A Graceful Lingering: Interview with Helene Knoop
[Editor’s note: Pleased to be welcoming a new contributing artist-journalist to the Combustus family: Brandon Kralik.]
elene Knoop has, from the start, been one of the best painters to come out of the Nerdrum School. Her painting, Milk, is featured on the cover of the Nerdrum School anthology, which was published to wide acclaim late last year. Her work has been featured in exhibitions, and is in collections across Europe and North America.
Having worked with Helene for some years in Nerdrum’s studio, I was happy to recently be able to catch up with an old friend and talk to her about painting, motherhood, and the dictates of today’s art world. But mostly about painting.
INTERVIEW WITH KITSCH PAINTER, HELENE KNOOP
Oslo, Norway ~
Brandon Kralik: Can you talk to me about friluftskolen?
Helene Knoop: (Laughs at my Americanized Swedish variation of the Norwegian term for Plein Air School.) It is a sweet, authentic thing. It is like a little corner where you can go and enjoy painting with other painters outside.
It started with my friendship with Hege Skredsvig, who is the great granddaughter of a famous Norwegian painter, and she asked me if I would help to continue his tradition of gathering together in the summer with other painters, and painting the magnificent landscape. It is really very beautiful. And so, I did that with Jan-Ove Tuv. We were teaching a group of both amateurs and professionals. Thomas Klevier came one year as co-teacher, David Dalla Venezia another year…both to teach plein air painting with the limited palette. We try to give them a little more teaching, using a simple Apelles palette. The students come with these suitcases full of all these colors that they cannot use. But like I say, that is not the main thing.
Brandon Kralik: You have children now; that is probably the main thing.
Helene Knoop: The children. I thought after a year with a child that I might have become stupid. It is hard to combine being a woman, being a painter, and being a mother.
Helene Knoop: But that is not the main thing either.
One good thing about having this pause, can you say that? [quote]Having children has meant that I don’t spend time on motifs which are not so interesting. I throw away half of the ideas I have. There has to be more content. You realize your time and energy and what you should do with it.[/quote]
It is good to be young and paint whatever you want ~ for instance, I live in the country, I see cows in the sunset, and it is so beautiful…but you cannot come to the New York Galleries with a bunch of cows.
As a comparison to Christian Skredsvig [great-grandfather of Hege Skredsvig] who won the golden medal at the Salon in Paris 1800 century, there are other conditions for romantic painters.
Brandon Kralik: Over the years, we have talked a lot about how to build up a composition. About how the best paintings are something more than mere portraits or mere representation.
Helene Knoop: Yes, you can put so much more history into it. For instance, if you have an idea for a couple and you want the story to be stronger, then you can use the symbolism to fill it.
Brandon Kralik: Looking through your work, I do not see so many interiors. Your subjects set in nature as opposed to being inside.
Helene Knoop: It depends on the motif. A good question. I have not thought about it, I just do it. I cannot stand being inside in the summer, so of course I paint the landscape.
Helene Knoop: It is a different way to address man’s relationship to the world. Freud is a good example of a painter who never goes outside.
During Titian‘s time, landscape was just a background. It was not about landscape.
Helene Knoop: Rembrandt hardly uses it at all. I always see a painter connected to the country that they come from. Norwegians have a connection to Edvard Munch, for instance. [quote]We are all painters after symbolism, and he uses nature as a symbol.[/quote]
Helene Knoop: American painters, for instance, do not have that link to Munch, but have a connection to the French Academy style of painting. Their use of nature is different.
Brandon Kralik: In what way is it different? It is true, Munch doesn’t do for me what it does for Norwegian painters.
Helene Knoop: Italians have Di Chirico on their shoulders. You can see in futurism, they don’t think about it but they just do it because it is in their culture.
Dino Valls has Dali, Picasso, and Miro, Spanish painters use so much color. Diego Rivera, it is like he is their Munch, and the Americans have their Munch, maybe Andrew Wyeth, this is why nature is so present.
Brandon Kralik: You have lots of influences that are not Norwegian though, like Rodin, for instance.
Helene Knoop: But, I think all painters do this, I mean, nothing is new. We all use influences from other cultures. When I used to live in Rome, I was influenced by the paintings and sculptures from antiquity. They were perfect models for my paintings. It was already there in the sculptures, so I just used them. This was after I studied at Nerdrum’s, in 2005 I think. It was such a little “aha!” for me, being in Rome.
