Pure Painting Works on Idea

Heidelberger Kunstverein, 2008
Christoph Tannert

The new pictures by this young Danish artist are euphoric, sad, and powerful. Perhaps Lars Tygesen wants everything at the same time: tempo and slowness, circumspection, harmony, and dissonant tones, yes a harmony of dissonant tones. They orchestrate the colors and shades of a soul radiating in all directions. Onto the melancholy ground, his euphoric brushstrokes apply a thousand emotions that swirl in emotion.

If one plugged such a picture into an amplifier and loudspeakers, which might not seem completely impossible to a dreamer, then I assume the transposition would begin with a mighty hissing and soughing before one heard a chord begin hesitantly feeling its way toward independence.

Basically, the story of his pictures begins long before paint came to the canvases. It begins in Europe’s Baroque past, but also with the reception of film images in our day. Lars Tygesen’s pictures carry out mediating talks in three directions: toward the courtly style and epochal consciousness of the late 18th century, toward a kind of painting that shows its new colors in relation to photographic and cinematic images, and, quite concretely, toward Sofia Coppola’s 2006 movie Marie Antoinette, which is based in turn on a biography by Antonia Fraser.

As if through fogged-over glasses, one sees in Lars Tygesen’s pictures something reminiscent of a costume ball, a masquerade: towering coiffures and fishbone corsets for the ladies, stiff foundation garments, padded hips, cord-pinched breasts, skirts that end in a little train, pointy shoes of silk, damask, or velvet. The men, some with Mozart queues or periwigs, set strongly feminine accents and wear lace ruffles on their chests, trousers with conspicuous colors, greatcoats with broad cuffs that reveal a glimpse of the precious lace on the shirt, wide pants held together at the knee. It is the time of the French fashion of Rococo. In terms of motifs, Tygesen cites still photos from Sofia Coppola’s film Marie Antoinette with scenes of rigid ceremony, fashion crazes, and the prodigality of the court of Marie Antoinette and Louis Auguste in Versailles.

What was remarkable about Sofia Coppola’s film was that it no longer drew the hostile picture of Marie Antoinette that still appears in history books to this day. Rather, the last French Queen is presented to the viewer as a bored, wound-up glamour girl of the 18th century – and as the victim of her circumstances. The way Stefan Zweig, for example, tried to rehabilitate her. But with much less tear-jerking than the subservient bows with which Joan Haslip tried to defend Marie Antoinette. This is precisely why the French press accused Coppola’s film of being ahistorical. Nonetheless, interest in the sufferings of the royal family has markedly increased in recent years. Tremendously contributing to this were Coppola’s film with its projection of the cool glamour feelings of our own present onto the 18th century, which invited identification, as well as an exhibition staged like an opera this year in the Grand Palais for a “Marie Antoinette Superstar” (“Le Parisien”), with 300 items from all over Europe that lured whole busloads of visitors interested in the “delicate touch”.

We can definitely speak of signs of a new international approach to the French Revolution. Today we speak much more openly about its dark sides than we did a few decades ago, when the Jacobin historiography laid claim to interpretive predominance. In her film, Coppola made use of a cutting technique as fast as video clips, but also and especially of an anachronistic musical accompaniment with pop songs, which was advertised as especially daring and experimental, a trendy mixture of 1980s wave pop (The Cure, New Order), current Indie rock songs (The Strokes), and occasional classical pieces (Vivaldi, Couperin, Scarlatti) that provided a bit of the flavor of the period.

For his pictures, Lars Tygesen has removed all these mountains of pop sugariness. He celebrates slowness and thereby overcomes the kitschy inertia of Coppola’s saccharine vision. With endless patience, he paints fragile melancholy in the timbres typical of him, thereby remaining unmistakable. Tygesen is one of the contemporary painters who do not choose or invent form, but who find it forced upon them by the material. He is not interested in the experiment for its own sake, but in the necessary form of expression. Tygesen’s pictures, in their essence, are totally present and stable, totally space, totally body, totally rigorous in their household of forms. They are abstract, they are representational, they pay homage to the free flow of color as well as to the arrangement of backgrounds repeatedly clarified in processes of application and removal, backgrounds balanced with equal strength and delicacy. That is: the opposite of a profusion of props or formal unevenness! These pictures look at us, neither in a dream, nor blithely, nor in disillusion. They are as they are. Here nothing foams over.

