Michael Kvium is one of Denmark’s most high-profile and evocative artists. Celebrated for his harrowing images of distorted nudes, he now shows a whole new face with a series of pastorals created especially for Zaha Hadid’s landmark gallery at Ordrupgaard. By Maria Larsen
“How hideous this is, and what an insane person he must be who painted it,” Danish artist Michael Kvium thought to himself just under a year ago when visiting his first major retrospective. One of Denmark’s most high-profile and uncompromising artists, Michael Kvium is famed for his imagery of solitary nudes in carnal decay and with dismembered limbs. But over the last year his art has taken an entirely new direction to champion the contemporary legitimacy of landscapes and nature motifs. Michael Kvium has painted a number of new artworks especially commissioned to be displayed in Zaha Hadid’s recent extension to the art museum Ordrupgaard. The exhibition marks the first time these contemporary pastorals are on show. “I’ve on occasion considered the idea of staging an exhibition inside a sculpture,” Michael Kvium comments.
Birch tree trunks, sheep, skyscapes and landscapes represent the scope of Michael Kvium’s new motifs.
“I’ve pretty much omitted human form from my paintings in this exhibition so to discourage us from regarding them rather than studying ourselves. This has allowed me to work with an entirely new sense of presence, which I have sometimes felt was very exposing and unnerving,” Michael Kvium explains.
Michael Kvium toys with our understanding of nature and the way we artistically render its motifs. His investigation deals with the difference between how things transpire perceptually and our reception. To him the ‘silent eye’ – the exhibition title – signifies the inner eye that observes this ontological rift between how things appear and what our expectations are.
“What Kvium finds interesting isn’t the birch tree as such – that’s not his purpose. We could just go out into nature and observe one. It’s the act of rendering the motif that he finds compelling – the artistic interpretation of the perceptual interspace between the tree and the observer. It’s about observing your own expectations – scrutinizing the chilling realm that borders our dreams and nightmares. It’s about the observed reception that takes place by agent of the inner, or silent, eye,” Managing Director of Ordrupgaard, Anne-Birgitte Fonsmark, explains.
The French connection
Anne-Birgitte Fonsmark was early to notice that Michael Kvium’s initial nature studies were indicative of the French tradition of which the museum is a patron.
“Kvium’s works relate to 19th century modernism in a surprising and eye-opening way. Kvium can give us a better understanding of the artwork at the museum, and his works can also give us a better understanding of him, too,” she explains and continues: “Kvium’s knowledge of art history is considerable and when developing his character gallery he consciously draws on traditional genres, methods and tropes from the history of art. He speaks of involving the modernist experiences of painters such as Courbet, Manet and Monet.”
Luncheon on the grass
Inspiration from Manet’s famous painting *Luncheon on the Grass* can be traced in Michael Kvium’s painting entitled *Lunch*, which depicts a sheep grazing on a lush green field dotted with red poppies. The mirror opposite – a matching sheep standing in a red field dotted with green poppies – is situated across from it.
“I don’t really know why this painting of Manet popped up in my mind while working on this exhibition,” Michael Kvium muses. “We know that most people who today admire the beauty of *Luncheon on the Grass* would have left the exhibition gallery in a huff if they had seen it in the day and age when it was created. Manet painted a pastoral that broke with convention and that in itself poses the question as to what we notice and what we overlook. I have always striven to work with motifs that are accessible, and precisely because they are recognizable our blindness, repression and denial become all the more poignant. What we perceive is our own expectation as to what art and culture ought to be rather than what our eyes tell us. You mustn’t forget that I am only the first observer of a painting, which is why these issues also apply to how I react and what motivates my reaction.”
Were he to possess the answer it would, according the artist, be superfluous to create the painting.
“What I find important is that a painting shouldn’t be self-explanatory. What I find of less importance is whether the sheep eats the grass or we eat the sheep. Somewhere in the background lies a more complex question; a question about how the eye ‘thinks’ and how a thought ‘sees’. How do we ‘eat’ a painting, when the grass is red?”
Michael Kvium was born in 1955 in the Jutland town of Horsens. He started his career as an illustrator at the local daily *Horsens Folkeblad* and graduated from the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in 1985. He was an exponent of 1980s Neo-Expressionism and was a member of the collective studio *Værkstedet Værst*. In 1998, he was awarded a lifetime annuity by the Danish Arts Foundation.