Dialogue between Kjell Strand and Edith Spira
Kjell Strand: I thought we might start by having you say something about your background.
Edith Spira: I was born in Vienna six years after the Second World War. With hindsight I see that the war also affected me indirectly. Both my parents had to spend their youth abroad, and they had just settled down in Vienna when I was born. My father’s parents came to Vienna from Galicia (now in Poland and Ukraine) and Bosnia. They were killed in the German concentration camps. My father came to England with one of the last “Kindertransporte”. (The “Kindertransport” was an organized rescue effort to bring Jewish children from Germany and other countries that were occupied by Nazi Germany, like Austria, to Britain.) My mother’s parents had to leave Austria in 1934 because of their political activity.
I moved to Norway in 1978. When I moved to Norway, I encountered a new culture to put down roots in, and I eventually lived in many places in Norway. Since 2002 I have been commuting between Vienna and Nøtterøy (an island 100 km south of Oslo). In this way, a nomadic existence has become a part of my biography.
In my work, looking for “a place to be” is something that in an indirect way has come back to me again and again. I am aware that this is true for many people in the world (and for many it is unfortunately a necessity), that this has become a kind of normality, that one lives in a place other than where one was born. In a positive sense it can lead to a type of intuition with respect to the place one comes from and the place one comes to.
KS: You used to paint figurative paintings in a world where many were painting in a nonfigurative style. Here in Norway, Hertevig was rehabilitated, and many of the artists that championed this rebellion ended up within neo-expressionism, but of course also in a kind of stylistic romanticism.
What was the development of Austrian art like and how would you describe your own way?
ES: The development of Austrian art after the Second World War is a very interesting topic that could fill entire books. Therefore I will only answer the question with respect to my own development. The first pictures I immersed myself in as a child were some Persian miniatures that illustrated an edition of Arabian Nights.
Since my parents were more oriented towards science, painting was not the subject of many conversations in our home. My father liked some pictures by the “fantastic realists”, a direction in post-war Austrian art, and also a painter called Georg Eisler, whom he knew from his time abroad and whom he used to play chess with. I still see Eisler as a very good painter. My mother was more interested in art and she took me along to some exhibitions, for example a Cézanne exhibition.
My father was for some time a chemist in a factory that produced paper for art reproductions, and so we got an art calendar every year, including one with Edvard Munch’s work. Reproductions of his pictures and an Egon Schiele poster decorated the walls of my room when I was a teenager.
From early on I took pleasure in drawing and painting. In my student days I worked very figuratively, even if abstraction, minimalism and conceptual art dominated the master class I attended. I was very interested in the human body. This was a choice I made based on the wish that my pictures should be understandable for the “common man”. Little by little I became more and more attracted to non-figurative art.
When I moved to Norway in 1978, I began to experiment with abstraction and so on, maybe because I personally found myself in a “no man’s space”. I see film and installations as media that are better suited to tell sociopolitical stories. But who knows?
KS: In your work there is an apparent back and forth between spontaneous impulsiveness and tight control in your drawings and paintings. What is behind this back and forth in terms of expression?
ES: This has something to do with my personality, which has something heavy and light in it at the same time. This back and forth between different forms of expression is present on many levels in my art. There is a back and forth between the concrete and the abstract, between the reduced and the full, between the organic and the geometric, and so on. For me this is not a question of “either — or”, but of “both — and”.
In the 1980s and 1990s, my etchings and lithographs expressed spontaneity. In 2004 I began a series of drawings that I call “Tageslinien” (“Daily lines”). Drawing is for me a way of thinking, or rather: I let my hand think — and dance. I view my works on paper as poems or letters.
Painting is for me about matter, materiality, and the whole body’s meeting and dialogue with the canvas. Therefore I partly use formats that correspond to the size of my own body. On the other hand, I like small formats that engender intimacy. The story in the painting emerges through actions over time. Independently of technique, I work intuitively. Each time, I set out on a journey to an unknown place. If I overlook the arrival, the journey starts anew from the beginning.
KS. Your paintings mostly have a very strict structure, a clearly accentuated, subdivided surface with clearly defined spatial ratios, but painted in a pastose manner, layer upon layer. It looks as if each square centimetre has been won and conquered through hard effort. Does that mean that in your innermost self you actually like the resistance that painting presents, in spite of the required effort?
