For several weeks I followed the course of events in Haiti after the earthquake. I felt awful about it. When David Zwirner asked me if I was willing to donate a piece to Artists for Haiti, it only felt natural to me.
-KARIN MAMMA ANDERSSON
Swedish painter Karin Mamma Andersson, also known as Mamma, is well known for her evocative compositions whose narratives appear to elude comprehension. Human figures within her works appear caught in everyday situations that are metaphors for mental states of mind. In other works, her subject matter revolves around melancholic, sometimes near-abstract landscapes-populated by birch trees, dark mossy grass, and distant mountains-and nondescript private interiors, where a human element typically fails to dominate or is absent, indicated only by overturned chairs, open drawers, or in photographs or paintings framed on walls and furniture.
Much of her work is characterized by a seductive, meditative quality whereby time often appears as a fluid concept and space becomes absorbed by a dream-like atmosphere. Andersson seeks this deliberate confusion: uncertainty and openended narratives take precedence over straightforward storylines. As she has noted, "It is supposed to be all time at the same time, around an event, the present, the past and the future."
Born in Lulea in the north of Sweden, Mamma was self-taught for much of her early career. Her oeuvre retains a highly personal dimension, which can be seen in her unique approach to pictorial space, with unusual juxtapositions between thick paint and textured washes; her anti-modernist insistence on expression and intimacy; and her subjects, which are sometimes drawn from her own life. These tendencies align her within a rich tradition of early twentieth century Nordic romantic landscape painting, and in particular artists like Edward Munch, who sought to infuse nature with soul and secrecy. Other influences count Édouard Vuillard, Edward Hopper,
and Clyfford Still.
In Night Guest, several figures gather before a white-walled, thatched-roofed rural house. Above them a dark blue night sky is pierced by dramatic moonlight, which illuminates the surrounding cloud formations. The concoction of the vivid blues and their sharp contrast to everything else in the painting recalls El Greco's famous hues, and the unnatural luminosity of the nighttime scene adds a sense of drama not unlike that experienced in religious and historical narrative paintings. Yet Mamma leaves few clues to the story behind the present work and who the figures in the long coats are. Facing the dark house, their small group appears to be deliberating, but about what?
The composition was inspired by a photograph taken after the plane crash that killed the then UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld in Northern Rhodesia now Zambia) in 1961 while on his way to cease-fire negotiations during the Congo Crisis. Questions surround the circumstances of the crash and whether it was arranged-several nations had vested interests in the region, and Hammarskjöld's goal of a democratic Congo was unpopular amongst some powerful figures.
An explicit connection to the event is not made here, and the mystery remains. It is tempting to imagine that a conspiracy might be taking place as the small group surveys the darkened house, though sinister connotations appear counterbalanced and trivialized by the overpowering sky. Pictorial, not historical, relationships are prevalent here, as in the artist's oeuvre in general. While she frequently bases her compositions on source material-her studio is full of pictures cut out from publications, photographs, and postcards-the inspiration is formal and rarely content-based. Her rich but uncertain narratives, rather, are testaments to the painterly process itself