The Surface and the Image: The Truth of Painting

Text by Jakob Staberg
From Martin Ålund, Chemistry 2015


We had made our way down Monteliusvägen past the secluded gardens, and crossed the din of the early night traffic when we suddenly stopped short. Our eyes fixed on the crowns of the trees across the water. What we saw there would haunt us for months.

At Långholmen

We fumbled in our search for words. Was it not something both diffuse and precise? Or better yet, didn’t the tangles of branches somehow depict a precise darkness? At least that is what it seemed to us. We sensed nature breathing there, in its eternal cycle of death and rebirth, and we became lost in romanticism: it led us nowhere. A conversation was thus initiated, or rather, was resumed. Such is the nature of relationships established during childhood, inspired by play and imagination – they become difficult.

We had come to know each other back in school. As a child I was astonished by what I saw taking shape in his bedroom – a sudden profusion of charcoal drawings, and as I look back on it now, the effect was disquieting. It was as though there was something daunting about this ability. Back then I was already well-acquainted with even the more unconventional forms of sensibility, yet here was something both familiar and alien, that had a distinctly uncanny aspect to it. Years later, I would often stop by his studio in the academy premises at Fredsgatan. At one point the room could be filled with canvases straining under the weight of an excess of paint and shapes, only to be replaced or repainted by my next visit, as if with the wave of a wand, in entirely new scales and dimensions. The darkness and cold of the streets surrounding the imposing building where it stood as a fortress towering over the rushing waters below became especially distinct at that point. A strong sense of aggressiveness and arrogance prevailed there, among the chosen ones, those who still seemed to possess the sense of self-importance of a generation full of drive and initiative. Here our relationship was faced with a significantly more challenging task, not only given the differences between us as we stood at the threshold to, for me at any rate, inaccessible worlds. No, there was also the helplessness, his helplessness. Perhaps I intuitively sensed his need to somehow contain the experience that gave rise to these pictorial worlds, a need that could not be satisfied by a mind unprepared for the impressions that filled it from time to time.

Our memories wandered as ghosts through our attempts at making sense of what we thought we had seen that night. It wasn’t until much later that we realized it was in fact nothing more than a mirage. As chance would have it, that autumn I had been asked to moderate a discussion on Lacan’s seventh seminar, the part dedicated to Antigone. What struck me then, while rereading the text, was not only the quite obvious point that the desire associated to Antigone does not differ from that of Oedipus in terms of one opposing pole to another, but that the tragedy shows desire as reflected in a zone, a terrifying zone where death has been conjured up and has penetrated into the living, where it is set in contrast to an impression of beauty that feels both most real while at the same time taking on the character of a mirage. That is what fascinates in Antigone’s image; desire stems from a certain mirage, but the effect of this mirage is the extinguishing of desire itself. The tension inherent to the image is, in other words, that which exists in all relationships involving desire, that which “leads us to lose our potency”.

If what we saw that twilight evening was a mirage in the aforementioned sense, then that could also apply to painting in so far as an image emerges on the surface of the canvas. If we view painting through the line of sight of a charged image, then it is also experienced as somewhat hard to access, virtually impossible to focus one’s gaze upon without blinking – it is at the same time both a mirage and most real. The question no longer had to do with what we had seen, but rather: what is the surface that allows an image to emerge as the image of a passion? I felt an urge to return to his studio.

In the studio

It was now no longer located on Fredsgatan. Shortly after the academy years, an old, shut-down factory became the base for the work, the white tiles still serving as a reminder of the fate of painting as the market threatens to transform the task of the artist to that of grinding chocolate. Neither the entrance from the courtyard, a nondescript place a stone’s throw from the gentrified city street leading down towards Karlberg, nor the interior, a half-flight of steps down, indicated the transformation that had taken place other than the passage of time that had dampened the style clash between the aesthetics of the late 80s and the dull patina of the factory floor. I hung up my coat, proceeded through the open kitchen, and took a seat in the old vintage armchair, with its upholstery covered in paint drops and cigarette burns, that was positioned on a small podium in the middle of the studio. We opened a beer each. He then started, as countless times before, carrying in canvases, one after the other. But this time the whole process was followed by small excerpts from stories, glimpses of fantasies, words taken out of context, memory fragments and references to shapes and perspectives, motifs and details fetched from the countless open art books with paint-speckled pages, photo printouts, drawings and doodles on loose bits of paper lying on virtually every available space throughout the room.