ES: That’s right. Every painting is for me an expedition, since my work is process-oriented. At times it feels exhausting. But when I arrive at the state where “one is painting”, the moments are invaluable. I have no problems with giving away my paintings when they are done. On the contrary, it feels good that they are moved on to other places —
KS: Often I perceive in your paintings a need to convey a soft-spoken joy. There is much quietness in your paintings and correspondingly much energy and movement in the drawings. This balancing of modes of expression shows a kind of via passiva and via activa in terms of process, in other words a more contemplative attitude on the one and, and a more extrovert one on the other.
I am interested in the layered application in your paintings and I think that the various layers tell us something about transparent values, the light that breaks through materiality and matter. Can you say something specific about the work process behind this and your intentions in painting as a whole?
ES: The intention? That is an intricate question, and the most honest answer is probably: “To paint a good painting.” But there is a notion of what I want and that the finished painting should emanate something ineffable. The starting point may be my experience of a landscape, a colour fantasy, a relationship to another human being, a smell, a word or several of the above. I start spontaneously as in my works on paper... and then the process of adding and destroying begins, a kind of dialogue with the painting. In the end the painting becomes something of it own — separated from me.
KS: On closer observation, there is an explicit restlessness in the layered treatment in the materiality of the painting, which in many ways is related to your works on paper; on one level, paradoxically, they are related to each other in terms of intention.
ES: That restlessness is something I see as movement, “the inner life of the picture”. In the paintings it is more hidden, because the paintings are composed of many layers. One could just as well call it the nerves of the painting.
KS: Is this where Kierkegaard’s “moment” meets Bergson’s “durée”, permanence, the “now” of eternity? I am not sure I would actually make such a claim, but I see the philosophical impulses incarnated in the light above riverbed and desert!
ES: I couldn’t have put it better myself.
KS: You certainly are interested in water and wetlands, deserts and deserted landscapes. Why this fascination with primordial and untouched?
ES. I am not fleeing from civilization, I benefit from it. And I have hardly been to any untouched places, people have left traces almost everywhere, even in the Sahara we found pot sherds that were thousands of years old as well as tin cans from modern times. I am very fond of looking at landscapes shaped by man, especially fields of cultivated land. It always makes me happy to look down from the plane before I land in Vienna — at all times of the year, actually.
Every person who has been in the desert is moved by it. And it is not a coincidence that the three great monotheistic religions originated there. Emptiness has always been one of my topoi. So far I have been in the Sahara five times. I feel extremely good there, and after all the North African light has inspired many painters (Klee, Bonnard, Matisse etc.). But there is something else there, something almost ineffable. Something connected to the essence of existence, perhaps? And visually it is a momentous experience.
Water — the lake, the river and the sea — is a different story. I have always had an affinity with places near water. Water is like a mirror that reflects its surroundings, always changing. Water is the vehicle of a story — it comes from a place and flows to a place, in perpetual motion. In 2007 I travelled to the delta of the Danube. I had always wanted to see where the river that I love, that I have swum in, that I have paddled in, meets the sea. The journey to the delta turned out to be not only a physical journey, but also a time journey.
KS: We have talked about deserts, deltas and other places suitable for meditation and reflection. But you are also a travelling person where Portuguese fado, Spanish flamenco, Greek islands and Libyan desert areas have been a source of inspiration for your art production. Can you say something more about this and try to say something about what you are looking for?
ES: I like to travel, smell new kinds of fragrance, look at a different kind of light, touch a different kind of soil, and so on. But the main thing is probably that one opens up, and maybe abandons some of one’s own thought and behaviour. When I was on Paros the first time, I started dreaming about shades of green at night.
But I do not always have to travel far; there are places in my local environments that I seek out, time and time again. To be next to the sea, at the banks of the Danube or the Neusiedlersee, which is Europe’s westernmost steppe sea, gives me an especially good feeling. The changes in the water and the sky and the changes of the seasons ensure that I discover something new every time.
But perhaps travelling is about movement, about not standing still?
KS: Your “drawings” are often executed in a mixed technique — and they are serial in the sense that they come in a clear order, seizing time in a more existential way. I often perceive them to be “musical” in the sense that they alternate between the “tonal” and “atonal”, again the strict and schematic character which is valid in classical music — and the dissolved concept of tonality, other modulations and scales, so to speak. What does music mean for you and what sort of music inspires and enriches you?
ES: I see a parallel between my drawings and music. That is why Heidi Kennedy Skjerve and I called our common project “Kammerstücke” (chamber compositions) and why the titles of some of my works refer to music, for example Eric Satie and fado. Often I prefer music that is not too dramatic, and I can be moved by Indian and Arab music. At the moment I’m reading two lectures by John Cage, and much of what he says can be applied directly to painting, even when he talks about silence, which for me is the empty page.
