18 March 2017


Urban Larsson, Standing Woman with Kimono, 2003.

In my art I strive for beauty and to express timeless human values, so the art that inspires me is certainly not limited to any particular period of time. You live once and have a choice from the history of art to find what elates and motivates you, but also what you find meaningful and profound.

– Urban Larsson

In the timelessness of human longing, past and future are one. When theatre critic Kenneth Tynan spoke with Orson Welles in that famous Playboy interview of March 1967, he asked the great man: “Do you agree with those modern artists who say: ’I don’t care what happens to my work tomorrow – it’s only meant for today’?” “No,” Welles replied. “To care about today to the exclusion of any other time, to be self-consciously contemporary, is to be absurdly parochial. That’s what is wrong about the artist’s association with the huckster. Today has been canonised, beatified. But today is just one day in the history of our planet. It’s the be-all and the end-all only for somebody who is selling something […] I don’t reject our yesterdays. I wish that parts of our dead past were more alive. If I’m capable of originality, it’s not because I want to knock down idols or be ahead of the times. If there’s anything rigid about me, it’s a distaste for being in vogue.”

“He paints what the eye can see, and that is quite rare today. His works tell us about our time, but also about a bygone era,” says Museum Director Elsebeth Welander-Berggren about Swedish-born artist Urban Larsson (b 1966) and his body of work that occupies the seriously staircase-y Sven-Harrys konstmuseum in Vasaparken in Stockholm this spring. And she is right.

In their book John Singer Sargent: Portraits of the 1890s, Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray talk about “the here and now contrasted with the continuity and elegance of the past”. Larsson, too, paints with a clear head and a blazing heart, he paints with distinction, commitment and historical depth. It is the red pill of painting – Mr Larsson paints according to reality, he seems to believe that unreality keeps us from ourselves – and it is very other-century, though he doesn’t paint 17th- or 18th-century wonderlands but portraits, landscapes and still lifes straight out of the present world. And he paints them with the disciplines of history and tradition in mind, as to make parts of our living past even more alive.

Urban Larsson comes from a Stockholm family of architects. In spite of his many talents and interests, things nonetheless looked like he was going to follow the course of his father and older brothers during his early years. In 1987, Larsson found what he had been looking for – Studio Cecil and Graves (today Charles H Cecil Studios), a private art school on “Left Bank” Florence, wonderfully steeped in atmosphere and old-world tutoring – “even though I did not really know what it was I had been looking for. It was an incredibly serious searching, and a serious learning of painting, and what I saw there impressed me entirely.”

“It is difficult to describe in words the feelings that passed through my head during the thirty-eight-hour train journey to Florence in early January 1988. It was only positive, but also a sense that something new was ahead,” Larsson tells The Stockholm Review. “Since my studies of the Renaissance at Stockholm University were fresh in the memory and very inspiring, I was also coming to Florence full of expectations and keen to see everything that I had read about in reality. I arrived at four in the morning, and after leaving the baggage I walked in the sunshine through the city, dazzled by everything I saw. At 8:30, when I thought that the students at Studio Cecil and Graves would be there, I called at the door, which was opened by Cessna who, with a familiar Southern accent [Larsson was an exchange student in North Carolina], welcomed me warmly.”

“The time that followed was extremely intense. All the interaction with the other students from different parts of the world, there were ten to fifteen students there who all had come to the little school with a desire to learn to draw and paint, but also of course the thrilling sensation of watching how my drawings became better and better. There were long days, and when I left the studio I was so dazzled after a day of intense concentration that I could hardly see anymore. Evenings were spent almost always with friends, simple dinners and plenty of Chianti.”

The routine at the Studio was nude studies, and pencil and charcoal drawing of plaster casts. When Larsson was about to leave in June he was seen as quite fit to try out painting. His original plan was to return to Stockholm and (said in a certain tone of irony) “do something important”. He studied architecture at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) from the fall, but the allure of what he had discovered in Florence was of course irresistible and impossible to ignore. “The exhilarating feeling to be able to draw and paint something on a two-dimensional canvas or paper, and at the same time to express something you know and believe in, was so overwhelming and thoroughly penetrating that in the spring of 1989 I decided to take a study break and go back to Florence.” He stayed at Studio Cecil and Graves until he moved to Amsterdam, Larsson’s hometown since late 1991.

He claims that he never made the decision to become an artist. “It is a consequence of the will or the drive and the necessity to want to paint. This ‘poison’ was awakened during the first few months in Florence and it has never left me. It is a combination of several things. One is the emotional closeness and the intensity of the creative process, and another is the deep magic of recreating my vision of life and objects on a canvas. It’s a hell of a complicated process but the joy overcomes the negative. And ultimately, I have no choice.”

