Queen of arts

Once os­tracised for be­ing a com­moner, it has taken years for Queen Sonja of Nor­way to find her way. Now, af­ter dis­cov­er­ing a tal­ent for art at 70, she works with pop stars, ex­hibits at the Royal Academy and is the cus­to­dian of a pres­ti­gious art prize.

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At 81, Queen Sonja of Nor­way is an ac­com­plished artist who once sat for Andy Warhol. Claire Wrathall went to Oslo for an au­di­ence

Short of a toad that turns into a prince, the life of Queen Sonja of Nor­way has the hall­marks of a fairy tale. Born in 1937, Sonja Har­ald­sen grew up in the Oslo sub­urb of Vin­deren, in ef­fect an only child. Her two much older sib­lings left for Swe­den in 1940 at the start of the Ger­man oc­cu­pa­tion, and an­other brother had died. So her par­ents kept her close and, hop­ing she would work in and even­tu­ally take over her fa­ther’s dress-mak­ing and ladieswear shop in cen­tral Oslo, sent her at 16 to learn tai­lor­ing at Oslo Vo­ca­tional School and thence to Lau­sanne for two years – ‘I chose Switzer­land so I could go ski­ing, but then I got hooked on learn­ing French,’ she tells me – to study ac­count­ing and fash­ion de­sign at the Ecole Pro­fes­sion­nelle des Je­unes Filles.

Back in Oslo, she was 21 when she met Crown Prince Har­ald at a party thrown by a mu­tual friend, a class­mate of the heir ap­par­ent. The Prince was poised to leave the Nor­we­gian Mil­i­tary Academy and in­vited her to his grad­u­a­tion ball.

It would be glib to say the rest was his­tory. The Royal House of Nor­way was hav­ing none of it. No Euro­pean heir or crowned head had mar­ried a com­moner: the Prince’s mother had been born Princess Märtha of Swe­den, his grand­mother was the British King Ed­ward VII’S youngest daugh­ter, Princess Maud of Wales. It was only af­ter nine long years that the palace re­lented and their en­gage­ment was an­nounced. Within six months, in Au­gust 1968, they were mar­ried. Their son, Crown Prince Haakon, was born five years later, and two years af­ter, they had a daugh­ter, Princess Märtha Louise.

But since the ac­ces­sion of King Har­ald V to the throne in Jan­uary 1991, the na­tion has taken Queen Sonja to its heart. Each year on 17 May, Nor­way’s Na­tional Day, the Palace Park, one of Oslo’s main pub­lic spa­ces, is thronged with flag-wav­ing cit­i­zens come to watch the royal fam­ily wave from the palace bal­cony.

Last sum­mer, Queen Sonja’s child­hood home, a white clap­board house with a red-tile roof, built in 1935 in the Funk (for func­tion­al­ist) style, be­came a mu­seum, af­ter its ex­te­rior was care­fully dis­man­tled and moved from its orig­i­nal site to Mai­hau­gen, near Lille­ham­mer, where it was re­stored.

It is, nev­er­the­less, a far cry from where she re­sides to­day. El­e­gantly dressed in trousers and a long cardi­gan, she greets me with a warm smile and a hand­shake in what my in­struc­tions re­fer to as Her Majesty’s Au­di­ence Cham­ber, but which the liv­er­ied foot­man who has shown me up­stairs to the piano no­bile of the palace, calls the Queen’s study.

It is a splen­did room: crim­son damask on the walls, fur­ni­ture heavy with or­molu. The rea­son for my au­di­ence is her print award, the world’s largest in­ter­na­tional prize for print­mak­ing. Es­tab­lished by the HM Queen Sonja Art Foun­da­tion in 2011, this year’s win­ner will be an­nounced at an award cer­e­mony at Lon­don’s Royal Academy of Arts on 8 Novem­ber. Art is a sub­ject close to her heart, not just as a pa­tron and col­lec­tor, but as an artist and print­maker.

