It is no accident that Knut Steen has made a design for a Promentheus. Likewise it is no accident that this design was never realised. Nothing is mere chance in this artist's life, and therefore it is just as tempting to write about his life-story as of his art.
Today he is accepted as Norway's leading sculptor. Not so long ago he was talked about as this country's most ill-used artist. Perhaps he has learned from the birds to sail on the headwinds.
First he was dustman and jazz-musician. Then he became a hospital porter and had to deal particularly with corpses and remains. Perhaps it stems from this that he has an aversion to the tendency within this art form that makes use of rubbish and waste. Knut Steen's goal has always been the unattainable beauty.
In the beginning Prometheus brought fire to us; we took it and made use of it. In latter times doubts have arisen as to how far this was of benefit. In any event Prometheus got his punishment and right enough it was his liver especially that was affected.
This piece is not going to deal with Knut Steen's inner organs - but it is apt to say he is among those who have borne the fame onward. The artist is a torch-bearer who raises his torch against a seemingly greater force of darkness.
An inner organ plays, though, an explanatory role in the story of how the coachman's boy became the great Knut Steen. As a youth he contracted turberculolsis and for ten years of his life he lived not far from death's door.
He got over it. He survived with one lung less than most people. It suited him ideally to execute a memorial to Rudlf Nilsen, the worker-author who died young of this disease. Knut Steen came out of a sanitorium cured, and made one of Norwegian sculpture's most virile monuments.
The author Rudolf Nilsen is scarcely known outside Norway but the statue could certainly be. It is a work of youth with the imprint of a man who early has understood what life is all about.
"I want to live!" This is the young Knut Steen's message to the people of Oslo's east side. For the sake of the anecdote, it can be mentioned that this naked bronze man with sex-organ in glistening metal was received with a strom of protests in the press and in reader's letters, something which did not fail to make an impression on the young sculptor. No one becomes a prophet in his own back-yard, but to be born at Kampen is quite a start. A Norwegian artist must struggle both against the public's and his own puritanism, for cultivated sensuousness is not found so far north!
In the fifties Knut Steen worked on a monument to the Norwegian whale-fishing which at that time was still a real source of wealth for the country. It was a work which grew with its creator.
The whaling monument in Sandefjord was undeniably a masterpiece in modern Norwegian sculptur. Today we can look with ecological hindsight on this activity. But Knut Steen's big fountain is not a homage to the extermination of this mighty animal. It is a work of art by a man who has read his Melville and represents mankind's struggle with Leviathan, a homage to the daring in this struggle where the outcome can never be taken for granted.
A sculpture which is set up in a public place makes every man an art critic. A painting or drawing can thrive in closer circles and go unnoticed but a sculpture in the open air is perceived as a misplaced intrusion in the landscape or townscape and arouses stronger reactions that the most hideous architecture.
A few big projects have aroused such fundamental and immediate offence that they have never been realised. For this reason there is no Olav Kyrre in Bergen and the students in Trondheim must learn their engineering skills without the picture of Prometheus before their eyes.
In this tough mixture of success and adversity the artist's courage has held. And that is certainly his main tast. There is scarcely any more important message to mankind in the post-war period than Knut Steen's both primitive and fighting "I want to live!" The will to life must find its expression; it is beauty's necessary rebellion and resistance to the destructive.
In the evening of his years Knut Steen has chosen to settle in the homeland of marble, Carrara in Italy. Here the material is cut in blocks from the mountain. The artist is at close quarters with his daily challenge; the formless with inherent possibilities. As though beauty had been captured by the mountain and can only be freed by the hand of an artist.
In the encounter with this country's centuries-long craftsman tradition - for sculpture is also craft - is formed Knut Steen's great ambition to get bronze to sing and marble to float. In reaching for beauty's ideal he moves against the stream and against all the winds of the age, not merely against the fleeting movements in art.
Here, in Carrara and Pietrasanta - that sacred stone! - Aurora takes form in a marble which assumes the texture of a woman's skin. Aurora and her companion piece Sapho stand surrounded by marble in Oslo's Konserthus. A larger Aurora in bronze with the night side black and the day side in gold leaf stands right in the centre of power in the Government Building.
Today Knut Steen's art is threatened only by too undivided success. But this artist who has overcome ill-health, poverty and hard struggles against public abouse will certainly not let himself be broken by success.