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Norwegian artist Ornulf Opdahl shows paintings at Northumbria University Gallery

Artist and royal favourite Ornulf Opdahl talks to David Whetstone about his new exhibition at Northumbria University Gallery

Norwegian artist Ornulf Opdahl opens his exhibition at Northumbria University Art Gallery, Newcastle
Norwegian artist Ornulf Opdahl opens his exhibition at Northumbria University Art Gallery, Newcastle

If you want to feel tiny, ant-like and insignificant – or, on the other hand, awe-struck by the power and majesty of nature – you can always sign up for a dicey expedition that will take you into survival gear and out of your comfort zone.

Alternatively, you can sidestep the danger and eye-watering expense by standing in front of a painting by Ørnulf Opdahl at the Northumbria University Gallery.

Having said that, this option has also proved pretty costly for some. Queen Sonja of Norway liked the painting Night Fjord so much that she stumped up more than £20,000 for it.

Well, I hear you say, maybe that’s just petty cash to a monarch.

But according to gallery director Mara-Helen Wood, the Norwegian artist also has collectors in the North East prepared to shell out significant sums for an Opdahl – so not all those red dots denoting a sale can be attributed to the fact that this body of work was shown first at Kings Place, the Northumbria University Gallery’s London twin.

Queen Sonja opened the exhibition there in November, before it transferred to Newcastle. “She is a very keen collector of Norwegian contemporary art and also promotes it,” says the artist appreciatively.

So, too, is Mara. Ørnulf says it is thanks to her that he and some of his compatriots have any kind of profile in this country.

“She knows a lot about Norwegian art and we owe her a great deal,” he tells me.

It was a 1999 millennium exhibition called Visions of Norway that introduced many North East art lovers to the work of Opdahl, Olav Christopher Jensenn, Odd Nerdrum and Frans and Nico Widerberg, the latter pair father and son and painter and sculptor respectively.

It took place at this gallery – dramatically signposted to passers-by on Sandyford Road by a slender Nico Widerberg figure – and also at the Laing and the Hatton, the gallery on the nearby Newcastle University campus.

Many visitors back then thrilled to Opdahl’s dramatic Norwegian landscapes.

If you fancied a fjord on your sitting room wall or a precipitous, snow-covered ridge, this was your man. With brushes and paint, he could summon the might of Norway’s climate and geology to make your cosiest room seem even cosier by comparison.

Now there is another exhibition to savour and it is full of new work, as the title implies. Ørnulf Opdahl: New Paintings is at the University Gallery until March 28, as if to say to those bemoaning the challenges posed by our own climate and landscape: “You ain’t seen nothing.”

Standing amid his dramatic paintings, which come in various sizes but always look big by virtue of their subject matter, Opdahl says: “Nature is always frightening. Today we look at nature like scenery and say it’s fantastic.

“But if you go back 100 years and asked a person living in that area, ‘What a beautiful mountain!’ he’d say, ‘But that’s also a frightening mountain because it comes down with stones in an avalanche’.

“I grew up in a community of fishermen and there was a lot of loss of life at sea. This is always in the paintings.”

Opdahl was born in Ålesund. “When I grew up there was approximately 20,000 inhabitants,” he says.

“It is still the biggest fishing town in Norway. My father was in the fishing business and my grandfather was a skipper but he was lost at sea, and also one of my cousins. I never met my grandfather but it would have been fantastic to meet him.”

Young Ørnulf, like many of his ilk, enjoyed an adventurous childhood with lots of exciting places to explore and plenty of danger to flirt with.

But he was still quite young, “I think about 12”, when he started to gravitate towards art.

“I knew what I wanted to be and do but I hadn’t any clue about the consequences. In the town it was not art that was the most important thing. But when I was 15 I attended a craft school in painting. I learned painting as a craft. Then I went to Olso when I was 17 to further my education at the Academy of Arts.

“I settled in Oslo for some years but it was always in my mind, the landscape with the mountains and the fjords and the sea. I knew I had to do something with it.

“I went back in 1971 with my family and settled on this island (Godøy – ‘God’s Island’) which is off the coast, near Ålesund.”

But it took him a while to find his artistic style. “I just couldn’t get it,” he says. “I knew I was just meant to paint this landscape but I was experimenting and really just surviving for many years before I really found my way as an artist and was able to paint what I felt about the landscape.

“When that happened, it was a release. Suddenly I discovered a technique, a way to do the painting.”

Partly this was to do with the materials he was using. Proud owners of an Opdahl canvas should know that it doesn’t comprise just canvas and oil paints.

He tells me: “I went outside the studio one day and on the ground is a lot of very fine sand. I took some and mixed it with the paint.

“Oil paint can sometimes be shiny and I don’t like that shiny surface. I mix in the sand and so you could say now that my paintings are taking from the landscape and adding to the landscape.”

The grittiness is both literal and implied. This is a challenging landscape with towering peaks, dark, glowering depths and flashes of light as the sun breaks through clouds or, with darkness falling like a hammer, switches are thrown in distant hamlets.

Opdahl says he has walked and climbed much of this landscape and seen it in its many moods from his island home – which faces the famous and mighty Geiranger Fjord – and from a boat. One painting in the exhibition, Wind from the Sea (yours for £11,550), was inspired by a sailing trip made with friends to the Orkneys.

It takes about 30 hours, says Opdahl, adding that it can be rough but is mostly a pleasant trip if you listen to the weather reports.

This is an artist who paints on a large and small scale, as you will see. For the biggest canvases, he says, he has to use a stepladder, and he runs a thumb across his smartphone to supply photographic evidence.

In making his paintings he also harks back to that training in the craft school. His technique, he confides, owes very little to tiny brushes. “I use big brushes and sticks and rags. I paint with a knife and take off layers and layers of paint as it dries.

“It takes time to do these paintings and I’m learning all the time. I have a lot of paintings in play at the same time.”

The results are hugely impressive. These are paintings fit for a queen and if the price tags tell you anything, it is that Ørnulf Opdahl is a painter whose work is very much in demand.

But you should also know that these paintings are as much about the way the artist feels about the landscape as the way it looks. He smiles when I suggest there must be some blue skies in Norway. That’s not the point, he replies affably.

This is Opdahl’s Norway, full of drama, and it surely can’t be doing the tourism industry back home any harm at all.

For details of this and other Northumbria University Gallery exhibitions, go to www.northumbria.ac.uk/universitygallery

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