Interview with Norwegian collector and philanthropist Øivind Johansen
02 Mar 2019.
View of Oslo Fjord from the terrace of Astrup Fearnley Museum, Oslo
It’s the end of January and I am in Oslo to meet art collector and philanthropist Øivind Johansen. I walk along the Oslo Fjord heading to the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art designed by Renzo Piano. It’s a beautiful building – bright and airy – straddling a series of canals in a revitalized waterfront neighborhood. I wish I could stay longer, but I am already running late, so I make my way to the Oslo main station. The roads are covered with snow and ice and I’m slipping every couple of steps. This cold weather feels familiar – almost comforting – for someone born in the North.
After a 15 minutes ride, I get out of the train to meet the only person waiting for me in Oslo, whom I met some 15 years ago on a visit with a group of Russian contemporary artists for their show at the Oslo Contemporary Art Museum. Øivind is wearing the same winter clothes as everyone else in this city, he has a big friendly smile and large blue eyes. I feel instantly welcome. We run up the hill through heaps of snow and get into his small car. 10 minutes later we stop in front of a typical Norwegian wooden house which is almost wholly submerged in snow with impressive icicles hanging from its roof. Øivind opens the trunk of his car and gets a large sack of carrots: “It’s for the deer. We feed them in the winter.” We step inside the house and I’m greeted by his family. He is married to Kari, and they have three daughters. Two of them are here, and there are other guests as well who turn out to be a couple of ballet teachers from Russia. They teach in the classical ballet school in Oslo run by Øivind’s daughters.
My first impression of Øivind’s house is that there are paintings hanging on every wall. On the ceiling, there are several large canvases by the Berlin-based Russian artist Genia Chef. I can also spot a painting by Igor Makarevich of the character Pinocchio making a bonfire in a dark wood, just like the one I saw outside Øivind’s house. I also see several Pablo Picasso’s etchings, Oleg Vassiliev’s paintings and drawings and works by St Petersburg artists: Alexander Florensky and Andrei Medvedev. In the sitting room, a large glass window overlooks the city. It’s dawn already.
Inside Øivind Johansen’s house in Oslo
When did you start collecting art?
I was seventeen when I bought my first five etchings by Pablo Picasso from the series Suite Vollard. However, I didn’t actually start collecting until I was thirty-five. Among my first acquisitions were art books by Salvador Dali: Moise et le Monotheisme, Alchemie des Philosophes, Roi, je t‘attends à Babylone, Le Decameron, Dix Recettes d’Immortalité, Don Quixote, among others.
Pablo Picasso, from the series Suite Vollard. Øivind Johansen collection, Oslo
How many pieces do you have in your collection? Do you focus on any particular artists, groups or movements?
There are more than 500 works in my collection. Most of them are by Russian artists such as Igor Makarevich and Elena Elagina, Oleg Vassiliev, Yuri Vashenko, Victor Kalinin. I have a large collection of paintings by Genia Chef, Russian artist based in Berlin.I also have works from several artists based in St. Petersburg such as Olga Tobreluts, Andrei Medvedev, Dennis Yegelsky, artist and musician Georgy Guryanov and Alexander Florensky.
Igor Makarevich, from series Pinocchio. Øivind Johansen collection, Oslo
I have also bought works by Ukrainian artists such as painter Oleg Tistol, photographer Arsen Savadov, painter and film set-designer Oleksandr Gnilitsky, and painter Oleg Golosiy. Furthermore, the collection also includes works by some Lithuanian artists who I met in 1988 when the Norwegian National Theatre visited Vilnius. Among them were painters Dalia Kasciunaite, Algis Skačkauskas and Rimas Bičiūnas. During my stay in Lithuania, I also exhibited a series of lithographs based on Henrik Ibsen’s plays Hedda Gabler and The Ghosts.
Each work in my collection has a history. Every time I look at them all the good memories come flooding back to me. Guests are welcome to ask any questions, I am always happy to tell the story connected to each piece.
You have produced several series of lithographs with different Russian and Scandinavian artists. Where does this interest come from? Will you engage in a similar project in the future?
My friendship with Igor Makarevich and Elena Elagina has always been very important to me. Over the years Igor and I enjoyed many conversations both face to face and through emails. He and Elena have taught me so much: they were infinitely patient and had a deep pedagogical insight. Before I met them in Paris in 1989, I didn’t know much about such important Russian art movement as “Mir Iskusstva”. Together with Igor Makarevich, we made a series of lithographs for the Chekhov project based on the play The Seagull. I also enjoyed a close friendship with Oleg Vassiliev up until his death in 2013. We created a series of lithographs based on Chekhov’s short story The House with an Attic. I miss him and his wife Kira deeply!
