Humanity - Nature

Anne Ring Petersen

A selection of Jon Gislason's paintings from the past four years.

"The essential matures when the time is ripe. That is to say, the creative spirit (that which may also be described as the abstract spirit), finds its way into a soul; subsequently into other souls, developing a longing - an inner need. (..... ) Humanity seeks to find in this moment, either consciously or unconsciously, a material form for the new value which in spiritual form lives within it"

It was in this way, in 1912, that Wassily Kandinsky introduced his essay, "On the Problem of Form". What does Kandinsky and his accentuation of the artistic processes' inner essence have to do with Jon Gislason's paintings? Amongst other things, it is concerned with Jon's creativity which is deeply rooted in the same expressionistic traditions that Kandinsky himself pioneered during the first and second decades of this century. Furthermore, he stresses that art is created under pressure from an irrisistable inner impulse. Early expressionism made a conscious break with art's traditional role as interpreter of the external (world), replacing it instead with 'individual, subjective sensing and feeling as the nucleus. Violently distorted shapes and colouristic discord expressed the artist's state of mind. Reality was interpreted emotionally and symbolically; the world serving only as the raw material for the artist's own experiences. Kandinsky expressed himself thus, in "On the Problem of Form":

"Every artist's personal means of expression (i.e. form) is the best, since it most appropriately embodies that which he feels compelled to communicate. (....) Thus, the spirit of the individual artist is reflected in the form. The form bears the stamp of personality".

Kandinsky distinguished between two poles in art's tightrope walk between the figurative and the abstract: "the great realism" and "the great abstraction". Whilst realism, according to Kandinsky, strives against an illusionary repetition of the material nature of concrete objects, tending to expel the purely artistic from the picture, the abstract supplies the aesthetic and emotionally liberated picturesque form. It is in the area of tension between these two outer poles that both Kandinsky's and Jon Gislason's expressionist pictures are conceived.

The colours are the driving force in Jon Gislason's energetic painings. Aggressive rainbow hues blend with darker tones in a richly orchestrated symphony of colour. A brilliant yellow endowed with euphoric light-force is boldly played against bright ultramarine, cobalt, and turquoise, against luxuriant lush-green and earth-green tones, against glowing red, orange and sienna, whilst purple and black enrich the pallette with counter-point and aggressive elements.

The paintings illustrate classic themes, such as landscapes, portraits and busts, albeit undergoing a process of disintegration or change. Simplified configurations are counter-balanced by imaginative layers of colour. Large monochromatic areas, spread across the canvas with broad and bold brush-strokes, accentuate both the surface and the purely picturesque in the painting. Actual perspective composition is avoided as far as possible. Inwardly directed diagonals and perspective grading is seldom used so as not to create an illusion of space. The configurations are alternatively placed parallel to the picture surface.The set point of reference on the horizontal is disguised in a number of ways: it is partially painted over, obscured by numerous overlappings, or by figures mysteriously appearing behind the horizon. The spatial quality of the painting becomes fluid and ambiguous, although a feeling of space is retained by way of the overlapping and an indeterminate depth of colour. Gaping coal-black "holes" often exist in the painting, creating a suggestion of rumbling darkness and secret "otherness" behind the brilliantly-coloured picture surface.

Jon Gislason's art is related to the wild paintings of the 1980's. Inspired in the early '80's by, amongst others, German neoexpressionist painters, a generation of young Danish artists cast themselves into a powerfully expressionist style of painting. Jon Gislason's work suggests exponents of 'heftige Malerei' from Berlin- e.g. Helmut Middendorf, Rainer Fetting and Salome - as well as earlier German artists such as, Georg Baselitz, K.H. HBdicke and A.R. Penck, who in the 1970's defied the supremacy of concept art and minimilism to continue with expressionist painting.

Jon Gislason has the savagery of colour, the physical style of painting and the unaffected portrayal typical of "wild youth". There is, however, a crucial difference, in that Jon declines to use quotations and cliche-filled symbolism with which to maintain a cynical distance to the comments of the media. On the contrary, he has retained the belief that a painting can universally promote the message of existential disposition. This serves to bind him ever closer to the German expressionist painters from the turn of the century, such as Ernst Ludwig Kirschner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Erich Heckel, and the Russian-born Wassily Kandinsky.

Jon Gislason's work is concerned, both with avoiding the inhibiting effect of afterthought during emotional release, and differentiating between that which is seen, and that which is sensed. It is characteristic for Jon Gislason to paint in his studio concentrating on a limited spectrum of basic themes, whilst using the same pallette, regardless of whether or not he is painting landscapes or portraits. An unnecessary cluttering of the observed is thus reduced, and the composition is conceived spontaneously - actually taking shape on the canvas itself. It is seldom, therefore, that there is a strict adherence to preliminary sketches. Themes are laid down one upon another, so that beneath the uppermost motif, one glimpses intimations of the earlier layers from the very genesis of the picture. This particular proceedure presents the beholder with the feeling of examining a still from a volatile and ever-changing flow of consciousness.


