Per Kirkeby

Den Frie Udstinllings Building

The question is whether or not this beautiful show of the complete bronze sculptures (1981–84) of the Danish painter, sculptor, author, and filmmaker Per Kirkeby may be counted a brilliant example of what the artist himself, in his texts, refers to as “a major traffic accident.” This can be defined as a biographical explosion of the kind produced when the traces of an artist’s elective affinities suddenly intersect. For Kirkeby, these influences include Danish figures—the neoclassical sculptor Bertel Thorwaldsen; the Symbolist painter, sculptor, potter, and architect Jens Ferdinand Willumsen; the postwar Modernist Asger Jorn—but primarily Auguste Rodin. By means of technique, style, iconography, and, as ever with Kirkeby, an extremely deliberate staging and choice of setting, he forced these affinities together in his recent installation, although this was done in an attempt at synthesis rather than as the result of an ambition to “show his hand” as required by the zeitgeist.

Arranged in a classicistic fashion reminiscent of the famous Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in his native Copenhagen, 38 black-paitned bronzes on faux marble bases were displayed in the light and airy pavilion designed by Willumsen around the turn of the century. The sculptures in the long nave were small and sketchy; they were larger in the aisles and almost colossal in the octagonal rooms with cupolas.

Having revealed simultaneously his taste for the picturesque in earlier architectonic brick sculptures and his aim at fixed architectonic space in his paintings, Kirkeby paradoxically stands out in these media; he is as much a sculpting painter as a painting sculptor. Bronze sculptures cast from plaster originals have become the three-dimensional medium he favors (although the “last” brick sculpture, the tower in the “von hier aus” exhibition [from here out, 1984, in Düsseldorf], has been followed by some very different, sophisticated “early Gothic” arch constructions); the result is that he has established himself in a very interesting way as a confirmed peintre sculpteur.

As in a painterly process, the plaster has been applied layer upon layer on a support covering a robust framework like a shroud—a shroud that, because of the multiple layers of its sometimes deep folds, tends to make a pictorial figure-and-ground space appear in addition to the literal spatial quality of the sculpture. The touch that the surface records is strongly reminiscent of Kirkeby’s painting, but the sedimentation of the thin layers of paint has been replaced by the geological record of Rodin’s opaque bronze shell. However, Kirkeby’s extreme accentuation of the painterly qualities of the shell is not the reason his bronzes evoke those of Rodin; it is their power of appearing, in Leo Steinberg’s words, “not a part for the whole, but a part as a whole,” while at the same time suggesting, from a humanist point of view, a loss of classical serenity and self-possession. “Arm and Head” or simply “Arm” or “Head” are the characteristic titles of these “painterly lumps,” which, anthropomorphic yet formless within the context of a tradition petrified by formalism, intercept and amplify those aspects of Rodin that Modernism’s “disciplined taste” disposed of at an early stage.

In a text written shortly after Kirkeby began to work in bronze, in 1981, he talks about how much he appreciates the monstrosity of Rodin’s Gates of Hell and how he wishes to see its dinosaurian—or, rather, “supersaurian”— expression linked with “ ‘immoderate’ clumsiness and the light comic of horror films.” While viewing some of the best pieces in this show I had a feeling that I saw what he was driving at, even though the “light comic” element—evoked by the discovery of an ugly face in a painterly bronze surface—could be derived from Jorn’s painting rather than from the world of B movies.

Arranged in classical rows in the white pavilion, these refractory bronzes suddenly pointed at new possibilities within a genre laboring under the burden of tradition—possibilities that could perhaps be rendered visible only by a “major traffic accident.”

Lars Nittve

Translated from the Swedish by Lars-Håkan Svensson.