Landscape revisited

Text by Torben Weirup


Library of Alexandria, Egypt

An introduction to Pia Andersen.

The Danish painter Pia Andersen was born in 1960 in Frederikshavn, a small harbour town in northern Jutland. She describes her childhood as safe and harmonious. Her parents ran a florist shop, and both are creative, engaged in crafts and painting. One night a week, Pia Andersen and her father get together to draw and paint. The pictures are meticulously naturalistic, the motifs representations of animals and landscapes.
The town was formerly called Fladstrand (Flat Beach), and the area is characterised by low-lying lands and high skies, and the close connection with nature and with the sea and sky seems to have become a recurring inspiration for the artist, who does, however, visit other countries and cultures in the search for new impressions to an extraordinary degree.

The idea of choosing an artist’s life is not alien to Pia Andersen or to her parents, who support her in this decision, and during the first half of the 1980’s, she is a student at the craft and design school in the Danish town of Kolding, followed up by a longer stay at the art academy in Krakow. In Kolding she chooses the textile line, and on the one hand she knows that she was not cut out to be a weaver, but on the other hand, she is introduced to some interesting Polish weavers who experiment with unusual materials – including, for example, three-dimensional works in coarse fabrics – which results in outcomes that are more pictorial art than craft, not rugs but sculptures, and this leads to her decision to continue her studies in Poland. Like her teachers’ works, Pia Andersen’s works in Poland had a sculptural character, almost like installations, based on readily available, humble materials that are sometimes found in scrap yards. As part of her training at the academy in Krakow, she also does draws from life several times a week, thus learning some of the more classic disciplines in pictorial art.

Once she is back in Denmark, Pia Andersen begins to work in paper. Partly in the form of collages, partly in the form of hand-made paper, and it is with these types of works that she makes her debut in 1985 and 1986 in two of the group exhibitions where works are subject to approval by an exhibition committee – Kunstnernes Sommerudstilling (The Artists’ Summer Exhibition) and The Spring Exhibition at Charlottenborg – which at this time are still some of the key gateways to the Danish art scene. Subsequently, Pia Andersen has exhibited regularly in galleries and museums throughout Europe and North America.


In Pia Andersen’s first solo exhibition, which was held at DAC, The Danish Architecture Centre in Copenhagen in 1987, she presented a series of mainly greyish pictures, constructed of hand-made paper. Greyish, yes – but the pictures were rich in subtle nuances, and geometric structures helped make the mostly small, dense images vibrant and full of life. She has a distinct interest in the texture and surface of the picture and in materials in general, almost like an echo of the Polish textile artists who inspired her work.

As suggested above, the compositions in some of the artist’s early pictures were characterised by simple geometric shapes, but at the time she did not feel related to the constructive tradition in European art. Instead, she was interested in artists like Antoni Tapies and Robert Rauschenberg, whose pictures also sometimes display a certain textural quality. An X between four corners might be used to section a canvas, or she would use combinations of triangles and rectangles or rectangular structures that seemed to create spaces inside the pictures, not unlike window openings. This approach would carry into the artist’s future works – and into the paintings that she is currently creating.
The year after her first solo exhibition, Pia Andersen goes to Mexico for an extended stay, which is later followed up with extensive travels in South America – and this trip brings the artist a sort of creative breakthrough. Her new paintings, which were presented in a number of Danish and German galleries and museums toward the end of the decade, were characterised by intense colours – dominated in particular by ultramarine, carmine, pale green and yellow – and they stood out as crucially different from the artist’s earlier works, but nevertheless the simple geometric shapes were still present in her work. In a review of an exhibition in Galleri Weinberger in Copenhagen in 1991, the Danish art critic Hellen Lassen writes that “stylistically, the tall paintings, often in acrylic as well as oil on canvas with inserted slips of paper, might seem reminiscent of the abstract-expressive American painter Mark Rothko but without Rothko’s metaphysically-meditative character. Their strong point is the luminescence of colour and the feel of sensuous intensity that springs from the textural structure.”

