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It Might Be Beautiful. The art collector Rolf Stenersen

Highlights from Norway’s foremost collector of modern art in the 20th century


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Who was Rolf Stenersen and what drove him to donate two unique art collections to the public?

With over 160 highlights from the collections, the exhibition explores Stenersen’s artistic ideals, interests, and ambitions.

On display until 27 August.

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Rolf Stenersen (1899–1978) was Norway’s foremost collector of modern art in the 20th century.

At the age of just 37, he donated a large collection of pictures by Edvard Munch and recent Norwegian artists to the city of Oslo.

In 1971, he gifted a new collection of works by European modernists including Paul Klee, Pablo Picasso, and Sonia Delaunay to the city of Bergen.

Today, the two collections, which together contain more than a thousand works, are managed by Kode in Bergen and MUNCH in Oslo.

“It Might be Beautiful” presents a broad selection of highlights from the two collections.

By bringing these two collections together for the first time in fifty years, the exhibition sheds light on Stenersen’s importance for Norwegian art.

Represented are major international and Norwegian artists such as Paul Klee, Pablo Picasso, Edvard Munch, Else Hagen, Per Krohg, Reidar Aulie, Arne Ekeland, Jakob Weidemann, Max Ernst, Teddy Røwde, Käthe Kollwitz, Helene Schjerfbeck, and Wassily Kandinsky.

Et kubistisk maleri av en kvinne med hestehale.

Pablo Picasso: Sylvette (1953). Foto: Dag Fosse. © Succession Pablo Picasso / BONO

Et fargestrekt og abstrakt maleri.

Asger Jorn: Komposisjon, udatert. Foto: Dag Fosse/Kode

Et maleri i grove strøk som viser en kvinne som roper, med ene brystet ute og et spedbarn liggende på fanget. Rundt henne står og sitter to unge jenter.

Else Hagen: Familie, 1950. Foto: Richard Jeffries/Munchmuseet

Abstrakt bilde av Gunnar S. Gundersen

Gunnar S. Gundersen: Hvit sol / White Sun (1966)

Et maleri som viser en kvinne som sitter ved et blodrødt bord med en enslig potteplante.

Edvard Munch: Melankoli, 1911. Foto: Ove Kvavik/Munchmuseet

Et malerisk portrett av en mann, sett fra siden.

Ludvig Karsten: Portrett av Rolf Stenersen, 1925. Sten Stenersen Jr. samling. Foto: Tor S. Ulstein /Kunstdok

Et fargerikt abstrakt maleri med ulike blomsterformer rundt noe som ligner en innsjø.

Jakob Weidemann: Den gale, 1943. Foto: Juri Kobayashi/Munchmuseet

“No, art is not beautiful. As soon as an artwork becomes beautiful, it is old and without heaven.”

Rolf Stenersen

Who was Rolf Stenersen?

Rolf Stenersen was a stockbroker, art collector, sprinter, and author. While still young, he became acquainted with Edvard Munch and followed the artist closely throughout his latter decades

Having discovered the work of Munch, Stenersen turned his interest to younger contemporary Norwegian artists. Later, his collection acquired a more international profile.

Under a number of thematic headings, the exhibition draws on archive material and Stenersen’s own writings, in addition to the collection itself, to highlight central currents in 20th century art.

The collection was assembled in a period when artists were experimenting with form and colour in new ways. Thus it provides a unique picture of the evolution of modern art during the first half of the 20th century and of the importance of the collector for the artists of his day.

In interviews, Stenersen himself said that he did not apply the “attitude of a judge” when viewing new art. The fact that most people were only interested in what was beautiful was something he condemned as “a kind of spiritual laziness”.

Et abstrakt maleri av Picasso som viser en hane og en krukke

Pablo Picasso: Død hane og krukke / Dead Cock and Jar (1953). Foto: Dag Fosse. © Succession Pablo Picasso / BONO

Et maleri av en kvinne i lang mørkeblå kjole som sitter i en vinrød lenestol med treutskårede detaljer.

Per Krohg: Skuespillerinnen, trolig 1927. Foto: Richard Jeffries/Munchmuseet

Et abstrakt maleri med sorte rune-skriftaktige former på en bakgrunn av store røde og rosa former.

Paul Klee: Innhegning for tykkhuder, 1940. Foto: Dag Fosse/Kode

Et abstrakt maleri med et landskapsmotiv med sol og farger.

Siri Derkert: Fuglelandskap, udatert. Foto: Dag Fosse/Kode

Litografi i sort hvitt som viser en voksen person som holder et sykt barn på fanget.

Käthe Kollwitz: Døden med pike på fanget, 1934-37. Foto: Dag Fosse/Kode

Abstrakt bilde i primærfargene rødt, gult og blått som viser runde former.

Sonia Delaunay: Komposisjon nr. 1173 / Composition No. 1173 (udatert / undated)

Art, literature, and capital

Stenersen contributed actively to contemporary debates about art, variants of the Norwegian language, monetary policy, sexual morals, and psychoanalysis. He was not afraid of stirring controversy

As a writer, he was interested in subconscious drives and experimented with automatic writing. Also as a collector, Stenersen preferred pictures that offered insights into the hidden aspects of the human condition.

The works he collected address themes such as sexuality, loneliness, illness, guilt, and shame, forming a spectrum that covers most of the experience of life. The collection has been interpreted as a self-portrait of the collector himself.

“I have preferred to buy the kind of pictures that give me the most, that suit my own mind and temperament. In other words, I have tried to produce an image of my inner self using other people’s paintings.”

Rolf Stenersen

Related program and stories

About the exhibition

The exhibition will be shown at Kode from 10 March–27 August. The project is a collaboration between MUNCH and Kode.

Curator for Kode: Frode Sandvik
Curator for MUNCH: Kari J. Brandtzæg

Book editor: Heidi Amundsen

Book publication

To accompany the exhibition, a book with the same title has been published. "It Might be Beautiful. The art collector Rolf Stenersen" offers insights into Stenersen’s writings, his interests as a collector, and his major importance as a mediator for the artists of his time.

A cool and colorful exhibition, with over 160 artworks to explore!