Humanity's relationship to nature, both internal and external, is a common theme in Jon Gislason's art. In larger portraits, sharpangled and half-dissolved figures populate the richly coloured landscapes.

the experience of euphoric solidarity with nature is outlined in Pantheistic Landscape from 1989. Two lovers glide, as one, through an undulating landscape, whirling away in an orgiastic cosmic explosion of colour. The picture belongs to Jon Gislason's collection of lovers. Amongst the latest in this theme is The Reclining Couple from 1991. A golden-yellow man and woman fill the entire midnight-blue canvas. In the centre of the painting the rampant woman's belly arches like a rounded hilltop. Despite this monumental portraiture the atmosphere is both intimate and lyrically expressed. The Reclining Couple points towards a thematic of family solidarity and joy over the birth of the child in a series of paintings from 1991 and the beginning of 1992. The imagination is given free rein within this theme in Gold Nugget from 1992. Two radiant gold and orange bird-people hold a golden egg between them. The bodies of the parents rise like a protective light around this symbol of new life. A deep blue background strikes up a festive tone. The simplified figurative repetition, the symmetrical composition and the symbolic use of colour raises the portrayal above the strictly personal to a more universally humane level.

The series of paintings culminates in 1992. Newborn is a personal interpretation of the classic theme, mother and child. Despite the fact that ion Gislason stresses that the painting is drawn from his own experience after the birth of his daughter Petra and is not considered a religious picture, the painting's similarities to the renaissance and baroque exhibitions of "Adoration of the Magi" are striking. The picture is not an attempt to re-institute a defunct religious painting, but rather to present the traditional christian theme as a layer of experience forcing its way in as a channel for the personal, religiously accentuated feelings, arising from the private experiences related to birth. The heavily loaded format urges the beholder to devotedness. On the left-hand side of Newborn the mother is enthroned with the child. A group of admirers on a maternity visit approach from the right. They are only summarily indicated by strident yellow contours. Profiles of the heads, the eye and back are rendered in a clumsy, childish fashion. The shapes are mere human fragments, through which, in the abscence of bodily substance, one glimpses the sea and the sky in the background. The figures thus appear to exist upon the hairline border between genesis and destruction.

In "On the Problem of Form" Kandinsky used the description "the great realism" about the representation of reality, which besides maintaining the outer shape of an object, also expressed the internal spiritual dimension. The approach of simplification to the abstract was, for the early expressionists, a means of expressing the inner, the mysterious, and the visionary. Kandinsky wrote:

"The outer shell of the object, presented in its complete and exclusive simplicity, is already an isolation of the object from practical suitability, and is the ringing forth of the internal".

Simplicity of form and the primitive, unostentatious style also serves Jon Gislason in his attempts to convert the internal to a visual medium.

Gislason's portrayal of the mother in Newborn is, however, far removed from a raphaelesque madonna, resting in harmony and at peace with herself. She is wide-eyed, her mouth forced open in a silent scream as in "the screaming pope" in Francis Bacon's "Study of Velázques' Portrait of Pope Innocence X". The divine and purified light of the renaissance and baroque is replaced by broad, yellow rays, bunched together and shooting aggressively forth to illuminate the still formless newborn in the mothers lap. Illustrative expression is raw and lyrical, strong yet vulnerable at the same time.

The emotional conflicts of humanity are frankly and straightforwardly depicted in Impaled. The gold-framed family portrait with good-natured smiles and self-satisfied Sunday cosyness is turned inside out. Before a landscape of excoriation pink and deep blood-red, as unambiguous colour accentuation, two battle-ready shapes face one another trembling with pent-up aggression. In profile, their faces have sharply pointed beaks instead of noses. The bird of prey's killer look smoulders in their burning red eyes. In the narrow cleft between the steep rock-faces of the brows a screaming baby is literally impaled upon the beak of the parent-figure. The scene can be interpreted both as a critical family drama, and as the adult's inner conflict and psychological crucifixion of the child within themselves.

The confrontation with the vast empryness of the abyss, the free-fall without a safety net, is illustrated by simple means in Free-fall from 1992. The theme is produced by a double exposure of the pictures. The final application shows two tumbling figures. Their corruptible bodies are reduced to two smudged heiroglyphics, which for an instant are retained like transient vestiges in space. A recurring composition in Jon Gislason's landscape painting is a series of slender, black trees standing parallel with the picture plane. A section of the trunks and a suggestion of branches is often seen in direct light against a turbulent sky and the calm surface of the sea. This fundamental theme comprises the background for the damned souls in the Free-fall. In contradiction to Gislason's real landscape paintings, the trunks in Free-fall are black vertical bands totally dominating the background and, from a purely visual point of view, creating holes in the surface of the picture. They are, at one and the same time, both positive and negative shapes, suggesting a firmly rooted and upward-striving life, as well as the close proximity of death and destruction - the hope for life, but especially death.

