Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Review: Per Kirkeby at Tate Modern & 'The Accessible Arctic' exhibition at Canada House, London

For me, there were two reasons to go to the Per Kirkeby retrospective at Tate Modern. One was a chance to see the work of one of Denmark's most important artists, including some of his watercolour sketches of Greenland, where I travelled myself exactly a year ago. The other, pedestrian, penny-pinching reason, was to make more use of my Tate membership. I wasn't prepared for the breadth of the work, from art school collages to pop art of his early career, to abstracts, sculptures, and a fascinating series of books he has published of both his own work, and monographs of artists who influenced him. The one of Michelangelo, in which his own work is juxtaposed with that of the master's, clearly shows the relationship between the two.

The Greenland sketches did not disappoint, either, coming as they did after my impromptu visit to 'The Accessible Arctic', Canada House's fine exhibit of Canadian Geographic photographs of the Canadian arctic, mostly in colour (and there's a great arctic film season coming up there in September/October!) Here I went through airport-style security (when trying to switch on my digital camera I had to confess to the attendant that my batteries had run down. After that he didn't look too concerned about me, correctly assuming that I was far to disorganised to be plotting some kind of a heist.) Even better was the display deep in the bowels of the ground floor, a magnificent room with columns and ornate furnishings and a full wall mirror (possibly two way, I mused, as two small girls pulled faces and showed off their dresses in front of it), which contained glorious colour enlargements of Robert VanWaarden's documentation of the the British Council's 2008 Cape Farewell project. This involved a group of high school students chosen from many countries, journeying by Soviet cruiser MV Academik Shokalskiy from Iceland to East Greenland, passing me in West Greenland when I was in Narsarssuaq / Nanortalik (could they have been the 'scientists' who were spending a couple of days up the fjord? according to Nils at the tourist office?) and on to Baffin Island in northeast Canada. Anyway it looked a tremendous experience, as the youth dashing bare chested into Baffin Bay seemed to symbolise. The photographs brought my own Greenland trip back to me, so my imagination was able to finish Per Kirkeby's wonderfully unfinished sketches, the wall of rock and water that move so far across the page and then stop, leaving a white void. The detail with which he renders mountains and morraines bely his early career as a geology PhD. He has been going to Greenland since the late 1950's when he was completing this postgraduate studies, and says that he doesn't feel right in himself if once a year he doesn't make a trip to Greenland, Iceland or the Faroe Islands. The north Atlantic / Arctic regions certainly have that pull. And the colours show up in his abstract or semi abstract work: the jewel blues and emerald greens that have a tawny, mossy quality; the swirl of grey-green like a fog descending on a fjord, the brilliant mustard yellows and hot pinks of the summer bloom. All these are in the wonderful abstracts with titles such as 'The Northernmost House', and even in one of the large abstracts which I must find the title of, which has obvious points of comparison in the palette and overall effect, if not the linear quality of the markmaking, to Monet's famous waterlilies at Giverny (which I had recently seen some of at the National Gallery).

Per Kirkeby has just closed at Tate Britain, London.

'The Accessible Arctic' exhibition continues at Canada House near Trafalgar Square until 30 October 2009, and the films continue there on Tuesdays until 20 October. A related exhibition, 'The Northwest Passage – an Arctic Obsession', runs at the National Maritime Museum until 3 January 2010. Read about the Cape Farewell project at http://www.capefarewellcanada.ca/.