The Halvdan Hafsten Collection

Paintings from the collection

Over the course of fifty years, Halvdan Hafsten (1905-1993) assembled an art collection consisting of 208 artworks by eight painters. The collection was donated to the Stavanger Art Museum in 1984 and played a significant role in realizing this museum, which opened to the public in 1992.

The art gift was accompanied by an extensive archive providing a thorough overview of where the paintings have been exhibited and discussed. Alongside all the paintings in this exhibition, you will find a short text. Hafsten requested all the artists to write about the paintings he had purchased from them. In cases where there is no sender indicated, the text is written by the artist themselves. Some of the artists declined to write about their paintings, and in those instances, we have retrieved other texts from the archive. (English translations of the label texts are available at the reception)

Halvdan Hafsten's collection comprises some of the finest artworks from the interwar generation. Included are pieces such as Arne Ekeland's "Vårbilde" (1941), Reidar Aulie's "Et folkets hus bygges" (1937), as well as several other key paintings from this period in Norwegian art. This exhibition showcases only a small selection of the collection.

Erling Enger, Romantikeren / The Romantic, 1944

‘The picture is a self-portrait. I intended it to be mocking and have equipped myself a bit clownishly. I sit and paint while the war runs its course. The ruin in the background is meant as an expression of the war.’

Erling Enger, Utsikt fra Kjølstadåsen / View from Kjølstadåsen, 1968

‘Painted in the autumn in Nordkroken in Ytre Enebakk. The composition is centred around the trees in the foreground. The foilage and glimpses of golden fields play up against the dark background. The colour constellation is green – blue and ochre.’

Erling Enger, Skoglandskap, Enebakk / Wooded Landscape, Enebakk, 1951

‘Painted after impressions from a trip to Holmetjern. In the picture the emphasis is on the abstract rhythm of vertical treetrunks and the strong contrasts between light and shadow.’

Reidar Aulie, Et folkets hus bygges / Building a Community Centre, 1935

‘I painted “Building a Community Centre” because I believe the labour movement and socialism are the only means to get people to unite and work together to increase the level of humanity and promote culture. Back when I painted the picture everything was different than it is now. It was easier (or at least it seemed easier) to be a socialist. I trusted the Soviet Union and was convinced that the labour movement would triumph over fascism just based on the force of nature, and that it would be a basis for culture. Simple and clear thoughts are the only things that can be built on further. Complicated and refined ideas are some sort of by-product of thinking, and they don’t show the way forward.’

Reidar Aulie, Gustav, 1943

‘I painted “Gustav” during the war. In the summer of 1943, we were able to borrow an old crofter’s farm on a larger estate in Eidsberg, where Kari’s cousin is the wife. It’s called Nedre Thue. Up to that time we had stayed at home in Oslo every summer since the occupation started. Here at this little farm, I finally, for the first time, felt the freedom of living in a place where the gestapo couldn’t find me. It was a happy summer. Not just because we felt relatively safe, but also because so much happened that summer, not least in Italy, which indicated to us that Fascism and Nazism would have their downfall. Just before we had to return to Oslo, I was working on a drawing of a bacchanal, in which an old musician is pounding on a piano while people dance, drink, love, fight and throw up into the piano.

Then we returned to Oslo. I had this picture clearly in my mind; of the waiter, Gustav, who hangs himself in the flower garland after the party has ended. I painted it as soon as I got back to my studio. It’s impossible for me to give a more precise explanation of the picture.’

Reidar Aulie, Berg og dalbane / Roller Coaster, 1959

‘I’ve always been interested in circuses and open-air markets. All the life that unfolds here fascinates me. People’s hankering for experiences that go beyond the mundane.

I can’t actually remember why I painted “Roller Coaster”, but I think it started with once again wanting to paint the circus tent, and that I wanted some people up in the sky. Thus came the roller coaster, with people at the top of an incline, just before they plunge toward the ground. Then came the development of arches rising and falling as they recede into the picture’s background, from the noisy life in the market and toward the infinity of loneliness.

A development of the colours, from loud to quiet.

In the lines, a compositional interplay of arches and verticals.

I also think there’s something in the picture that can’t directly be explained. Something having to do with life and death.’

