"I have wanted to introduce the Pre-Raphaelites to a Nordic audience for a long time, because they are a beautiful and important part of art history."
Dr Knut Ljøgodt, curator of the Edward Burne-Jones: The Pre-Raphaelites and the North exhibition and director of the Nordic Institute of Art
Arts Exchange Extra: Edward Burne-Jones at KODE in Bergen.
On February 21, the exhibition Edward Burne-Jones: The Pre-Raphaelites and the North opens at KODE in Bergen. The exhibition is a partnership between KODE, Prins Eugens Waldemarsudde and Tate Britain and Nordic Institute of Art. It features works of the late 19th-century artist Edward Burne-Jones and examples of art from the Pre-Raphaelite and Arts and Crafts movement in Scandinavian countries.
We speak to exhibition curator and director of the Nordic Institute of Art, Dr Knut Ljøgodt, about what it’s like setting up a major exhibition like this.
Who’s Edward Burne-Jones and why should people come to this exhibition?
Edward Burne-Jones was one of the leading artists of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, a pioneer of European Symbolism and one of the founders of the Arts and Crafts movement. The exhibitions at Prins Eugens Waldemarsudde in Sweden and KODE in Norway are the first major displays of Burne-Jones’s work in Scandinavia.
The principles of the Arts and Crafts movement – that craftsmanship can be brought into everyday objects and that quality should be something that everybody can enjoy – are now seen as fundamental to ‘Scandinavian’ art and design. However, few people in Norway know about the movement’s British origins. I have wanted to introduce the Pre-Raphaelites to a Nordic audience for a long time, both for this reason and because they are a beautiful and important part of art history.
This exhibition features more than 50 works by Edward Burne-Jones, including some 30 lent by Tate. We’re also showing some 30 works by Scandinavian artists that demonstrate the impact of the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts movement. They include drawings, paintings, tapestries and book art.
Tell us about yourself and your career
I studied art history at the University of Oslo, the Courtauld Institute of Art in London and the Norwegian Institute in Rome. Later, I defended my doctorate at the University of Tromsø. During my career, I’ve been director of Northern Norway Art Museum and founding director of Kunsthall Svalbard in the Arctic, as well as a curator at places including the National Gallery in Oslo. Now I run an organisation called the Nordic Institute of Art, which was founded to promote historical Scandinavian art on an international level.
How do you plan an exhibition like this?
This has been in the making for several years. You could say I started thinking about something like this in the 1990s, when I wrote my Masters dissertation on the Pre-Raphaelites. For many years, my colleague and co-curator Alison Smith and I have been discussing the possibilities of a Pre-Raphaelite exhibition in Norway or the Nordic region. Some years ago she started to plan a Burne-Jones show for Tate Britain in London and we also began to collaborate on an exhibition of the artist for Scandinavia.
The next step is to approach venues. For this exhibition, the venues are very important. Waldemarsudde in Stockholm used to be the home of Prince Eugen, who was an artist and a patron of the arts. He himself was in touch with Burne-Jones and the Pre-Raphaelites. Waldemarsudde is a beautiful place and already specialises in art from the period.
KODE is a fusion of museums, one of which is the old Museum of Applied Arts. This museum was set up as a direct result of the Arts and Crafts movement in Norway. Its architecture and decoration were inspired by the movement in Norway that was itself inspired decades earlier by British ideas.
The selection of works is of course what makes an exhibition in the end. We thought about the works that might be included from Tate and other galleries. We asked ourselves how we could get the right selection. We are very happy to be able to include some major paintings. All the works are really beautiful.
Together with the highly professional staff at KODE and some very talented exhibition architects, we have planned everything very carefully so there’ll be no big surprises. We know where everything will hang. We’ve chosen a colour for the walls of the exhibition – a dark blue with a little hint of green, which is very suitable for the Pre-Raphaelites.
What is the day-to-day job of a curator like in your experience?
I do all sorts. Tomorrow, for example, I’ll catch a plane to see the start of the mounting for the exhibition. On other days, I have meetings with collaboration partners and colleagues, or have to take care of administrative aspects of the Institute, or I work on articles or on the book that I’ll be publishing later in the year. Or I may travel to an exhibition or a biennial. No one day is similar to the other.
