Arts: A Lesson in Beat History ; Some of the Beat Generation's Most Important Art Works Are Hanging in a School in Norway. Jon Bryant Explains How They Ended Up in Small-Town Scandinavia

By Bryant, Jon | The Independent (London, England), February 28, 2006 | Go to article overview
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Arts: A Lesson in Beat History ; Some of the Beat Generation's Most Important Art Works Are Hanging in a School in Norway. Jon Bryant Explains How They Ended Up in Small-Town Scandinavia


Bryant, Jon, The Independent (London, England)


Kristiansand Cathedral School, on the southern tip of Norway, is like most other secondary schools in Scandinavia. It is full of pine furniture and serves open sandwiches on wheat germ bread in the dining room. What makes it unique is that it owns the finest collection of American Beat Generation art outside the US.

More than 100 of the movement's works line the school's corridors, classrooms and canteen. In the staff room, timetables are pinned up alongside works by celebrated Beat artists. "Ever since the first consignment came over from San Francisco in 1971, it has just seemed very natural to have them here," says the headmaster, Arne Rosenvold. "The students find the paintings highly inspirational and are very proud of them."

The collection belonged to a Norwegian doctor named Reidar Wennesland, who lived in North Beach, San Francisco, in the 1950s and 1960s, when the Beat Generation was at its most disdainfully creative. He became known as someone who appreciated experimental art and accepted paintings instead of payment for consultations. He used to help the artists financially, offering them lodging and paying their studio bills. As a doctor, he was also able to help them "calm down" after excessive use of drugs. Most important, however, he began a collection of Beat Generation art, which at the time few people understood.

Born in 1908 and brought up in Kristiansand, Wennesland trained as a doctor and became head of a recovery team caring for concentration-camp victims. He moved to the US after the Second World War, and became a physician for Norwegian seamen. He had also developed a lucrative test to check levels of carbon dioxide in the blood. Almost all his money, however, went on helping artists, buying art and keeping scores of exotic animals, including monkeys and a South American kinkajou.

The Beat poet Allen Ginsberg lived with him for a while, until they had a row. In the mid-Seventies, the local council banned exotic pets, and the doctor could no longer maintain his private world. The Beat artists had all but vanished, and Wennesland asked the San Francisco Art Institute if it wanted his collection. It declined. Insulted by what seemed a lack of respect for the culture of the time, he presented it to his hometown of Kristiansand, initially to the school where he'd been a pupil, and later, in a further instalment, to the town's Agder University College. Together, they have more than 350 works.

"They wouldn't refuse the collection now!" says Ellen Frivold, curator of the university's half of the Wennesland collection.

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