Atlantic Ocean Blues. The painter Steen Larsen (b. 1960) has a visual memory that virtually acts as a camera. In addition, he backs himself up with a real camera, which he uses as a sketchbook when constructing his motifs. They must be able to engage and challenge him for quite a time as his glazed oil paintings are pretty detailed.
Steen Larsen is one of what is by now a small group of artists with a mimetic approach to their work – meaning they keep as close to reality as possible – and precision in both detail and totality is quite crucial. If we go back to the Danish Golden Age of the first half of the 19th century, C.W. Eckersberg was indubitably the Danish artist most skilled in the mimetic presentation of reality. This is not, of course, to be understood as meaning he recreated reality 1:1. On the other hand, he sought what is known as a fundamental image, that is to say that he prioritised a perfectly balanced, harmonious motif rather than attempt to reproduce reality in the chaotic forms in which it sometimes emerges. As a sober Romantic, he tried to explore the idea behind natural phenomena. Every painting was an attempt to understand God’s great plan – and here, the theory of perspective was an important tool.
Steen Larsen is not a second Eckersberg in the sense that he does not believe in a fundamental plan behind everything – and then he is living in an entirely different age which gives him access to a broad array of highly technological aids: In order to discover some of the motifs for his ‘Roadscapes’ – a series of new paintings which together with some rather earlier series are to be seen now at Sophienholm and later in the Kunstcenteret Silkeborg Bad – Steen Larsen made use of a camera he had installed behind the windscreen of his car. It automatically kept a record of the natural scenery along the Scandinavian section of the E45, when he drove 5500 kilometres from Aarhus through Norway to Kiruna and back during the summer of 2011. En route, his stationary camera took a photograph every 10 seconds. By the end of the journey, Steen Larsen had taken 18,000 photographs. From this huge collection of photographs he now took the best and processed them by means of the digital photography programme on his computer.
The camera acted as a third eye that saw things that no one else can see. Here, the method was randomisation – i.e. takes generated on the principle of pure chance – only the time factor played a role here with the above-mentioned time interval above of 10 seconds, in which fortuitousness rules. The result was that these chance snapshots revealed some visual potentials of which Steen Larsen had not himself been able to conceive with his trained eye, which all the time – consciously or unconsciously – is seeking the “right” motif. He now used the computer to firm up the composition to give it the necessary edge. “The motif must always contain an element of tension. It must include contrasts such as move me to make an effort,” says the artist when I meet him one day in January in 2012 in his spacious, well lit studio in the garden behind his red brick house in Viby in Jutland.
During spring 2012, the main work in the exhibition, a triptych entitled ‘Roadtriptycon – Now, Present and Past’, hangs on the longitudinal wall in the Sophienholm garden room opposite the glass door out to the lawn that slopes down towards Bagsværd Lake. In addition to movement in space – from point A to point B in his ‘roadscapes’ – it is for Steen Larsen a matter of moving in time. In the central painting, the emphasis is on the present. Here, we are driving by night on a motorway lit by the stripes of light made by the cars’ white and red front and rear lights. On the other hand, in the huge field on the right we look straight into eternity, i.e. out across the vast, self-reliant ocean and the infinity of space and a tiny island that looks as though cradled in isolation on the shimmering expanse of the sea while in the space on the left in this enormous triptych, measuring 150 cm in height and 450 cm in width, we are taken back to a recent past, to a quite special Swedish car cemetery filled with cars from the 1950s, 60s and 70s. They have stood untouched for decades, and their bodies show clear signs of the ravages of time. Each of the three motifs is given extra force by glaring contrast it implies between nature in all its grandeur and the work of human hands: the road and the cars. The contrasts are given even greater colouristic depth in that the colours range from the cool, blue of infinity over the mountains to the light on the cars flashing yellow, white and red near at hand and then to the black-and-white painting of one of the wrecks in the car cemetery. Each of the motifs derives individually from one of the three Scandinavian countries: Norway, Sweden and Denmark.
