Bergen is often marketed as ‘the gateway to the fjords’, but the city’s combination of nature, architectural charm and rich cultural offerings really make it worth staying and exploring. The latter, in terms of the city’s museums and galleries, are also a bit of a saving grace for us tourists, considering the amount of rainfall Bergen gets. And coming from someone who enjoys art anyway, there are worse places to escape from the rain.
On my first of many rainy days in Bergen this summer (even in the driest months there’s no escaping it) my Norwegian host recommended I use it as the day to see the galleries. By ‘galleries’ he was referring to KODE, one of the largest museums in Scandinavia for art and design.
The KODE art museums house vast collections of work across four buildings surrounding the Lille Lungegård lake in Bergen’s City Park, right (you guessed it) in the centre of the city. Works range from classic to contemporary, accessible under one admission fee which is valid across all four buildings for two days. If you don’t know anything about Norwegian art (or art in general), fear not. This is the perfect place to learn.
KODE 1 was closed for renovation on my visit, but the three remaining buildings offered more than enough to satisfy my artistic appetite for the day.
KODE 3 – Rasmus Meyers collection
KODE 3 is the best place to start learning about the history of Norwegian art and see the works of some of Norway’s most famous artists. The building was the home of Rasmus Meyer, a merchant and mill owner as well as an avid art collector. His goal in life was to open his home to the public, showcasing the development of Norwegian art through the 19th and 20th centuries. After his death that vision became a reality, with the collection opening in 1924.
The first rooms downstairs are decorated with antique furniture and feature some of the oldest paintings, including landscapes by Johan C Dahl, (possibly one of the most important Norwegian painters) and Thomas Fearnley. At the top of an impressive staircase to the upper floor are larger spacers, one of which is dedicated to Harriet Becker, Christian Krohg and Erik Werenskiold – the ‘big three’ contemporary artists at the time the collection opened.
Perhaps the most popular room is that exhibiting the second largest collection of work by Edvard Munch (the first being in Oslo where there is a whole museum dedicated to him). If you’re only really familiar with ‘The Scream’ you might be interested to know that one, less familiar version of the famed piece is on display, along with a large collection of other works from the same project, ‘The Frieze of Life’.
Moving onto the next building two doors down we reach KODE 2 (the building in between is the Bergen Kunsthall, a cultural space hosting contemporary exhibitions, events and with a bar/cafe I stopped for a quick coffee and tasty, albeit expensive, lunch in). In KODE 2 you’ll find more modern and contemporary works by both Norwegian and international artists. During my visit there was an exhibition by Bergen-born Rolf Aamot, featuring his tonal compositions created using electronic audio-visual techniques. I was a little creeped out yet amused watching part of Vision, a short film he created in the sixities showing sculptures from Vigalands Park in Oslo, put to sounds he created using his ‘tonal instrument’.
Some of the works in the rest of the gallery you could say were equally as creepy, but thought provoking nonetheless, exploring contemporary themes in various mediums including sculpture, photography, video and light installation. Drawings by Bjarne Melgaard might shock or confuse, while pieces by international artists such as Hamish Fulton, the ‘walking artist’, will have you questioning what is art?
If KODE 3 is the history of art and KODE 2 modern and contemporary, then you could say KODE 4 is a mix of both. The second floor provides a historic walk through from the 1400s to 1900s, featuring landscapes of Bergen and the surrounding fjords (even more special when you’re in the middle of exploring the very same landscapes yourself). Works continue into the 20th century, including interesting exhibitions about local art collectives from the sixties and seventies art scenes in Bergen such as Gruppe 66, as well as some of the more well known international artists (Picasso anyone?).
However the real highlight of KODE 4 (which made it worth pushing my gallery-trapsing tired feet through) was the space dedicated to Nikolai Astrup. Astrup was another great Norwegian artist from the early 20th century, famed in Norway but little known elsewhere (the first exhibition of his work outside of Norway only took place this year). His nordic landscapes have a distinctive and often colourful tone, which reflect his way of viewing nature ‘as a child would’, allowing us to see the stunning nature of Norway from yet another perspective.
After immersing myself for several hours, I came out feeling like I’d finished an invigorating journey rather than a neverending slog. The thoughtfully laid out museums create an easy flow between rooms (compared to other ‘maze’ like galleries I’ve been in) while the displays hold your attention, painting a greater picture (no pun tended) of art in Norway and within an international context.
Well, I mean, it beat walking in the rain for a while..