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

Play Well

Instagramed images of lego sculptures paired with the Per Kirkeby paintings that inspired them

Left to right: Lego man amidst the trees by Margaret Collerd, inspired by Per Kirkeby’s Untitled (2009); Climbing Shadows by Amy Wike, inspired by Per Kirkeby’s New Shadows V (1996); Fire Engine #5 by Michelle Herman, inspired by Per Kirkeby’s Inferno V (1992)

Phillips staff with bins of legos, creating sculptures

Phillips staff use images from Per Kirkeby’s exhibition to inspire Lego sculptures.

Did you know that LEGO is an abbreviation of two Danish words–“leg godt”–meaning “play well”? Neither did I! But I took this inspiring etymology to heart when developing a Lego challenge for the upcoming January 3 Arctic Expedition Phillips after 5. Inspired by Danish artist Per Kirkeby’s layered colorful abstractions, Phillips staff built our own Lego sculptures. Like kids on Christmas morning, we spread out on my office floor with focused attention to come up with our own Lego creations and Instagram them.

On January 3, you have a chance to “play well,” and win a host of prizes! Visit the museum during Phillips after 5 (5–8:30 pm; be sure to make a reservation) and peruse the Per Kirkeby: Paintings and Sculpture exhibition for inspiration. Then stop by the Lego tables, build your own sculpture, and share it on Instagram with the title of your choice and #PhillipsPlaysWell. You’ll be entered to win great prizes, including a Phillips Contemporaries membership, tickets to The Kennedy Center’s Nordic Cool festival opening concert, a one-year Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) membership, and more. Follow us on Instagram (@phillipscollection) for some pre-event inspiration.

Margaret Collerd,  Public Programs and In-gallery Interpretation Coordinator

The Hows and Whys of Tempera

Per Kirkeby, Untitled, 2006. Tempera on canvas, 78 3/4 x 98 1/2 in. Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York, London, and Berlin

Per Kirkeby, Untitled, 2006. Tempera on canvas, 78 3/4 x 98 1/2 in. Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York, London, and Berlin

Yesterday, I mentioned Per Kirkeby ‘s use of tempera. He’s not the only artist to switch to a water-based medium due to a reaction to turpentine. Peter Doig, who delivered a Duncan Phillips lecture and showed a small exhibit of chubby birds at the Phillips back in 2011, switched from oil to distemper on linen as he was trying to get away from long-term effects of paint solvents. This caution despite having a studio in Trinidad, a pavilion really, that he can open up to the air.

In this case, tempera does not mean cheap poster paint but refers to an oil-modified egg tempera. Canvas is inappropriate ground for pure egg tempera, which needs a sturdy, inflexible support like panel. Besides, even with a dedicated studio assistant separating out all those egg yolks for that much paint, the process of preparing the paint is grueling. There are dozens of recipes for a whole egg / oil emulsion tempera that can more easily be made in large batches, but there is also a shortcut. You can grind dry pigment with water into a paste, then mix it with store-bought Sennelier Egg Tempera Binding Medium, which contains egg and drying oils.

The advantage of this medium, in addition to being less toxic, is that it dries quickly, so a painting can be worked on and completed, important if you feel your time on earth may be limited. The disadvantage is that a painter thinks one way for oil painting, and another way for tempera; it is not just a change of painting medium but a sudden shift in painting thinking. Artists, when they think of an image to paint, frequently see it in a certain medium and the attendant steps required to go about achieving the desired effect; artists think in medium. It would be like a composer thinking in the range and possibilities and limitations of musical instruments when writing a score (unless you’re John Cage). Tempera may prove to be only a temporary break for  Kirkeby.

Ianthe Gergel, Museum Assistant