The following year brings renewed transformation in Pia Andersen’s art. A stay in an unusual, uncultivated and now protected Danish landscape – Skejten – characterised by low-lying, frequently flooded areas, small trees and large boulders and hillocks resulted in images where more organic shapes dominated the composition. But not, definitely not, as images of these boulders and ant hills. Only their shapes were used in a painting constructed of colours that were not true-to-life reproductions of the area but rather colours detached from recognisable reality. The paintings are put on display in the Danish Galerie Moderne, which publishes a catalogue with a text by one of Denmark’s leading art critics, Peter Michael Hornung, who points out, among other things, that “the natural surroundings were of a very different, irregular character than before. The shapes swell more gently and organically, and the landscape with the trees and stony fields invited a less symmetrical administration of the idiom of the painting. In particular, the impressions of the irregularly defined elliptic shapes of the many rocks make their impact in the space, competing with rectangular figures to embrace and determine the colour scheme. At times, the lumpy rock shape nestles behind the rectangles, at times it sits in front, and at times the rectangle is merely a frame, a drawing formed by a pause in colour, in some places it tints the surface that it rests on like a membrane, a filter or a sheet of coloured glass. And the figures are never pure squares. They are echoes of the recurrent formats of the paintings, rectangles themselves. The constructive is clearly present, but conversely, so is the organic openness of the construction. This is not art based on abstract ideas and fixed, preconceived notions of proper and improper as painting addresses nature.”

In 1994, the geometric shapes remain the predominant principle of composition in Pia Andersen’s paintings. 1994 is the year when she presents the exhibition Flecha azul in two Danish art museums and a German gallery, Kunsthaus Lübeck. These are her first museum exhibitions, and they are accompanied by a catalogue with texts by Museum Director Nils Ohrt and Øystein Hjorth, who is now retired but at the time is a very influential professor of art history at the University of Copenhagen and overall a key figure in the Danish art scene.

In his text, among other things Øystein Hjorth brings up Kandinsky and his manifesto “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”, where this important painter argues that it is shape, not colour but shape that takes on independent existence in abstract painting, and Øystein Hjorth points out that “in Pia Andersen’s new paintings, this relationship often seems to be reversed. It is colour that takes on independent existence. The geometric composition, ‘shape’, is simply a fitting for colour. It is pre-determined, it is considered and calculated. The life of the colour on the surface, however, is spontaneous and holds the inherent potential for the creative process. The colour itself creates space and new dimensions. The colour is what gives the painting its growth potential.” And later in the same text: “In Pia Andersen’s new paintings, colour has acquired independent existence; not because it appears in a particular hue, as Kandinsky required, but rather because it has taken on material character, a presence that makes us sense it is as virtually tangible. We feel that we might touch it and that it – Kandinsky again! – will seem hard like the soil or soft and smooth like silk.”

In a review from that same year of an exhibition in Galleri Weinberger, Hellen Lassen writes, “as before, Pia Andersen’s paintings are constructed of multiple layers, often in primary contrasts, where one colour, for example blue, shines through the red, or vice versa, always producing an effect of a bright light breaking through from the deep, cutting through the many dense layers of colour. Above or inside the surfaces there is a geometric network that alternately appears as portals, T-shaped openings or blocking grids that increase the distinct tension between space and surface. Despite the abstract idiom, the paintings radiate a deep mysticism with traces of magical sacrificial rituals, ancient temple structures and American Indian folklore that is not merely reflected in the exotic titles but especially in the sensuous colour scheme and the architectural grid.”


During the second half of the 1990’s Pia Andersen’s expression is further simplified. Her cosmopolitan lifestyle continues to take her around the globe, geometric shapes continue to exist in her paintings, and one might say that her bond with an actual constructivist tradition in European painting becomes increasingly apparent, but so does the inspiration from the landscape. The landscape is not exactly an unfamiliar motif in art – but Pia Andersen’s paintings describe – are! – landscapes in a unique way.