His momentous Brown Family Painting (BFP), completed in 2014, was such a complex endeavour that the artist also recorded the entire process with the details and the ideas in a book, a key or a manual for future generations which was passed on to the bourbon family from Louisville, Kentucky, who commissioned this original and ingenious portrait of their seventeen individual portraits – collected and conceived anew on a 120 x 180 cm canvas in Larsson’s Prinseneiland studio, a studio built in the late 1800s on a small piece of land in the water world of Amsterdam.

The Portrait of Christina Lee Brown (2012) is hanging next to the big BFP, with the painting in the painting. One of those many things to discover in the Brown Family Painting (BFP) is a copy of the catalogue that Larsson gave to Mrs and Mr Brown when they met in Maastricht in 2011 to discuss the commission for the first time. “They told me that they very much wanted a large family portrait. They have three children who in turn have three children each, so it was nine children and eight adults. We had lunch and when they told me this, I said that the portraits I do entail a longer perspective because I assume that my paintings will remain for hundreds of years. I told them how wonderfully interesting it would be to make a great painting in full figure, but that they had to understand that it would be bigger than The Night Watch.”

Instead of competing with Rembrandt’s massive (335 x 426 cm) masterpiece from 1642 – with Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch surrounded by sixteen of their men – Larsson came up with an idea: “Wouldn’t it be interesting if I made a few portraits in actual size … I could do the grandchildren in charcoal? And then when all the portraits are finished and framed, I hang them in my studio and do an interior painting where all the portraits are visible?” And that settled the matter.

The empty Magrittean chair in the BFP marks the loss of Owsley II who died three months before he and his wife were bound for the sittings in Amsterdam. (His portrait was painted from a photograph.) “So she came alone and decided that this big project were to continue,” Larsson explains. “Then I was in Louisville and made ten portraits. I had thirty-three sittings in thirteen days so it was very intense. One family came and posed in Amsterdam. But I needed to develop a composition and I was in contact with Christy. My idea was that it would feel as if you would walk into the studio. I worked on the painting for two weeks, then I realised that it wouldn’t work. So then I stretched a new canvas and started all over again. The painting finally took four months, full time. It was like going into a bunker. It was amazing.”

The Portrait of Christina Lee Brown is behind her husband’s, placed on a model stand used by the artist so that he and the sitter are on the same eye level. The palette on the podium with the splashes of paint was used during the one and a half months that Larsson worked on the underpainting. Behind the heads of the family is a self-portrait, requested by Christina Brown, on an easel with the same position and gesture as the man in the doorway in Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656). (The position of the other easel in the BFP also very much reflects Las Meninas.) Above the doorway is a shelf with some impressive seashells from his beautiful Dutch wife Lara’s collection – Owsley II was also a collector of shells – and an old cast made at the Louvre of Jean-Antoine Houdon’s terracotta bust of Benjamin Franklin, made in the 1770s when Franklin was the US Ambassador in Paris.

Larsson had found the bust in an antique shop when he was biking in Amsterdam. “I bought it and realised during the setting up of BFP that it would fit very well. Not only because of Matthew [Barzun] having been US Ambassador in Sweden and currently in the UK, but also how the Brown family are such great ‘ambassadors’ when it comes to culture, environment and revival and recognition of Louisville in so many aspects,” as he writes in the private book. Matthew Barzun sort of appears twice in the BFP – one of his portraits is leaning against the wall with the back of the painting facing the viewer, a pendant to the catalogue cover of Woman in a Chair (2004) who is also turning her back on us – and the portraits of him and his wife Brooke, an offspring of the Browns, and their children are all on the left side of the doorway.

Urban Larsson reveals in the book how he “thought it was necessary to include a reference to Louisville and Kentucky. Therefore I decided to make up a book cover (left of door, leaning on Jacques’s portrait). The cloud has the shape of the state map of Kentucky and the man on the horse is of course symbolising Louisville Kentucky Derby. The racing silks he’s wearing were designed by Owsley II’s grandfather.”

The other Brown children, Augusta Holland and Owsley III, and their spouses and children are on the right side of the doorway, alongside a city view, View from Blasieholmen, Stockholm, Sweden, that Larsson painted in 2013 – when he was staying in his native Stockholm to immortalise the queen for the National Portrait Gallery at the Gripsholm Castle – together with Still Life with Pumpkin, Wine and Chinese Porcelain (also 2013). The wine glass in this painting was a gift from Owsley III and his wife Victoire when they came to Amsterdam for the portrait sittings. Having these paintings from the BFP in the exhibition at Sven-Harrys is a bracing reality-twister, but it is hardly ever likely to find Larsson on the same page as Magritte.

