The National Gallery bought The Newborn Calf at the major Kai Fjell exhibition at Kunstnernes Hus in Oslo in 1937. The purchase signalled Fjell’s breakthrough as an artist, and the picture remains one of his principal works. Fjell studied at the National Academy of Fine Arts in Oslo 1928–29 under the supervision of Axel Revold. At the academy he became acquainted with the Danish artist Vilhelm Bjerke-Petersen, who was instrumental in introducing surrealism to the Norwegian art scene.
For Fjell, surrealism’s emphasis on psychoanalysis and its theory of subconsciousness opened up new possibilities, allowing him to create pictures by using the symbols of subconsciousness and painting freely and intuitively. Surrealism inspired both his techniques and his themes.
The Newborn Calf may well depict Fjell’s own childhood memories. Fjell grew up on the ancestral farm Andorsrud near Drammen, where he would sometimes witness calving. The setting brings to mind the landscape of Andorsrud, while the architecture of the white portal is more akin to the entranceway to Nordby Farm in Østerdalen, where Fjell lived in his teens.
A key element of surrealism is the notion that the artist is not bound by time and space but can mix symbols, memories, reality, and fantasy at will. The Newborn Calf represents a modern allegory, based on Fjell’s own recollections and experiences, of the various phases of life as portrayed through the women, the animals, and nature.
Text: Anita Rebolledo
From "Highlights. Art from Antiquity to 1945", Nasjonalmuseet 2014, ISBN 978-82-8154-088-0