Oleg Vassiliev, from Chekhov series House with an Attic. Øivind Johansen collection, Oslo
The Norwegian artist Håkon Bleken – who I collaborated with on the Ibsen project – is also a very close friend of mine. He is now 90 years old and still going strong! Håkon always tells me how the time he spent working on the Ibsen project between 1986 and 1987 was a turning point for him as an artist.
In 1988, I came to St Petersburg for the first time to look for an artist to join my Chekhov project. The famous film critic Mihkail Trofimenkov became my guide. He was unforgettable! We visited Vladimir Ovchinnikov, the Mitki art group and many others. I met many artists and drank vodka in Aleksander Florensky’s studio. I also bought nine of his paintings. In Moscow, my guide was Aleksander Sidorov. I was excited to meet the Moscow Conceptualists as they represented exactly the kind of art I was looking for. They were not political activists, but instead deeply rooted in Russian culture before the 1917 revolution.
I don’t think I will ever make another project like the Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov series. It is too expensive and I simply don’t have the energy anymore. Back then I was young, not easily discouraged and I solved problems as they came. The Chekhov project has been a substantial part of my life and I’m proud of what I’ve achieved. Nevertheless, had I know back then how many obstacles I would need to face I might have hesitated to launch the project at all.
Igor Makarevich, Oleg Vassiliev, and Yuri Vaschenko during making Chekhov project in France, 1991
How has the Chekov’s project evolved?
The first step was to make a series of lithographs based on Strindberg’s play in Sweden and Ibsen’s pieces in Norway. Then I went on to look for Russian artists to involve in the Chekov’s project. Those three playwrights were the founders of modern theatre in Europe. I find it deeply frustrating that no one has yet understood that the three projects are deeply interconnected!
Igor Makarevich, from Chekhov series Seagull. Øivind Johansen collection, Oslo
What were the major cultural influences in your life?
My friendship with artists Igor Makarevich and Elena Elagina stimulated me to dig deeper into the histories leading up to the Russian revolution and the Soviet era. I have read and collected the first editions of Alexander Herzen’s novel Who is to Blame? (1847), Georgi Plekhanov’s The Development of the Monist View of History(1895), Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Poor Folk (1846). I bought them all from Herman Lynge’s Antikvariat in Copenhagen.
How did you decide the display of your collection? What does it mean for you to have all those works exhibited in your home?
Unfortunately, my home has limited space for displaying my collection. I have six grandchildren and I hope they will follow my interest in culture. When the time comes, I will give each of them a piece of art and tell them the story connected to it. I hope it will enrich their lives as well as help them to remember their grandparents.
Are museums and art institutions relevant for your activity as a collector?
Museums have not been very important to me since they have never paid any interest to my projects with artists. My only collaboration with an art institution was in 2013 when I was a member of the REEAC (Acquisition committee for Russia and Eastern Europe) at Tate Modern. I was very grateful for their invitation as it means they acknowledged my expertise in the area.
Do you have a specific acquisition policy? How important is it for you to know the artist personally?
I have always bought works from artists I’ve met personally. I feel that my understanding of a piece of art is far more in-depth when I know the person that has created it.
Lately, it gives me great pleasure to dig down in history in order to find overlooked links and connections. Just recently, I enjoyed tracing the connection between August Strindberg and Russian philosopher and writer Nikolai Chernyshevsky. The Polish art historian and translator Mariusz Kalinowski has suggested a very interesting link between Strindberg’s Miss Julie and A Dream Play and Chernychevsky’s novel Chto Delat?.Strindberg Society has never mentioned Chernychevsky’s influence on Strindberg.
Most of my favorite writers were great observers who provided an in-depth understanding of contemporary society without being directly involved in political struggles.
You are also involved with music, aren’t you? Is there a connection between classical music, dance, and art in your life?
Øivind Johansen and Mstislav Rostropovich, Oslo, 1990
My dear friend Aleksander Teterin, the former Soviet Ambassador in Norway, introduced me to many celebrated musicians, actors and ballet dancers from Eastern Europe. He brought distinguished guests to our home such as cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, ballerina Olga Lepeshinskaya, actor Yuri Chernov, Latvian conductor Mariss Jansons, and many others. As a result, our older daughter Heidi was the first Western European to visit the famous Soviet ballet academy in Saint Petersburg. Her teacher was the great prima ballerina Natalia Dudinskaya. Today, two of my daughters are running their own ballet school Den Norske Balletskole & Akademii in Oslo.
Time flies when you are in good company. We go to Øivind’s study to see some more works. He points at the window and I spot two deer. They calmly stare back at me and keep on chewing the carrots. I ask my host if they are smart animals. “No, not particularly”, he firmly replies.
View of the woods and deer from Øivind Johansen’s house in Oslo
Interview by Anya Stonelake. January 2019, Oslo. Edited by Masha Bozunova and Dorota Michalska
Cover image: Yuri Vaschenko. From Chekhov series The Cherry Orchard. Øivind Johansen collection, Oslo