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The Montréal Review, May 2023


TMR: Peter, when I look at many of your paintings, I see something threatening in "Togetherness" - I see people who are extremely concentrated and serious. What is the message here?

PETER MARTENSEN: First of all, the idea of a "message" in my work is well known to me because of the perception people often have when looking at my paintings. For me, messages belong to politics, advertising and social coexistence. So if there are messages in my work, they are unintentional. For me, the canvas is a place where I can test visual ideas and subconscious things. I paint before I think and plan. I let out my inner images and worries and look at them afterwards.

But of course - when I paint people, the psychological aspect is always present, even though I don't intend to put emotions into my characters. I prefer the expression of my characters to be neutral. This, I guess, could be perceived as “seriousness”.

THE OCEAN. (2022 ) Oil on canvas. 120x150 cm

TMR: Paintings like The Catholic, The Passengers, The Ocean and many others are about a journey. Where are these people going? Is your work about the future of humanity in general?

PETER MARTENSEN: When I think about the content of my work, it deals with themes like human existence, power and powerlessness. This is heavy stuff, but it is what my thoughts are constantly revolving around. It's a huge cliché that life is a journey, and I don't mind using clichés in my work as long as they don't compromise the painting. I think the cliché is a fundamental part of most people's thinking, and having it around in my work shows what I experience when I am among others.  

RECOVERY. (2009) Oil on canvas. 150x185 cm

TMR: There is a paradox in your paintings: we see people on the move and yet immobile, frozen in a moment.

PETER MARTENSEN: Painting is a perfect place for paradoxes, and that is one of the things I like most about it. If you think deeply enough about how the world works, you always end up in paradoxes. Painting manages to accommodate the impossible in a very organic way and at the same time turn it into an aesthetic experience.

TMR: Some of the paintings seem to depict a technocratic society, yet they are full of religious symbolism. If there is indeed a religious element in them, I do not see much hope. Or am I wrong?

PETER MARTENSEN: I grew up in the 50's and 60's and I remember the sense of optimism among people. World War II was over, the future looked bright - and except for the Cuban crises - material life was becoming easier, and there was a faith, a confidence in science as the great helper in maintaining a perfect life for everyone. My background was a middle class family. My father worked in advertising and looked like Don Draper in 'Mad Men'. I experienced the conformity that was the "normal look" for middle-class men, and later, when I was part of the flower power movement, I saw how all those men in white shirts seemed to be echoes of a set of cultural restrictions whose only purpose was to fit into the image of the "average man.

When, at the beginning of my career, I felt that there was a visual potential in this type of person, but also a lot of hidden and unrealized emotions, it became a way for me to paint a figure without personality, like a building block. I did not want too much psychology, because my project was to simplify and get rid of any kind of sentimentality. When I composed my paintings with this figure, I discovered that people put their emotions into my works, even though I was painting for no other purpose than to make a composition with men. So to answer your question, with the paintings of men in white shirts, the feelings I put into the paintings were mostly about the composition, but I knew that my figures were signs of deeper, more complex things.

Later, around 2010, the men in my paintings started wearing white coats.

My wife and I moved to a country estate with a lake and a forest, and I went crazy over the beauty of the landscapes. I had a lot of trouble painting without people in all the green. And then they invaded the paintings - and everything seemed right again. When I look at them now, I think they represent science. So for me this is a hope - in terms of the climate crises, the epidemics, and all the other disasters - that there is somebody out there who will take care of it and fix it.

The answer to the religious part of your question is that I consider myself a Christian, but I don't intend to promote religious things in my work. On the other hand, I know that the subconscious part of creating paintings has its own life, and basically I don't really know what I'm expressing when I paint.

WETLAND. ( 2013) Oil on canvas. 200x200 cm. Photo: Henrik Petit

TMR: Do you think that science or scientific knowledge will eventually triumph over art and religion?

PETER MARTENSEN: A very good question. For me, knowledge is fundamental to understanding matter and mind. It reveals the mechanics behind things. Religion and art show us ways to deal with meaning and substance in the language of the heart, which is love. Some of the greatest scientists have maintained their religious faith despite the lack of scientific evidence. Our brain has two parts - the creative and the analytical - that's how we deal with reality. My answer must be that the two ways of knowing will walk hand in hand towards the new horizons of the future...

MUSEUM. (2022) Oil on canvas. 120x150 cm.

