Gunnar Berge is on his way to an artist’s studio where the finishing touches will be put to his portrait. This is due to adorn the walls of the NPD’s new office building in Stavanger.
- Tonje Pedersen and Bård Gudim (photo)
A meeting between the private person and the public persona is what Sverre Andreas Koren Bjertnæs is seeking to achieve with his portrait of Gunnar Berge.
It is an icy day in late November when the former NPD director-general, politician, finance and local government minister, and Labour Party stalwart emerges from Oslo’s Airport Express train.
“This way,” he calls, and makes a beeline for the exit. He is the type who walks up the escalator, and probably thinks he will lose time waiting.
Mr Berge has an appointment with artist Sverre Andreas Koren Bjertnæs, who has been commissioned by the NPD to paint its former chief, and admits it is fun. “But the picture is terribly big.”
Described as an exciting and talented artist, Mr Bjertnæs was born 34 years ago with a paintbrush in his mouth, and has studied under and resided with famed Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum.
He is married to fellow artist Unni Askeland and has shown his work at countless exhibitions in Norway and abroad, developing into a recognised figurative painter and one of the few to make a good living from his art.
Intended to bear witness to his time as director-general, Mr Berge’s portrait is destined hang alongside that of Fredrik Hagemann, his predecessor and the first NPD head.
That will be in the new premises being constructed next to the NPD’s current offices in the Ullandhaug district of Stavanger, and Mr Berge is set to grace its walls for a long time to come.
“I think back to my years at the NPD with great pleasure,” says Mr Berge. “The oil industry interested me right from its start here in Norway.
“I entered politics in 1969, the same year that Ekofisk became Norway’s first commercial discovery, and experienced the peak of the oil age. It’s been an exciting development, and I’ve been involved in major changes.”
His move to the oil industry after his career as an active politician ended was no coincidence. He helped to lay the groundwork for the NPD and served on the board after it was created in 1972.
Mr Berge is familiar with Oslo’s West End. He points out the Nobel Institute and recalls his time on the Peace Prize committee from 1997-2002, the final three years as its chair.
A few blocks further up is the flat where he formerly lived with partner Vigdis Magistad, the Oslo lawyer who served as his adviser in the finance ministry during the 1980s.
The couple now have a flat in the nearby Frogner district and a house at Tasta near Stavanger, and commute between these homes. Ms Magistad also attends the session with the artist.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the finished work,” she says. “I’ve seen it in progress. The eyes are exactly right. It’s incredible how well they correspond with Gunnar’s own look.”
Mr Bjertnæs is standing outside his studio and waiting for the model to arrive, shaking his hand when he does. They seem like old friends.
“This is probably the third or fourth time you’ve been here,” says the artist. “So we’re probably getting to know each other a little now.”
A big painting stands on an easel in the studio. Mr Berge looks out of the portrait with a warm expression and eyes full of experience.
The subject seats himself on a chair at an angel to the painting. Mr Bjertnæs says he has been easy to work with.
“A portrait is actually an authoritarian form, used to depict powerful people. I try to evoke the whole person, with humour, warmth and natural authority. In other words, I’m midway between meeting Gunnar and the public persona Mr Berge.”
He describes the commission as rewarding. “I’ve experienced the encounter with Gunnar as highly interesting. He is a man who has done many important things. At the same time, he’s a very fine person. That’s what I want to convey through the portrait.”
Mr Berge gets a bit embarrassed and shrugs off the praise as a joke. Mr Bjertnæs dips his brush on the palette, touches up the painting, deepens the shadows and adds some colour to the lips.
In the meantime, the model tells a stream of small anecdotes, jokes and reminiscences.
Mr Bjertnæs carefully studies all the details in the portrait and discusses them with Ms Magistad.
“I think it’s almost perfect,” she says, with a glance at her partner. “But there’s something about the mouth I don’t recognise.”
“I agree with you,” the painter says. “And I feel he’s a little narrower in the chin than I’ve managed to capture.”
“That’s probably because I do so much jogging,” responds Mr Berge.
When he reached his 70th birthday this summer, he invited his whole family with children, grandchildren and bonus children to Madeira. They wanted to know if he was soon going to take it easy.
But he finds life easy enough. He is chair of Petoro, on the boards of the Western Norway Regional Health Authority and the University of Stavanger, and chair of an official inquiry into the organisation of reception centres for asylum seekers.
In addition come three children and seven grandchildren. “I’ve got exactly the right amount to do now, and it’s in tune with the times for older people to contribute. Too many exciting things are happening which I don’t want to miss.”
Mr Bjertnæs is almost finished. He notes down small changes which need to be made, and will now be completing the portrait before delivering it to the NPD.