But it is not only about music, but also about sounds, sounds that evoke images in me, sounds that evoke memories... (The church bells next to Grandma’s house, the seagulls’ cries in springtime on Dønna — an island in the North of Norway where I spent three years of my life — the rain dripping down onto the tent, the purring of the cat, my son’s violin playing in the morning, just to mention a few things).
And by the way, I like to wake up to birdsong... and to listen to the voices of the people I love.
KS. The oriental art of carpet-making is the most important pictorial expression of the Muslim world, next to architecture and its elements. The prohibition of pictures was absolute in certain circles, but in Shiraz, the realm of poets — and wine! — one had a more liberal attitude toward most things. What is it about carpet art that engages you? I am curious, because I once saw some small paintings of yours, which were clearly inspired by this tradition.
ES. Carpets and mosaics are almost like objects of meditation for me, a kind of garden, where one can enjoy the work as a whole as well as lose oneself in the details.
What fascinates me about oriental art is its ability to create a totality of many small details. Macro- and microcosmos in one...
KS. One often talks of influences in art. It seems obvious that you also have your favourites. I know that you have often mentioned Klee. What is it about him that has touched you?
ES. “Influence” is perhaps not the right word. As an artist, I am interested in the art that has been produced before me and the art that is being made right now. I saw an exhibition of Klee’s works in my youth. This exhibition was a sort of gateway to art; and his pictorial poesy can still quicken my heart. There is quite a lot of art that I derive intellectual enjoyment from, but I am looking for art which also touches me at the level of the senses and/or emotions. Poliakoff said once that a good painting had to have a heart. But there are so many others, in different epochs, and also different techniques, that mean something to me, from cave paintings to Giacometti’s sculptures, from Goya and Vermeer to Eva Hesse and Agnes Martin. Do not Boltanski’s installations and Zoran Mušić’s drawings from Dachau ask essential questions about human existence? And do not Wolfgang Laib’s installations provide a greater understanding of matter? But as I have said, the list of interesting art seems without end...
KS. I cannot get rid of the feeling that your paintings contain references to Presocratic philosophy; Earth, Air, Fire and Water. In other words, the original, nature itself. What does landscape and nature mean to you in your partly daily urban reality?
ES. Maybe I employ the elements as metaphors — I was very occupied with the I Ching, The Book of Changes, where images from nature are used as metaphors for perpetual changes, both in nature, in human life and in interactions. I am originally a city person, but since 1977 I have mainly lived in more rural places. From 1979 to 1982 I lived on an island close to the polar circle. There I learnt to value light and the changes of the weather every time I looked out of the window — nature’s spectacle.
As a child, I passed some of my most happy moments camping at the shores of a lake or on walks in the woods with my grandmother. I am still grateful that she was able to convey some of her love of nature to me. In my everyday reality, nature is a recreational space, where thoughts tend to become clearer. What happens to me when I’m outside, is that I experience a sort of inner freedom...
On the other hand, I’m a very urban person, who is right now sitting in a café in Vienna, writing about nature. The alienation from the so-called original state creates a sense of longing for that which is about to disappear, or that which has already disappeared.
KS. I see you as a true romantic. For romanticism as a spiritual form means that one recognizes one’s inner psychic universe as just as real as our “real” natural substrate.
Not least their preoccupation with nature prefigures many of the ideas of the environmental movement of our time. How do you relate to the situation we are facing with respect to a possible environmental crisis?
ES. Yes, I’m a romantic. But I’m also a person who thinks politically. As such I see that the environmental problems can only be solved when the social problems of the world are solved. Many solutions that could have been implemented are blocked by the greed of the forces of capital.
KS. Artists are not only intent on enacting their relationship to the world, but also on analysing their experience of it. This is true of any artist. A good example is Cézanne, who, taking the landscape in Aix-en-Provence as a starting point, shows how he has experienced that very landscape, at the same time analysing his experience of it. The artist is occupied with his/her relationship to the world, and with the conditions for this special relationship. Thus art is to elaborate and to enhance consciousness. This is true whether the abstraction is impressionist or expressionist, whether we talk about Renaissance studies in space or the intense piety and faith of Russian icons. What they have in common, however, is that all these representatives of painting depict reality. They are faithful towards it and are committed to it independently of whether their relationship to it is problematic or not.
ES. It is not only about analysis, on the contrary it is a kind of translation — a translation of how one experiences reality (not to speak of what one takes to be one’s reality in the first place). Artists today live in an ostensibly vast space of freedom, most taboos have fallen, great political ideas and concepts have gone bankrupt, and we all have to relate to parallel realities. And we choose what we see. Here we come to a very complex space, which one can view philosophically or religiously. I think that I am trying to find out something about reality through my painting, and also trying to find beauty in the midst of all the pain; and in this way also create a kind of reconciliation.
