«I am You are she /he /it is They are» (2017) is the name of Vanessa Baird’s work at Palmen in Grand Hotel, Oslo Norway. It consists of 36 separate paintings on a 7 x 7 meter section wall. Photo: Gro Matland Nevstad / The Norwegian Nobel Institute

Vanessa Baird new artist for the Nobel Diploma 2018


It is always nice to be invited in to such prominent company, says critically acclaimed Norwegian painter Vanessa Baird (54). Thus, the contemporary artist accepted the commission to illustrate the Nobel diploma. Not that this opportunity necessarily featured on top of her wish-list.

She has been drawing the darker side of society for years, bluntly featuring subjects most of us do not have the stomach to deal with. Death and damnation. This year’s Nobel Peace Prize diploma is no exception – where the remnants of a refugee crisis wash over us.

This theme pervades her famous wall-to-wall piece at the Grand Hotel Palmen restaurant, consisting of 36 paintings. Many a Nobel Peace Prize laureate has walked the halls of this hotel, and been fêted in the adjoining Rococo Hall during the Nobel Banquet. The Oslo-based artist initially rejected the request to have her work adourn the walls of the Grand Hotel, but eventally changed her mind. 

– Drawing comes easy to me. That is why you often will find drawings in my paintings. 

For this year’s diploma she has produced «kitchen size» watercolor paintings.  The exact specifications of the diploma image i 207mm by 328mm. With no knowledge of this year’s laureates to be, she created the paintings this summer. Her only focus was to make it look somewhat like a diploma. 

– I made two alternatives, and three of each, as there can be up to three winners. The chosen alternative was less frightening than the other, but the choice was not mine to make.

In early May, Vanessa Baird visited the office of Norwegian Nobel Institute director / Nobel Committee secretary Olav Njølstad in Henrik Ibsens gate 51, Oslo.

– We shared a bottle of sparkling water. If my father, who grew up in the neighborhood of the Nobel Institute, was still among the living, I would have rung him up afterward. Kind of cool, was the thought running through my head. 

She was given a tour of the Nobel Instute 3rd floor, where the Committee room features photo portraits of all Nobel Peace Prize laureates, and the reception room exhibiting copies of all their diplomas. Norwegian painters Håkon Bleken, Jakob Weidemann, Ørnulf Opdahl, Frans Widerberg and Håkon Gullvåg are only a few of the renowned artists who have accepted the commission from the Norwegian Nobel Committee. The past three years, Willibald Storn has put his particular mark on the diploma design. 

The earliest diploma, created by the multi-talented Norwegian artist Gerhard Munthe, was used for all Nobel Peace Prize award ceremonies up until 1969, and has the focal spot on the diploma wall. Some may draw an imaginary line from this earliest diploma to the 2018 diploma by Baird – in both color and brush strokes. But where the 1901 diploma features a proud lion from the Norwegian national coat of arms, the 2018 edition tells stories of human lives lost.

Baird grew up with a Norwegian father and Scottish mother. Her parents lived apart from each other. This dual culture upbringing has influenced Baird.

– My mother coloured us a home, while only a few streets away, in an almost empty apartment, my father sat on an empty crate from the local liquor store. Nice, in its own way. 

A mother of three, she has never lived with their father. Home she shares with her mother. When she thinks about the world her teenage children stand ready to explore, she worries about climate change, hate and intolerance. 

Her most recent exhibit,  «You are Something Else», was displayed in Kunstnernes hus (artist-run organization in Oslo tasked with presenting Norwegian and international contemporary art) until January this year. Norwegian daily newspaper Aftenposten’s reviewer Kjetil Røed wrote: «The fact that Baird brings forward human vulnerability and falsehood is nothing new, but here she does it with an authority and clarity which elevates her work. I am particularly fascinated by her merging our rejection of bodily functions and human powerlessness with our view of refugees in the Mediterranean».

Røed concluded that if he were to compile a list of the most important works of art from year 2000 until today, «You are Something Else» would be on the list.

«You are Something Else» was also well received at The Armory Show in New York in the spring. The exhibit moves to the KODE in Bergen on November 9.

Baird suffers from a kidney disease she contracted at the age of seven. She fears death. Afraid not to be allowed to participate, to keep going.

– I have no knowledge of death, and living with a chronic disease brings no pleasure. Being afraid. Having your abilities reduced, for protracted periodes, is frustrating and exhausting. I prefer to be healthy and focused. Keep going. Non stop. All in all intervowen.

Vanessa Baird spent parts of her childhood in the hospital, and has been drawing since she was young. Drawing brought her calm. Her development path lead to the Norwegian National Academy of Craft and Art Industry (1982–1985), Royal College of Art in London (1985–1987) and the Norwegian National Academy of Fine Arts (1988-1991).
Asked what feelings she hopes her Grand Hotel paintings might evoke in a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, she says that she hopes he or she will ponder the enormity of our world. She ends by quoting the dear departed Danish musician, Kim Larsen:

«What good is a government, if not to aid the weak. The strong are gonna be just fine.»

– Well put!


Vanessa Baird
Photo: Frode Fjerdingstad