Norway’s First Cubist Painter

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Unknown, but coveted Norwegian painter Thorvald Hellesen is considered Norway’s first cubist painter. Today, international art collectors are eager to buy his paintings, and the new Norwegian National Museum, opening 2020, wants to display his works in a separate exhibition as soon as possible.

The art of the abstract Norwegian artist, designer and painter Thorvald Hellesen (sometime spelled Thorwald, 1888-1937) was associated with the Orphic Cubism movement.  He was born in Kristiania (now Oslo). His father was a barrister at the Supreme Court and his mother was the daughter of Norwegian prime minister Christian Selmer.

Norway’s First Cubist Painter
Balalaika by Thorvald Hellesen

The beginning of his career
After he had passed his high school degree, he spent a year at the Norwegian Military Academy before deciding to become an artist. His artistic career began in 1910 when he enrolled at the Academy of Art in Oslo.

Related: From Architect in Pakistan to Cubist Painter in Norway

After studies with the renown Norwegian painter Christian Krogh and receiving a scholarship to study painting in France, he moved to Paris in 1912 and began working in the atelier of Fernand Leger, which became his good friend, and he became acquainted with Picasso. During this period, he created two Cubist portraits which already showed a mastery and an ability to enhance depths by the decomposition and multiplicity of planes.

Norway’s First Cubist Painter
Portrait of Thorvald Hellesen

Influenced by Picasso and Braque
Hellesen seems to have been influenced most of all by Picasso and Braque.  In 1915-1916, he created his collages of musical instruments, showing his understanding of the structure and form of Synthetic Cubism. During the war years in Paris, Hellesen married the artist Hélène Perdriat, who brought him into the very heart of the Cubist milieu. However, the marriage was a troubled one, and was eventually dissolved.

In 1919, Hellesen and Léger went to Norway to participate in an exhibition at the Tivoli Hall of Kristiania, “Leger and the Modern Spirit,” for which Hellesen designed the invitation.  Hellesen’s paintings show Léger’s strong influence during this period.

Norway’s First Cubist Painter
Composition by Thorvald Hellesen

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From 1920, Hellesen attended exhibitions in the Salon des Indépendants and the Galerie la Boëtie in Paris. In 1925, he participated at the Exposition Internationale L’Art d’Aujour d’hui in Paris. He would remain in Paris for the next two decades, with occasional visits to Norway and Denmark.

Norway’s First Cubist Painter
Thorvald Hellesen, self portrait

Interpretations of his works
Hellesen’s work dating to the early 1920’s is remarkable for its absence of all treatment of volume and shadow; it is also distinctive for his use of pinks, purples, and violets. His originality is found in his breaking from the scholastic tradition of the avant-garde, which limited the palette to more “regular” tones, or to only the primary colors.

The critic Theo van Doesburg wrote that “the young generation is going further in an artistic expression than Picasso or Braque….Hellesen and Léger are playing an important role in the evolution of Cubism.”

Norway’s First Cubist Painter
Thorvald Hellesen, Balalaika 1916. 61×50 cm. Soirce: Norwegian National Museum

A critic from “L’espirit Nouveau” wrote: “Among the Cubists, Hellesen is one of the most interesting, for he seems to have a well-defined aesthetic, where color and form blend in systematic fashion.” (1921).

Related: Exceptional Norwegian Contemporary Art Gallery

His last years
He appears to have exhibited very little after his major showing of avant-garde art in 1925. In addition to his paintings, he did decorative work, notably at the Maritime Building in Oslo, as well as designing patterns for textiles and wallpaper.

Norway’s First Cubist Painter
Thorvald Hellesen, Composition

In the fall of 1937, after an extended period of poor health. Hellesen returned to Norway after a brief career of commissions and exhibitions. and married his presumed mistress, a dancer named Guni Mortensen.

He fell seriously ill and returned home; dying shortly thereafter.

An honor to Thorvald Hellesen
In partnership with ECKBO Foundation, Oslo, DCAM will be producing the first comprehensive book on the artist in English, with essays by Dag Blakkisrud, Hilde Mørch, and Matthew Drutt and lifetime critical essays and letters. The volume will be published by Arnoldsche Art Publishers, Stuttgart and is scheduled to be released in October 2020 in connection with the opening of the new Norwegian National Museum.

Norway’s First Cubist Painter written by Tor Kjolberg

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