Handled gently but decisively, the canvases were hung on the naked walls on barely visible nails. They were then taken down and propped against each other, with the smaller ones at times lined up along the floor, above which the larger ones gave an impression of what it would entail to go beyond the limits of the room but still remain within them. “The paintings,” he explained as he moved across the floor and lit a cigarette, “consist of three series.” At first, it all has to do with catastrophes, avalanches and storms. Everything about them is beyond the human scale, and we face the end of the world. What followed in the second suite was, as far as I could tell, a delirious reconstruction in which the world is recreated as nature in the form of ever-active and continuous production processes. And lastly the third suite that I interpreted from my vantage point in the middle of the room as being the most open, and at the same time most secretive of the three. These are the light images. Here the motifs return but their meanings have changed.

Before I had seen my fill of them, he quickly took the canvases down again and instead returned to the previous two series, as though he hoped that I would point something out about them. Or was there, on the contrary, something there that must be withheld? A secret? The shock when everything collapses, at any rate, that would be the first suite: the scene of violent forces of nature, eruptions and continental drifts that remind us that we are near the end of human time. In the gulf between nature and culture, a perspective emerges that threatens to flood the consciousness, as in a state of sleep or vertigo. These movements form the metallic suite. My thoughts wandered to the world of Baroque impressions that suggests the contours of a vertiginous space in which man falls to pieces when no longer capable of distinguishing the experience from the small undifferentiated impressions that dissolve all figures. The Baroque is this over-abundance, but also that epic moment when one maintains Something rather than Nothing, and in the midst of all the restrictions and suffering in the world, to nevertheless have the hubris to create.

To me, the painting seems illuminated here by an inaccessible darkness, something unknown even to the artist himself, which is presumably why, despite the pain and frustration, he cannot help but allow it to appear in the form of an image, as this is the only way he can admit to being afflicted, conquered even. Hence it is the darkness that gives direction to the painting, allowing me as a viewer to come closer, much in the same way that I would approach a boundary, a far off horizon on which swarms and particles emerge and dissipate. But when he, now crouching on a stool in front of the paintings, stutteringly attempted to make a case for all of this, he spoke of painting as something “beyond language”. He described it as being subjugated to the gaze, but that words are nevertheless needed to give it a narrative. “Only then can meaning arise.” I found this kind of talk tiresome, perhaps because I felt forced to take on the task. As I saw the surfaces before me, I instead felt the urge to know more about the technique, the material, the motifs, where he might have borrowed them from, what methods, secret perhaps, that he used to create, affect, and treat the surface of the canvases. I wanted to know what takes place on these surfaces, and above all, I tried to avoid the coercive aspects of psychologism. I wanted to deny him the premise that words are necessary in order to give the image a narrative and a meaning. Everything proceeded in a calm and collected fashion. We took another couple of beers out of the fridge and opened them. When he exclaimed “being a creative person entails a search for meaning,” I had difficulty believing him. I no longer knew what a “charged balance”, as he put it, between “word and body” could possibly be. What struck me instead was that if this was indeed the metallic suite, what was he then, if not a metallurgist? It is the artisan, contrary to the hunter, farmer or breeder, who specializes and follows a flow of matter in its pure productivity. He neither belongs to the ground nor the earth, but rather to the netherworld: “those who follow metal are producers of objects par excellens”. Rather than producing something unknown beyond language, the metallurgist is the knowledgeable one, and therefore gives rise to guilds, secret societies, fellowships. Only in this way can the notion arise of something that evades language, a secret, if you will.

In the vegetative suite, however, the interior of the earth and the minerals have been left for that which belongs to the ground, the soil and the sky. Everything here is organic life. “This suite,” he said, “is filled with sorrow and longing.” But I soon discovered something else. When the canvases leave the world of minerals, when they leave the netherworld, as the viewer I am instead invited to wander through a forest where everything is surrounded by, yes, even brimming over with nature’s abundance. It is as though the paintings literally vibrate with the intensity of the ever-producing chlorophyll factories. But something else then occurs. A return to an unattended moment, an instance where the sky opens and an excess of images washes over the person involved. It is, at any rate, concentrated to that moment when the light is about to disappear, the time of day when the sun sets and all that is left is the light that explodes in the forest, burns in the foliage, illuminates the tree trunks, eradicating the cracks and shadows. I am reminded of what Bettina von Arnim wrote of Hölderlin: a person awash in language, as if by a huge wave, and as it recedes the senses are left in ruins. In one of the open art books I catch sight of Caspar David Friedrich’s Abtei im Eichwald (The Abbey in the Oakwood), and I remember once seeing it in Berlin. I was surprised at the scope and intensity of the painting, and amazed at the balance between light and dark, gravity and lightness. It is as though the painting spreads and evolves so as to allow for this image to emerge.

