The Dream of Peace: an Artist’s Vision Interview with Svein Olav Hoff, Norway’s most renowned art historian and specialist of the Norwegian painter Henrik Sørensen

17 December 2018

Who has not seen the huge painting in the United Nations Library’s great hall? It has been there since 1938, and was completely finished in 1939. Most people do not even know that it was a Norwegian painter, Henrik Sørensen who painted “The Dream of Peace”.

On September the 21st, the United Nations Library and the Norwegian Mission in Geneva organized a Library Talk, where Norway’s best known expert and art-critic came to talk to us about the painter, about his social commitment and not the least about the painting itself. It was indeed a very interesting moment, and, although it may sound incredible, it was only a few days earlier that Mr. Hoff had seen the masterpiece for the first time! He had approached the United Nations in Geneva several times in the mid-1980s to get a chance to see and study the painting, but all in vain. For more than one hour, this inspiring man told the audience about Sørensen, the painting and Sørensen’s career. We had a chance to meet with Hoff briefly, to know a little bit more about the man who had caught our total attention for more than one hour.

Q: Could you tell us a little about yourself, and why you are interested in Henrik Sørensen?

I am a Norwegian art historian and have a master’s degree in Henrik Sørensen’s works, and I even wrote my doctorate dissertation on him. He has fascinated me my whole my life, not only as a painter, but also as a person and not least for his social commitment. Sørensen said that an artist really belongs to a country’s elite and a country’s superstructure, thus it is not just a right but a duty to be engaged and to have social commitments. When I was writing the master’s degree dissertation, back in 1982, it was the centenary of Sørensen’s birth. At that time, there were two camps in Norway. One said that this was the country’s most amazing painter, and the other side, on the contrary, said that this person had terrorized Norwegian spiritual and artistic life for 50 years. According to the latter, Sørensen had stood in the way of women and modernist development. I think it was expressed very dualistically, and therefore I wanted to conciliate the two. I had studied history and social anthropology and was about to really become a public affairs specialist. Instead, I became an art historian, specialized in Henrik Sørensen and in particular his social commitment, and not just the painter.

Q: Why has Norway never been keen on making this painting known?

This is due in particular to two things. First, there was a person named Adolf Hitler. Before the war, Sørensen assisted in the setting up of two peace organizations – the Norwegian Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and People Rise against War. Those organizations both existed in the pre-war period, and then the war arrived with the Nazis. After 1945, talking about peace suffered from a loss of both interest and impetus for a while. The Germans were beaten, so, the country was to be rebuilt and rid of the traitors. That was the attitude. Therefore, I think that is one of the reasons this painting was forgotten.

Norwegian authorities and Norwegian politicians have never been clever at organizing events, so it is thanks to Torild Skaar who made it possible for us to come here today. I have organized a large exhibition, The Parisians, dedicated to the Norwegian artists Krogh, Sørensen and Helberg at the Lillehammer Art Museum where I work. It is said that these artists traveled home from Paris in 1920s – I tend to say that they travelled home to Norway to national fame and international forgetting.

The thing is that an artist and artwork must be kept alive and must be sold and exhibited internationally. The Norwegian museum directors and the politicians have not been good at promoting Norwegian art abroad. It has been the role of the Norwegian ambassadors, and often, they have had a pot full of money. Some have spent it on wine while others have used it for visual art. Yet, there has been no specific focus on the visual arts. Lately, over the past years, they have been better in literature and music, but there has been nothing special for the pictorial artists.

Once more, art must be kept alive. Why didn’t I come in here the first time I wanted to see this painting? Perhaps the way I approached the United Nations, orally and very colloquially, made them close all doors. One could say I was not exactly welcome. That I am currently speaking here is great, but it could have been other Norwegians representing the establishment, the director of the National Museum for instance. There have been many who could have talked about the 1930s and put this into the proper context for example.

The arts must be kept alive. Things are often forgotten, and Norwegian politicians should have done international promotion to a much greater extent, to make Norwegian culture and art known abroad.

Q: How is it being an artist in Norway?

Myself, I am not an artist, but an art critic. The artists are complaining, but I would say that they have relatively good conditions in comparison to artists in many other countries. The authorities have many special arrangements for artists and public exhibit schemes etc.

Q: Do you think that this event will make Norwegian art more visible or that the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs will be more willing to support Norwegian art?

I hope that it will generate better understanding about it all. One must put this in context and not least in a cultural policy context. The Norwegian Foreign Minister reaches out directly to Norwegian painters. Then there is no competition, no committees, no management. Do you want to do that? OK. Then you get so much to do it. However, as I have said, past artwork has to be kept current, alive.

Q: How do you keep artistic works “alive”?

Well, you could, for instance, organize exhibitions; organize lectures to talk about it. Contrast it, put it in context, compare with modern art – it must not just be a picture behind a curtain. Just like Norwegian writers. You are talking about classics in Norway; my kids have not read the author Jonas Lie, or Bjelland, Ibsen etc. Things must be kept alike.

Q: You are the director of a museum.

No, not any longer, I have just stepped down as the chief director. Now, I am just a special adviser and will organize exhibitions for the rest of my life. I have just set up an exhibition called Pariserene, which is an exhibition about the central Norwegian artists living in Paris from the 1920s up to the war. I mostly organize historical exhibitions.

Q: What will the next exhibition be?

I have started to look at another forgotten painter and will organize an exhibition about him, Bernard Folkestad, who came from Horten. He died in 1933. Then I’ll continue with contemporary art. I am also specialized in this area.
Editor’s note:
Svein Olav Hoff has published many books and articles on Norwegian modern and contemporary art.

Marit Fosse
Geneva, September 2018