Per Kirkeby




I have discovered and find I have an innate affinity with Per Kirkeby a Danish artist and geologist (born 1938 Copenhagen) whose main body of work responds to the Polar landscape following geological expeditions from 1963 onwards. He has created paintings, sketches, drawings, watercolours, etchings and installations.  His work also extends to sculptures and literary essays and poetry as well as work for the stage and film and architecture.  This broad spectrum of interdisciplinary approaches and ever changing mediums frequently provides him in turn with new impulses and ideas, the central theme of which is the representation of nature and its continually transformation. Ever changing nature has remained his central theme.


Sigfied Gohr describes in his essay for the book “Polar Breeze and gently Lapping Water”  ‘the unique features of Kirkeby’s are its refined compositions and the unusual colour combinations. The viewer simultaneously senses the intensity of the artists’ perception and the virtuosity that the painter has at his command’.  From 1980 onwards he introduced a veil of white, which exposed the colours even more.  He pursued a ‘painterly painting’ that tamed its gestural impulses without denying the emotions which and moved and inspired him.  His works inherentlycontain expressionist marks but are not “expressionistic”.  The artist himself explains his paintings “ad a summation of structures.  A sedimentation of razor-thin layers… Basically an infinite sedimentary deposition.  But it is conspicuous that the underlying structure always shines through, even when a new layer contains a very different motif and a very different colour”  the paintings emanate a magnificent, slow intensity that immediately takes hold of the viewer, ingraining itself in memory.


Wolfgang Rihm describes in a letter to PK Sometimes, when I suddenly find myself standing before one of your large paintings it is as if I was inescapably integrated into a natural process, from whose stratification an enormous amount of energy leaps into me – as if from a battery a power source.  I follow the currents of energyas best I can with may possibilities of reception, try to withstand them, but it becomes clear: something challenging emerges in my own work.  …the great energy of nature thatnourishes all of us….


His trips to Greenland can be regarded as a primal experience further extended by subsequent returns to the arctic. His paintings acquiring visual elements of natural landscape but also its memory and Nordic myth.

1974 PK “The memorial character of paintings can be viewed, treated and dreamt about in two very different ways; it is difficult to g rasp through language, but there is a difference between the memory of something – namely the memory of other paintings – andthe attempt to recollect something or other that one has no memory of.  That practically equates to the difference between pure and the impure in my works” later he refers to the ideas of “chaos versus order” and “nature versus culture”

Kirkeby has the tendency to lending colour corporeality to accompany the radiance. He used the sensations of colour.‘Crystalline’ a subject of a painting and various comments is more than just a geological metaphor it becomes a focal point that however remains imaginary because it is entangle in the memory.  There can be no perfectly formed stone because regardless of how perfect, an invisible force pulsates in every entity in nature that defies rationality.

Peter Schjeldahl commented on the Kirkeby effect (1986) his means of expressing the seemingly chaotic quality of these paintings as well as the deceleration of the time required to take them in ; they are paintings that one cannot simply “fly by”.  He was working parallel to ‘Abstract Expressionism”

The work sight had a special meaning for PK which extends beyond its conventional sense and he clearly differentiates it from looking and gazing (rather like his use of crystal) it takes on a new resonance. Seeing something for PK means know it in truth – an epiphany. A religious and philosophical doubt in the possibility of a direct knowledge of the world thorough the human senses. Aspect consequently comes into play.  Ludwig Wittgenstein a Norwegian hermitmade critical comment on language which can be appied to sight and painting.  Merleau-Ponty the phenomenologist who also commented on Cézanne was also of interest to him.  In order to get past looking in order to arrive at sight, layers upon layers must be piled up on top of each other until the initial motif almost become unrecognizable.

His Poetry reflects this…

The storm is dying down

The gusts have fallen silent

A cold day in summer

With that special clarity

That heralds September

The picture titles say it all

Late summer


You cant escape

You mustn’t go in you are what is inside

The world is one thing

But I have sketched out that space because you are inside me

That is also the world

And is the ancient Greeks said

You mustn’t expect the world to go your way





Light shape

Cold warm

Do colours have nature is matter landscapes

When colours drive out shadows

The large repoussoirs become light

And the sky the ceiling of the cave

Landscapes with snakes

Colour the historic landscape

Glowing foliage

Broken-up stony ground

The dying figure lies

In the depths and doubts of darkness

A shape is glimpsed



The motion of the Historic Landscape

The light shifts with the colour of the matter

Shapes come and go

No proportions no harmony

The perspective burns

colour and light are chaos

In the mechanical world

The catastrophic landscape

A lone wanderer

Panoramas of the battlefield

This landscape creates heroic colours

Unknown emotions

Overpower the wanderer

The painter is a giant reptile

Landscapes marblings

Figure blotches.


The conception of light

Is the opening of the cave

The arches of a the great churches

An endless row

The frozen water

Full of gulls

A cave in the chalk cliffs

With the dark opening

Wandering on the ice

The wondrous mists of the northern regions

The great swathe

Over all details

Wipes the slate clean

For endless clarity.



He used a convoluted process over many years placing layer upon layer dry point on zinc plates depicting expansive views with chiaroscuro contrasts showing structured rock formations and delicate nearly abstract glimpses of barren and uninhabitable fog-bound tracts of land. Disjointed memories ideas and observations lie on top of each other sometimes reworked as many as 12 times: to envelope conceal and disguise.  There presentational v abstract.  The line created by the dry point is “vivid, velvety and feathery with an astonishing haptic quality” Christiane Lukatis – the lines linear, hard, angular and abrupt. A Clarity of idea and meaning.


KP “I very literally sailed into a world where in a certain sense I was meant to be. A space of colour and lines. I think that I realised during with expedition what it meant to be a painter.  It was not an intellectual insight and also nothing that I could immediately transform into something.  It involved instead a profound underlying influence that was accompanied over the course of many years  restless and directionless painting and drawing”.  Geology and Art.



‘This white desert blurs all of our impressions, eliminating everything – in the end the only thing you have in your hand is fog”




A tool of knowledge regardless whether it involves schematic geological sketches from the time of his studies or etched landscape sketches a long continuous process of concentration.


He considered his drawings parallel to his painting not preparation for paintings.  A highly concentrated use of structure constructional elements of the drawings- “Nervous State” – restless inner workings that is only mutedly perceivable in the painted version. This is visible in the horizontal structures and the elements that have been released and float upward. His Format of Pictures:  square denotes neither beginning nore end and connotes neither portrait or landscape.  Within this neutral geometry he describes all kinds of biographical personal and anecdotal material meandering reflections on an imperfected life. With a similar freedom to draw on a diverse aspects of his experience.