Reidar Aulie, Rasstedet / The Scene of the Landslide, 1970

‘It often happens in our country that landslides destroy farms and land.

These events don’t have world-wide impact, but for those who are affected, a landslide is a gruesome tragedy.

The large accidents in the world are on such a scale that it’s impossible to comprehend them. I don’t think they can be depicted in painting.

I’ve painted a home, maybe it was idyllic, that now teeters on the edge of a cliff. The depiction of this local disaster symbolises the situation in which much of humanity finds itself in. The composition is crooked, just like the subject.

I can say that the picture is a fragment of a much, much larger project.’

Reidar Aulie, Grahesten / The Stallion, 1937

It’s not easy to account for why one has painted a picture and how various experiences and mental states contribute to forming the idea for a picture. For me, it very often happens that a picture changes character in the creation process and becomes something different than I initially thought. It’s been several years since I painted “The Stallion”, and I may have forgotten a few things. But I remember that when I painted it, I was engrossed in reading Hans D. Kinck. And I think it was “Sneskavlen brast” (“The Avalanche Broke”) that incited me to paint “The Stallion”. I have tried to depict the wild Norwegian nature and people’s struggle in the face of harsh and rugged conditions. The urge to use violence in the expression, which I think the picture probably bears witness of, has of course purely human causes that are impossible to explain.’

Alexander Schultz, Treet / The Tree, 1958

‘The reason why I started working on this motif – the problem or task, however you want to describe it, isn’t easy to explain. “The Tree” – the trunk and branches seen against the bare field – this has repeatedly captured my interest. This play between the lines (the branches). A rhythmic interaction.’

Alexander Schultz, Else med sjalet/Else with the Shawl, 1967

‘The painting “Else with the Shawl” is a portrait of a model whose characteristics are perceived rather freely. [I worked] with the spatial things in the picture, and the movement. The female figure should be able to move, change positions; she should not sit glued to the background, immobile. I used whatever opportunities I had to allow the model to shift positions. All the other things in the picture have a relation to the figure.’

Kai Fjell, Sykeværelset / The Sick Room, 1944

‘Sickrooms and deathbeds are of course themed in Norwegian art by [Edvard] Munch. But Fjell isn’t just a companion to the grand old man. His forms are different, more lyrical, his colour system, in which grey is dominant, has a fine unity – except for where there is a richer, almost folkloristic explosion of colours – and his vague way of creating a composition, with sudden appearances of almost nonfigurative segments, shows his knowledge of the advent of Cubism.’

The Jerusalem Post, 14 August 1959. Romanticism and Ghosts from Norway. E. Yapou-Hoffman (in translation). (From Halvdan Hafsten’s Archive)

Kai Fjell, Fløyten / The Flute, 1940


I can’t explain my painting better than they can explain themselves.

I don’t know why I painted them and I don’t know how, and I don’t want to know.

I don’t remember when they were painted and don’t know what; furthermore, I don’t know where they have ended up.

My pictures are a mystery to me, as is all other art. What can be explained about the pictures is irrelevant to the pictures, so to speak.

I can’t understand anything other than that the easier it is to explain a picture, the worse the picture is, and the fewer of them that can be explained, the better.

In sum: I explain none of them.’

(Written by the artist at Hafsten’s request)

Kai Fjell, Enken / The Widow, 1942

‘Friday, 6 May, the undersigned gave a lecture on Kai Fjell […]. The following pictures by these artists were discussed:

The Widow

The woman also fills this large picture, where in all stages of life, she pays homage to the dead husband. There is a sorrow that cannot let the deceased sink into the grave and the earth, but lifts his blue urn to the heavens. The picture is ornamental in its colours, filled with a multitude of details, as is often the case in the artist’s large compositions from this period. The musician, the dog, the flower vase – many stories are told simultaneously, but they all play a part in the work as a whole.’

