In the Depths of Figuration

Per Kirkeby’s bronze sculptures mould struggles with the paradoxes of representation into a theology of total incarnation.

Per Kirkeby, Model: To arme (Two Arms), 1981. Patinated bronze, 91 x 38 x 42 cm Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Poul Buchard / Brøndum & Co. © Per Kirkeby Estate

Early in the days of my life in Denmark, I picked up a postcard from a museum shop. As part of a game we sometimes play, my now-husband happened to choose the same image out of the many on display, which gave this rather banal event a tinge of romance. We took it as a good omen and pinned it on one of our apartment’s walls, where it has been living ever since. It represents one of Per Kirkeby’s (1938–2018) models of ‘gates’, and it was my first encounter with the artist’s work in bronze. 

These days, Kirkeby’s bronze sculptures can be experienced en masse, on the brick floors of the Louisiana Museum, where they are given central stage in a new exhibition dedicated to the late Danish artist. The show brings together a vast number of Kirkeby’s bronze works in a variety of scales, from the monumental to small maquettes, and is a rare opportunity to encounter a body of work that covers over thirty years and whose place in the artist’s oeuvre is celebrated here. 

The exhibition weaves connections between the bronzes, paintings, and works on paper and masonite, shining a light on the way Kirkeby incessantly re-worked themes and forms across different media. 

Kirkeby began working with sculpture in the early 1980s, following a crisis with painting, exemplified in the exhibition by an untitled abstract painting from 1979 with chaotic gestures lacking structure or direction. Upon entering the exhibition, viewers are met bronzes from this time, when the artist struggled with figuration (or its impossibility) and sculpture gave him the chance to experiment anew with the paradoxes of representation. 

In these works, Kirkeby explores anatomy and nature, stirring one into another: a delicate human profile emerges from what could be a rock-like formation in Large Head with Arm (1983); two large sculptures which look like burnt tree trunks are given the titles Torso Offshoot and Torso Branch (both 1988). The material is moulded into unstable shapes – reminiscent of Rodin, but also of the melting forms of Medardo Rosso – which seemingly emerge from the formless black lumps of bronze to which they soon enough retract. Representation is here explored as a site of liminality, where forms are extracted from the chaos of materiality, only to fall right back into it, as if ordering mud to stand up. The theme of liminality is a leitmotif in the artist’s sculptural oeuvre, with gates, caves, slits, and vulva-like openings recurring throughout.

The relief Resurrection (1999), a later and larger piece displayed further in the exhibition, suggests that Kirkeby’s preoccupations with the (im)possibility of representation have an in-character historical depth, connecting to the Byzantine debate on iconoclasm. This particularly violent phase of iconoclasm was settled by a theologically constructed defence of images grounded on the dogma of incarnation (Christ being God’s first image), effectively paving the Western tradition of image-making and anchoring it to the sense of sight. 

“Without dispute, no images,” Kirkeby has said, perhaps referring to both his own struggles and to iconoclasm. I can’t help but wonder if it is a radical form of incarnation that is at stake here, a total embodiment that expands beyond the human body into mountains, trees, rivers, and elements. In Kirkeby’s bronzes, representation is not grappled with on the optical surface, but through mass, weight, and gravity. This is a transfiguration that resonates in deep horizontal vibrations rather than in the vertiginous pitch of celestial bells: a theology of the earth, rather than one of the skies. 

Per Kirkeby – Bronze, installation view, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Poul Buchard / Brøndum & Co.

Echoing this preference for horizontality over verticality (which also recurs in the formal structure of many of the works) George Bataille once wrote that humans are erected just so they can burn their face with the sun and look down at their feet in the mud. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, feet are recognisable elements in each of the four monumental reliefs made for the new Opera in Copenhagen (2004). The humbleness of these anatomical parts grinds with grand mythological narratives in these later works. The artist’s infatuation with expeditions and tragic endeavours, mythical and mundane heroes grows hand in hand with an obsession with scale – a universe of male fantasies that can become a bit tiresome. Despite my interest in the theological aspects of the later works, I am more inclined towards the erotic dimension of materiality, which runs through the sculptural oeuvre, rather than the heroic content of the larger pieces from the 1990s onwards.

Grouping so many of Kirkeby’s sculptures together, this is an important exhibition and a distinct gesture in the interpretation of the artist’s work. Many of the pieces in the show have a force which is akin to the blind power of nature, pulsating from the depths of the earth. This vibrational quality, however, needs the right space to thrive. It doesn’t always happen in the exhibition, where some of the galleries are not geared to host so many large-scale works. Likewise, the conservative choice to display the sculptures on white plinths is a bit too contrived to always do them justice. To rectify this, after visiting the show, one should take in the rumbling power of Gate II (1987), which is permanently installed in the museum’s garden. Connected to the ground, it stands monumentally amidst the colours of nature, which is, after all, Kirkeby’s preferred palette.

Per Kirkeby, Læsø-hoved II (Læsø Head II), 1983. Bronze, 91 x 38 x 42 cm. Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. Donation The Merla Art Foundation Photo: Poul Buchard / Brøndum & Co. © Per Kirkeby Estate