As a child it never oc­curred to her to want to be an artist, but, ‘I was 10 or 12 when I got my first cam­era,’ she tells me, and she has been tak­ing pic­tures ever since. It wasn’t till 2006, how­ever, while vis­it­ing Spits­ber­gen in Arc­tic Nor­way, that she un­der­stood pho­tog­ra­phy’s true po­ten­tial as a medium. She had de­scended, on foot, deep into a melt­wa­ter tun­nel. ‘It was com­pletely dark,’ she re­calls. Her torch wasn’t work­ing, so she had to rely on the light from her cam­era. ‘And sud­denly through the screen I saw th­ese lines and colours, beau­ti­ful things we sim­ply couldn’t see with our eyes.’

Th­ese ex­tra­or­di­nary im­ages in­spired her to start mak­ing ab­stract art shortly be­fore she turned 70, specif­i­cally prints, which she learnt to make on a visit to Ateljé Larsen, an em­i­nent stu­dio in Hels­ing­borg, Swe­den, with two cel­e­brated Nor­we­gian artists, the late Kjell Nu­pen and the great land­scape painter Ør­nulf Op­dahl. Here she ex­per­i­mented with mono­types (a sin­gle print taken from a painted de­sign), learn­ing to ma­nip­u­late colours – her work is all about colour – with mul­ti­ple lay­ers of ink and some­times sub­se­quent ap­pli­ca­tions of wa­ter­colour.

‘It’s a mag­i­cal feel­ing to see some­thing you’ve imag­ined and been think­ing about re­alised in that way,’ Queen Sonja says. And she en­joyed the phys­i­cal­ity of the process. ‘It’s hard work turn­ing those big, big plates. My back was nearly bro­ken.’

Though she is too mod­est to say so, her work was good. Good enough for the Royal Academy of Arts pres­i­dent, the artist Christo­pher Le Brun, to in­vite her to sub­mit a print to this year’s Sum­mer Ex­hi­bi­tion, where her in­taglio work, Sur­pris­ing An­gles, hung in the South Sack­ler Gallery along­side works by Cor­nelia Parker and David Hock­ney, whom she calls a ‘won­der­ful artist and print­maker’, and who will re­ceive a life­time achieve­ment award from her foun­da­tion next month.

As to how the prize come about, over din­ner on her last evening in Hels­ing­borg with Op­dahl and Nu­pen, ‘Kjell sud­denly turned to me and said, “Sonja, what are you go­ing to do with your prints? You can’t just put them away in a drawer.”’ She had al­ways dreamed of es­tab­lish­ing a prize for artists. Here was an im­pe­tus. The three of them would pub­lish and sell the work they had made: a port­fo­lio of 24 prints, eight each, pro­duced in an edi­tion of 50. And the pro­ceeds would be ‘the eco­nomic base’ for the award.

The bi­en­nial award is worth NOK 400,000 (al­most £37,500) to the win­ner. In al­ter­nat­ing years there is also a sec­ond grant in mem­ory of Nu­pen, who died in 2014, for emerg­ing Nordic artists, which in­cludes a week at the fa­bled Uni­ver­sal Lim­ited Art Edi­tions work­shop in New York, the fine-art printer used by Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschen­berg and Ed Ruscha. In­deed, Queen Sonja herself has spent time there col­lab­o­rat­ing with Magne Fu­ruhol­men – bet­ter known to read­ers of a cer­tain age as Mags from the 1980s boy band A-ha, now a vis­ual artist – on a port­fo­lio of prints in­cor­po­rat­ing his in­ter­est in text and hers in na­ture. Hence the ti­tle of the en­su­ing book and ex­hi­bi­tion, Tex­ture, which toured across Nor­way and to Lon­don. Again pro­ceeds went to­wards the prize.