TMR: Can you tell us something about your creative process? What is your inspiration and starting point for a work?

PETER MARTENSEN: I used to just start painting and see what came up. If something inspires me, I follow it like a bloodhound. I like to improvise, and I usually don't sketch before I paint. If I see a photo that speaks to me, I will use it. I collect old family photos at flea markets. Some of them have inspired several paintings. Movies and pictures from newspapers and the internet have also inspired me. But above all, there is a certain feeling that I try to keep in my work. It is as if I want my paintings to be foreign to me. Like I don't know what's going on. That is my fuel. This is my main idea of the world: What the hell is going on? I basically don't understand anything.

THE SETTLEMENT. (2016) Oil on canvas.100x120 cm. Photo: François Ayme

TMR: Who are your teachers in art?

PETER MARTENSEN: My teacher, Kaj Kylborg, was a local painter at the Funen Academy of Art in Odense, where I was born. Later, I spent some time with Dan Sterup-Hansen, making etchings and drypoint prints at the printmaking school of the Royal Academy of Art in Copenhagen.

TMR: What is the life of a painter like? How do you spend your time? What inspires you?

PETER MARTENSEN: A painter's life, for my part, is trying to see and be aware of what is happening around me. Painting every day, even when I am not inspired. Reading books, meeting friends and, as my home is in a forest by a lake, observing the animals, trees and plants around us.

I also work in a group of sound performers - visual artists and musicians - experimenting with the idea of sound just before it becomes music. We have been working like this for almost 30 years, performing in public places like churches, galleries, museums. It means a lot to have this free space. We start from scratch, we don't know what will happen when we start. We use homemade instruments, toys, old zinks, electric pedals, guitar, organ, bass, trumpet, drums, whatever.

The group has a new name every time we play.

WORLD'S END. (2009) Oil on canvas.100x120 cm.

TMR: The Montreal Review is all about books, art and culture. Tell me what you read, who your favourite authors are and why you like their books.

PETER MARTENSEN: I am not a heavy reader. Often it turns out to be a competition between going to the studio and painting or reading. So the book has to be very difficult for me to put down. Or very short. Recently I read "Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship" by Hannah Arendt. It is based on a speech she gave in 1964. I am concerned about how the population of Russia, but also of China, navigates in a system of oppression. Since my early work on the Nuremberg trial, I have been trying to understand the dynamics of people's minds in large groups.

But first and foremost, I am fascinated by astro and particle physics, and I read as much as I can about it. I have been reading astronomy books since I was a child, and since the Hubble and James Webb telescopes came into existence, the amount of data from the universe has increased dramatically. Carlo Rovelli's books on space and time are incredibly clear and eye-opening, despite the complexity of the subjects.

One novel in particular - My Struggle, an autobiographical novel by Karl Ove Knausgård - made me read all six books in a row. It was a powerful experience. His language is straightforward, but the content is overwhelmingly complex and raises a lot of important existential questions. I felt loaded with new ideas, new perspectives after reading it. I read the novel while he was working on the last two books, so the suspense was optimal.

At the moment I am reading The Morning Star, also by Knausgård.

The last book I read was Inferno by August Strindberg. I loved it. Actually, there is also an autobiographical touch to this novel. Strindberg based the novel on his diaries from his stay in Paris in 1897 and before. He ran away from his wife and children to follow his vision of finding a way through alchemy and chemistry to explain how everything is connected. Throughout the novel, he goes through various states of mental ordeal. It is written in a manic, intense way, and it is like being inside his strange head as things unfold.

THE GAME. Oil on canvas.140x180 cm

TMR: Tell me what you think about contemporary Western culture in general. Do you see any new trends or major changes?

PETER MARTENSEN: We live in strange times. I am quite sure that freedom is one of the dearest feelings that people can have. But the shells have fallen from our eyes and we are discovering how much freedom costs. Because everything and everyone is connected, and our world has a limited size, the "old" idea of freedom has lost some of its charm.

Therefore, we must change our ideas to a more holistic and caring approach if we are to survive. There must be limits to greed and wealth.

There are growing signs of openness to these ideas among the younger generations, who have the will and soon the power to make the change.

THE SECRET. (2009) Oil on canvas.100x130 cm.

TMR: What advice do you have for young artists?

PETER MARTENSEN: I usually find it annoying to get advice about my art and my career - so I can only say: trust yourself, be shamelessly honest, rely on your patience, and don't listen to advice.


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