Q&A with Sverre Malling

On June 15th the exhibition Louis Moe (1957–1945) / Sverre Malling opened at Kunsthall Grenland, Porsgrunn. KUNSTforum asked Sverre Malling some questions about his art and what inspires him.

Louis Moue, 'Syndernes dødsdans', 1903.

Louis Moe, ‘Syndernes dødsdans’, 1903. Photo: T. Wideberg

Can you tell us about your recent exhibition and book release?
I’m exhibiting my own drawings along with the late artist/ illustrator Louis Moe (1857-1945) in Grenland Kunsthall. To coincide with this, No Comprendo Press publishes a book: Sverre Malling – Louis Moe. To work with this publisher has been like a dream. They are a small publishing house run by a married couple, but are passionate and give Norwegian drawing a big boost. I am endlessly grateful to be working with such a credible publisher.

I have been a great admirer of Louis Moe works for a while and find it captivating to show my work alongside his. Louis Moe is in many ways a forgotten symbolist. Moe is an illustrator most people know from H.C. Andersen’s fairy tales and from children’s books with animals and nature published in Denmark. But Moe was born in Norway, and had a facet that was far darker and more grotesque than the colorful teddy bear drawings would indicate; engravings, etchings and drawings that belong to a European tradition of dark, heavily symbolic motifs full of devils, witches and death. It is this aspect of him that is focused on in Kunsthall Grenland’s summer exhibition and in the book. When Moe was inspired by symbolism far into the next Century, this style was already considered far-fetched and obsolete. In Moe’s art you find reminiscences of European names such as Max Klinger, Felicien Rops, Franz Von Stuck, who all aimed their social criticism at the radical change in industrialized cities of at the end of the century. The cultural turmoil was personified by the woman as whore and Madonna, syphilis, the suffrage movement and a penchant for apocalyptic themes. In the symbolists’ universe, the modern sexual liberation becomes a disease, dissolving the social framework that defines a society. We also see a pull towards the extreme. Louis Moe invites you into a mysterious world of ambiguity and distorted images of innocence.

Sverre Malling, 'Skog' (Forest), 2013

Sverre Malling, ‘Untitled (Forest)’, 2013. Photo: T. Wideberg

The result is a meeting between me and Louis Moe, a meeting spanning over a hundred years and several generations. The book blurb points to an affinity with Louis Moe, in my approach to apocalyptic themes, though with the iconography and cultural references of my own generation. I think, however, it is too easy to pinpoint an apparent connection with Moe, but I think the affinity is there. The audience is better served with unravelling the connections on their own.

I hope neither show nor book is biased or exaggerated, and thus drained of reflective, metaphorical space.

Can you describe your process, from idea to realization?
I’ve given a lot of thought to collage recently and have been working on dissonant images which can’t be united into a single narrative. I believe in a state of flux between concepts and form of expression. Art is about not establishing a mutual hierarchy between them. It is also about permitting myself to take liberties, to open up for imaginative and aesthetic paths, and not confine myself to a given formula with fixed rules.

Sverre Malling, 'Fritzl', 2013

Sverre Malling, ‘Untitled (Flower/Fritzl)’, 2013. Photo: T. Wideberg

In contrast to cut-and-paste production, I regard drawing as a medium that creates more time, more attention. It is a medium that fixes attention and establishes a sense of calm and concentration on the edge of restlessness; it is a kind of strong or heartfelt postproduction. I’ve become more concerned about the process of acquisition. It’s a question of the material, of experiencing and not just appropriating an element as part of the context of an image or piece of work.

What are your main influences when creating a work of art?
I’m rather eclectic and find my motifs here and there. They can be fragments assembled from many places, almost like a collage. My studio is full of books and I’m also a fan of the digital flow of images online. The drawing may function as an immersive medium of translation and framing for these fragmented collage reflections. The slow immersion in the medium can mature the fragments into a coherent experience.

Sverre Malling, 'Land Rover', 2013

Sverre Malling, ‘Land Rover’, 2013. Photo: T. Wideberg

Can you name an artist, piece of art, music or exhibition that has inspired you?
I recently did a drawing with the landscape and a Land Rover which alludes to the band Throbbing Gristle. This was a British band in the 70’s that played ambient and industrial music, and the cover on the album 20 Jazz Funk Greats from 1979 was burlesque and ironic. In their cacophonic sound collages, categories that are usually separate are mixed, organized into rhythmic ambient. It is a mixture of music, performance and spirituality that I find exciting. They don’t move into the set of positive values, instead they remain in the outsider position, and can’t be easily absorbed into any style that conforms to the mainstream or a set pattern. I think the band’s belief about the existence of an information war was just as important to them as their music. This is maybe particularly relevant today, with Facebook and virtually endless access to information. They imagined that we were on our way into a new medieval period where, in contrast to the former one, we suffer from far too much information.

The drawing is based on a picture taken at Beachy Head on the south coast of England, an area where people jump to their death off the cliffs. You see the landrover in the background, and in one of the versions of the album cover, you also could see a naked dead man in the foreground. In my drawing, a chain with St. George, the patron saint of the Order of Garter, is hanging above the Land Rover. That is the oldest knightly order in England. The chain emerges from the sea covered in seaweed, so powerful forces are engaged: a knight and a dragon in battle.

Sverre Malling, 'Masken' (The Mask), 2013

Sverre Malling, ‘Untitled (Mask/Primates)’, 2013. Photo: T. Wideberg

Can you name a writer or book, fiction or theory, that has inspired your work?
I’m a fan of Tor Ulven’s poetry (1953–1995). His poetry allows a cognitive dissonance and is hence anything but simple. It is characterized by a human directness while at the same time destroys the feeling of community. I like the tension between these two seemingly irreconcilable extremes.

Why is art important?
I think we all are a bit lonely. And I think that art can sometimes release us from the solitude for of a moment, and this is good for us.

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