But I do not exclude the possibility that I may one day take a position on concrete issues. I never forget the faces of the boat migrants that I saw in Crete in 1999, Goya’s depictions are still reality. When will we take the consequences of this?
But my dear Kjell, we all structure reality. What I take to be the problem is that many artists base their work on philosophical theories. At times I also think it is difficult that one has to read a text first in order to understand a work of art... But it does not mean that one should not expect the observer of a work of art to do some work.
KS. You have been interested in photography as a form of expression. What is it about this medium that fascinates you? In which way does this form of expression enrich your work as an artist to begin with?
ES. Photography has always been a part of my life and in my youth I used to work in the darkroom. At the time I was in doubt whether to become a painter or a photographer. Now I’ve become an artist who takes photographs. Taking pictures has helped me learn to see. I experience greater visual awareness when I walk around with a camera. The same thing happens to a greater degree if one sits down in front of a landscape in order to draw or paint it, which I do at times when travelling.
But as time passes my photographs become more and more similar to my drawings, especially when I take pictures of house walls, and to my paintings when I take pictures of landscapes. But I have never painted in imitation of a photograph.
In 2017 I put together my first exhibition of photographs. I had walked through all the streets in Vienna’s Fourth District (the district I grew up in) and photographed parts of house walls. The result is a kind of everyday poetry. But I continue to make photographs of walls wherever I travel. Walls tell stories, they are silent witnesses, they are the skin of the houses… maybe they are symbols of protection?
I have also used some photographs as references in my catalogues. In the future I can imagine combining my photographs with texts.
KS. I think we share a fascination with the relationship between book and picture. Many artists are interested in exploring this relationship further. Throughout his life, Per Kirkeby in Denmark was interested in showing how art was not limited to functioning as autonomous, self-reliant expressions, but functioned in combination with the paper, print and design of the book. Here at home both Nupen and Widerberg have been interested in the same thing and have painted over older prints, pieces of writing or books. You have also done this with older books. How did this part of your practice as an artist arise? You have ended up making quite a lot of objects of this kind.
ES. Yes, pictures and texts have always related to each other and told stories, each in their own way.
Words create images — images create words.
I have approached this in various ways. In 1998 I invited 20 persons to write one text each. These would then be the starting points for paintings. This project resulted in two exhibitions which I called “Translations”. In 2007 I published a book I called “Tageslinien” (Daily lines). In this book I combined some of my works on paper with short texts.
In 2008 I began to paint over old books. In this case I consider the books to be objects characterized by formats, types of paper quality, and their content. In some of the books I was looking for words that are connected to the “Night”. These words I let stand and painted over the rest. This was a series that I presented in connection with an exhibition in Vienna (“The Night in Twilight”, Belvedere 2012).
In a booklet, “Music at Night”, I used some overpainted pages of a drama by Priestly. On these pages I only let some sentences stand, so that a new story emerged.
The question remains: “What is the word capable of? — And what is the picture capable of?”
KS. There has been much talk of the “death” of painting. I have a hard time seeing how this medium could disappear from your work. In your earlier works one senses a fascination with Poliakoff in the composition and structure of the paintings. In your latest paintings, the pastose abstractions of landscapes seem to erode out the “unity of time, place and action”, almost seem to rest in a timeless and placeless space that simply exists. What is your view on this?
ES. Yes, there has been a lot of talk of the death of painting. The theatre did not die after the invention of cinema, so the invention of photography does not lead to the death of painting either. I am very fond of the diversity of forms of expression that exists in art, forms that enrich each other.
Your feeling of the timeless and placeless space is something I can understand. In my painting I am occupied with recollections, or better, the vagueness of recollections. Memories and fantasies melt into each other. But as I have said, for me it’s about seeking something... seeking what?
KS. And where do you think you are heading in your work as an artist, based on your experience so far? You have reached a maturity in your art — and age! — which qualifies for a summary of your art production up to this point. Which works would you like to see included in this context?
ES. I cannot answer this question. I still have a feeling that in spite of a certain amount of experience, I am still on the starting line rather than at the endpoint. But I also know that the end can arrive at any point. As I age I permit myself a greater playfulness. I also know that some topics recur. Some years ago I was tidying up a closet in Vienna, where I found some pictures from my youth... yes, the horizon was already then a topic. But I am a person who often makes detours, I lose my way before I reach the goal... if there is a goal.
Translation Ivo Spira