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#HotDocs22 Review: Images of a Nordic Drama

April 28, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The 2022 Hot Docs Film Festival runs from April 28th to May 8th in Toronto, more information on tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

Early on in director Nils Gaup’s documentary Images of a Nordic Drama, art collector Haakon Mehren recalls the moment he first laid eyes on the work of Norwegian painter Aksel Waldemar Johannessen, a contemporary of Edvard Munch who never received the same amount of notoriety or visibility in his time. Mehren discovered Johannessen’s paintings in a barn, and talks about how he was immediately bowled over by the power of the images (we are, too, when we first see some of them in the film). So much so, in fact, that they changed his life.

Mehren owns the largest archive of Johannessen’s work, but mourns in the opening scene that it will probably “end up as garbage” when he’s gone. Despite dedicating his life to preserving the artist’s work, he has spent three decades battling art gallery gatekeepers who are reluctant to display the paintings or are outright dismissive of them. This includes the late art historian Knut Berg, who served as director of the National Gallery of Norway, and made it is personal mission to prevent Johannessen from entering into the recognized canon of Norwegian art.

Despite a successful showing in Italy, where his paintings were warmly received, museums in Norway have long been reluctant to embrace the artist. Johannessen was a poor man who didn’t shy away from showing the darkness of poverty in his work, with images of alcoholism, mental illness and prostitution that have long offended the sensibilities of bourgeois gallery owners in the hundred years since his death in 1922. At just seventy minutes long, Gaup’s film serves as a tantalizing and engaging introduction to Johannessen’s vivid body of work, while also raising vital questions about who decides what art gets to be remembered and preserved.

Screenings:

Saturday, April 30th – 11:30 AM at Varsity

Thursday, May 5th – 8:45 PM at Varsity

The film is also available to stream across Canada for five days starting on April 30th at 9:00 AM.

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