THE JOHN OLAV RIISE COLLECTION
Amongst the Henie Onstad Art Centre’s many art treasures is a unique collection of around two hundred artworks by the Norwegian photographer John Olav Riise. This collection was recently drawn into the limelight once again, and was presented by the Art Centre in the form of an exhibition (shown in Norway and USA in 2006–07) and a publication.
It was partly by accident that the collection found its way into the Art Centre’s care, as a permanent loan, but it was also due to the fact that the Henie Onstad Art Centre was the first institution in Norway to include photography in its exhibition programme on the same footing as other forms of visual art. After many years of neglect in Norway, when the Henie Onstad Art Centre showed open-minded appreciation of photography on a par with other forms of visual art, it meant a great deal to those working within the field, and had a positive influence upon the development of Norwegian art photography. Later, other institutions began to take a more responsible attitude towards this sector of our cultural heritage.
FROM PICTORIALISM TO ABSTRACTION
John Olav Riise (1885–1978) worked as a professional photographer up to the beginning of the 1920s, when he shifted his attention to painting as his chosen medium. It is nevertheless as a photographer that he is best known and most highly regarded in Norwegian art history. He broke with the accepted conventions of the time, and no other Norwegian photographer has combined elements from Cubism, Surrealism and Expressionism in his/her art as successfully as he did. He is unique in this internationally too. Very early on in his career he was hailed as a pioneer within the field of photography for the way in which he manually manipulated his motifs. By combining several negatives in one photograph, and by using hand-applied colours, he produced some astonishingly
unique work that was highly acclaimed at the time. John Olav Riise was one of the Norwegian artists whose work had the strongest impact on the international arena, especially in France. He participated in the annual Salon in Paris from 1924 to 1932, and his work was highly regarded there. However, despite the many exhibitions he held, also in his homeland, he received very little media attention in Norway during his lifetime.
The art historian Eva Klerck Gange gives the following overview of the artist’s work, and the position he held:
John Olav Riise travelled far on his artistic journey – from a tiny farming community on an island in western Norway, to Paris, where he participated year after year in the Salon International d’Art Photographique de Paris, along with such other highly regarded photographers as Robert Demachy and Frantisek Drtikol. Riise created a special place for himself in Norwegian terms, because he turned his attention to France, whilst most of his colleagues were inspired by English and German photography. Another difference between Riise and his Norwegian colleagues was that his visual language was eclectic and experimental, influenced by Cubism, Surrealism and Abstraction. Like other photographers such as Man Ray, Riise developed a surreal visual language – most clearly evident in his portraits – and was also influenced by French Neo-Classicism.
Throughout most of his career, John Olav Riise worked counter to the accepted visual norms of the day. He positioned himself against his colleagues in the field of photography in Norway, and was clearly influenced by “isms” of painting that were not publicly accepted in Norway. His continual exploration and study of various photographic techniques resulted in a style that broke with the norms, and was more closely aligned with painting. It is only more recently that the liberating concept of a more eclectic, postmodern view, encompassing all forms of art and art history, has opened the way for a clearer understanding of artists such as Riise, whose work combines many stylistic forms.
(Eva Klerck Gange, in the exhibition catalogue John Olav Riise, Høvikodden: Henie Onstad Art Centre, 2006.)
Up to now John Olav Riise’s work has remained relatively unknown. Surrealism plays a minor role in Norwegian art history, but an interesting one. This is a theme that the Henie Onstad Art Centre is now exploring in greater depth in various exhibitions. John Olav Riise’s central works are of great relevance to many of these projects.
The essay is taken from the book The Henie Onstad Art Centre: The Art of Tomorrow Today : The Collection by Karin Hellandsjø, Torino : Skira, 2008