Queen Sonja’s print­mak­ing may have grown out of her in­ter­est in pho­tog­ra­phy – ‘Mostly now I use my iphone, though I have a Ko­dak dig­i­tal cam­era, and trans­fer the pic­tures on to my Mac,’ says the Queen, who I note is also wear­ing an Ap­ple Watch – but Op­dahl also taught her to paint wa­ter­colours en plein air. ‘You see land­scape in an­other way and no­tice things you didn’t see be­fore.

Meet­ing Andy Warhol was ‘like hav­ing an au­di­ence with a king. We had to wait’

‘I came back from France last night,’ she says, ex­plain­ing she had opened an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Na­tional Ce­ram­ics Mu­seum in Sèvres with the French cul­ture min­is­ter (‘This is how we should be ex­chang­ing ideas be­tween coun­tries’), fea­tur­ing work by three Nor­we­gian artists, two of them ce­ram­i­cists. Mar­git Tin­gleff ’s works, in par­tic­u­lar, stuck her as ‘just fan­tas­tic. Her dishes are two me­tres long, and like land­scape paint­ings.’

As for her own ca­reer as an artist, she has al­ways been keen on crafts. She knits and em­broi­ders. ‘And then I started mak­ing plates,’ she says, cit­ing the in­flu­ence of Pi­casso’s ce­ram­ics. Her ma­jor achieve­ment has been to cover a chim­ney breast and ad­join­ing wall with tiles she made herself, a space ‘three or four me­tres by two and a half ’ – at her sum­mer house, Mågerø.

But print­mak­ing re­mains her main in­ter­est, and prints make up the bulk of her art col­lec­tion, which runs to more than 700 works. A Pi­casso print was among her early ac­qui­si­tions, but mostly it fea­tures work by fel­low Nor­we­gians and Amer­i­can artists such as Robert Mother­well, He­len Franken­thaler and Jasper Johns.

The walls of Queen Sonja’s study, how­ever, are hung with paint­ings that of­fer clues to her bi­og­ra­phy. First there are the two strik­ing can­vases by Jakob Wei­der­mann, Nor­way’s pi­o­neer­ing pro­po­nent of ab­strac­tion, whom she met as a teenager through Jo­han Sten­ersen, the friend who in­tro­duced her to her hus­band. It was also through him, a nephew of the noted art col­lec­tor Rolf Sten­ersen, a neigh­bour of Queen Sonja’s par­ents, that she came to sit for Andy Warhol. The re­sult­ing por­trait hangs op­po­site her desk.

In 1982, she had been on a tour of the US with a del­e­ga­tion of Nordic roy­als, and, ‘We had one day off in New York. I said I’d like to visit an artist.’ Of course there were pro­to­cols to ob­serve, she ex­plains, but an ap­point­ment at Warhol’s fa­mous Fac­tory was duly ap­proved. ‘It was like hav­ing an au­di­ence with a king,’ she re­calls. ‘We had to wait.’ But that gave her a chance to ‘sneak around and look at things: he had a lot of Claes Olden­burg. And when we met, he was pleas­ant. Quite se­vere, and also very timid and shy.’

Sten­ersen asked her if she would like to sit for him. ‘“Well, I don’t know,” I replied.’ Again there was the ques­tion of pro­to­col. (Warhol’s sub­se­quent Reign­ing Queens se­ries was based on ex­ist­ing pho­to­graphs.) ‘I knew that the [Nor­we­gian] Na­tional Gallery would like to have one. But I was go­ing to meet my hus­band at the 21 Club, so Jo­han asked Andy if we could come back. We dis­cussed it over lunch, and my hus­band said yes. So back we went, and Andy put chalk all over my face [lit­er­ally on her skin] so that there would not be any lines. And he took 38 pic­tures, I think, from all an­gles. And then he made the six paint­ings. The Po­laroids are in my col­lec­tion too. I got them for my birth­day. The whole thing was a very spe­cial ex­pe­ri­ence.’

