No. 4 & 5


Håkan Sandell  

Translated from the Swedish by Margitt Lehbert

... bodes the death of the rose 

The so-called Nerdrum School, the Norwegian new-traditional school of painting, includes a stylistic feature that has always seemed foreign to me, namely a striving for exactness. When painting a hand, how interesting is it to achieve anatomical correctness as long as the image is not imbued with life? I think this observation can be generalized, and it has forced the more independent talents among young figurative painters to move beyond academicism and toward expression and stylization. Both Baroque-influenced Thomas Knarvik and the increasingly minimalistic Sverre Koren Bjertnæs have moved in this direction, and -  although steering a middle course - the Swedish artist Christopher Rådlund has as well. Of course there are motifs and motifs. "Paint me a rooster", the Chinese emperor commanded his eighty-year-old rooster painter while the palace guard pushed the artist to the floor beneath a raised sword. Legend has it the result was dazzling, but one cannot capture all motifs in a few lines like one can a rooster, (a wind-torn pine, a mountain). Not the motif of the human figure. Our signs can carry everything except ourselves. In my opinion, it is precisely in his paintings of infants that Odd Nerdrum, in his slightly finical manner, comes closest to a timeless mastery. These paintings are form and light, but also entirely their motif's content.

The human figure is currently absent in the motif world of Christopher Rådlund, and I believe this is related to the problems raised above. Many years ago, I saw huge charcoal drawings by C.R. at the Södertälje Konsthall. On them, human bodies come to life and open up. They are kindred to Käte Kollwitz's pictures, but in contrast to hers, movement is directed outward, not inward, not toward the body. Like a sailing ship with rigged sails, the figures in these pictures glided ever further away from the artist, and he has since then moved on to picture solutions which exclude the human figure entirely. Now whatever he wishes to express about us and our situation must be said with the help of external objects in traditional genres, the landscape and the still life. But can one call his skull motif, the cranium, an external object? Like a tankard or a bone-white cup it rests there, inside our identity's cheeks and eyes. Anonymous down to its hard core, but personally carried out. Just as one can see in the old masters (Titian, Velazques, Goya...), the skull on the canvass becomes more than a skull. It has a surplus, like a lamp. The mystery in the picture's skull is how these wide, organic, almost plantlike lines are able to create a crystalline brittleness. It belongs at the same time to the human sphere as it does to the sphere of nature. Is this then the final word about man, that he is in fact nature? All the same it is difficult to discover any classical, nature-tuned harmony in the aggressive jaw that sinks its remaining teeth into the green dark of evening, before the night's shower of ashes. Irrespective of the picture's "natural" motif, we are reminded that painting is always culture and culture is always decadent. Yet another transformation; the nature painter reveals himself as a commentator on the contemporary. In the armour-bright "Hav" ("Ocean"), the perspective of infinity becomes intimate and nauseating. Twilight and daybreak lie in wait for each other  - the snake that is about to bite its own tail. The observer feels both hope and imminent catastrophe. This is truly a painting for the turn of the millennium.
Like the romantic churchyard painters of bygone centuries, C.R. is above all an elegist. Despite their lyrical qualities, his many cloud pictures are executed with monotonous gloom. His roses are relics of roses, his landscapes songs of mourning for lost landscapes. In her book Soleil Noir - Dépression et Mélancholie, Julia Kristeva asks whether disillusion can be beautiful. In her answer, Kristeva points to a historical example, the Lutheran uprising, and how artists like Hans Holbein did not want his drawings to glorify the gold and finery of the rich. She writes: "A new idea was born in Europe ... the idea that the truth is austere". This observation led Kristeva to consider the social protest that sorrow can contain. C.R. wrote to me while traveling on a grant to Scotland, Wales and Ireland. I saved a letter of his from Ireland. He is full of sarcasm: "Celtic mood, Celtic spirit, Celtic life and so forth. Mildly put a bit exhausting for a pilgrim. I hadn't realized I was going to visit Holy Lands, not this cheap and easy sleight of hand with myths and heritage. The future? Dublin will change its name to Bodhran (the hand-drum in traditional Irish music) and hamburgers will be sold under the name McCeltic". It wouldn't be difficult to translate his critique to Scandinavian conditions. How everything down to the most genuine (be it the Hardanger, fjeld-rapids or Odd Nerdrum paintings) is transformed into the shabbiest form of commerce.

For C.R.'s most recent exhibition in Oslo, the artist requested a calligrapher to decorate the posters announcing it with classicizing calligraphy, using these lines by the Swedish poet Pär Lagerkvist: "Let my shadow disappear in yours / Let me lose myself / Beneath those great trees / They who entrust themselves / To the heavens and to night." This is reminiscent of the two-way movement in any artist's protest. On the one hand there is a lingering in the sorrow of the self and a negation of the world (as it appears), and on the other hand an unconditional capitulation before nature or the powers of nature. To my mind, this intrinsic inner conflict is most clearly addressed in the paintings of rose stems. Their dried-up brittleness makes me think of Giacometti, who would study dust formations in his atelier. In his article "L'atelier d'Alberto Giacometti", Jean Genet writes of an art that must move through the porous walls of the shadow realm. Genet, who did not love roses, but did love the word "rose", has all the same seen their pale light. I see it. It is like the backlit chinks around a heavy door. Like Juliet's young lips when she awakens in the Capulet's family grave. Coke cans are red, but lips are grey. "Her weeping was the weeping of roses. I saw it." (Sigbjørn Obstfelder).




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