Everything in the paintings is layer upon layer, a strata of plateaus, where every surface is sanded down and hardened until new details, patterns, and peculiarities emerge. The large eruptions and catastrophes have thus dissolved into the small, where an excess of information is suddenly registered at a micro level. “All activity now takes place on a molecular scale,” he said, and as we stood close to the large canvases, secrets of the craft began to reveal themselves. Through the act of “sampling” small peculiarities, motifs and details, inscriptions, a new painterly expression is continuously extracted as a kind of sedimentary accumulation or fold upon fold of overlapping fabric. The whole of art history becomes activated, with painting from all previous eras mixed together in a single slow whirling movement. But the defined forms, the genres’ demands, have yielded to unexpected combinations and composites. As I see it, it is as though the staffage painting of the late Renaissance and Baroque eras has dissolved, liberating every detail from the code that once subjugated them to the notion of the readable nature’s enormous but finite and reticent puzzle.

And finally, the third suite, the light one, that I immediately thought was both the most open and the most secretive of the three. The light in it is a dark light, as though seen in a negative, painted over a dark ground. In a darkroom process it would appear to be an inverted image. Here the classical painterly techniques are overturned, in accordance with which the base coat can be reddish or even pink – but what happens when such an “underpainting” ends where the traditional method begins? These are the images I find truly moving, it is as though something has been liberated in them. Despite the gravitas so evident in the other canvases, despite all the productivity set in motion by the vegetative suite’s processes, despite the skilled craft of the metallic suite that no longer acknowledged any ambiguity of meaning. It was here that the form seemingly became emancipated for the first time, as though the painting had released a truth.

He eventually brings out two large format paintings. “They stand balancing somewhere between the suites,” he stated, “like two novels between a series of short stories.” But the narrative, their actual pretences collapse in an abstract form of painting, in scribbles and graffiti. Both together and individually, these paintings represent two poles: the large tree detached from the body being the one, and the body of painting the other, and everywhere brushstrokes, wear and scrapes bear traces of work of the hand. On the one side diagonals and perspective, and on the other light and shadow. If the nature elements in the former suggest an academic form of painting, where the gaze is subjugated to the demands of the genre, then the latter is the pure confrontation between impression and the real world. What then, is a truth? The question remained suspended in mid-air. What do we mean when we say such a thing? And who is this truth for? I was reminded of Thomas Bernhard, who stated in one of his autobiographical texts that what he writes must always strive to express a truth, even if only because literature, in the form of a lie, can act as a conduit for truth. And perhaps in a similar fashion, a truth emerged here via the body of painting. But it was getting late at that point, we had finished the beers and we quickly exchanged our goodbyes. Rörstrandsgatan was now dark and there was a frigidness in the air. I descended into the subway’s underground passageways, with my mind still deeply engaged in all these thoughts on painting.

As chance would have it, I found myself with a few free days with no teaching scheduled and decided on a last minute trip to Berlin. I wanted to see that painting again, Caspar David Friedrich’s Abtei im Eichwald. Would it still appeal to my senses as it once did? Perhaps there was a truth to be found there after all. I rented a room in the home of a young couple in Neukölln. They were a beautiful and gracious couple that had recently moved to the city from the border area around Strasbourg, who had grown up on either side of the language barrier. They now spent their days at Berlin’s hectic PR firms, and without being aware of it, they transformed those blocks in the old East Berlin that still possess that peculiar harshness that makes itself known as a tension in the body that is only barely alleviated by all the local beer cafés and bars. In the mornings I would drink my coffee standing on the balcony, with the cold morning light illuminating the street and the small park with its autumn leaves and old barracks emblazoned with graffiti. I spent the days wandering through the museum collections in search of Friedrich’s painting, and in the evenings I drank wine and stared at a blank sheet of paper.

August Kopisch, The Pontine Marshes at Sunset,
Oil on canvas, 1848

I eventually gave up, and instead found myself standing in front of a small painting at Alte Nationalgalerie, its sickly red nuance infecting my senses. In his painting of the Pontine Marshes at Sunset, August Kopisch opens the perspective towards the west where a purple scirocco sky is reflected in the flood waters leading out, by way of the Nymphaea River, to the Tyrrhenian Sea. Monte Circello, once the island of Circeo, rises above the reed-covered expanses in the background to the left. To the right of the river stand the remains of an aqueduct from Ceasar’s time, and in the foreground, a part Roman part medieval castle ruin with round towers. The staffage consists of a herd of wild buffalo swimming from shore to shore. Everything exudes a sense of grandiosity and degradation. It then occurred to me that if indeed the painterly act is not an event, but instead takes on the form of a truth, then it is because it constitutes the site of a breakdown. What remains is a drift formation comprised of various time strata, layer upon layer of manual work and body, and what is left for us is a question of technique. No, there is no truth, just an contagion.


Jakob Staberg
Psychoanalyst and Associate Professor, Senior Lecturer, Aesthetics, Södertörn University

Translation Richard Griffith Carlsson