Oh no, one of the children is awake… (She leaves for a minute and then returns.) He is asleep again.
Brandon Kralik: We were talking about how you are thinking a lot more about what to paint, and what ideas to throw out, because time is a factor. What do you want to paint? Are you painting now?
Helene Knoop: Now? (Laughs) No, right now I am drinking a glass of wine.
Brandon Kralik: But no, I know what you mean. [quote]Earlier I was painting outside. I was painting a woman and it was wonderful, you know? To paint a nude, outside, is so free. It ceases to be a nude, and becomes part of nature and the surroundings reflected in skin. It is not just about the figure; it is about trying to paint this sensual atmosphere.[/quote]
Helene Knoop: I was introduced to it by Odd. It’s “befriende.” Do you know the word?
Brandon Kralik: Yes, liberating.
Helene Knoop: Liberating, exactly. Well, now I am painting the nature, I live in the nature, but we recently bought a house closer to Oslo. You can take a ferry and it takes only 20 minutes, but it is in a more industrial place with artists and writers, there are photographers, and so it will be a different environment. It is as close to Berlin style as you can get to in Norway. It is a newly renovated factory area, so there will be lots of activity there. I always am influenced by the place I am at.
Brandon Kralik: That will be interesting to see how that comes into the work.
Helene Knoop: Oh, I don’t know if it is so interesting.
Brandon Kralik: But it can be.
Helene Knoop: Hmm.
Brandon Kralik: I wonder how important it is for Norwegian painters to connect with collectors in the United States. Is it important for you to exhibit there?
Helene Knoop: Interesting that you ask, because I do think it is important. I am fascinated by the number of people painting in the States. Of course there is a lot more people there than in this little country, but it seems that there is more movement there.
Brandon Kralik: True, there is a lot happening in the States.
Helene Knoop: A friend of mine, Rose Freymouth-Frazier, [interviewed previously in Combustus] has collected a list of the galleries which offer figurative work.
Brandon Kralik: Post Contemporary work. I talk to some artists who are happy about their gallery affiliation and feel that they do what they are supposed to, and I talk with others who question whether that model is working or is even still viable.
Helene Knoop: A good gallery can be helpful, but there are other options.
Brandon Kralik: Things are changing from the time we worked together in Odd Nerdrum’s studio.
Helene Knoop: Do you think so?
Brandon Kralik: I have talked to lots of people about it, and virtually everybody connected with the business sees it. Having lived in Scandinavia, seeing how hard it is there for this kind of painting, has made me appreciate what is happening in the States.
Helene Knoop: Yes I do. Odd was the big drive for it. He started it and it was his idea. I have not met Odd for a long time because of the trials,, and because of my situation, and that has affected speaking out about it.
I have to ascertain who is really interested before I go into it. Some people do not think there is any problem, and for them I give the light version, but if I see there is an interest in Kitsch, then I talk about the Art world first, to explain why Kitsch is necessary. Most people are not on that level and do not understand the Art world at all. Perhaps you have to be in the States to talk about changing it, I don’t know. Were you at TRAC?
Brandon Kralik: Yes I was. It was fantastic. When it came to the debate though, there was none. Roger Scruton (interviewed earlier in Combustus) stated his idea on kitsch, and Nerdrum and Jan-Ove articulated their ideas of Kitsch, and nobody really asked questions about it. I was disappointed that I did not come up with questions that could have opened them up to debate. With the right questions, it could have happened. People already, it seemed, were decidedly not going to accept Nerdrum’s Kitsch philosophy as an option, as a term to refer to the paradigm shift we are experiencing.
Helene Knoop: I read that some people are completely against the term Post Contemporary as well.
Brandon Kralik: True. And some people who are against it did not read the article I wrote for the Huffington Post about it. The term, “Post Contemporary” is much broader than Kitsch, though Kitsch values are at the apex of the PoCo paradigm. I would much rather dwell on the work than on the term. The term is useful when it comes to talk about it.
Helene Knoop: Most painters are not so interested in describing their work; they are putting their efforts into the painting and the other is not important.
Brandon Kralik: How important is the philosophy in your work?
Helene Knoop: It is important to survive, but it is also important to be more than a good painter. I often have to defend myself. For instance, the other night at a dinner, we were discussing the arts in Norway, and that there are lots of stipendium, money from the state, and I pointed out that in the United States there are grants available that come from the private sector, whereas in Norway all the money comes from the Government. They are two different interests.
