Putting the “art” in Arctic
Galleri Svalbard houses world-class art and artists
The high arctic isn’t where you’d expect to find a world-class collection of printed works and paintings. And yet, here in Longyearbyen, an exceptional art gallery waits for the discerning visitor. Galleri Svalbard has an exhibition space worthy of a Soho gallery, an extraordinary permanent collection of artworks, prints, rare collectables, and an extensive shop hosting locally made crafts as well as souvenirs from the Galleri’s permanent collection. Thanks to its international artists residency program, the second floor of the Galleri Svalbard was also my home in September.
The Galleri is located in a historic two-story red building, once the mining company’s store, on the edge of Longyearbyen’s Nybyen district, 2 kilometers outside of town. It’s an easy walk, and one that affords a beautiful view of Longyearbyen and Hiorthfjellet across the fjord. I was curious about the Galleri’s permanent collection, an unexpected jewel in the arctic. The managing director of Galleri Svalbard, Jan Martin Berg, agreed to talk with me about the Galleri’s history and his experience overseeing the world’s northernmost art gallery.
Born in Bodø, Berg grew up in northern Norway within the Arctic Circle. He moved to Tromsø to attend university, majoring in art history, then worked for many years at the Art Museum of Northern Norway before being hired as Galleri Svalbard’s managing director in 2010. He explained that the Galleri’s story begins with Svalbard native and public figure Henrik Varming.
Born in 1920, Varming received his education in Copenhagen, then returned to Svalbard where for 46 years he worked for Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani. An intellectual in an industrial town, Varming’s hobby was collecting antique maps and books related to Svalbard’s history. His pastime resulted in the Svalbard Collection, one of the world’s largest collections of polar maps. With over 60 works, the collection contains cartographic pieces dating back to 1570—before the discovery of Svalbard—as well as Mercator’s 1606 map, which may owe more to mythology than to observation. In addition to maps, Varming collected books based in Svalbard. These volumes range from manuscripts from the 1600s to modern paperback novels. The complete collection contains approximately 1,000 books and periodicals placed in the Arctic.
The final piece of the collection is a set of lithographs from the French La Recherche Expedition of 1838 to 1839. Six French artists were hired as part of the Recherche’s scientific company, and one independent French artist, François-Auguste Biard, whose fiancée Léonie d’Aunet insisted on traveling with him, later turning her memoirs into the book, “A Woman’s Travels in Spitzbergen.” This was a shocking thing for the times, but then d’Aunet, who was Victor Hugo’s lover for seven years, was an unusually strong-willed woman and a literary figure in her own right.
Out of the 800 drawings created from the expedition, 150 were made into lithographs to accompany the expedition’s written scientific discoveries. These lithographs were sold in sets that purchasers of the written works could have inserted into the publications. The lithographs have an otherworldly look to them, appearing more as drawings of a fantastic world instead of a real location made of earth and ice.
After Varming retired, there was local concern about him selling the collection in pieces. In the interest of saving the collection and keeping it in Svalbard, the company committee managing the coal company’s “cork fund” decided to use that money to acquire the collection for the community. Later, the Svalbard Foundation was created to manage and maintain the Svalbard Collection.
An unusual part of the collection came from coal miner Ingvald Johansson. Johansson became fascinated with the coupons the mining company used to provide miners with a way to purchase goods from the company store. Rather than cash, miners used coupon books as a form of “IOU” to buy luxuries such as alcohol and tobacco. These artifacts of a past age were purchased by the Svalbard Foundation and are now part of the Svalbard Collection.
Also in the Galleri is the Kåre Tveter collection. Born in 1922, Tveter had his major artistic breakthrough at age 43. He developed a passion for light, specifically the magical light found above the Arctic Circle. Tveter was invited to Svalbard to experience its beauty. Locals remember seeing him standing outside in a white parka and yellow winter hat, with one ear flap up and one down like a friendly dog, watching the light shift across the landscape. When asked how his work day went, Tveter would tap his head: “I have it all in here.”
He worked from memory in his studio in Lillestrom, recreating the light he loved. Tveter once said, “I’d rather paint only the light and space, but I need to introduce simplified, recognizable shapes to get the opportunity to articulate, so I don’t end up in a mere private monologue.” Tveter donated this impressive and memorable collection of Arctic works to the Galleri in 1994.
Galleri Svalbard not only houses these remarkable permanent works but also has an exhibition space for monthly shows by artists working with Arctic themes. Berg brings an experienced curatorial eye to selecting work that expands the clichéd notions of the Arctic, exploring themes of myth, environment, and cultural significance. He has invited artists like Terje Roalkvam to work and exhibit at the gallery. Roalkvam’s sculptures combine organic materials with polished aluminum to create composites that question our relationship with nature.
Running an art gallery in the high Arctic is not a job for most people. When I asked Berg what was one of his most memorable times, he laughed for a moment before saying, “When I was writing my master’s [thesis] in art history, I never imagined my workday would include sporting full snowmobile attire as I lay on my back in the snow using a blow dryer to unfreeze the bathroom plumbing. This job comes with challenges. The building is old and needs maintenance. The art must maintain a balance between what tourists want to buy in terms of polar bear souvenirs and T-shirts, as well as hopefully stretching their ideas of what art can be with more provocative exhibits in the temporary space. But Svalbard is a special place. I would not be anywhere else.”
Elizabeth Philotera Bourne is an artist, photographer, and writer. Her photography has been shown nationally, and her short stories have been published in the genre magazines Fantasy and Science Fiction and Clarkesworld. She currently lives in Seattle, where trolls really do live under bridges—or at least she lives there when she’s not wandering across the Arctic. You can find her at www.philotera.com and on Instagram as @philotera./p>
This article originally appeared in the November 16, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.