The artist restrained himself from drinking the bottles of bourbon that Christina Brown was sending him – there is a bottle of Old Forester in the painting – and instead listened to books while he was working on the big canvas. One of these was Edward Gibson’s tome The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, from start to finish.

“After having signed the painting ‘BFP’ in March 2014 it needed to dry for at least three months. In the beginning of the summer I varnished, photographed and framed it with a frame named ‘tipo Lara’. It was then time to ship all the paintings to Louisville,” he writes. “When I came to my studio the next day, not only did it feel physically empty, but I felt empty too. I had lived and ‘conversed’ with all these portraits and BFP for so long and all of a sudden they were all gone. It was a bittersweet moment.”

“To paint a commissioned portrait is an incredibly intense but interesting process. Usually it takes at least five sittings, and each sitting lasts two and half to three hours,” Larsson explains. The art of conversation is paramount to him when he paints someone’s portrait. “One important thing with my portrait painting is that you make the portrait together. You cannot paint a portrait of someone who isn’t involved. In that case you will fail to recreate any depths and there will only be a resemblance. Therefore, I also have a mirror behind me when I paint so that the sitter can follow the process.”

Larsson utilises a lot of curtains to get the most out of the magical natural light in his studio. “It begins with the composition. The light must be interesting for me. I have to see a painting in front of me, but it must also work for this person’s physiognomy.” And he sees himself as a funambulist with paint. “The process itself is like walking a tightrope: on one hand, it is about ratio – you must analyse the drawing, the contrasts, colours, proportions – on the other, you have to completely let loose and just use intuition and somehow work until you find the picture that you had imagined once you started. If one of those things doesn’t work you lose balance, and sometimes you lose the balance so much that you have to start again from the beginning.”

“When I was commissioned to paint the portrait of Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok in 2002, I briefly reviewed whether it would be a portrait and also a phase of the profession, but quickly realised how odd that would be for me,” he replies when I ask him how he deals with the masks of formality when he paints heads of state. “I am interested in capturing people and their inner lives and certainly not their occupations. Sometimes I add attributes that go with the profession, but what interests me the most is to catch the person.”

I mention Velázquez’s Portrait of Innocent X (1650) in Rome as the greatest and most intense portrait that I have encountered. (The vulgar pope told Velázquez that it was “too real”, too revealing.) Urban Larsson regards Velázquez’s practice painting of his factotum and slave Juan de Pareja – which preceded the one of the pope since Velázquez hadn’t painted for a long time – as one of the best portraits ever made. And consequently he has spent a great many hours in Gallery 610 at the Met in New York. “I am standing there watching and thinking about why I love this painting so much, and then it happens: the portrait begins to breathe, and I can not leave.”

”She thinks a lot about the pageant of being human – what it senses, loves, suffers, thrills like,” writes Diane Ackerman in A Slender Thread. “Older, what she craved was to be ten or twelve selves, each passionately committed to a different field – a dancer, a carpenter, a composer, an astronaut, a miner, etc. Some would be male, some female, and all of their sensations would feed back to one central source.” Larsson clarifies that a portrait is always an interpretation of the artist himself, and of course even in our time many forget that”.

Some of Larsson’s female portraits are difficult to leave, but the best thing he has painted in this genre is the endearing Portrait of Rudi Ekkart, Former Director of RKD (Dutch Institute for Art History) (2012). It is a fantastic portrait (painted in only a few colours, just like Velázquez’s Portrait of Juan de Pareja), in which Larsson fathoms the essence and disposition of Ekkart with immediate physical and psychological truthfulness. Not that I know the man, but now I do.

Urban Larsson paints his works according to the sight-size method. He says that he walks several kilometres to and fro each day in his studio just to get everything right. And he has a tip to the viewer from Leonardo da Vinci, that the best distance to look at a painting is three times its longest height or width. In whatever way you choose to imbibe Larsson’s portraits, there is always one element that makes them instantaneously recognisable:

“The sitters always bring different clothes and then we decide what would work for the painting. As for the paintings of models, I choose something to ‘help’ the composition and the expression I want to convey. Often it is simple garments, which may seem old-fashioned. It doesn’t have to be ‘old-fashioned’, only that the colour or shape helps the picture. Another reason may be that some garments are incredibly beautiful, as with the blue-green kimono [Standing Woman with Kimono (2003)]. It is old and has belonged to one of the last Chinese emperors’ concubines.”

The exhibition features some self-portraits – “To paint tête-à-tête is complicated and also a confrontation of oneself. Being an artist is a lonely profession, and with self-portraits that becomes almost evident,” he says – and some nudes: “The human body is the most complicated to draw or paint. Most models are also dancers, and thus conscious about their physique and they are interested in the process, which is very important. They are after all artists themselves.” The person whose portrait Larsson speaks about with most warmth is not a dancer but a woman with wrinkles of old age and breasts long lost to gravity, Portrait of Lenie (An Artists’ model Since the 1950s) (2005). He met her in the drawing class that he still attends to every week.

