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Who was Rolf Stenersen?

Sort-hvitt foto av en mann med hatt og frakk, som ser mot høyre.

Written by: Anette Basso


Rolf Stenersen. 1953. Foto: Arne F. Køpke. Riksarkivet.

Psychoanalysis, surrealism and sprinting:

What did Rolf Stenersen do when he wasn't collecting art? A whole lot!

The exhibition "Maybe it's beautiful", which opens on 10 March, tells about the collector Stenersen.

In this article, you get an insight into other parts of his life.

Investor and collector as a 16-year-old

Stenersen started his business as an art collector aged just 16. He did this by selling off graduation gifts and toys to establish an investment firm.

The first work of art he bought was a drawing by Theodor Kittelsen, before he bought his first work by Edvard Munch as an 18-year-old.

As a 21-year-old, Stenersen earns a fortune from buying and selling ship shares. From the 1920s he established himself as a stockbroker and entered into cooperation with Dutch banking firms.

Participates in the Olympic Games

In 1919, Rolf Stenersen becomes Norwegian champion at 200 metres sprint. The following year he repeats the feat, and he also takes part in the Summer Olympics in Antwerp.

Stenersen was also a skilled tennis player. The tennis motif also appears in his writing, as in one of the texts from "Godnatt da du", where the main character has won a tennis tournament for students in Oxford, where Stenersen himself had been a student.

Et maleri av Edvard Munch, som viser et portrett av Rolf Stenersen.

Edvard Munch: Rolf Stenersen (1925–26). Foto: © Munchmuseet

Stenersen and Reich

Rolf Stenersen was analyzed by the famous (and infamous) doctor and psychotherapist Wilhelm Reich, when the latter lived in Norway in the 1930s. He also financed the work of Reich.

In fact, Stenersen planned for the residence Villa Stenersen, designed by Arne Korsmo, to be used as a sex clinic for Reich.

Reich's theories on character analysis and the meaning of orgasm influenced both Stenersen and several other writers in Norway, such as Arnulf Øverland and Sigurd Hoel.

Later, Stenersen's enthusiasm for the German-Austrian psychoanalyst turns, and he distances himself from Reich as a scientist.

Condemned by the critics and banned by the Nazis

In 1931, Rolf Stenersen made his debut as a fiction writer with "Godnatt da du", written in an almost surrealistic language.

The book caused a stir. Here Stenersen writes about neuroses and madness, about sexual frustrations and erotic fantasies, and it is condemned as a "lewd" publication.

In fact, a critic in Morgenbladet refers to "Godnatt da du" as "dirty toilet scribbles", and believed that:

"the damage a drunken rapist does to a small child is small, compared to that which (...) a Rolf Stenersen (...) can do through his literary activities".


Later he publishes, among other things, the books "Stakkars Napoleon" (1934) and "Det likner kjærlighet" (1940). These fiction publications were banned by the Nazi authorities in 1941.

Resistance man and code breaker

Until 1940, Stenersen worked with code breaking in the Ministry of Defence. During the German occupation of Norway, he gets involved in the resistance struggle, and he conveys information from German anti-Nazis to the Norwegian authorities in exile.

In 1942 he fled to Sweden, where he stayed until the war was over. Meanwhile, the Nazis occupied Villa Stenersen. They chose to use the villa as an orphanage for children with German fathers and Norwegian mothers.

To menn i et sort-hvitt foto. En eldre Edvard Munch til venstre for Rolf Stenersen.

Edvard Munch og Rolf Stenersen. Foto: Anders Beer Wilse, 1938. Fra Nasjonalbiblioteket.

Villa Stenersen by Arne Korsmo, built in 1937-39.

Interiør fra Villa Stenersen i sort-hvitt. Vi ser en rekke stålrørsmøbler, og malerier på veggene.

Foto: Anders Beer Wilse, 1938. Fra Nasjonalbiblioteket.

Interiør i hvitt, i et funksjonalistisk hus. Utenfor en hage, og pent vær.

Villa Stenersen. Foto: Annar Bjørgli, Nasjonalmuseet

Stenersen and the mad geniuses

In 1944, Rolf Stenersen published the book "Edvard Munch. Close-up of a genius". This biography plays an important role in forming the myth of Munch as a genius, even though the word "genius" is only used once, in the title itself.

Stenersen was concerned with the link between genius and madness, which is also reflected in which other artists he collected. Of older art, he collected almost exclusively artists who were associated with stories of illness, among them Lars Hertervig.

Obscurants and museum rats

Stenersen was clear that there should be separate museums for modern art. This commitment and passion for contemporary art was unusual in Norway.

In 1969, Stenersen publishes the collection of articles "Stocks, art, artists". Here he refers to museum staff and art critics in critical terms, for not being preoccupied with contemporary art.

He believes these "museum rats" only praise dead artists, and that they were "art's obscurants".

Predicting his own death?

In 1971, Rolf Stenersen offered his collection of international modern art to the city of Bergen for a tenth of its value. In connection with the gift, a new museum building was built and named after Stenersen.

At the opening in 1978, Stenersen was interviewed by NRK. When asked if he is working on a new collection, Stenersen answers by shaking his head and saying: "No. Now, I'm going to die.”

Rolf Stenersen dies in October of the same year, in his hotel room in Bergen. He had spent the same morning in the newly opened Stenersen building. After lunch with friends, he retired to his hotel room, where he passed away.

En gruppe mennesker i et utstillingsrom, i et sort-hvitt foto. Samleren Rolf Stenersen er omkranset blant annet av kongefamilien.

Foto: Bergens Tidende. 1978.

The Stenersen building opens in 1978.

Eksteriør av Stenersen-bygget, i et sort-hvitt foto.

Stenersen. Udatert foto. Fotograf: Ukjent. Arkivet etter Morgenavisen AS, Bergen Byarkiv.

About the collection

Sources and further reading:

  • The exhibition catalogue «It might be beautiful. The art collector Rolf Stenersen». Published by Kode and MUNCH.

  • Espen Søbye: «Rolf Stenersen. En biografi».

  • John Brumo: Rolf Stenersen. Kunst, marked og aksjer.

  • Håvard Friis Nilsen: «Du må ikke sove. ­Wilhelm Reich og psykoanalysen i ­Norge»