New Paintings, By Mathew Kanagas


By Mathew Kanagas

Exhibition-Global Art Venue 2006

Is an independent Art-critic and frequent contributor to ”Art in America”, ”Sculpture”, ”Seattle Times”, and several other journals.  He is the authour of eight books including Bertil Vallien and Robert Willson: Image-maker(University of Washington Press). In 1966, he traveled to Norway to visit artists and museums as a guest of the Royal Norwegian Foreign Ministry. 

Norwegian painter Elisabeth Werp´s American debut is an event of considerable cultural significance.  Although unknown to American viewers, her art is part of a recent development in Norwegian art, the return of symbolic realism. It´s hard to imagine that Norway´s greatest artist, Edvard Munch, only died in 1944, so associated is he with decandent symbolists of the 1890´s. Yet Norwegian art has retained the thread of influence from Munch on to the present.  Franz Widerberg represents the expressionist wing of this strain; Odd Nerdrum represents the later more realistic side. It is into this latter camp that Werp fits; the dark and gloomy part of Nerdrums apocalyptic landscape along with Munchs preoccipation with death , loss and memory.  Werp advances the strongest strenghts of Norwegian art into her own and rich version of symbolic realism. 

Werp has excibited exctensively within Norway and has also had two significant excibitions in Paris and Salzburg, where press were preceptive and complimentary. 

The critics have been favourable, respectfull and enthusiastic. 

One of the art critics captured the cinematic quality of shadow and reflection, not to say enigmatic personal relationships, in her art when he compared her to Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. 

Others have pointed out links to fin-de-siècle Symbolism anticipated, in the view, by Swiss painter Arnold Bocklin (1827-1901). 

Werps important 1997 Austrien debut in Salzburg, at the Hypo Gallerie, brought her work to the attention of highly discerning art critics like Ulrik Stugelich who welcomed her into the Vienna School, presumably in the company of Egon Schiele(1890-1918) and Gustav Klimt (1862 -1918). 

After setting the cultural context for Werp, it is necessary, for our purposes, to wrench her away from literature, offering instead other analyses of her non-literary power; shadow, ambiguity and remarkeble ability to create a pseudoarcheological quality that sets the paintings in a different context. They stop time rather than use it like a backdrop for plot or dramatic incidence.  

Besides, it is far from clear what is occuring in a Werp painting.  Werp`s image is already a memento mori, howewer a reminder of mortality. Its mottled, antiqued surface is as much historical object  as a window into a darkened imaginary world.  Similarly, in « Guardian of Silence», three children float through a world of subdued consciousness. «Reminiscence» presents the relics of memory that connote a broader, perhaps forgotten, narrative. A ruined garden, a doll`s head, and an icy, underwater quality take on symphonic properties of placement and composition. Maybe the music of Sibelius should also be added to the pile of cultural references Werp has already attracted. 

From song to chamber music to symphony might not be a bad parallel to the different  sizes of Werp`s paintings. One of the largest, ; «Fragile «, is a wide rectangle. Its mixture of two children, disembodied hands, branches and leaves take on a powerful, accumulating character. «Listening to Silence» also has repeated motifs, as in music, in this case, three litte girls appearing in various sections.  Henry James`s novella about ghosts and children;(1898), could be another literary precedent, as if one were required. 

Furniture, architecture, gates and stairways surround more sleeping figures in the other paintings. In « Speculum», a sleeping figure is accompanied by an image on a framed mirror – or a family photograph. Two states of existence (life and death) or consciousness (sleeping and remembering) are invoked, cloaked by a hazy, supernatural blue cloud. 

With its rich inheritance, postmodern European painting is free to call upon art history without fear of being burdened any longer by the traditions from which the moderns sought to free themselves.  For Werp, the possibilities are endless since the past is always present in the form of her imagery, technical ”antiquing” processes, and invocations of older modes of dress, design and style. 

This exhibiotion, her triumphant entry into American art, should bring new audiences, new critics and new appreciations and interpretations. One hopes such responses will match or equal the serious critical commentary accorded her in Norway.