On his long car journey, Steen Larsen seems to be moving on the edge of the world, a state described by many writers, not least by Inger Christensen who in her essay “The End of the World” from the collection of essays entitled The State of Secrecy from 2000 writes that the end of the world is “places that have such a special quality as to make people in some region call them The End of the World and to visit them as an image of what is outside, beyond everything that is populated and familiar” …As for North Cape she writes: “If one comes from Rome, Paris or Vienna, from the old cultural belt stretching across Europe, one is very far away from home, 4168 kilometres from Rome, 3257 from Paris and 3525 from Vienna, and although I am far from Denmark, 2072 km from the Copenhagen where I can well go around every day longing for some distant frontier, a point on the continent that points out into a great, horizontal void – incapable as I am of rising straight up and reaching the dizzy height of Mount Everest.” In the same way, Steen Larsen touches on the great void in his paintings of the desolate west coast of North Norway, where the A17 links the long country from north to south:
“When you drive on the Atlantic Ocean Road, that work of human engineers that is the E45, and feel the rhythmical hum of the car as it twists over the islets lining the sea, you have come to the end of the world. Then you are grasped by a sense of awe. This entire infrastructure of bridges along the edge of the great nothing is a miracle created by human hands, joining Norway – and Europe – together. The idea that such an artery winds its way down through Europe, from right up by somewhere north
In the painting ‘Route Atlantic Blue’, the road twists rhythmically over a rocky islet which, when seen in this faint bird’s eye view, resembles the backbone of some giant lizard – perhaps the Loch Ness monster. Could it be that after a long journey under the water it is now resting its flippers on the surface? Bluish mountains can be seen in the background. This is a nocturne such as a nocturne is in the Nordic summer night when the sun never sets. But the motif acquires a human dimension because of a lonely car wending its way through the landscape. And above the low-lying land, the vast heavens open up with their restless clouds.
“I love to paint clouds – and light and air. All this ethereal world interests me. Especially the clouds are a painterly challenge because they contain so many colours and are in some very complex shapes,” says Steen Larsen. “As a young student I attended Dartington College of Art in the south west of England. Here the tone was still the London School, but even so there were teachers who sent me off to the fantastic library of art books in the college to borrow books about Turner, Constable and other English artists who painted the heavens and the clouds as though they were real. I also went to the Tate in London to study Turner’s cloud paintings live. They are often very dramatic, full of shadows. It’s exciting to paint the natural light, the light in the heavens, as opposed to electric light, the light created by human beings, and bring it to life on the surface of the canvas. Perhaps there is also a religious dimension to all this about light, although I would not call myself religious. But especially when I am out in some uninhabited countryside, I sense something great and incomprehensible holding it all together.”
Can you say something about you go about it when you paint the sky with clouds?
“Because they interest me so much, I direct a lot attention to building “my” skies up. I start by applying a monochrome burnt sienna primer. This ensures a warm soundboard beneath the cool blue of the sky. This warm shade exerts its influence on the picture and makes it glow. Then I add one coat of paint after another in a classic glaze in order to recreate the rich palette that is an essential part of the clouds. Here we see the entire spectrum of colours unfolded while the same time the shapes of the clouds are incredibly complex.”
Why are these ‘road-scapes’ so important to you? What does the movement of travel give you that staying on the spot and immersion in one specific place cannot give you?
“To me, the journey means the unpredictable. I like to be en route. Even if I have a specific destination in mind – as in the case northern Norway – I don’t know what is going to happen
You have taken up a position between two traditions – landscape painting, which we have known for centuries, and film/photography – which reproduce the real world more or less realistically, more or less staged and arranged. How would you yourself define the position from which you speak between the two traditions?
“Today, one is almost forbidden to work with landscape painting as I do. It was primarily the preserve of 19th-century artists to work in that tradition, and there are not many of us who work in that way today. In Denmark, I think of Ulrik Møller and Allan Otte as being among the interesting landscape painters today. If you choose to work in extension of a tradition that has so much weight behind it, you have to ask yourself what you can add to take it a step further. I naturally enough build on Danish landscape painting, but at the same time I look across the pond and introduce elements from American film and photographic art. Here, I am thinking partly of the long tradition of road movies and partly of the documentary photographic art deriving from the USA.
When I was at art school in England, I saw Wim Wender’s film ‘Paris Texas’. It bowled me over and struck home at me because I had myself become a father at a very early age. So I can clearly recall the story of the main character, Travis, who is seeking his lost family. What I am doing now is my own ‘Paris Texas’.
You are obviously brilliant at painting what you want. What was it that originally attracted you to choosing the demanding career of being a painter?
