The new National Museum of Norway is not messing about. It is enormous and its slate walls engulf Oslo’s former West train station, as if that building had been dropped into a quarry. It looks like an overreaction to the 1994 episode in which Munch’s “The Scream” was stolen by thieves who put a ladder against the old museum and lifted the painting off the walls. They left a postcard reading “Thanks for the poor security”.
On my visit, a week before the opening, I had to wait while guards radioed, deactivated alarms and set to work peeling back a massive steel door to the Munch room. “The Scream”, which was recovered later that year, looks as if it will be safely contained.
Munch’s room is only a tiny part of this new building which has, apparently, more exhibition space than the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and is the biggest in the Nordic countries. The architects were selected in an international competition launched in 2009, but I confess that I had never heard of the winner, Klaus Schuwerk, a German architect working in, of all places, Naples. The practice’s website consists only of a couple of lines, which I find surprising and kind of admirable. Schuwerk teamed up with German architects Kleihues + Kleihues (who I had heard of).
I was intrigued to see what might come from the combination of German sensibility, Neapolitan flair and Nordic restraint, and the results are, perhaps, not terribly surprising. Solid, serious, forbidding and very grey, it almost looks like an extrusion of the rocks of the fjords. Surrounded by the glassy, hyper-commercial redevelopment of the docks, it takes pleasure in a weight and permanence which look designed to resist that context. I was left searching for any hint of Naples.
The museum’s form is effectively an L-shape with a low-slung, marble-clad gallery of contemporary art placed on top, which, with its diaphanous veneer, is intended to glow like a paper lantern from dusk. From the street, you are not much aware of it; instead, you are confronted with striated grey blocks of slate, monotonous from afar but up close revealing rich layers of sediment and inclusions. The clearest influence here is Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, particularly his thermal baths at Vals but also the Kolumba Museum in Cologne, in their massing and materials. But there are also, perhaps, hints of the huge brick city hall almost next door, an austere cliff of a building finished in the 1950s.
The entrance is in a “piazzetta” between the old station and the new structure. It works well, creating a more intimate space amid the plentiful but ill-defined public space of the old dockside. The interior is exactly as serious as you might expect, solid and civic in scale and intent, depositing the visitor straight into museum space, dispensing with the preliminaries.
Huge it may be, but unlike many modern museums the scale is for display, not effect. Combining art and artefacts formerly displayed in five Oslo museums, it is almost (but not quite) an encyclopedic museum — Roman statues, Egyptian mummies and Ming vases spiced by a strong Norwegian flavour from furniture and tapestries to Romantic art and design. There is much here that is familiar, from Munch to Van Gogh, but much that is far less so. The first work the visitor comes across is by Sámi artist Máret Ánne Sara, an ominous construction of 400 boiled and stripped reindeer skulls, a protest against the Norwegian government’s treatment of the Sámi people’s way of life.
The ground and first floors are organised on a more or less chronological basis, mixing art and design, room sets, furniture and paintings. The museography, designed by Italian specialists Guicciardini & Magni, is subtle and calming, the colours of the galleries changing in a relaxing rhythm related to the tones of the works on show. The vitrines and fittings are carefully and cleanly designed to not detract from their contents.
This is a deep building with delicate artefacts, and light is mostly artificial (often through ceiling grids emulating top-light), but that does not mean the outside has been excluded. There are windows, often surprisingly large, curtained in diaphanous blinds so that visitors are aware of — but not distracted by — the city and their place in the building.
Some galleries are very strong indeed, dense collections including contemporary arts and crafts and a good showing for 20th-century architecture, such as a room dedicated to Norwegian Sverre Fehn, one of Europe’s greatest but most underrated designers. The Munch room is magnificent, a dark, broody tour around an unsettled mind through unforgettable images including, of course, that scream which vibrates through the paint, as well as less familiar earlier paintings in which the artist was working his way through styles before alighting on his haunted expressionism.
The work of Harriet Backer is prominently displayed, part of a fine effort by the curators to redress the balance in representation between male and female artists. It is left to Harald Sohlberg’s “Winter Night in the Mountains” (1914) to glow most brightly, becoming a kind of visual anchor as visitors tour the museum, in the way Raphael’s “The Mond Crucifixion” does at London’s National Gallery.
Where it all changes is at the top. That box, clad in a delicately veined veneer of marble, presents a huge kunsthalle, an incredible single space which challenges a curator to fill it. For the inauguration, curators held an open call and the results are joyous, a ragbag of eccentric visions, quirky installations, feminist provocations and exquisitely executed conceptual pieces with, again, an emphasis on works by indigenous Sámi, ethnic minorities and women.
In its blend of serious and high camp it is magically fresh. At one end, a recreation of a white-box commercial gallery has been curated, a very meta comment on the nature of the art world, complete with reception desk and press releases. Outside, a sculpture terrace affords views over the fast-changing harbour. It is luminous. Clearly influenced by the Beinecke Library at Yale, the dematerialisation of the walls as structure and their reconnection as something more like net curtains is beautifully done, though the flatness of the conventional ceiling deflates the effect a little.
This is a museum that was long in the making and, at about £500mn, expensive. But it is also a wonderful piece of work in which the architecture is solid and massive yet does not overly impose itself on the contents, the context or the city. From its open library and walk-in archive of works on paper, it feels like a museum that has been built to last, a public pleasure. I was embarrassed not to have known about Schuwerk. I do now.