Letter from the conservator Karin Hellandsjø, Sonja Henie and Nils Onstad’s Foundation, Art Centre, Høvikodden. (From Halvdan Hafsten’s Archive)

Kai Fjell, Mor og barn / Mother and Child, 1944

‘Fjell’s pictures are poems about life and death, the interaction between humans and nature. The picture “Mother and Child” is a beautiful homage to the young mother – she has a whole sunrise of colours in her hair and scarf. The child is the miracle, and around it [the artist has] spun a strange ornamental dream that hints at the centuries of time – whereby the graveyard is transformed into lush vegetation. Fjell does not paint plastic [three-dimensional] figures – but like a rose painter, he decorates the pictorial plane. The pure and simple flat surface stands in contrast to the paintbrush’s baroque spring dance. – “Mother and Child” is a picture in which traditional Norwegian art and European modernism have melted together into an absolutely richly harmonising whole.’

Tour guide Fritz Røed (Traveling exhibition no. 9, Finmark, Vestfold and Akershus counties 1956/57). (From Halvdan Hafsten’s Archive)

Harald Dal, Tregruppe skogsinteriør, Nesodden / Trees, Forest Interior, Nesodden, 1946

‘In the wooded landscape, which was painted some years later than the female portrait, we see that the artist has worked further along constructivist lines; he has increasingly distanced himself from the pure visual impression and shifted towards abstraction, yet without completely relinquishing the visual impression. Here too, the motif is dissolved. The tree trunks, branches and foliage give a flickering impression due to their many variations in colour, materiality and form. We sense an abstract geometric structure underneath, similar to what we found with the Jacobians, in short, the same balance between an abstract structure and a visual impression.

Jan Askeland, in Statens filmsentral. Norsk malerkunst. Nyere retninger I. no. 201, from Halvdan Hafsten’s Archive.

Harald Dal, Skogsinteriør / Forest Interior, 1942

‘In later years he particularly succeeded in combining naturalistic and abstracting tendencies in his paintings. He tried to give a fixed painterly form to something as intangible as the effects of light glimpsed between tree trunks. See the illustration “Forest Interior”, painted in 1942.’

Per Chr. Knudsen, Kunst – Begivenhet i kantinen, regarding an exhibition of works from Chancelor Halvdan Hafsten’s Collections at Kreditkassen’s art society, 20 December 1973–15 February 1974, from Halvdan Hafsten’s Archive.

Harald Dal, Sol gjennom trær / Sun through Trees, 1946

‘Sun through Trees’ is a good example of his compositions and fine sense of colour: every time I see it, it wins, and with each viewing it gains additional colour values.’

Kai Laitinen, in Nordisk kunst 14 April 1950, p. 4, from Halvdan Hafsten’s Archive.

Ragnar Kraugerud, Hoggere / Lumberjacks, 1937

‘I had worked with woodsmen and lumberjacks in several variations over a longer period. The challenge was to create a strong expression of the forest and the people, yet without including the naturalistic richness that I simply couldn’t tolerate at the time.

By using the [two-]dimensional pictorial form, my aim was to convey an absolute expression.’

Ragnar Kraugerud, Hode III / Head III, 1952

‘I’ve been working on «Head III» continuously, putting it aside and then returning to it, at the same time as working on other faces.

I’ve tried to give the picture a large form and a simplified colour scheme in order to keep the pictorial means under control, so I could convey what I wanted.’

Thorbjørn Lie-Jørgensen, Uveir (Fra Videheia) / Storm (From Videheia), 1950

‘I painted “Storm” the day the Korean War broke out. After a visit to Lillesand, where I read the news about the difficult situation the world was now in.

With the last big war fresh in my memory, I left in my new motorboat and headed for “Lusekilen”, where this fantastic, monumental and beautiful mountain lies. It’s huge. It can be seen far out to sea and has always been used as a beacon.

I laid anchor but had to change my position to get the right viewing angel. While I painted the mountain, it looked like a storm was brewing, and that matched my inner feelings.

With a colour harmony of purple-red, violet and green, the picture took on a minor key that fit my sombre mood that day, and I completed the large picture based on the sketch.’

Thorbjørn Lie-Jørgensen, Juvet / The Gorge, 1943

‘During the Second World War (1940–45), Lie-Jørgensen developed a type of impulsive, almost impressionistic brushwork (“Juvet”).’

From the catalogue for an exhibition of the Halvdan Hafsten Collection at Riksgalleriet, September 1980, p. 4, from Halvdan Hafsten’s Archive.

