Dark backgrounds and surreal surprises

'Popular, but controversial' art from Norway's Håkon Gullvåg bound for St Magnus.

Coming to the St Magnus Cathedral soon is an exhibition by the Norwegian painter Håkon Gullvåg. While perhaps not yet as famous as Edward Munch and his “Scream”, Håkon Gullvåg is one of the best known contemporary artists in Norway. His work is popular and at times controversial.

I was first introduced to some of his paintings as a schoolchild on a visit to the local Art Museum, because Håkon Gullvåg  comes from the same place as me: He was born in Trondheim in 1959, and he now lives and works in Trondheim and Oslo.

Håkon Gullvåg ‘s talent as a painter soon became apparent. When he was only 17 years old, he got a place at the Trondheim School of Art. Here, he studied under locally well-known artists such as Lars Tiller. He also studied for a while at the The London School of Painting in 1983-84, and in Paris in 1986-87.

In 1981, at the age of 22,  Håkon Gullvåg  made his break-through with a picture called Trehesten -  ‘The Wooden Horse’- which was then bought by the National Gallery in Oslo. The painting is in shades of ochre and brown, like a faded photograph from an old family album, and it shows a little boy sitting on an apparently headless toy horse. The boy’s face, looking out at us, shows few details, and we can just feel more than see his childish pensive expression. There is a distant and dreamy quality about the picture, as if many years lie between the little boy and the viewer of the painting – or perhaps between the subject and the painter, if the subject represents the painter’s memory of his own childhood.

Håkon Gullvåg has often found inspiration in the theme of childhood, both in his own childhood memories and photos, and in observations of his own children. The boy on the wooden horse is furthermore surrounded by a series of grown-up faces seen in profile, perhaps representing the artist’s adult self. These are each set within a frame and seem unconnected to the little boy on the horse, but share his pensive facial expression in their roughly sketched faces. Between them, two frames also show a tiny human figure casting a long shadow, making the adult body seem just as small and unprotected as the child’s.  The dream-like quality of a distant memory is something we can see in many of Håkon Gullvåg’s paintings.

Throughout the 1980s, Gullvåg started introducing some more alarming and surreal elements to his artwork. Elements which surprise us, and which can perhaps make us anxious, by disturbing the golden dream. For example, in another of his works on a childhood theme, we see a baby next to a dog. They are both set within a background of warm, golden yellow, fitting for a distant childhood memory. However, at a closer look, surreal elements disturbe our viewing: There is a fossil, perhaps of an ichthyosaurus, embedded in the ground. And the dog has an absurdly pompous look about it, dressed as it is in something like regal attire, with a medal ribbon. Another favourite thing turning up in Gullvåg’s pictures is strange animals. Such surprising surrealistic elements make it difficult to give any simple interpretation of the pictures and they leave us with an unsettled feeling – but I also feel myself drawn to them.

A painting technique which Håkon Gullvåg  employs is that he adds thick layers of paint, so that in the end the pictures almost turn into reliefs. Sometimes he even sticks on parts of stuffed animals or pieces of wood, where the point is to create an interplay between various levels of reality.

From having used a lot of ochre in his early works, he then moved on to black or very dark backgrounds with vibrant colours on top, which I expect you will see in the Cathedral exhibition as well. He still takes delight in surprising details. For example, a painting that hangs in the Trondheim Art Museum, is simply named Still Life, but is far from what we expect. Instead of showing the usual grapes and peeled lemon, it is extremely rich in detail, and you can look at it for a long time, getting yourself immersed in all its corners. All is kept within this characteristic strange, surreal and dream-like style. Perhaps in a reference to depictions of the Last Supper, the picture shows a long table dished up with all sorts of food, including bread, apples, cups of tea and a lobster. But instead of being neatly set up, the table looks messy. The table-cloth is in rags. The picture itself is also messy, with splashes of paint thrown on here and there. The black background reveals no guests at the table, but yet people seem to be lurking in the shadows: We can see a face reflected in a bottle, another is partly obscured in the background, and two more are hiding under the table. Seeing it again now made me think of a performance I watched at the 2012 St Magnus Festival: Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, about a bride who was left on her wedding day and lived for the next 30 years with all the food prepared for the wedding feast decaying around her. Disturbing stuff. Håkon Gullvåg ‘s Still Life is also disturbing, but fascinating, like an abandoned “last supper” which has gone on forever, suspended in time. (He has also done other depictions of the Last Supper).