“It was a bit of a coincidence – but it became my fate. On leaving Viborg Cathedral School I went to India. After visiting India it was impossible for me to start out on a normal course of study even though I had enjoyed going to school and imagined I would go on to study political science. Instead, I spent a time in a folk high school in Funen. After that, I settled in Svendborg together with some friends from the high school, and we lived as a group of hippies. One day, I saw an advertisement for a new school of art in Odense that was seeking new students. It was as though the advertisement shone out at me. It was saying “Bling-bling, look at me!” I attended the school for three years and during that time realised that I must be a painter. The school was run by the landscape painter John Fabrin, who excelled in painting poplar trees that were forceful and light.
I was particularly interested in the technical side of painting. There was at that time nowhere in Denmark where you could on the way. Unpredictability of this kind is very stimulating in comparison with remaining in your humdrum surroundings which you can simply stare at until you can’t see the wood for the trees. I am fascinated by being as one might say all at sea.”
Does this unpredictability also reflect the artistic process? Not quite knowing what will be the next stroke on the canvas, realising that you have to be guided by your intuition and that you will occasionally encounter a major surprise. What Søren Kierkegaard refers to as “venturing into 70,000 fathoms”?
“Yes, that’s right. I become tense and excited when I set out into the unknown. It’s rather like being a hunter and going out into the forest and waiting until your prey turns up. When I go anywhere, I am similarly “armed” with my camera and wait for the best motif, which I then take home as a trophy. When I know I have taken a good photograph I can’t get home fast enough to see what it looks like on the screen. On a long trip such as that in Norway, I stay in my hotel in the evening and sort through the pictures. This long journey introduced an extra layer of unpredictability resulting from the camera I had mounted in the car. Normally, you consciously look for your motif before pressing the button, but this occasion saw the introduction of this new element of surprise. There I received something for free. Among other things there was a series of motifs I have called the “Route Noire”. They are from the last stretch and were taken late one night on the road between Frederikshavn and Aarhus. Here, the camera produced a series of almost abstract motifs in which the colours are drawn out because of the speed. This is something that only the camera can see and which the human eye is unable to grasp.” To paint a road leading into the picture is a classic technique.
You naturally enough often use it in these ‘roadscapes’.
Yes, it is a fantastic way of creating depth, rhythm and movement in a two-dimensional picture. The book accompanying the big exhibition ‘L.A. Ring – On the Edge of the World” in Statens Museum for Kunst in 2007 made a point of this and also made clear that there is a road in 90% of Ring’s pictures. A “ring road” as Steen Larsen says with a laugh. The road is fascinating and draws you into the picture.”
Is the E45 Europe’s answer to the beautiful and mythological Route 66 on the American West Coast?
“There is of course nothing as mythological about it as there is about Route 66, and as far as I know no painter has turned his attention to it. But it is certainly beautiful and if I could contribute in any way to making it mythological, I would be delighted. To me, Europe as a continent in which to travel is extremely challenging, with a landscape and natural scenery that change as you travel through it. I attempt to ask what happens to one’s optical sense on the way. What will happen in the next stage after desolate Norway? What happens from Aarhus down through Germany to Italy? There are huge geographic, demographic and architectural differences at the same time as there are radical changes in the natural scenery. In addition, there are learn to paint realistically – it was in the 1980s, when everything was either political art or conceptual art. And so I made my way abroad, to England, where figurative painting still maintained its position by virtue of the trend-setting London School. All my teachers were rooted in this tradition. It was both challenging and inspiring to study there. Since then, I have never wanted to do anything but paint.”
Steen Larsen has joined the 18,000 photographs that his stationary camera took on the way to form a stop motion film that is to be shown at Sophienholm and Kunstcenteret Silkeborg Bad. It will produce nine pictures a second. The journey that took him 12 days will be shown to the public in 38 minutes. We race through the landscape as though in a space ship on wheels. And at the thought of wheels: With the large number of car motifs, one might gain the impression that Steen Larsen has ‘petrol in his blood’, as they say of those who are mad on cars and see them as part of their own identity. But this is simply not the case. He says, “Cars don’t interest me in the sense of being something I must have. I have no ambition to have a big, flashy Audi 6. It is rather the stories that this means of transport can generate that I am interested in. That a car can open the way to a fairy tale is to me the most interesting thing about it.”
Lisbeth Bonde holds the degree of cand. mag. She is an art critic and the author of several books on Danish art