Per Kirkeby

Even though Per Kirkeby prefers not to be categorised as a landscape painter, nature is nonetheless a common motif in his art. Nature should be understood here broadly – from paintings with a recognisable subject from nature (trees, weather and light), to a more disintegrated form, where several layers of paint and coloured surfaces overlap and create a more abstract, poetic rendition of nature. Kirkeby uses a technical term from geology, ‘deposit’, to refer to this special composition of the painting, where the resulting image in fact consists of several images – several layers of paint. Seen in this light, the painting itself becomes a piece of nature with surface conditions, structure and erosion processes, which could be subjected to geological investigation.

It is by now a characteristic of Kirkeby that his paintings contain a poetic, metaphysical dimension in the tradition of Nordic Romanticism on the one hand – and a more sober, almost scientific investigation of pure object matter which relate both to his geological education and to the reduced aesthetics of minimalism on the other. Kirkeby has been strongly influenced by both American Minimalism and Pop Art.

It is exactly Kirkeby’s mix of lyrical-abstract qualities with the self-reflexive consciousness of modern art, which Lars von Trier takes advantage of in his film Breaking the Waves from 1996. Kirkeby has made eight still-images that function as chapter headings in this melodrama about the faithful Scottish girl, Bess, who out of love for the paralysed oil rig worker, Jan, sacrifices herself to the extent self destruction. The grainy quality of the film, and the use of a hand-held camera give the story an authentic look, which is in sharp contrast to the dreamy, emotional chapter headings, with their images of grand nature that Kirkeby made based on romantic painting. He expresses the contradictory relation between realism and pastiche, which in a way is the crux of the matter when speaking of Breaking the Waves.

The pompous story in Breaking the Waves resulted in a massive debate about the relation between avant-garde and triviality, realism and popular entertainment, honesty and irony. Was the film a portrait of real, deep feelings or was it ironically playing on a trivial genre? Kirkeby’s digital images do not immediately make it easier to decide. They can be seen as cliché-filled constructions with exaggerated colours and emotional moods – but they can also be viewed as more abstract interpretations of the Romantic tradition, where nature, as in many of Kirkeby’s other works, appears in a flowing, ever-changing condition.

By Pernille Albrethsen, translated by Eva May


The image is created by Per Kirkeby for "Breaking the Waves" (1996), a film by Lars von Trier.