How Norway Made the World Whiter (NorWhite)
Funded by the Research Council of Norway (Researcher Project for Scientific Renewal 2023 - 2028)
Principal Investigator: Associate Professor Ingrid Halland
Host institution: The University of Bergen
The research project ʻHow Norway Made the World Whiterʼ (NorWhite) studies a Norwegian innovation; the white pigment titanium dioxide in a historical, aesthetic, and critical lens—focusing on how the pigment transformed surfaces in art, architecture, and design. The primary research question is: What are the cultural and aesthetic changes instigated by titanium white and TiO2 surfaces – and how can both the material in itself and these changes be conceptualized and made visible? NorWhite connects challenging topics - whiteness, technological innovation, and mass-exploitation of natural resources - in a single case study. The project will do this through an interdisciplinary research design grounded in an original and creative humanities approach that merges art history and artistic research.
Whiteness is one of today’s key societal and political concerns. Within and beyond academia worldwide, actions of revolt and regret seek to cope with our racial past. In the pivotal works in whiteness studies within art and architecture history, whiteness is understood as cultural and visual structures of privilege. The new research project ‘How Norway Made the World Whiter’ (NorWhite) funded by the Research Council of Norway, addresses, however, a distinctively different battleground for politics of whiteness in art and architecture.
This project will show how Norway has played a globally leading role in establishing white as a superior color. Until now, however, this story has been lesser known to scholars and the public. NorWhite will connect the challenging topics: whiteness, technological innovation, and mass-exploitation of natural resources in a single case study. The research project will study the Norwegian innovations the chemical compound titanium dioxide (TiO2) and the white pigment titanium white in a historical, aesthetic, and critical lens—focusing on how the innovations transformed surfaces in art, architecture, and design—in order to show how aesthetic—and thereby societal—transformation is driven by technological development.
It was not until the Norwegian chemist Dr. Peder Farup (1875 – 1934) together with chemist and industrialist Dr. Gustav Jebsen (1861 – 1923) discovered an advanced chemical method (separating the iron and titanium in the mineral ilmenite) that the technological conditions for producing a pure white paint were engineered and made possible. The production of titanium white was based on advancements in geology and mining; technological innovations in hydroelectric power; and unique chemistry breakthroughs by Farup and Jebsen between 1910 to 1920, most notably for the manufacture of the inorganic chemical compound titanium dioxide and the ‘sulfate process’ which still is the most used production process for titanium dioxide. The patent for titanium dioxide (TiO2) allowed for the development of the titanium white pigment, which revolutionized the color-industry by bringing into the market an absolute white, non-toxic paint that resisted miscoloring due to dirt and rust. Production for the global market began in the mine Titania AS in Sokndal, Norway, and in the factory Kronos Titan AS in Fredrikstad, Norway, in 1916—and the companies are still key players in the global production of TiO2. During the 1930s and 1940s, the origin of titanium white—the inorganic chemical compound TiO2—was increasingly used in combination with other materials (as
coating for concrete, glazing for ceramics, and additive in plastic) thereby changing the aesthetics of surfaces in architecture and design. Its extreme covering ability made surfaces smoother, brighter, and more opaque.
From white walls to systemic spread: today TiO2 circulates extensively through our material, biological, and economic systems, most of the time completely unnoticeable. The inorganic compound hides in the food we eat, the paper we print on, the paint on the wall, as well as in concrete coatings, in synthetic textiles, tattoos, make-up, sunscreens, and in endless amounts of white plastic products. Currently the Norwegian innovation TiO2 is present in literally every part of modern life.
By weaving together historical, critical, aesthetic, and artistic methods with public engagement and outreach, NorWhite reveals a complex and challenging story of how a local Norwegian innovation came to have planetary consequences. The overall objective of NorWhite is to critically and visually investigate the cultural and aesthetic preconditions of a complex and unexplored part of Norwegian technology and innovation history that has—as this project claims—made the world whiter.
Building a white national identity: Buildings painted with ‘Kronos’ Titanium White: From left Bygdøy Royal Palace, Oslo East Railway Station, Såheim Hydroelectric Power Station, and the polar ship Maud commissioned by artic explorer Roald Amundsen.
NorWhite is organized in five Work Packages:
Work Package 1 – Archival Database: Building a public archival database with partner museums and
institutions (Main partners: Østfoldmuseene, The Norwegian Museum of Mining, Dalane Folkemuseum).
Work Package 2 – Norwegian White: Problematizing representations of Norwegian identity in art, architecture, and visual culture from 1850 to the present. Keywords: national identity building, industrialization, modernization, aesthetics and technology, color theory (white color), and postcolonial theory.
Work Package 3 – White Context: Uncovering new histories of whiteness in art and architecture history. Keywords: classical white (the legacy and reception of the idea of a white Antiquity), material white (extractive and trading histories of white pigment), colonial white (the legacy and ideology of white color in art history in a post-colonial perspective), utopian white (ideas of purity, hygiene, and utopianism).
Work Package 4 – From Earth to TiO2 to Smart: Making the invisible visible through artistic research (Main partners: Velferden, ROM for kunst og arkitektur).
Work Package 5 – Displaying Norwegian White: Synthesizing by public engagement and outreach (Jøssingfjord Science Museum, ROM for kunst og arkitektur, KODE, Universitetsmuseene i Bergen).
Slides from a Kronos Titan PR Slideshow. Kronos Titan’s archive, Østfoldmuseene