A Road to Perdition

With the exhibition A road to Perdition artist Frithjof Hoel adresses a dark side of the Norwegian history, namely the rise of Social Darwinism and the treatment of cultural minorities in the pre-World War II era.

 In the late 19th and early 20th century, there was a common belief that the Romani were culturally subordinate and genetically degenerate in ways that could harm the Norwegian people and country. The government sought to eradicate the Romani culture through the implementation of different laws such as the Guardianship Act (1896), the Vagrancy Act (1900) and the Sterilization Act (1934).

The exhibition points to ethical issues and the consequences of this ideology and politics to the Romani people, and to the disturbing fact that the government could use science to legitimize its racist policies.

Social Darwinism influenced the western way of thinking from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth-century. Principles from Darwin’s evolutional theory of natural selection and the ‘survival of the fittest’ were adopted from biology and applied to society and culture. Furthermore, the scientists and politicians of the times saw it as their task to help nature along, and accelerate the process of evolution through conscious rather than natural selection. That way, it was believed that mankind would gain full control of its own biologic future.

The mixing of races was considered to be harmful, and various steps were taken to prevent cross-racial pregnancies. Social Darwinist ideology provided scientific legitimacy to racist policies. Thus actions we today would label as ethnic cleansing, were explained as natural and unavoidable and therefore ethically acceptable.

The exhibition shows how Norwegian politicians and other influential members of society were coined by the ideologies of the time. However, by implementing Social Darwinism in its politics, the Norwegian government sanctioned racism and racial hygiene, thereby contributing to its longevity and further development. 

Despite the attempts of ethnic cleansing, the Norwegian Romani of today are not completely broken. The Romani have prevailed, both as an ethnic minority and as individuals. In his work Frithjof Hoel address the pride and self-awareness of cultural heritage he finds in the Romani group. 

The busts were made by the anatomist and anthropologist Gaston Backman. They were made as plaster casts of living models, who were recruited among the patients at Sæters hospital in Dalarna, Sweden. The busts were part of an itinerary exhibition curated by the Swedish race biologist Herman Lundborg in 1919. They were made to demonstrate the anatomical characteristics of various types of people in the Swedish population, hence classified according to the shape of the skull, etc. They are examples of ‘short-skull’ and ‘long-skull’ types of people, and also demonstrate how cross-racial pregnancies resulted in what was considered to be unfortunate alterations to the shape of the skull. The busts are part of the collection of the Ethnographic Museum in Stockholm. Here they have been hidden away in a dusty magazine for almost 100 years.

The historical photos and publications originate from the collection of the Institute of Racial Biology in Uppsala. This was the first state-sponsored institute devoted to racial biology in the world, and an important influence to the development of the Nazi’s racial jurisdiction in Germany. In Norway, we had the Vinderen Biological Laboratory in Oslo, run by a fervent promoter of racial ‘hygiene’, Jon Alfred Mjøen. He summarized his sterilization program as follows:

“On must differentiate between the right to live and the right to give life”

Frithjof Hoel has for several years worked with artistic projects concerning the problems that arise in the meeting of art, history, religion and ethics, and seek to open up a space where they meet each other, with a perspective that also shed light into our contemporary During a residency in Paris, he met with the well-known Nazi-hunters Beate and Serge Klarsfeld. Their meeting revolved around how we all are captives in grand ideological, religious and political systems. This is the crucial point of Frithjof Hoels art work. From great ideas and great ideologies, much cruelty and terror may also come forth.


Last Updated Sunday, April 23, 2017 at 9:01 PM Published by Frithjof Hoel