- Artist: Håkon Bleken
- Creation date: 1963
- Object type: Painting
Born 09.01.1929 in Trondheim
Can art change the world?
Håkon Bleken insists that art should have an ethical and educational dimension, but he does not believe that art in itself can change the world. His art revolves around the great existential questions of life and death, and is often based on personal experiences of human injustice and compassion.
Your childhood remains a part of you
Håkon Bleken was born in 1929 into an upper-middle-class family in Trondheim. His father was an architect and headmaster of a vocational school, and his mother worked for the municipal administration. Art and culture were key components of his upbringing. His mother was especially interested in art, and both parents were proud of Håkon’s childhood talent for drawing.
Bleken was the youngest of three children, and had an older sister and brother. Their father was an authoritarian man. The elder son bore the brunt of this, as their father sought to raise him to be a man. He was punished and beaten, and thrown into the water to learn to swim. This atmosphere profoundly affected Bleken’s childhood. He later said that his childhood and his mental problems were the source of his creative spark. His lifelong sensitivity to injustice is, perhaps, a reaction to the difficulties he experienced during these early years.
The war and the Holocaust
As a teenager, Bleken experienced the war and the German occupation of Trondheim. His father was sent to a concentration camp in Lofjorden. Bleken was frightened, but wanted to help his father. When he stopped a German military vehicle he was struck in the face by an officer, and realised that he was powerless. Later a Jewish schoolmate disappeared, deported to Auschwitz.
Dictatorship and the persecution of Jews have served as central themes for the artist. Bleken has said that for him, the Holocaust represents the “ultimate injustice”. In several of his works he has used the well-known photograph of a Jewish boy raising his hands above his head, in front of a soldier with a rifle, from the “Grossaktion” in the Warsaw Ghetto. In Bleken’s decorations for Vålerenga Church, the picture becomes a symbol of the Passion of Christ.
Illness and compassion
In 1956 Bleken fell, sustaining a head injury. The concussion resulted in illness and paralysis. This led to a three-year break in his artistic career and several long stays in hospital, and had an impact on the rest of his life and art. He himself has said that the illness helped him to mature, and taught him compassion.
During his period of rehabilitation Bleken could no longer use oil paints, but he could draw with charcoal. Roughly ten years later he had his artistic breakthrough with three series of charcoal drawings: Fragmenter av et diktatur, Fragmenter av kjærlighet and Fragmenter av sannheten (Fragments of a Dictatorship, Fragments of Love and Fragments of Truth), which were shown in a travelling exhibition in Oslo and several other Norwegian cities.
The Bible, literature and the news
Bleken’s pursuit of an overriding moral code is often expressed through the Christian mythology that features in his pictures. But other references range from the Bible, classic literature and theatre to news stories. His artistic method consists of searching through historical and literary sources and current events to combine what are often disparate elements in one picture. He experiments with collage painting techniques that succeed in uniting newspaper clippings, photographs and religious and literary myths with his own memories and fairy tales. He often paints over photo collages that he has organised into a grid. His important, monumental picture Madonna tar av seg glorien (Madonna Removes Her Halo) in the National Museum’s collection is an example of how he links Christian iconography to universal conditions, represented by photographs of current events.
”I should have painted fewer bad pictures”
Today Håkon Bleken is one of Norway’s most renowned painters. He has not been particularly interested in international developments within painting such as the “discourse” surrounding abstract painting. However, he revitalised figurative painting in Norway in the 1970s. In addition to painting, his oeuvre covers a broad spectrum from drawings, prints and photo collages to large-scale church decorations, especially church windows, and even book illustrations. He is responsible for a vast artistic output, but says that he should have restricted himself: “I should have painted fewer bad pictures.”