We have something here called the Fall exhibition, and there are many figurative painters who applied but were not accepted. So, my husband Gerald, who runs Pan Galleri, held a Salon de Refuse next to the exhibition, and the response to it was great! It is still a big wall between Contemporary and paintings with pathos and feeling, you know, Kitch things.
Brandon Kralik: There were several exhibitions staged in Sweden as well.
Helene Knoop: Joacim Ericcson put together an exhibition of work from the FAA [Florence Academy of Art], and Nerdrum students at Wasa Konstahll in Sweden. Also there was an exhibition at Edvik’s Konsthall, and there was a book published from that. [quote]There was a lot of media attention about it, and they hung them all up as if they were clothes on the line. It was a big discussion about it; there was a lot of opposition. There was 30 meters of articles that wanted to know why we were painting heroes in a time like ours.[/quote]
Brandon Kralik: How were the sales from those exhibitions?
Helene Knoop: These were not really sale exhibitions. It was more like a museum setting, where the idea is to show the work. I think we should have more exhibitions like this. The collector’s come when they can see the work. But let’s talk about what is happening in the States. I believe in that market there. It is difficult from here.
Brandon Kralik: Well, you know some people here, so we can put together something like that here, and you can be part of it. Social media helps allow this to happen. We all know each other; we should be staging exhibitions together.
Helene Knoop: I am getting set up in the new studio and starting new paintings again now. I am working on a self-portrait that I began after copying the Rubens, when I was living in Vienna last year. That was an interesting experience. A discipline that was quite normal some generations ago, copying masterworks at Museums, becomes an attraction today.
Brandon Kralik: Let’s talk about your work, Helene. Your self-portraits. Milk was on the cover of the Nerdrum School book, which came out recently. Do you want to tell us about that painting?
Helene Knoop: Yes.[quote] The eternal image of a woman and child has always fascinated me; but not until recent years has it struck me so directly as when I myself transformed into the motif. This is a painting of my first son and me. Actually, I was painting as I was breastfeeding. The color of the background had to be the color of the feeling; a bright greenish white in contrast with the pulsating skin. It is such a bodily condition, this is why there is a lack of other objects in the image.[/quote]
Brandon Kralik: There is another one that I like called, Self Portrait with Pipe.
Helene Knoop: [quote]For some months I lived and worked in Rome, in an apartment which was kept as when it was left; from the 50’s. There was a photo of Umberto Nobile in the apartment, and a personal letter to the person who once lived there, and I was looking at it every day. Nobile was an Italian aeronautical engineer and Arctic explorer. He was the pilot of the airship, “Norge” which may have been the first aircraft to reach the North Pole. There was always a collection of [smoking] pipes in this apartment, which I found suitable in this slightly androgynous self-portrait.[/quote]
The colors are affected by the series I was painting at that time: The Nine Muses and their leader, Apollo. After studying sculptures and the frescoes from the Roman antiques, I made the ten paintings to feel as if you had been in the House of Mysteries in Pompeii.
Brandon Kralik: In another painting, you used yourself as the model, and painted an older woman.
Helene Knoop: Lingering is about wondering, while painting the model, an everyday thing for a figurative painter, contemplating my own body as I study someone else’s ~ in this case my mother. This image was published in a book called, Seeing is Believing, by Rod Stoneman. Here is an excerpt from the book about this painting:
In Helene Knoop’s reflexive image, where the displayed daughter stands to paint an older woman
who could be her reserved mother, or her own future body, the image loses focus as it fades towards those labia blurred in shadow, but a carefully placed and protrusive thumb penetrates the palette. As Duchamp explained, ‘I thought the only excuse for doing anything was to introduce eroticism into life…it’s closer to life than philosophy or anything.’ I like it; it’s an animal thing that has many facets and is pleasing to use, as you would use a tube of paint.
Brandon Kralik: I also am fond of your Self Portrait As Munch, which appears earlier in the article.
Helene Knoop: One of my favorite paintings of Edward Munch is his 1886 ”Self-portrait As a Young Man.” It´s a worn-but-still-fresh kind of painting.
[quote]A wonderful effect to achieve this kind of surface is to paint many layers and then scrape away paint with sandpaper to reveal the underlying layer. I wanted the face to dissolve into thin air.[/quote]
Brandon Kralik: Just a Dream is a painting where the figure is set outdoors but in a bed.
