Contrary to what the recent popular noir crime fiction coming out of Scandinavia would suggest, the people of the region are strong believers in, and consistent producers of, images of ‘the good life’. According to several surveys, the people here are among the happiest in the world – and it shows in their depictions in lifestyle magazines and television programmes. But art history has also contributed to this trend, and perhaps no one more so than Swedish painter Carl Larsson. From the middle of the 1880s to his death in 1919, he painted romantic images of his family in the idyllic settings of the countryside – far from the brutal realities of developing urban life. The images from his 1895 print book De Mina have been reproduced in millions of poster copies to become an integral part of the Scandinavian interior.
While Danish painter Søren Martinsen appropriated the title of Larsson’s book for his recent solo show at Martin Asbæk Gallery, it was more of an ironic comment than a classical homage to his Swedish predecessor and the picturesque cultural identity he ushered in. Rather than reflecting the golden light emanating from Larsson’s works, the paintings (and one photograph) in Martinsen’s show created a distinctly more sombre chronicle of family life in the Scandinavian countryside. As indicated by the painting of a tree-lined road leading up to a graveyard (Graveyard [Ledreborg Palace], 2013) and the black and white photograph of an apple tree simply titled Black Apples (2010–12), which greeted the visitor at the entrance of the gallery space, the outer and inner landscapes that Martinsen depicts are somewhat darker in nature. The greyish air shrouding the foggy lake in Gloomy Lake (2012) spelled it out quite literally. The point was further emphasized, albeit less literally, by Martinsen’s self-portrait Father (2013) – a genre he has investigated throughout his career, also as a filmmaker and curator. Hanging in the darkened space in the middle of the exhibition, the painting depicts the artist sitting under a cold lamp light in an otherwise unlit room, hands under his chin, staring discontentedly into space. The scene is matter-of-fact in its minimal composition and realistic style, and Martinsen’s expression seems to reflect an experience of everyday life that refuses to add up to anything but its own continuation, generating a strange blend of irritation and wonder. An obvious nucleus of the show, the work effectively set the tone for a more ambiguous, existential exploration of life in the country, beyond its prefabricated and commodified forms of recreational happiness. Three other portraits in the darkened room – the artist’s wife staring at the garden, his son laying on his back staring at the ceiling while playing guitar, and his daughter sleeping – also testified to this endeavour and the great subtlety with which Martinsen ventures into it.
This sensitivity to everyday life was characteristic of most of the works in the show, as it is of Martinsen’s photography-based painting in general. The motifs are taken from the artist’s immediate surroundings in the western part of Zealand, a rural area that is perceived as quite uneventful. However, through his use of light and colour, and his titles, Martinsen’s paintings enrich this seemingly mundane landscape with an air of intrigue. In September (2013), a nondescript curve in a road became a poetic metaphor for the slow but steady turn into the autumn of life. Nocturne (2012) embeds a small, seemingly deserted farm complex in a darkened suspense that brings to mind Tobe Hopper’s movie The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and its description of the horrors of post-industrial society. In Sweet Tasting Sky (2013), the sense of mystery explodes into the psychedelic dimensions of a bright pink sky seen through a circle of treetops from the perspective of someone laying on the ground (maybe his guitar-playing son?). Hung on the back wall in the last room, this powerful painting constituted a more hopeful future than the one outlined by the other works. Rather than evoking death, it envisioned the appearance of a curious, otherworldly phenomenon carrying the promise of a vibrant, even miraculous, life in the spheres above. It might be a dream or a trippy hallucination but, as suggested by Appearance (2013), which depicts the reflection of the sky in a lake just as the sun is about to break forth from behind a cloud in an explosion of light, it is one worth waiting patiently for. ‘De Mina’ attested to Martinsen’s particular and expansive interpretation of the Scandinavian landscape painting tradition as a distorted psychological complex, subverting its idyllic source of inspiration with a critical – and more inspired – perception of reality.