“There is something about this archipelago that is both grander and gentler than words can express,” Queen Sonja of Norway says of Svalbard, a cluster of islands nestled within the Arctic Circle. “It can only be described through art.”


QUEEN SONJA AT ARTICA SVALBARD. PHOTOGRAPH BY OLAV T. SØLA.

Queen Sonja has become a great patron of the arts in Scandinavia. In 2012 she founded a bi-annual international award for graphic artists, which Sotheby’s is proud to support. And now she is the figurehead for an artist-in-residence programme here at the edge of the world. As an accomplished printmaker herself, the Queen has a particular fondness for Svalbard: its ice caves inspired some of her first works.


TIINA KIVINEN SETTING UP HER STUDIO AT ARTICA SVALBARD. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF THE ARTIST. 

I recently visited this far-flung Norwegian territory for the launch of the scheme, and could see how the stark, silent landscape – with its midnight sun, shrouded peaks and vast glaciers – would beguile an artist. A workshop, with a printing press and studios, has been set up in Longyearbyen, a former mining town that is the islands’ main settlement.


A VIEW OF SVALBARD, 2017. PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRISTIAN HOUSE. 

The Artica Svalbard Foundation programme, supported by the Queen Sonja Print Award and several other partners, will provide residencies of between three and nine months for both visual artists and writers. The intention is to fuel cultural, ecological and geopolitical discussions surrounding the Arctic.

Battling the weather - minus 20 degrees, spiked with a wind-chill - I tramped through the snow to the opening of the workshop. While Svalbard is cinematic in its scope it can be merciless: the weather turns in an instant and Polar Bears are a genuine threat. Locals carry rifles.


QUEEN SONJA AT ARTICA SVALBARD. PHOTOGRAPH BY OLAV T. SØLA.

The first artist to take up residence here is Tiina Kivinen, a Finnish printmaker who won the inaugural Queen Sonja Print Award. Her eerie mezzotints, with their spindly trees and silhouetted figures, seem a perfect fit for this harsh but beautiful topography.

Talking to me at the opening, she expressed her love of the “white cold Nordic light.” But Svalbard is special. “An artist is also an explorer,” Kivinen noted. “But I have never been to a place like this. This is like a winter wonderland.” And, of course, it is a wonderland with Royal approval.