Another association that comes to mind is The Picture of Dorian Gray, a book which Håkon Gullvåg  responed to with illustrations. In a series of five paintings we can see how the portrait of Dorian decays and becomes more corpse-like. Not just the figure, but also the picture itself seems to decay, with paint starting to float about, blurring the lines, mixing up the colours.

I am fascinated by the deliberate, perfect imperfection in many of Håkon Gullvåg’s paintings. He paints broken surfaces, as if cracked, and makes delibarate “accidents” with his paint, overlaying the “real” image. This makes him a controversial portrait painter. Håkon Gullvåg has made portraits of many celebreties, past and present, such as Henrik Ibsen, but most famously the Norwegian King Harald and Queen Sonja. His royal portraits caused a public outrage in the media. “A disgrace!” was the verdict given by one of the large tabloid papers. In these portraits, the King’s face looks like that of an ordinary man. He looks tired, perhaps even sad, and insecure. This goes against all tradition in royal portrait painting. Traditionally, of course, a king should be portrayed as a figurehead for the nation, a strong leader figure, someone that we can all rely on. Somehow above the struggles and insecurities of everyman. Here, he is the ordinary and fallible everyman, yet dressed up in symbols of power. But his facial expression and posture give him away, and his fallibility is further emphasised by the surface of the painting looking like a broken mirror. Similarly, the portrait of Henrik Ibsen echoes a well known photo of him sitting at his writing desk, but with the deliberate addition of cracks in the surface, as if the painter is trying to put cracks in a national icon.

Håkon Gullvåg’s political activism also makes him controversial. One of his latest projects aimed to help the people of Gaza. Gullvåg donated 60 prints and three paintings, and the money raised went towards a prosthesis fund for children in Gaza who have lost limbs in the war. Making a statement, he also painted directly onto the surface of the famous or infamous wall on the West Bank, the motif being repeated in his exhibition Hellig Jord – ‘Holy Earth’ – showing the Earth seen through the barred window of a prison cell.

In another act of activism, Gullvåg and an artist colleague saved an old building in Trondheim from demolition by painting on its entire end wall.

While I don’t know exactly what will be on display in the St Magnus Cathedral, I know that Håkon Gullvåg has done artwork for and held exhibitions in other churches. Particularly striking for me is an image of the crucified Christ, where the letters “INRI” are missing, and his face is obscured by the hugely prominent Crown of Thorns, so that the effect is an image of pure suffering. Gullvåg also did some specially commissioned art for the Nidaros Cathedral. Here, there is a chapel of St. John the Baptist, which was consecrated in 1161. In the Middle Ages there were two deep cupboards in the apsidal walls of the chapel, where chalices and candlesticks were stored. However, over time, all that was left of these cupboards were two gaping holes. A few years ago, the Cathedral had new doors fitted, which Håkon Gullvåg decorated with motifs from the life of St. John the Baptist. The doors are quite ingenious: They open in several layers within one another, so that there are many different decorated surfaces to be shown on different days of the ecclesiastical year.

Håkon Gullvåg has been called a post-modern painter, and a characteristic thing about his style is that he is figurative – not just shapes and patterns – but at the same time he uses symbols and elements from many art styles from different periods throughout history and fuses them to a very characteristic expression. I think it’s quite easy to recognise his style. So when the exhibition comes to Kirkwall, you can look out for dark backgrounds, vibrant colours, dreamlike or nightmarish images, strange animals, surreal surprises, cracks, splashes and deliberate imperfection, and an almost hypnotic ability to spellbind the viewer. You can see his paintings here: http://haakon-gullvaag.no/kunst

Dr Ragnhild Ljosland

Originally published in The Orcadian, 12/6/2014