Holiday Hygge

Holiday decorations at the Royal Danish Embassy celebrate Per Kirkeby and other Danish artists and creatives. Photos: Brooke Rosenblatt; Photo collage: Amy Wike

Holiday decorations at the Royal Danish Embassy celebrate Per Kirkeby and other Danish artists and creatives. Photos: Brooke Rosenblatt; Photo collage: Amy Wike

In Denmark, gathering with friends to celebrate the season is very important. There’s a special word for it–HYGGE (\ hoo • gah \ – is it just us or does the word sound a little bit like a hug?). Today, you can gather Danish-style at the Royal Danish Embassy’s Creative Christmas open house from 3 to 5 pm (no tickets required), where you will catch glimpses of Per Kirkeby throughout the decorations. Then continue the festivities at Phillips after 5: Winter Fairy Tale from 5 to 8:30 pm (for this, you will need to make a reservation). We’ll offer smørrebrød tastings by Embassy Executive Chef Lars Beese, screenings of The Fir Tree, gallery talks in the Kirkeby exhibition, and music by New York-based Danish jazz pianist Søren Møller with American saxophonist Dick Oatts. To gather with friends the way we will this evening is very Danish. With you, we’ll truly have HYGGE.

Wild Horses (Couldn’t Drag Me Away)

Per Kirkeby, Untitled, 2009.Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York, London, and Berlin

Per Kirkeby, Untitled, 2009.Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York, London, and Berlin

The largest of Per Kirkeby’s paintings in our current exhibitionUntitled  (2009)–is a favorite of many visitors. In an interview with Director Dorothy Kosinski, Kirkeby said:

I took the horses not from any kind of photos but from the famous works by Baldung Grien, who has four or five very fantastic woodcuts. So that’s a kind of borrowed structure. Woodcuts are very clearly defined with lines. So from them I got a starting point. One of my sons gave me a birthday gift of a big beautiful book full of pictures of horses. I dare not say it, but what am I going to do with that? I don’t need a real horse. I need the lines that pretend to be a horse.

Hans Baldung Grien was a German Renaissance painter and a prolific printmaker. He was a student of Albrecht Dürer. Grien produced three woodcuts of wild horses, each print not much bigger than a sheet of letter-size paper. Kirkeby probably chose his three horses from a herd in Grien’s Stallion and Kicking Mare with Wild Horses (1534).

Hans Baldung Grien (Germany, Schwäbischgmünd (?), 1484 - 1545), Stallion and Kicking Mare with Wild Horses, 1534. Print, Woodcut, Sheet: 9 x 13 1/8 in. Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Hans Baldung Grien (Germany, Schwäbischgmünd (?), 1484 – 1545), Stallion and Kicking Mare with Wild Horses, 1534. Print, Woodcut, Sheet: 9 x 13 1/8 in. Los Angeles County Museum of Art

What about the colors he chose for the three horses–red, yellow, and green? The light yellow and spring green shows up in many of Kirkeby’s paintings throughout the years, almost like a signature; perhaps they are the hopeful colors of spring after a long Danish winter. Maybe they suggest the colors of autumn, as Kirkeby has written in his book Isolation of Parts: Yellow - red and green are the most crucial of colors. Green is the surface until the plants yield to desert yellow and red.” Chlorophyll yields to xanthophyll and anthocyanin. Or perhaps he has a distant memory of a 100-year-old painting by Franz Marc of three cows, in which a yellow one kicks up its heels with a red and a green companion.

Franz Marc, Cows, Yellow-Red-Green, 1912. Oil on canvas, 24.4 x 34.4 in. Staedtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Germany.

Franz Marc, Cows, Yellow-Red-Green, 1912. Oil on canvas, 24.4 x 34.4 in. Staedtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Germany.

Kirkeby’s medium for this horse painting is unusual: tempera on canvas. Although he is rather coy about his technique, he has written:

Move from oils and that hazardous turpentine to water-soluble paints, break down what is wooly and impasto. A more fluid, drier character emerges. From the same material in terms of content. . . . I am now intending to switch to water-soluble paints and protect my brain from turpentine-induced decay. That is my choice, and it is perhaps one that in the same way as other choices of such ‘technical’ nature will lead to something new. A new and unexpected turn.

In this case, his use of tempera led to horses.

Ianthe Gergel, Museum Assistant

The Genealogy of a Painting

Per Kirkeby, Fram, 1982. Oil on canvas, 46 1/2 x 78 3/4 in. Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk, Denmark

Per Kirkeby, Fram, 1982. Oil on canvas, 46 1/2 x 78 3/4 in. Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk, Denmark

Caspar David Friedrich. The Sea of Ice (German: Das Eismeer) 1823–1824. Oil on canvas, 38 in × 49.9 in. Kunsthalle Hamburg, Hamburg

Per Kirkeby’s painting Fram appears to be completely abstract but actually has a story behind it. Kirkeby has said that when he is working on a painting, he often goes to his art library, looks at an art history book and takes it to his studio. “I borrow something, something starts to move. That’s the way I use my art history.”  In this case, Fram, which means “forward,” was a ship built by Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansens and used for his 1893 voyage to the North Pole. The ship was considered to be the strongest wooden ship ever built. Kirkeby, who initially studied arctic geology at the University of Copenhagen, has said that he has always been fascinated by polar expeditions.

(Left) Kirkeby, Fram (detail), 1982. (Right) Willem Claesz. Heda. Stilleven met een zilveren tazza, 1630. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Some of Fram‘s composition is based on Sea of Ice by Caspar David Friedrich, which features a wrecked ship amidst a forbidding display of shards of ice in the polar sea. As Kirkeby stated, “The story fascinated me. It is both an ice floe and a tabletop. It’s very audacious to reach the North Pole by subjecting a ship to these audacious forces.” In Kirkeby’s painting, the energetic brushstrokes on the left pay homage to Friedrich’s composition, while the fallen tumbler on the right refers to a 17th-century Dutch still life by Willem Claeszoon Heda. Kirkeby combined landscape and still life, genres that seemed outdated in 1983 when he painted Fram, into a new, hybrid composition, perhaps reflecting the drive for knowledge that inspired Fram’s journey.