Thorbjørn Lie-Jørgensen, Sandstenfjeld, Ulvøysund, 1955

‘In the ancient past this mass of sandstone was scoured by ice, and storms have done the polishing. Storms wash up lots of seaweed, and it lies there in the summer, dry and brown in the sandstone’s depressions. It all results in strong colour contrasts, also due to the fishing boats outside the archipelago, which add another dimension to the area. As you can see, the deep blue water seen against the yellow sandstone had a very strong effect, also the red-brown, almost black seaweed, and it made a kind of three-part colour harmony that would have captivated any painter.’

Arne Ekeland, Vårbilde / Spring Picture, 1941

‘Some time ago I took my students to the National Gallery. Arne Ekeland was one of the painters we studied. “Spring Picture” interested us a lot, and we discussed it in depth. We talked together as painters do when they stand in front of a work they’re excited about.

Since you own this picture, I wanted to tell you a bit about it. I didn’t hold a lecture. The whole thing took the form of a conversation, but I gave an introduction by saying that “Ekeland, with his intense political involvement, is a renewer of Norwegian painting. “Spring Picture” expresses the painter’s strong life-affirming attitude. It is imbued with a passionate belief in life and humanity. It has intense strength and greatness because the artist masters every small detail in the powerful composition.”

“He can of course do everything”, I remember saying.

This is without doubt one of the most convincing works in newer Norwegian art. It is very good that you have deposited the work in the National Gallery. If you ever (I can’t believe you will) think about parting with this picture, you must give it to the museum.

Otherwise, I think it’s so nice that it is precisely you who owns Spring Picture.’

Letter dated 1 December 1959, from Prof. Reidar Aulie. (From Halvdan Hafsten’s Archive)

Arne Ekeland, Mor med barn / Mother with Children, 1937

‘“Mother with Children” is no idyllic family situation. The picture seems to be about raising children, punishment, a feeling of guilt, inhibitions and shame. While the mother still has a firm grip on the youngest children, the youths to the right are about to break free. Untethered by the weight of gravity, they float out into the pictorial space, toward a distant planet on which a map of Europe is drawn. Equipped with simple attributes – for instance a hymnal and a cup with the inscription “Nice girl” – they are each locked inside their own world, as victims of Christian dogmas, oppressive sexual morals and bourgeois role models. This treatment of the problem of guilt went hand-in-hand with that era’s interest in psychoanalysis. The depiction also contains an obvious Surrealist aspect.’

Norsk kunst fra reformasjonen til i dag (Norwegian Art from the Reformation to Today). Booklet and slide series no. 18. Steinar Gjessing: Maleriet i 1930-årene (Painting in the 1930s). Statens filmsentral 1987. (From Halvdan Hafsten’s Archive)

Arne Ekeland, Kom ut i solen / Come out into the sunshine, 1939

‘Let us look at some of the pictures from that period. “Come out into the sunshine” has a simple message. The light-haired girl in the doorway appeals to a woman who sits inside, tattooed by whatever it is that hinders her from being out in the sun – the ideas are crucified by Christian dogmas. The melancholy violet colour stands in sharp contrast to the light colours outside.’

The Halvdan Hafsten Collection. Exhibition produced in collaboration with Bergens Billedgalleri and Riksgalleriet in 1975. Excerpt from the catalogue editor’s foreword. (From Halvdan Hafsten’s Archive)

Arne Ekeland, Budskapet / The Message, 1940

‘“The Message” depicts a prisoner who receives the message that freedom is at hand. The people have crossed the bridge and the red communist flag waves overhead.’

Halvdan Hafsten Collection. The exhibition is organised through collaboration between Bergens Billedgalleri and Rikksgalleriet in 1975. Excerpt from catalogue editor’s foreword. (From Halvdan Hafsten’s Archive)

Arne Ekeland, Fra landsbyen / From the Village, 1940

‘Ekeland is a so-called “social painter”, also a “tendency painter”. His paintings often contain a message for people […] The “mosaic-like” effect, which he achieves by putting colours into small squares, causes the colours to live intensely in the pictorial plane and creates a strong impression.’

Travel guide Herman Bendixen (Traveling exhibition no. 5, Nordland, Hedmark and Telemark counties 1954/55). (From Halvdan Hafsten’s Archive)