Why did you become a museum curator?
I’ve always thought of myself as working in curating or in art history scholarship, and if you work in a museum, you can do both. I was lucky enough to get a curatorial position in the National Gallery in Oslo when I was young. It’s very rewarding working in museums – but also to work more independently across institutions as I do today.
Why did you choose to study abroad?
I’ve been fascinated by the pre-Raphaelite artists for a long time, and to be honest, that probably was the main reason I decided to study in England for a period. I’ve also been interested in British culture for a long time too. I feel there are a lot of connections between the UK and Norway – there are cultural similarities and most Norwegians learn the language. I also studied for a while in Rome, but somehow England has always felt most familiar.
Is international collaboration important for a curator such as yourself?
International collaboration is the basis of the networks of colleagues and friends that I rely on to do projects. If you’re passionate about art, then it will always be rewarding to find you can discuss things with people from around the world.
International experience also helps you to see different ways of doing things. I did a study tour to museums all over the USA. Most exhibitions in the US are privately funded. In Scandinavia, they are still largely publicly funded. The UK is somewhere in between – for example, Tate or the National Gallery are owned by the public or the state, but they rely to a large degree on support for exhibitions and often on donors for acquisitions.
However, things are changing in Scandinavia. Arts institutions now increasingly rely on private sponsorship, donations and funds. I can see how the American and British models might open new possibilities, for example, for larger programmes or partnerships, but at the same time it is important that our institutions keep their basic public funding.
Tell us about the Nordic Institute for Art – why did you set it up?
My specialism has always been art history. While I was Director of Northern Norway Art Museum, I initiated some international collaborations, such as an exhibition on the Norwegian romantic Peder Balke at the National Gallery in London, as well as a presentation on Sámi art for the USA. There are several organisations that promote contemporary art from Scandinavia overseas, but there was a need for an organisation that looked specifically at taking the history of Nordic art to an international audience. The domestic audience was also important; I wanted a Nordic audience to be able to see their country’s art history in an international context.
We’re a relatively young organisation, founded some two years ago, but we have come a long way. For example, last summer we helped to organise a festival of Nordic arts at Chateau de Fontainbleau in France. We also think it’s good to help internationally focused exhibitions in Norway like this one. We work as a network, with an advisory aboard and a pool of associated fellows, and we work closely with museums abroad, which all leads to good international relationships.
If someone’s interested in a career in art curating, what should they do?
The first step is to study art history, or a related discipline. I believe it’s essential for you to understand the area you are working in so that you know how to prioritise and have a curating strategy.
I would also encourage young people to travel and to study abroad if you have the opportunity, even for just a while. It’ll open your eyes to new culture, new people and new networks – and some of those people may be your contacts and friends for life – and give you experiences you can build upon in the future.
Knut Ljøgodt is co-founder and director of the Nordic Institute of Art. He was museum director of The Northern Norway Art Museum in Tromsø between 2008-2016 and founding director of Kunsthall Svalbard in Longyearbyen 2015. Before, he was a curator in the National Gallery, Oslo.
Edward Burne-Jones: The Pre-Raphaelites and the North features works from Tate Britain, British Museum, Musée d’Orsay, Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections, Statens Museum for Kunst – National Gallery of Denmark, , Sorø Kunstmuseum, Kungliga Biblioteket, The Royal Collections, Oslo, Stavanger Kunstmuseum and Vigelandmuseet. It is-curated by Dr Alison Smith (former Lead Curator Tate Britain, today Chief Curator National Portrait Gallery, Associate Fellow of NIA) and Dr Knut Ljøgodt (Director Nordic Institute of Art); in collaboration with Dr Karin Sidén (Waldemarsudde) and Collections Director Line Daatland (KODE).
KODE Director, Line Daatland, said: ‘KODE is the second largest museum for art and design in Norway and works to promote Norwegian art abroad. At the same time, it is important for us to bring international art to our audience at home. The collaboration with the museums Tate Britain and Prince Eugens Waldemarsudde has made it possible for us to present this magnificent exhibition in Bergen, and additionally gives us an opportunity to explore connections to our own collections. British art and history feel close to us in Norway and I’m sure the public will welcome this exhibition wholeheartedly.’
The exhibition runs from 21 February to 31 May 2020.