“I started talking to her and she told me that as an eighteen-year-old after the war in Amsterdam, when it was famine and everything, she answered an ad to become a model for a thirty years older artist. Her parents were not too happy about it, but she started to pose for this man and after a while they were married. And then she spent her whole life working as an artists’ model. She said her goal in life was to inspire and help artists to work well. And I thought that this is absolutely fantastic. And what I wanted with this painting was to show her pride for this – perhaps not quite fashionable – profession that she had, but also a bit like an answer to Lucian Freud who painted similar models. I tried to make something that is more positive and beautiful.”

Larsson’s landscapes, always smaller than the portraits, are either flat or cragged, depending on whether they are painted in the Netherlands or in Italy or Provence (his fleshy mountains from Provence are great). The earliest landscape in the show is Rocks with Trees at Arco Naturale, Capri, Italy (1999), painted just a few hundred metres north of Villa Malaparte, which everyone should know from Godard’s mighty Le Mépris (1963). All of his landscapes are attractive vistas, void of people, but it is the freer brushwork of his recent pieces that makes them breathe. Timelessness can only be reached if you allow the world to spin.

Urban Larsson pronounces that he needs “the spontaneous contact with nature, this particular field of tension that exists, and the spontaneous brushwork that will not happen in the studio. I always paint en plein air – just to try to catch the air, the colours, and I try to create a personal interpretation of what I experience. In the landscape, light changes all the time. When you are standing there and the wind is blowing everything away, you get kamikaze flies in the paint and, of course, people who come by and want to chat. But despite all that, for me it is extremely important to be out there, to evaluate the different contrasts and to try to create a whole.”

There are two issues with Larsson where I think he does his art a disservice. One is the overpowering Florentine frames, which are beautiful as they are, however here they not only frame the pieces but shut them up. The other is his stylish still lifes. They are by all means skilfully executed and “beautiful”, but the truth of the matter is that inanimate objects need inner tension and they need dialogue, not forced harmony. “Previously I was interested in using symbolism in still lifes, but that absolutely doesn’t seem interesting anymore, and not something related to our time. ‘Art for art’s sake’, the subtle, the ‘abstract’ must show the vision of the artist and his emotional involvement,” Larsson responds. “I regard a still life pretty much as an object of meditation. And as with all the other paintings, you have to be emotionally involved for it to become something. The entire painting process is incredibly emotional. I have to pep myself to create something great. Self-criticism is my best friend, it is always with me and it pushes me forwards. The composition in a still life is essential. No item must catch too much attention. The eye should be able to move around and not get caught up by certain things.”

He is united with his paintings here at Sven-Harrys in Stockholm. Larsson regrets that he doesn’t see his “children” very often these days.

“We live in so desperate an age that any happiness which we possess must be hidden like a deformity, for we know that, though all our nature revolt, we can create only through what we suffer,” wrote Cyril Connolly in his disorderly but oh-so eloquent The Unquiet Grave in 1944. This is what art came to look like after World War II.

“For the academic artists and writers of the 19th century, humanity was what counted, and everything that made us human; how we see ourselves and how we see the world. Humanity was glorified and people of every type and shape, every nationality and colour, every occupation and avocation, were represented in their work. We were what counted …” argues Fredrick Ross in his foreword to Simon Toll’s book on Frank Dicksee.

“From roughly 1848 onwards, all of the normal criteria for judging, describing, and chronicling the history of art have been unceremoniously abandoned by 20th-century educators of art history who at the core are apologists for the modernist paradigm,” Ross continues. “Almost all the art textbooks that have been used since the middle of the 20th century have rewritten the history of the 19th century to fit the needs and prejudices of the ‘modernist’ art world; which sees all of art history through a ‘deconstructionist’ lens that defines as important, valuable and relevant, only those works which broke one or another of the rules and parameters by which works of art were formerly valued and appreciated.”

“I think that it was David Bowie who said that as an artist you have to follow your ideals, and that is really what I’ve done over the years,” Larsson notes. He says that he finds it interesting to be on the outside of contemporary art. The people in his portraits are determined by humanity and inner life. They are unbound by time and quite in contrary directions to the modernist picture of man as a naked, poor, forked radish.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eludes us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther … And one fine morning –

Our yesterdays.

Urban Larsson, Brown Family Painting (BFP), 2014.

Urban Larsson: Painting from Life at Sven-Harrys konstmuseum in Stockholm through April 16 and at De Mesdag Collection in The Hague, April 26–June 18, 2017.