Earthquake, Inferno, and Influences in Kirkeby

Picasso has been quoted as saying, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” Per Kirkeby has impishly admitted that he “steals” whatever catches his eye. He may be visiting a museum or leafing through a book, and if something intrigues, gives him pause, he’ll make a sketch of it, draw it into his memory, perhaps for future reference. He states, “I need something to paint from. I cannot paint out of the blue sky. . . . I cannot paint nothing.” He needs this seed around which his molten paintings can crystallize. As Karen and I have written previously, the possible roots of Kirkeby’s paintings can be fun to trace.

View upon entering Per Kirkeby: Paintings and Sculpture at the Phillips with Kirkeby's monumental painting Erdbeben (Earthquake) at center. Photo: Lee Stalsworth

View upon entering Per Kirkeby: Paintings and Sculpture at the Phillips with Kirkeby’s monumental painting Erdbeben (Earthquake) at center. Photo: Lee Stalsworth

This process makes Kirkeby’s paintings seem both new and strangely familiar. His sublime Erdbeben (Earthquake) of 1983–the painting that greets you when you enter the current Phillips exhibition–seems a distant, modern cousin of Thomas Cole’s Destruction (1836), from his Course of Empire series at the New-York Historical Society. In Erdbeben (Earthquake), a broken, falling fluted column on the right echos the lines of the headless white marble statue in Cole’s work; both loom in the foreground to give depth. The shape of a white triangular building sits atop a horizontal slab of dark water, and behind it a black, rocky crag. From the sides, dark clouds encroach the view, leaving a small distant horizon line. Destruction is almost sunny and bright, all the better to see the details. Kirkeby’s dramatic darkness, by contrast, is more in line with any of a number of 19th-century romantic paintings, for example, John Martin’s The Great Day of His Wrath (1851-3).

Kirkeby tells a story of going to the National Gallery of Denmark when he was about 15 and being intrigued by a painting by August Strindberg, likely Storm in the Skerries. “The Flying Dutchman” (1892). Strindberg was a Swedish playwright and novelist. Astoundingly prolific, whenever he suffered from writer’s block and severe psychological stress, he would paint instead. One such period in Strindberg’s life is known as the “inferno crisis”; in 1897 his autobiographical novel Inferno was published. Interestingly, in the 1990s Kirkeby named one of his series of paintings Inferno, including the Phillips’s own Inferno V (1992). Perhaps this strange stormy seascape by Strindberg planted itself as a seed in the flux of the young Kirkeby’s subconscious, to silently grow and finally crystallize nearly 30 years later.

Ianthe Gergel, Museum Assistant

Another installation view, with the Phillips's Inferno V (1992) at far left and Inferno II (1992) on loan from The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, beside it. Photo: Lee Stalsworth

Another installation view, with the Phillips’s Inferno V (1992) at far left and Inferno II (1992) on loan from The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, beside it. Photo: Lee Stalsworth

Flame and Stone

“Flame and Stone”–that’s how Duncan Phillips summed up The Repentant St. Peter by El Greco (1600-1605) and The Repentant St. Peter by Goya (1820-1824), respectively. Mr. Phillips loved comparing the two renderings of the saint, and their current side-by-side display in the Music Room (and in this Google Art Project comparison) reflects this tradition. As a graduate intern in the education department, I’ve led some of The Phillips Collection’s weekday noon spotlight talks. Having lived in Spain for a year and a half, I was immediately drawn to the work of Goya and El Greco, who lived and worked in Madrid and Toledo nearly 200 years apart. I thought their two versions of Saint Peter would make an excellent spotlight.

When giving a gallery talk on Goya’s The Repentant St. Peter, I often start by asking visitors to imagine the work as a movie poster and create a corresponding film title. I’ve received answers ranging from Dear God, Please Forgive Me! to Please Let Me Win the Lottery! Thinking about Goya’s canvas as a movie poster transforms this initially bleak and lackluster painting into an intensely-personal rendering of a man desperate for visitors. We discuss the way the dark, nondescript background and the modern cropping—similar to a close-up film shot—add to the poignancy of the image.

Visitors often shift the conversation to compare Goya’s painting with El Greco’s representation of the same subject without my prompting. Frequently, they remark on the icy quality of the light in El Greco’s canvas as well as the more “holy” and idealized appearance of his St. Peter. Goya’s St. Peter, they usually observe, looks more like a “grubby fisherman—a guy who works with his hands.” St. Peter’s hands are a recurring point of discussion. In comparison to the elegantly elongated fingers in El Greco’s painting, visitors note the stubby, tightly-clasped fingers of Goya’s St. Peter, stepping in for a closer look when they learn that Goya returned to the painting to shorten the fingers, a process which has left a visible trace. It’s wonderful to see how, so many years after Duncan Phillips first hung these paintings side by side, they continue to inspire conversations.

Kristin Enright, Graduate Intern for Programs and Lectures

A Radiating World: Kurt Schwitters and El Lissitzky

Were it not for the German Dada artist Kurt Schwitters, Lissitzky may not have received the commissions for the two Kestner portfolios, currently on view, which I recently blogged about. Through an introduction from Schwitters, Lissitzky met the president of the Kestner Society during a visit to Hanover in 1922. After hosting Lissitzky’s first solo exhibition early the following year, the society of art supporters commissioned him to produce its first and then second limited edition lithographic portfolio as gifts for its members. You can see the Phillips’s fabulous collage by Schwitters, Radiating World, completed just three years before these Lissitzky prints, in an installation currently on view in the Main Gallery of the house.

Elsa Smithgall, Curator

Kurt Schwitters's Radiating World (1920) hangs at left in this view of the current installation of the Phillips Main Gallery. Photo: Joshua Navarro

Kurt Schwitters’s Radiating World (1920) hangs at left in this view of the current installation of the Phillips Main Gallery. Photo: Joshua Navarro