The title listings “n.t.” already make it clear: Tygesen doesn’t like titles that lead away from concretion and formal rigor toward literariness. Tygesen assists the beautiful to its breakthrough by bringing to a culmination the sensually given material, whose field of effect in pictorial space nonetheless aims to trigger an aesthetic experience in perception that is, in principle, endless. Instead of exhausting itself in recognizing a figure or in grasping a scene, here perception runs through the widest range of aspects of a variation. The artist thereby works in a layering process that he describes as follows: “In each painting there are a lot of different pictures underneath. I start by breaking down my painting and repeatedly reconstructing it again. In this way I get a lot of layers, colors, strokes, thin and thick, some transparency or a lot of other accidentally or unchosen choice. Then I have something I can use. It’s the painting that runs the show. I’m always searching in the painting, searching for surprises. Surprises that I can use. It’s a give-and-take relationship. In some areas the paint is very thick and in other areas very thin. I like the differences.

The paintings are painted in oil but I use a lot of different techniques. Sometimes I use the paintings as a palette. Then they are lying on the floor for days, weeks, months. And naturally get a lot of different shapes and colors.” 1

In his pictures, Lars Tygesen is not at all interested in a historically critical evaluation of the role of the French queen, nor in an evaluation of the lollipop-colorful, depoliticized position of the film director with her girlie solidarity that presents Marie Antoinette as a naïve, pampered girl in the confusion of history – a young woman who loves to celebrate smashing parties in Versailles rather than being interested in her people.

What Lars Tygesen remembers about the film is more its atmospheric opulence, the sensual surroundings, the spectacle of colors and forms that stimulate the sense of sight: “I am very interested in the story of Marie Antoinette, but also very much in the time that she was a part of. That other world! The surroundings. Their clothes, fashions, interior decoration. And the way they acted toward each other, without acting.” 2

His hunger for pure painting leads him to work on the idea. The plain depiction of objects seems useless to him. He thereby opens areas located in endlessness and that need to be reconquered ever anew and from other dimensions. In regard to his figures’ facelessness, Lars Tygesen concretizes: “The figures are all faceless because I’m not interested in the person as a person, but in the painted person. For me the paintings are much more open this way. And the story too, because which story? The one about anger, the bedroom, betrayal, bitterness, brutality, decadence, love, seduction…?” 3

By blurring the contours and striking out the faces, he allows possibly unwanted questions about the French Revolution to shine through. Tygesen does not take part in arguing the pros and cons of the way of life and legacy of the Queen of France and Navarre who was executed in Paris in 1793. He chooses a personal immersion in a distant counterpart that is plunged in color, the form he likes best. In their dissonant acerbity and poetic blurring, Lars Tygesen’s pictures crystallize out how clarity and vagueness are so close to each other that opinion is still divided today on the question of the cause and necessity of the Revolution’s violence. Was the policy of terror already implicit in the ideas of 1789, or was it a derailment? However this question is answered: the proximity of human rights and the Reign of Terror, of a citizenry’s constitution and a welfare dictatorship – this Janus’ head of the French Revolution – remains a disturbing phenomenon that continues to challenge historians.

Painting thereby repeatedly takes itself as its theme and asks about its own possibilities and failure. Let’s not rely on the depictability of what is behind the frosted glass. It is invented. But of course it is at home only there. The artist professes: “I am definitely most interested in paintings as painting. How the brushstrokes are laid. The thick against the thin. The wet against the dry and so on. It’s completely the painting that controls the motif. And not the other way around. But at the same time, the motif is also more than just a tool to start a painting.” 4

1. E-mail to the author, Oct. 8, 2008
2. Op. cit.
3. Op. cit.
4. Op. cit.