The forces of nature surge across three panels in Per Kirkeby’s Paravent, a majestic triptych from 1983. Each two-metre-high painting is like a slice of the natural world. With a palette of richly textured oils, Kirkeby conjures sensations from the immediate and vital—the chlorophyll of growing plants, white-foamed waterfalls, golden flashes of sunlight—to the deep, earthy and ancient, with shady blues and warm, bituminous browns hinting at mineral ore, fossils, and the unfathomable time of the carbon cycle. Kirkeby, who originally trained as a geologist, sought to channel the landscape in profound, elemental terms. He initially constructed the present work as a hinged folding screen for the 1984 exhibition Paravents at Schloss Lörsfeld castle in Kerpen, Germany, where it was shown alongside screens by other artists including Gerhard Richter, Marlene Dumas, and Anselm Kiefer; in 1988, it was featured in the group show Het meubel verbeeld/Furniture as art at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. The artist later converted it into a wall-mounted triptych during a visit to Galerie Ascan Crone in Hamburg.
The history of a species is not very long … A couple of cosmic weeks”
Rather than representing scenery, Kirkeby’s paintings capture a tectonic sense of the earth’s rhythms and currents. Environmental dynamics like erosion, sediment and landslide resound in their craggy, shifting surfaces. The Denmark-born artist was in some ways a successor to Northern European Romantics like Caspar David Friedrich: painters who saw nature in its sublime aspect, depicting dark forests, vast mountains and mighty seas overwhelming human onlookers with their power. Kirkeby was also interested in Post-Impressionist ideas of pictorial structure, which he saw as indivisible from the external world. ‘The picture, too, is nature’, he explained. ‘The forces that pile up in Mont Sainte-Victoire are no different from those that organise [Cézanne’s] picture. Perhaps this is why his last pictures are built up like a hewn stone wall’ (P. Kirkeby, Håndbog, Borgen 1991, p. 150).
Kirkeby’s practice, however, went well beyond painting. Following his geological studies, which took him to Greenland, Central America and the Arctic, he became involved with Copenhagen’s Experimental Art School in the early 1960s, drawing inspiration from the Fluxus movement and artists such as Joseph Beuys. During this period he created a number of modular, multi-panelled masonite works whose sequence could be freely reconfigured, mirroring the systemic order and chaos of nature itself: he later integrated some of these into single large paintings, much as Paravent evolved from folding screen to triptych. Kirkeby went on to pursue media from writing and performance to sculpture, installation and set design, and worked in the 1990s with the Danish film director Lars von Trier. His holistic, interdisciplinary approach can be seen to inform Paravent, which brings the dynamic splendour of the outside world into a human habitat. Caverns, rivers, trees and roots all find their echoes in the work: it is a circumambient appreciation of the earth’s beauty, from its glinting depths to its windblown surfaces of constant growth and change.
Lot Essay Header Image: The present lot (detail).