Main menu Category © Christina Malbek 2008

Norwegian translation
Landscape revisited and revived
by Einar Børresen
Landscape painting experienced its fi rst period of greatness in 17th century Dutch art. For the first time in Western art history, landscape as such became the main focus of paintings. The landscape was no longer just a background for heroic acts, as it had been, and still was, in the
Italian painting tradition that still dominated much of Europe. In her highly innovative book The Art of Describing (1983), Svetlana Alpers maintains that the Dutch 17th century culture as such can be described as a visual culture.1 The Dutch took possession of the world by visually describing it – in painting, graphical arts and their innovative map production. Through what she denotes as their Mapping Impulse – an urge to visually describe the world, the Dutch – citizens, artists, tradesmen and seafarers, conquered both the near and distant world.

For Alpers, art pictures constitute an integrated part of this visual culture. The Dutch eagerly applied new technology, both in their production of maps and of landscape paintings. There was a fl ourishing use of camera obscura – the precursor of the photo camera. Through their use of the camera obscura artists could relate to a two dimensional image of the landscape. When light is let through a small hole into an otherwise dark room, a picture of the landscape outside is created on the opposite wall of the room. If they put their canvas where the image was projected, they could sketch the contours of the landscape directly onto the canvas. The use of technical means, like the camera obscura, in no way led to a diminishing of the artistic value of the paintings. The artists were on the contrary seen as being part of a new, progressive and optimistic worldview.

Why this detour in time and space when the purpose of this text is to talk about paintings created in 2007, paintings made with no intention of having any particular art historical references? Naturally because Christina Malbek’s paintings are strangely connected to Dutch 17th century paintings in the way that they relate to the culture they are created within.

They both emphasize the description of the landscape itself, rather than telling stories. Our culture of today can defi nitely also be regarded as a visual one, with visual impressions being vital parts of our reality, and thereby also our identity. We all receive an overwhelming flood of images – reaching us from television and computer screens, advertising posters, newspapers and magazines, digital cameras and mobile phones. Like the Dutch painters of the 17th century, Malbek relates actively to the visual culture she is a part of. Where the Dutch made use of images created in camera obscura, Malbek uses her own photos as a starting point. She then manipulates and combines her photos digitally and projects them onto the canvas she is about to paint. Where Dutch 17th Century landscape painting relates to the inventions in mapology of the time, Malbek relates to the new technology of her time; the digital and computer manipulated image.

In the spirit of Descartes, the Dutch sought to grasp and understand the world as a unifi ed entity, centred on the intellectual forces of man. Intrinsic to Descartes statement cogito ergo sum lies a fundamental belief on the abilities of the human intellect – to both understand the
world and to control it.

In Malbek’s fragmented gaze on the landscape, the loss of this optimistic vision on behalf of man and the world as such, is evident. The loss even develops into melancholy. Surely we can enjoy her brilliant technique, her particular and rich colours, her overwhelmingly large canvases, and her surprising and contrasting compositions – but the optimistic belief in a holistic world, controlled by the thinking man, is lost for ever. The fact that Malbek for the fi rst time has included people in her paintings makes the feeling of melancholy even more evident. The human activity conveys a feeling of idyllic innocence, when she in Summer depicts children bathing in the incandescent Nordic summer. At the same time, an undercurrent feeling of unrest prevails. The landscape is cut, divided into distinct parts. People are longing for unity and harmony with each other and with nature, but will never fully succeed in their efforts.

Like the majority of paintings in the exhibition, Bay is based on the artist’s own photos taken in the Stavanger area during the summer of 2006. The main scene is from one of the bays of the Gandsfjord, which is a popular venue for bathing excursions and picnics during summer. We see two such scenes depicted in two of the corners of the canvas. But the scenes are fragmented, maybe even infected. The harmony is constructed and unreal. The sea is a threatening black as if it were night-time. The people are divided from the landscape in a collage-like manner, as if they were cut out and glued on, like strangers to the landscape that surround them. The sunbathing woman lies partly on a pebbly beach, partly on a fi eld of intense colours - visually rich and appealing, but also poisonous and frightening. As if she in the midst of her carefree dozing in the sun is subject to an immediate danger. We can easily associate the scene to either the emittance of toxic waste or to global warming – without the painting claiming to being interpreted like this. Malbek’s paintings are never programmatic or propagandistic. On the contrary, they insist on their openness, ambiguity and complexity.

In the middle of Bay we again fi nd a bright, multicoloured fi eld – like the reflection of an overwhelmingly beautiful evening sky – or an infectious ocean. Malbek emphasizes her fragmented world view by including here elements of a photo from Stavanger harbour. We see the reflections of a large ocean liner and of buildings. But only the refl ections in the sea, not the ship or buildings themselves. The complexity has reached the limit of reason. The world can no longer be grasped or understood. In the top right corner the scene is framed by some branches of a tree, as if the artist herself tries to encompass the whole scene. In trying to make it harmonic and unifi ed she introduces this well known element from the history of painting or a manual on photography. But not even the artist can save the unity of the picture. Rather she creates a distance between herself as an artist and us as beholders, on one side, and the scene and the people she depicts on the other. The branches define her secluded point of view. She is the distanced, voyeuristic onlooker who registers, but does not participate, who neither possesses power, will or responsibility to influence the scene.

Her choice of technique enhances the distance even more. No traces of the artist’s brush can be found in airbrush paintings, the brushstrokes so often cherished as traces of the artist’s hand or temper. The airbrush creates no such traces, and the canvas is in a sense left physically untouched through the whole of the painting process. If one moves closely to a painting by Malbek, the motive vanishes, but unlike in an impressionistic or pointillistic painting, one can never sense or admire the personality or substance of the individual stroke.

Malbek is by no means alone in producing works of art using airbrush, but historically this technique is connected to advertising and impersonal mass communication. Her large canvases can therefore to an extent be associated to advertising posters, even if their effect on the beholder lies far from the superfi ciality of advertising. On the contrary, Malbek contributes to a renewal of landscape painting, one of the most traditional genres of painting, and manages to make it relevant for people of today. Maybe she even contributes to increasing our understanding of the world – at least she makes it easier to bear.

1 Svetlana Alpers,
The Art of Describing. Dutch Art in the Sevententh Century,
The University of Chicago Press,
Chicago 1983.
Christina Malbek
Landscape revisited and revived
by Einar Børresen

Leg med perceptionens grænser: Christina Malbeks maleri
by Birgitte Kirkhoff

Selected works