but little French. I have not been able to recreate Rimbaud’s vocabulary and style (…) If I have in any case made an attempt, I have depended on the help of Kai Fjell.

Scenes and Stages is a title taken from one of the poems in Spinn etter Rimbaud, although it also points towards Fjell’s production in general, and during this period in particular: stylistically strong and gripping narratives expressed in rich, ornamental tableaux.

The drawings form the heart of the exhibition. Their simple, precise lines are melancholic, yet simultaneously direct, gentleness and violence balanced alongside one another. The poems which have given the drawings their titles deal with powerful themes: A Season in Hell, Destiny, After the Flood. Fjell’s drawings also reflect the nascent surrealism that Rimbaud brought to his work, here in the poem Departures:

Enough seen. The vision encountered in every sky.
Enough had. The sounds of towns, at evening, and in sunlight, and forever.
Enough known. The stations of life – O Sounds and Visions!
Departure in affection and new noise.

The illustration to the poem Sleep shows a dramatic scene where a horse and carriage has overturned and the passengers have been thrown into a river. But this nightmare is also beautiful, with the stones on the riverbank highlighted in a quiet landscape. The same effect is seen in First Evening, where a young boy with an eyepatch is lying in bed, staring into space. From beneath the bedcovers protrudes a skeleton arm, as if death has already occurred. This ambivalence between the beautiful and the brutal, the simplicity and certainty of the line, are a recurring theme in these works, which together provide an insight into the richness of Fjell’s imagination.

We have chosen to include two drawings in the exhibition that were not part of Spinn etter Rimbaud, but which in different ways relate closely to the exhibition as a whole. In Freedom (1945) an SS soldier passively watches a young suitor greet his beloved; while the surreal drawing Interview (1947) carries a personal message from Fjell to Stenersen.

Most of the drawings exhibited here are very fragile, executed on poor quality wartime paper with a weathered iron gall ink; in some places the line has faded almost completely. This is the first time such a complete collection of the drawings from series has been assembled since they were first made; it may almost be one of the last times this is possible, given the condition of some of the works.

Folk art and war
As an artist Fjell was inspired by the dominant Expressionism of the continent, but also by Norwegian folk art, including traditional rosemaling and wood carving. One of the works in the exhibition is the sculpture Madonna (1943), where Fjell’s central motif, the mother and child, is carved from a large block of solid wood. The story runs that Fjell turned to wood carving due to a shortage of painting materials during the War. He taught himself to carve, with great skill, while working on this piece, which was his first and last major sculpture.

Fjell’s oeuvre changed towards the end of the 1930s, when he turned from expressive, surreal and gloomy subjects, with rather dark palette and rough brush strokes, to an almost sensual richness of detail, with ornamentation and more brilliant colours. This exhibition shows the work of a mature and socially-engaged artist, for whom both social issues, and personal life are equal themes and motifs.

Several of the paintings deal with the ravages of war and its consequences. In The Bombing of Leiret (1943) we see the German bombing of the town of Elverum, where Fjell had lived on the family farm in his youth. In the painting Refugees (1939), we are confronted uncomfortably by the direct gaze of the young woman who is the painting’s primary subject; in the epic The Refugees Return (1944), the gaze of the central figure is ambivalent, and the painting speaks of a solidarity born from suffering. The Good Triumphs (1943) centres on a mother breastfeeding her child. The painting is done in an almost glowing palette, in stark contrast to the horrors one suspects are being played out in the background, as everyday events take on a mythic aspect against the backdrop of the end of the War.

A meeting with a stranger is another recurring motif, a bohemian figure who may be a musician, a traveller, or an artist, and in The Stranger III (1945) the minstrel is greeted with open door and food. The Wanderer (1951) is a later intepretation of the same theme, and between these two paintings one sees another evolution in Fjell’s style, from clear, structured and ornamental composition to less detailed, angular phrases, where surfaces are juxtaposed and the decorative muted.

Together all these different scenes show Kai Fjell as an increasingly relevant artist; an artist keen to capture the many elements at play in human lives, in the fate of individuals as well as in our collective experience.

About Kai Fjell
Kai Fjell was born in 1907 on a farm in Skoger in Buskerud, later the family moved to a farm outside Elverum. Fjell should have taken over the farm, but chose to pursue art and moved to Oslo in 1925. He was a student at the Carl von Hanno drawing school, then at the Norwegian National Academy of Craft and Apllied Art in 1927, and the National Academy of Fine Arts from 1928 to 1929, under Axel Revold. His debut exhibition in 1932 at Oslo Kunstforening was poorly received, but the art collector Rolf E. Stenersen was one of those who noticed Fjell and who supported his work. Fjell had his artistic breakthrough with a solo exhibition at Kunstnernes hus in 1937, where all the pictures were sold. Fjell represented Norway at the Venice Biennale in 1953, and had solo exhibitions at Bergen Kunstforening in 1971 and at Henie Onstad Art Centre in 1977, as well as many other solo and group exhibitions at home and abroad.

Fjell was a versatile and highly productive artist; no complete record exists of his work. He worked primarily with oil but also with drawing, watercolor, pastel, gouache and various print techniques. In the years 1950-1961 he worked on eleven productions at the national Theatre as a stage designer, and in addition also designed the costumes for several of the pieces. In 1953, Fjell designed the sets for Rolf Stenersen’s play Eva og Johannes.

Fjell produced monumental reliefs in sandblasted concrete for the Cabinet Building in Oslo (1958), glass mosaics and reliefs for Bakkehaugen church (1960) and monumental paintings at the former Fornebu Airport (1968). He lived most of his adult life in Lysaker, until his death in 1989.

Kai Fjell is represented in the collections of the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo; Norwegian Hydro Collection; Nordea Norway Collection; Stavanger kunstmuseum; KODE Bergen Art Museum; Gothenburg Art Museum; Moderna Museet in Stockholm and the Ateneum in Helsinki, among many other public and private collections.

We thank the following for kindly lending works to this exhibition: The Fjell family, KODE Bergen, Vestlia Resort, Stavanger Art Museum, Morten Zondag, and lenders who wish to remain anonymous. Our particular thanks go to Sindre and Bamse Fjell, Sandra Lorentzen and Blaafarverket, Morten Zondag and Emma Chan.

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