Message from the people

Reidar Aulie and Arne Ekeland

19. Nov 2022 - 31. Aug 2023

We live in times marked by war and unrest. People flee their homeland, and the word’s production of food and energy are threatened. For many years, population growth and increased consumption have exerted ever-more pressure on natural resources. Climates throughout the world are changing, and the consequences will be dramatic. How will the political landscape develop in the coming years? How can we as individuals orient ourselves in this complex situation?

Throughout history, artists have always commented on the role of human beings in the world. The artists Reidar Aulie (1904–1977) and Arne Ekeland (1908–1994) lived before, during and after the Second World War, and they depicted their own times through the lens of a strong socialist commitment. Both artists believed in people’s ability to work together to build a better future. They believed in art’s ability to agitate for political perspectives, but they never resorted to aesthetic expressions that could be described as propaganda. Both men painted their pictures in light of reflections on social conditions and problems which all people face. Arne Ekeland, in an interview, once said that ‘art shouldn’t be at “the grassroots” because art is something that lifts us out of the trivial, out of everyday life’. The two artists took many trips abroad, were well-oriented in European art and were concerned about solidarity in a wide sense. According to Reidar Aulie, one of art’s foremost tasks is to spread understanding across national borders.

In this exhibition, whose title is borrowed from a drawing by Arne Ekeland, we present a selection of works from the Halvdan Hafsten Collection as well as three loans from a private collection. Hafsten gave his collection of 208 works of art to Stavanger Art Museum in 1984. Ekeland and Aulie are two of eight artists represented in the collection, and we have made this exhibition because the selected pictures depict a reality with parallels to our own times. Can Aulie’s and Ekeland’s political attitudes, depictions of injustice, and belief in the power of communities be of inspiration to us today?

The pictures in the exhibition were made between 1935 and 1971. They therefore span several decades of artistic development for both men. As students, they were influenced by a formalist painting style inspired by French Cubism, but they went on to develop figurative painterly expressions. Ekeland’s pictures often have complex symbolism and reflect several phases of development in the period the exhibition covers. Aulie, by contrast, developed a visual language with direct references to the empirical world.

Spring picture

Arne Ekeland Vårbilde 1941

Arne Ekeland was a deeply committed artist with knowledge of politics, art and social life. His pictures often contain so many references and symbols that it can be challenging to understand them. During the war, he became more aware that he wanted to paint easily readable pictures. This led him to develop further, both in terms of his painting style and his visual subjects. Spring Picture (Vårbilde) is painted in light colours, and the large white figures are placed next to each other such that each one is clearly delineated. The many elongated female figures have caused art historians to see references to the Italian Renaissance artist Botticelli, of whom Ekeland was a great admirer. The picture has a poetic, harmonious expression seldom seen in Ekeland’s earlier production. Today, the overt optimism for industry which marks the picture can be experienced as ambiguous. It is difficult to ignore technological innovation if we are to solve the great challenges of our times, but at the same time, the development that started with the Industrial Revolution has resulted in great imbalance in nature. Can Ekeland’s strong faith in the power of work and human effort nevertheless inspire us to find new solutions in the future?

On the relationship between Aulie and Ekeland

Both Arne Ekeland and Reidar Aulie had prominent positions in the Norwegian art scene of their day. They also had great respect for each other’s artistic practice. Few Norwegian artists thematised the Second World War as did Aulie and Ekeland, and during the war, the two also had a lot of contact. For a time, Aulie functioned as the art critic for the newspaper Arbeiderbladet. On 4 April 1940, he wrote about Ekeland’s exhibition at the art institution Kunstnernes Hus in Oslo. In the review, Aulie appeals to all workers to go see Ekeland’s exhibition because it is, he says, about the liberation of the working class: ‘I, for my part, have the impression that Ekeland has given me such a beating that I feel hard hit and happy.’