Kirkeby – The Prized Master


Flugten til Ægypten 1, Per Kirkeby

Danish artist Per Kirkeby is celebrated with a retrospective at the nation’s leading art museum. Works on loan from collections around the globe offer unique insight into one of Denmark’s greatest and most prolific contemporary masters.

By Poul Erik Tøjner, Director of the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art

Per Kirkeby is Scandinavia’s pre-eminent contemporary artist. His artistic oeuvre spans more than four decades, and in addition to his paintings, drawings, graphic work, set designs and films he has also pursued a literary career, writing poems, essays and artistic monographs. His production is enormous – as is his reputation. The scope of his work is well documented in this retrospective at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in which we showcase his very best paintings alongside a selection of his most significant sculptures. The exhibition, simply entitled *Per Kirkeby*, draws in his masterpieces, his great works – sourced from international museums.

The exhibition includes a couple of paintings from our own collection and that of the ARoS Museum of Modern Art in Aarhus, but the remaining artworks are on loan from collections in Germany, Switzerland, England, Italy, France, Norway, Sweden and the USA – including Folkwang Essen, the Tate Modern, and MoMA. The breadth of the Kirkeby retrospective thus offers unique insight into the entire body of work of the Danish master, who celebrates his 70th birthday this year.


Subtle sensuousness

Per Kirkeby’s art is multi-faceted, but there are common traits which lend a sense of homogeny to his work, traits which can be seen not only in the individual works, but in the long sequence of paintings he has created through the years. The subtle sensuousness of Kirkeby’s paintings is compelling. To merely stand in front of one of his paintings is to be irresistibly drawn in. Paintings provide an excellent starting point for appreciating the merits of interactive media, and that applies to Kirkeby’s paintings in particular because things start to happen when you interact with them. The paintings unfold as a sort of open stage on which you – eyes wide open – search for insight and meaning.

This is, of course, always the case with a painting, but Kirkeby’s works have a distinctive quality that intensifies the experience. Their sheer size and tactile qualities reveal a space that beckons the beholder inward.


Technique – and content

There are always two oppositional currents at work in Per Kirkeby’s paintings. First there is the painterly experience, but there is something else – the figurative shapes. Elements of a narrative, almost. I refer to the trees, or tree stubs; the cave, the glacial valley below towering ridges that open onto a semi-circular delta; the rugged cliffs, the oak timber – and the sudden appearance, through the transparency of the colours, of an upturned glass in still life. Where do these things come from? And what do they mean?

Kirkeby calls these elements ‘set pieces’. Earlier in his career – around 1980 – he used them as compositional components. Kirkeby emulates nature, but he wants his paintings to be more than mere weather forecasts. Tipping your hat to beauty through the use of natural hues and clever tricks won’t suffice; an element of resistance – call it ‘truth’ if you like – has to be infused into the picture.

Kirkeby the artist can be perceived as a kind of pictorial set designer. He creates scenic spaces that open out to the onlooker, characteristically employing his ‘set pieces’ as tropes in a narrative. It is therefore imperative – indeed the underpinning idea – that the exhibition at Louisiana manifests the dramatic content inherent in Kirkeby’s art.

Many see Kirkeby is a kind of expressionist since his paintings are almost totally abstract and bespeak the magisterial artistry of the artist himself. This, however, is not the case. All of his works exhibit intellectual elements – the ‘set pieces’ – which generate the dynamic and epic narrative of the painting rather than express the diffuse private sensory experiences or emotions of the artist.

Pictorial explanations 

One entire section of the exhibition is devoted to what we – borrowing a title of one of Kirkeby’s first books – have called ‘Pictorial Explanations’. First and foremost there is a *grande suite* of Kirkeby’s board paintings, ranging from the 1970s up to the present day.  The boards serve as opaque forums, so to speak, where the artist ponders his subject. Here we find his reference points – his vernacular, his emblems, all the recurrent motifs and elements laid out with crystalline clarity, drawn or shaped with all the tricks of the trade – such as marbling and graining – that Kirkeby employs in his architectural decorations, such as in the chapel at Fredensborg Castle, the Royal Library in Copenhagen, and the Natural History Museum of Denmark. These techniques refer to a wider artistic tradition but also to the sheer theatricality of art as such.

It seems central to Per Kirkeby that human history should strive for a wider perspective, which he stresses by his recurrent use of motifs rather than investing in new ones. To illustrate this point we have co-produced a film with the artist about his art, entitled *Per’s Method*. Sequences from the film are used to shed light on various aspects of the exhibition, but the film is also screened in its entirety at the museum.

Visitors to Louisiana can look forward to a multimedia exposé of Kirkeby’s art on a grand scale to reveal new aspects of a master familiar to so many. And for those meeting the Danish master for the very first time, the retrospective offers a unique opportunity to fathom the scope and achievement of one of Scandinavia’s most prolific and celebrated artists.