Helene Knoop: On Gotland, an Island outside of Sweden, I found a wonderful spot to place a four-poster bed in the middle of nowhere. The contrast between the strict lines of the bed structure and the wild nature fascinated me. But as always, nature I find more interesting with the human included. So the viewer can feel the atmosphere under the skin. The woman on the bed senses the sky above, extending towards her, and she is expecting her soul-mate, so the composition can be complete, symmetric.
Brandon Kralik: I find your multi-figure compositions interesting and ambitious. Combat, for instance.
Helene Knoop: Greek mythology is also the starting point for my series, Combat, based on the famous Pergamon frieze, housed today in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, which depicts a fight between gods and giants. Why is this relevant for us today?
The theme in my series is “a civilization in crisis.” Are we in the midst of a crisis? Do we stand at the threshold of a new time? What happens when established forces clash? Who will create the new civilization? My little twist here is that I changed the figures into men fighting against women ~ as they do all the time. Also, I have placed them in the Nordic landscape which I have a greater knowledge of, rather than an Italian Poplar tree. I appreciate Poplar trees in Italian paintings, but cannot try painting the Poplar myself. It would be a pastiche. I plan to execute these paintings in a larger scale in the future.
Brandon Kralik: And Pygmalion?
Helene Knoop: The idea for this painting was in part about the desire to create a masterpiece, and in part the desire for a life companion: “I cannot find the perfect man. I’ll have to create him,” just as Pygmalion did with his Galatea. The story is reversed of course, as Galatea is creating Pygmalion. When my husband and I first met, I asked him to model for this painting. We later married.
Helene Knoop: One of my latest motifs is a charcoal drawing on paper called, Three Black Graces. Three sisters meet for the first time as adults. They were adopted away as children, and have felt quite alone until they meet again, now.
Helene Knoop: I guess I kind of sense the surroundings where I am, and find the stories in the people I meet. With so many places to see and people to meet, my inspiration is endless, and my tools ~ oil paint, brush and canvas ~ are always there for me to use.
Brandon Kralik: We can be thankful for that.
|Helene Knoop (b. 1979, in Drøbak, Norway) is one of Norway’s foremost figurative painters. She lives and works in Oslo. Knoop calls herself a ”Kitsch-painter,” and for her, good Kitsch involves pathos, poetry, drama and sincerity ~ all communicated through the mastery of craft.
.From 2000 to 2003, she studied with Odd Nerdrum, the world-renowned figurative painter. Since she left her masters studio, she has continued to refine her skill, focusing on the human figure by studying ancient sculpture in Italy. Knoop always paints from a live model, and she paints the Nordic landscape in plein air.
She organized the Kitsch Biennale in Munich 2008, and in Venice in 2010.Knoop has had several successful solo exhibitions, including shows in London, Stockholm, and New York. She has also participated in group shows. A few of these include: Palazzo Cini 2010, Edsvik Konsthall 2009, Krapperud Konsthall 2009, Passinger Fabrik 2008, Haus der Kunst 2005, Solli Brug 2004, Haugar Vestfold Kunstmuseum 2002. Knoop’s paintings are represented in collections in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, England, Italy, Nicaragua, and the U.S.A.To enjoy more of her work, please visit the artist’s website. And Facebook fan page.
Brandon Kralik is an American figurative painter living and working in Sweden. His work is exhibited internationally and can be found in the collections of Sweden’s Crown Princess, Steven Tyler, Odd Nerdrum and others.
.For more about Mr. Kralik, and to view his own work, please visit his website.
nice job Brandon…
Brave and graceful.
The work is sublime. The woman is a gift to all, not just Italians and love that she tries to use natural light. . BRAVO to both Helene & Brandon. Deanna I have nothing but deep gratitude for all you bring us. . .beyond generous. . .merci
I enjoyed the discussion of how background changes by country and movement. I also especially appreciated Knoop’s The Three Graces.
I found this interview and saw a photograph of Helene’s painting ‘Milk” on Facebook which led me to the Combustus blog and I’m so glad I found it. Helene is a beautiful representational painter and as an artist and mother of four grown children myself, I appreciate reading her point of view on the subject of being a painter who happens to be a woman with children. It’s quite a challenge:); but as Lee Krasner said (although she didn’t have children of her own, unless you count her difficulties keeping Pollock alive), “Even when I’m just looking, I am working.” I am so looking forward to reading more about today’s representational painters, thank you!
Knoop’s art is riveting. I deeply respect the inestimable life circumstance of melding any career with motherhood. I felt the influence of her motherhood in her art.