Explorer Otto Sverdrup has come to America!

A spectacular bronze sculpture

Photo: National Library of Norway
Otto Sverdrup (1854 –1930) was a famous Norwegian explorer, who was the captain of Fridtjof Nansen’s polar exploration ship Fram.

MARY JO THORSHEIM
Minneapolis

In spring 2022, famous Norwegian explorer Otto Sverdrup (1854 –1930) had a journey that he never could have imagined during his lifetime. Actually, it was his image portrayed in a fantastic 23-inch bronze sculpture by Per Ung that made the trip. 

It was flown to North America from Oslo, via Denmark, Germany, two U.S. states, and finally to Norway Art® in Minnesota. The bronze is fascinating because of its rarity, historical story, engaging design, and excellent craftsmanship. 

Beautiful, important bronze

Per Ung’s 1999 rare bronze is a miniature version of the large public statue erected in Sandvika, Norway, to honor Otto Sverdrup. It brings his strong physical character to life. 

Ung’s work shows his classical knowledge of human bone and muscle anatomy. One of Norway’s most prominent modern-day sculptors, Ung depicted Sverdrup’s facial features in detail, the clothing of a polar explorer of the day is accurate, and the figure’s posture reflects the excitement of a person discovering the unknown. 

The Per Ung sculpture is a unique piece that honors the great explorer, Otto Sverdrup.

The unique bronze was crafted with great detail, including historical clothing that is accurate.

From the telescope cradled in Sverdrup’s right arm, down to his boots, every detail is meaningful. (Sverdrup was awarded a patent on a new type of boot! That creation attested to his innovation and inventiveness.)

As an art object, per se, the bronze is stunning. Its clever design is highlighted by its lovely patina.

Visionary leadership

Sverdrup was the captain of Fridjof Nansen’s polar exploration ship Fram, long before air travel and transport were common. He not only was captain of the ship, but he also supervised its construction before the voyage and led the movement to establish the Fram Museum when the ship returned to Norway. 

Public interest in the remarkable discoveries of Norwegian explorers Amundsen, Nansen, and Sverdrup is consistently high, and the Fram Museum is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Norway. It is a national monument in polar world history.

One wonders if the Nansen success in breaking through previously uncharted Arctic territory would have been achieved without the talented leadership and commitment of Otto Sverdrup. Raised on a farm in Bindal, Norway, after his family moved there from the Stavanger area, Sverdrup turned to a life at sea at an early age. Later, when he met the brother of Fridjof Nansen—he must have been the right person, in the right place, and at the right time—Fridjof’s brother recommended Sverdrup to be the captain of the Fram.

The impressive statue has the signature of its artist, Per Ung, engraved in its base.

In February 2022, the Harvard Business Review carried a story on the current popularity of “skill-based-hiring.’’ This practice features hiring people with demonstrated skills and competencies in a particular area, often over qualifications of formal education. The Nansen brothers were ahead of their time in recognizing Sverdrup’s technical and leadership skills. 

It could be said that the Fram may have been like the proverbial ship without a rudder if not for Sverdrup at the helm. The steady captain managed threats, such as severe weather, becoming icebound, isolation, keeping up the morale of the crew, polar bear attacks, and caring for the physical needs of the people and sled dogs.

About the artist (based on an excerpt from Store Norske Leksikon)

Per Ung was born in Oslo in 1933 and died there in 2013. He was schooled in the conservative sculptural tradition but gradually distanced himself from formal and substantive traditionalism. He earned his sculptor education under the influential of Per Palle Storm (1910 to 1994) at the Norwegian National Academy of Fine Arts from 1952 to 1955. He became a student of Anthony Caro (1924 to 2013) at St. Martin’s School of Art in London in 1960.

Ung made a number of public portrait statues and monuments. His first large public commission was the statue of actress Johanne Dybwad (bronze, 1959), located on Johanne Dybwads Plass outside the National Theatre in Oslo. His statue of Olympic figure skater and movie actress Sonja Henie (bronze, 1985) is located at Frogner Stadium. His statue of Nobel Prize laureate Fridtjof Nansen (bronze, 1993) is placed outside the Fram Museum. A monument honoring the composer Johan Halvorsen (bronze, 2002) stands outside the National Theatre in Oslo.

Ung was a member and served as chair of the Norwegian Association of Sculptors (Norsk Billedhuggerforening). He was also active in numerous other art organizations.

Sverdrup: curious, inventive, courageous

Otto Neumann Knoph Sverdrup’s legend lives on in Per Ung’s sculpture, at the Fram Museum in Oslo at Bygdøy, in literature, including in the book Farthest North and in many internet citations. He was an inspirational icon in his time, as he is to this day.

The Per Ung sculpture combines a unique piece of art with a way of marking history, honoring a great explorer, modeling a significant public monument, and representing a prominent sculptor.

Photos: Mary Jo Thorsheim

This article originally appeared in the November 4, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Mary Jo Thorsheim

Mary Jo Thorsheim (1937-2023) was the owner of the Norway Art® importing business for 40 years and a regular contributor to The Norwegian American.