09 November 2018

An expedition as a key moment in his artistic development. In the WILDERNESS exhibition the SCHIRN is showing works by Danish artist Per Kirkeby, among others. We set out to follow in his footsteps.

In 1963 when the geological assistant Per Kirkeby was preparing for his next expedition to Pearyland in Greenland with the Arctic explorer Eigil Knuth, he packed not only maps and notebooks in his backpack, but also chose to take a handfull of zinc plates with him. The result was the first series of etchings by the artist Per Kirkeby, as most people know him today.

The Dane started out studying geology in 1958, but soon also enrolled at the Experimental Academy of Art in Copenhagen. Kirkeby later described the trip to Pearyland as a key moment in his artistic development: “I truly felt that these were experiences that would leave their mark, so that when I returned to civilization, it would be clear that I was somebody who had been part of an exhausting expedition. […] I thought that there I had found what I needed to become an artist.”

Kirkeby was inspired not only by the nature of Greenland, but also by the experience of being exposed to all its adversities, and this represents a fascinating example of the reciprocal relationship between art and the wilderness – to which the Schirn is dedicating a major themed exhibition from November 1, 2018. To find out more about the mutual dependence between Kirkeby’s scientific and artistic practice, I made my way to Museum Jorn in Silkeborg, Denmark, to which Kirkeby bequeathed his extensive archive before his death.

Museum Jorn, Silkeborg, Photo: Johanna Laub

I thought that there I had found what I needed to become an artist.

Per Kirkeby

The journey to Silkeborg is something of an expedition in itself: From the airport in Billund, I have to take multiple trains across the country, passing small towns and fields of sheep. Museum Jorn is situated on a picturesque elevation with a view of the canal flowing behind it, and it’s home to a magnificent collection: Alongside numerous works by Asger Jorn it also holds art of Jorn’s fellow members of the post-war European avant-garde.

A voyage of discovery in the warehouse

As he welcomes me, curator Lucas Haberkorn takes me through the full retrospective Machines for Light and Shadow, which the museum is devoting to Per Kirkeby to mark his death in May this year. When I visit, the preparations are still in full swing – many of his well-known brick sculptures from Paris, London and Münster are being rebuilt on site. Afterwards, we visit the warehouse in which the museum holds a copy of every one of Kirkeby’s prints – a considerable number given his frequently underestimated output in this medium.

Per Kirkeby, Machines for Light and Shadow, Image via www.museumjorn.dk

Personally, I am particularly interested in the etchings that Kirkeby produced on his expeditions, since the Pearyland series was merely the first of many others he produced while surrounded by nature. The technique is somewhat unusual for landscape sketches, since the plate provides a certain amount of resistance to the etching needle and demands concentrated strokes.

Field journals and photo albums

On the following day I delve into the archive, which is separated from the exhibition area by just a glass wall, so visitors get insights into the work behind the scenes. Numerous documents have been preserved from Kirkeby’s expeditions as a geologist: diaries and field journals with sketches and notes, correspondence, photographs and even films. A particularly impressive item is the work journal that Kirkeby kept during the Pearyland excursion of 1963: The observations from each day are accompanied by sketches of coastal and mountain formations in China ink; at the same time, each geological characteristic is shaded or dotted in a particular way that is then explained in an accompanying legend.

Per Kirkeby, Pearyland, 1963 © Per Kirkeby / Donation Jorn, Silkeborg; Courtesy Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, Photo: Norbert Miguletz
Per Kirkeby, Pearyland, Work journal, 1963 © Per Kirkeby / Donation Jorn, Silkeborg; Courtesy Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, Foto: Norbert Miguletz

A mere glance at these sketches and drawings is enough to glean the origins of the shapes in Kirkeby’s early etchings: With the artist’s scientific training, his eye explores the topographical structure of the terrain and translates this into abstract compositions. Old slides from a 1964 research expedition to retrieve a meteorite in Greenland show the camp and the expedition ship used by the team – rougher conditions than today, as Kirkeby noted many decades later when he embarked on another expedition. Time and again he was drawn to return to Greenland, addressing the landscape in his artist oeuvre.

I can allow the sun to show me different versions, and I can sharpen my concentration day by day.

Per Kirkeby

Depending on the season and the weather conditions, the same chain of mountains would appear different to him each time, he said. In contrast to his scientific work, whereby at a certain point Kirkeby had to acknowledge images provided reliable information, as an artist he felt freed of this constraint: “I am not simply dropped off by the helicopter for an hour or two and told to come back with the truth of precisely this particular hour. I can allow the sun to show me different versions, and I can sharpen my concentration day by day.”