Two of the paint­ings now hang in mu­se­ums in Oslo. They are clas­sic bold Warhol, a stylised silkscreen print on to which he painted flat ar­eas of colour us­ing poly­mer paint to high­light her hair, lips and the col­lar of her dress. But if she’s smil­ing in that por­trait, her gaze con­fi­dent and di­rect, life as Nor­way’s Crown Princess was not with­out chal­lenges. The way she has talked of the paint­ing For Ex­am­ple by Liv Ørn­vall, which­hangs be­hind her desk, gives some clue to what came next. ‘It is very much linked to my own life. [It] shows a woman in a white dress in a very large build­ing. She seems to be lost. She is stand­ing on a stair­case she has to climb – an over­whelm­ing task. When I got mar­ried, my fa­therin-law, King Olav, didn’t think it nec­es­sary for me to have my own of­fice. So I had to move from one room to an­other. It took 22 years till I had [one of ] my own at the Palace. There are 22 steps in the stair­case in Liv’s paint­ing. One for ev­ery year I spent with­out an of­fice.’

‘There have been mo­ments when I re­gret­ted the path I chose in life’

She has also spo­ken mov­ingly about her daugh­ter-in-law, Crown Princess Mette-marit – who was not only a com­moner but a sin­gle mother and former wait­ress whose four-year-old son was fa­thered by a con­victed drug dealer when she mar­ried Queen Sonja’s el­der child, Crown Prince Haakon. ‘There have been mo­ments when I re­gret­ted the path I chose in life,’ says Queen Sonja. ‘Be­ing sub­jected to such pres­sure for such long pe­ri­ods of time, I think one suf­fers for the rest of one’s life.’

But her po­si­tion has en­abled her to meet – and learn from – a host of artists. In New York she vis­ited Rauschen­berg at his Soho stu­dio. ‘It was great fun! He had lots of sto­ries,’ she re­calls, though deco­rum de­ters her from re­peat­ing them. The pop artist James Rosen­quist and his wife Mimi Thomp­son be­came friends too. ‘He was a very, very nice man, and I saw Mimi last time I was in New York.’ Then there was the Cata­lan painter An­toni Tàpies (him­self a mar­quis), and the rad­i­cal fem­i­nist artist Judy Chicago, who once asked Queen Sonja if she was a fem­i­nist too. (‘“Yes!” I replied. To my own sur­prise.’) And Henry Moore, whom she met when he had a ret­ro­spec­tive in Nor­way. ‘He asked if I would like to visit his stu­dio near Much Had­ham [in Hert­ford­shire]. He told me that when he en­rolled at art school, he’d thought he would like to study paint­ing, but the queue was so long. It was much shorter for sculp­ture, so he joined that one in­stead.’ She erupts with in­fec­tious mirth.

And then the clock in the cor­ner strikes, and my time is up. Though she is 81, Queen Sonja’s sched­ule is re­lent­less. There is no such thing as a typ­i­cal day. To­mor­row she is off to Mågerø for a long week­end by the sea ahead of a gru­elling state visit to China the fol­low­ing week. But this evening there is a party for one of her five grand­chil­dren. Are any of them artis­tic? I ask. ‘My chil­dren, no,’ she replies. ‘But some of the grand­chil­dren, I think. Es­pe­cially the el­dest [Maud]. She’s 15, and I think she may be an artist. I hope so, any­way. For her sake!’

Pre­vi­ous page Queen Sonja at the Royal Palace, Oslo, Septem­ber 2018.Right The Nor­we­gian royal fam­ily with Queen Sonja and King Har­ald Vatthe cen­tre

From farleft Queen Sonja in New York in 2005 along­side Andy Warhol’s por­trait of her from 1982; at work in her own stu­dio ear­lier this year

Sur­pris­ing An­gles by Queen Sonja, in­taglio print, which was shown at the Royal Academy Sum­mer Ex­hib­tion this year

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