FOTO: LARS JACOB JAKOBSSON
The colours of the landscape and the landscape of colours
BY ERIK RYNELL, DOCTOR, SENIOR LECTURER, LUND UNIVERSITY
It is easy to see Páll Sólnes’ pictures as landscapes.
A landscape is not just a matter of geography, nor is it necessarily a specific place. It can also be an inner world and the traces of previous impressions. Colour has a life of its own and the ability to bring things to life, its own creative power that causes new connections to arise. The relationship between the colour and the landscape in Páll Sólnes’ works is not a depictive one. Rather, he occupies the border between the landscape and the spatial possibilities that arise out of the colours’ own dynamics. We can also see his paintings as compositions in colour, interspersed with associations with nature and the landscape. We sense the presence of skies, water, hills, fields and vegetation, but the pictures never cross the line to actually depicting anything specific.
Páll comes from Akureyri in northern Iceland. The town lies on a fjord between mountains. The gaze reaches far into the distance and the gazer is surrounded by a landscape in constant transformation. At first sight, the long narrow Mount Vaðlaheiði on the other side of Eyjafjörður has quite a uniform colour scale, brown and grass green. The sky and the water in the fjord add shades of blue in clear weather. Cloud shadows move over the hillsides. Towards evening, the colours grow darker and the light hollows out vertical incisions in the mountainsides. When evening light fills the fjord, the sky can be transformed into a sea of golden yellow, which then turns to red and is reflected in the water. But the Icelandic light also has a clarity that means that any object at all, the painted wall of a house, some flowers in a garden, can light up with a sudden presence, as if the colours emerge as we are looking at them. The unpredictability of the Icelandic landscape also applies to its colours.
It is the colours of this magnificent, dramatic landscape that we can also see in Icelandic painting. This intensity can be glimpsed in Sólnes’ pictures. But the sky that we think we are seeing could equally well be the sky above the fields outside Bollerup in southern Skåne, where Sólnes now lives and works, above the sea off Kåseberga, or above the wetlands in the landscape around Linderödsåsen. And what are those intense fields of red, red lead and madder lake that so frequently break through the skies, clouds and water that we think we are seeing?
The main movement in the pictures is inwards, via the layers of paint that are joined together in fragments. Sometimes, the underlying canvas comes into the daylight through the colour fields. The flowing streaks that appear make sideways movements only rarely, but they add more life to the surfaces and reinforce the motion inwards. This is also accentuated by the format, which is not infrequently square or has relatively equal proportions of length and height. But even in the exceptions it is more usually the movement inwards than the horizontal motion that is accentuated.
Páll tells me how, during his time as a student in Copenhagen, he took a course in drawing at the Glyptotek. This was traditional training in charcoal drawing from models. Páll, who had always drawn and found it easy, realized that this was something quite different. The drawings were judged according to their acuity of observation and for their success in getting this onto paper. He practised this ancient academic form of art education to see and to notice things that easily elude the fleeting gaze or swift mental associations. It forced his hand out of its practised dexterity and into laboriously beginning to discover things anew. Sólnes seems to have transferred this exactness of observation from the shape of the object to the colours and the highlights. The landscape is rendered by someone who has taken the laborious route to learning about it.
In Sólnes’ pictures we also see the influence of other nature painters. One of them is the almost inevitable Johannes Kjarval, the great interpreter of the magical power of the Icelandic landscape. Kjarval’s way of working with colour can lead our thoughts to abstract expressionism. Sólnes also mentions one of the exponents of this movement, Joan Mitchell, among the artists who have inspired him, and also two who partly work with colour in a similar way, Cy Twombly and Per Kirkeby.
Páll Sólnes’ painting is exploratory and lyrical, and it reveals without setting up a narrative. It is simultaneously in-depth observation and the energy of colour itself. It is typical of his approach that he does not give titles to his pictures. The viewer is led into their world, not by words, which inevitably also interpret and restrict, but solely by the pictures’ own elements of light, colour and space.