T he British Ambassador to Norway is under the beady eye of a seagull. At a country house on Jeløya, an island on the Oslo Fjord, Ambassador Gillett opens a new Anish Kapoor exhibition. Above her, a gull takes in the assembled dignitaries from its lofty perch on the portico. The Norwegian art world is an egalitarian affair; ramblers taking the coastal path mingle with the guests. Toasting the show is like giving a nod to nature. We applaud, the walkers walk and the bird takes flight.
The Alby estate on Jeløya is a blend of the contemporary and the folksy, presenting Galleri F 15 – an innovative exhibition space housed in a 19th-century manor – alongside a local museum and a café famous for its almond pastries. It also has a special place in art history. From 1913 to 1916, Edvard Munch rented a farm nearby where he built an outdoor studio and immersed himself in a body of “sunshine saturated” pictures: workers in the fields, corridors of firs, bathers in repose.
The Kapoor exhibition at Galleri F 15 is co-curated by its dynamic director, Dag Aak Sveinar, and Alnoor Mitha, Senior Research Fellow at the Manchester School of Art. It provides a small but effective tour through Kapoor’s career, with examples from the early 1980s to the present day, including floor-standing sculptures in vibrant pigments, hexagonal mirrors, etchings of organic forms and eerie steel and fibreglass wall cavities. Twelve rooms each host a single work. Like Munch’s paintings, woodcuts and watercolours, Kapoor’s work engages – albeit obliquely – with the grand Nordic setting.
The two artists might seem world’s apart, both geographically and artistically, but there are parallels. “When Munch lived here he was that far away from turning into an abstract painter,” Sveinar tells me, pinching his fingers together. “Pushing the colours, the form and the expressions.” In curating Kapoor, Sveinar was “looking for something that has same magic as Munch but could be from somewhere else on the planet.”
Both artists are colourists. The deep reds and heavy blacks evident in Munch’s works from his stay on the island, such as Lovers (1913) and Fjord Landscape (1913-14), are echoed in Kapoor’s bold goaches. And both deal with eroticism and fertility: Munch painted nudes reclining on Jeløya’s shoreline while Kapoor’s When I am Pregnant (1992) – a bump blooming out of one of the gallery’s white walls – turns the building into an expectant form.
Munch and Kapoor each skew nature to their own aesthetic and emotional ends. While living on Jeløya, Munch worked on a vast frieze for the assembly hall of the University of Kristiania (now Oslo). At the work’s centre, emphasised in studies such as Towards the Light (1914), is a radiant sun sending out geometric rays. There is a profoundly modern spirituality to the scene. Munch noted that he wanted the work “to be both distinctively Norwegian and universally human.”
Kapoor’s sky mirrors do something similar – he once described their effect as the “new sublime”. His latest mirror, some 3 metres in diameter and fresh from his studio, has been installed at the end of the Alby’s baroque gardens, where it reflects and refracts the glinting fjord and the trees shimmering with bees. “It’s like a landscape painting,” Sveinar observes. “When there are clouds in the sky, I think it’s a Constable.”
Alby’s grounds provide another gallery. Behind the sky mirror a ha-ha allows the grass to underline under the silvery water beyond. It is a case of one illusion embracing another, just the kind of framework perfected by two artists – one Norwegian, the other British – separated by a century.
Anish Kapoor is showing at Galleri F 15 until 14 October.
MAIN IMAGE: ANISH KAPOOR, THE CHANT OF BLUE, 1983. PHOTO: ISTVAN VIRAG.