A series of lesser formats confront the beholder with close-ups of mask-like physiognomies, defiantly spreading outwards to the edge of the painting. Here, the artist explores his own face and the twilight zone of the mind, but the pictures are not self-portraits in the true sense, in that the search goes beyond the outer portraiture to illustrations of the state of mind of humanity. The artist's face is rather more of a template, employed in the artistic personification of feelings - the chaotic and ecstatic, the demonic and dionysion. This group of smaller canvasses also includes the ironic and caricature paintings of the martyred people's inner child, the demons of darkness with empty eye-sockets and the crafty, long-nosed devil with the stabbing eyes.


In Jon Gislason's landscape paintings observed nature is transformed into mood landscapes. Nature is often reduced to simple fundamental elements almost adopting, herewith, the character of a primeval landscape, frequently populated by schematic, anonymous human figures. In the lyrical Spring Landscape from 1992, golden sunbeams break through the downy spring foliage to dance between two slender beeches. The arabesques of the pitch-black trunks calligraoh a rhythmic. horizontal progression across the canvas.

Childhood's Town from the same year is inspired by Jon Gislason's adolescence in the mid-Jutland town of Ry. Despite the title the painting is in fact a landscape, where the red blocks in the background are in fact the only signs of the town's architecture. The outline of a thoughtful figure, perhaps a shadow from the past, is rooted in the clay-like mouldy brown foreground. Aggressive black figurations tear holes in the surface, exposing the repressed void of oblivion and leaving open wounds in the tattered landscape of childhood memories.

In The Tree by the Sea from 1990 a lonely, reflecting figure rests in the shadows of a lofty tree, whose lush foliage is spread out before a broad coastal landscape unspoiled by the destructive presence of civilisation. Jon Gislason calls this the symbolic tree or the tree of life. The choice of words conjures up both the myth of paradise lost and the early German expressionist's yearning for originality, authenticity and recovery of the lost unity between man and nature. Originality, and the creation and shaping of life, is the dominant theme in Gods of Childhood from 1992. Two vaguely human figures can be seen towards the outer vertical edges of the painting. On the left a pregnant woman's swollen belly is outlined in silhouette, whilst a phallic shape rises on the right. The figures are roughly outlined with rapid flowing brushstrokes as though still in the process of creation. They shield the centre of the painting where a floating egg-shape is penetrated by a sperm. The ovoid contours blend into the landscape creating a mountain-top silhouette towering against the blue sky. The landscape becomes translucent and nature's universal creative process is reflected in the correlation of fertilisation to the cycle of nature. In Gods of Childhood the male and female are seperated and joined at the same time. The artistic process of creation has always been the crankshaft upon which the work revolves.

In Elements - Encounter, also from 1992, the sea and sky appear to flow together, becoming one, in a colouristic fluidness dominated by deep green and blue. Incidental strokes and drops of colour accentuate the impression of nature, vitality and change. Two monumental heads in profile and one headless body are exposed upon the background. The meeting between figure and foundation appears to have occurred solely under the powers of coincidence. Only an outline reveals the presence of these outcast gestalts, banished from the scene and denied their ownphysical existence. The figures are pushed in between the landscape and the beholder to act as a kind of filter. A distance to the story is thus established as the spectator's interest is displaced by that which breaks the illusion - namely the purely artistic.

Alienation is also important in relation to the theme of the picture. A recurring theme in Jon Gislason's universe is a double exposure of head and body or a seperation of the same. This fragmentation of the body can be interpreted as an expression of the individual's inner division between feeling/instinct and intellect/reason, or as the erotic energy between the desiring glance and the desired body. In Elements - Encounter the transparent natural elements of the figures are preferred to the plasticity of the body, thus suggesting both existential division and possible recovery of the lost unity between humanity and nature.

Simple imagery and the animation of colour are the major forces in Jon Gislason's portraits and landscapes. Despite ambiguity and dissonant elements the work does not invite the spectator to ponder intellectually, but encourages reflection instead.

One is, first and foremost, delighted by the brush's well-prepared flight across the canvas and the infectious, untamed power of colour. This obsevation traces yet another path back to Kandinsky.

Four years ago Kandinsky wrote on the effect of the musical imagery of colour in the book "On the Spiritual in Art":

"Generally speaking, colour is a medium exercising a direct influence upon the soul. Colour is the key, the eye the hammer, and the soul the piano with a multitude of strings. The artist is the hand upon the keys inciting vibrations deep in the soul of humanity".

Anne Ring Petersen Juli 1992