At first glance, one cannot tell what the paintings depict. The canvases do not unfold dizzying panoramas of archaic sceneries, nor do they depict mountains or seek to capture garden idyll or serenade the grandeur of the ocean or the sweetness of farmland meadows. The paintings from this period do not even have a horizon line to enable orientation and separate sky from ground. An abstract painting requires the artist to take a personal, interpretive approach to the landscape (not that all (landscape) artists do not do this) by focusing on a particular view, perhaps in the form of a psychological, inner landscape, and attempt to reproduce it in a way that offers an abstraction from reality, including an inner or spiritual reality while still addressing this reality in a distorted way, as it were.
That is not the case with Pia Andersen’s work. It is non-figurative. It is not a reproduction. Yet it describes landscapes. It emanates nature.

On her travels, Pia Andersen takes notes. She does not set up her easel in Southern European landscapes, measuring up the scene by eye with the aid of a paintbrush, but she does record impressions in her sketch books, such as the linear flow of mountain ranges or hilltops, and she absorbs the tonality of the place. These journeys clear the eyes and fill up the mind with new colour impressions, but – crucially – they do not result in depictions of these locations. For one thing, Pia Andersen also carries a Nordic, some might say a melancholic note in her mind, and also, the point is not to preserve scenes from foreign lands but rather to blend impressions into independent images, an endeavour that also, for this artist, requires an insistence on something that is neither figurative nor abstract. It takes distance to create a painting that qualifies as art rather than illustration.

Back at the studio, she preps the canvas. Here, she outlines her large rectangles, and in some of the points where the rectangles cross she rediscovers the lines that she observed on her sojourn – perhaps unnoticed by anyone else. And thus, the images turn into landscapes. Not reproductions of concrete landscapes – that mountain, that valley – but all landscapes, universal landscapes.
The rectangles are constructed of colour. The colour, a rich blend of many hues, may then take on the tone that she perceived at a particular point in time, in sunshine or rain, at dawn or dusk, but always processed by the mind and mixed with mental states. She does not seek to reproduce a specific impression from a French valley, but her experiences while travelling are part of the fabric that works its way into the paintings. The landscape that Pia Andersen saw on a particular day disappears in favour of abstract rectangles. The landscape becomes a thing in itself. It turns into constructions that really only relate to themselves and to colour, and to the effect that colours have on each other. In addition, the trained painter has experience with composition and balance. What to do in order to achieve harmony or tension in a surface. And at some point, the painting claims its own conclusion, as paintings of this type have a set of particular, albeit individual rules of composition that must be followed for the painting to attain integrity.

In another way too, the painting becomes an image with an autonomy of its own, as the landscapes affect the painter’s mind. Each painting may contain many landscapes. There are painters who at one point had to preserve a particular landscape – Cézanne and his mountain in the south of France – or a building – Monet and his Rouen Cathedral – at different times in order to explore – and point out – how the changing light might affect, for example, the shape of a building or the mood of a landscape. Pia Andersen does the opposite. With her, a painting is the sum of varying experiences. One might imagine her observing a particular point on many occasions or over an extended period of time. She has seen insects buzzing around in the air, she has noted how cloud formations cause the light to vary, and she has observed the way the light shimmers when seen through tree crowns – and later, as she constructs her rectangular colour fields, these experiences come out. Still, these are not concrete landscapes: Pia Andersen uses multiple landscapes and multiple observations to create colour fields that tell a story about the complexity of light – or whatever experiences the individual beholder has when encountering Pia Andersen’s art. In a sense, these images become a form of distilled nature.


At the turn of the new millennium, another major shift takes place in Pia Andersen’s work.
One aspect is that her colour treatment appears to become looser, the colours almost seem to have been applied in blots and tiny hectic strokes, turning sections of the paintings into sheer mists of colour or something akin to a bird’s speckled brilliant plumage – nature’s patterns, briefly put, as in a late symphony by the Danish composer Carl Nielsen – but at the same time the geometric element, so long a key aspect of her work, is toned down in favour of often very large canvases of landscapes. Not naturalistic landscapes – and yet the nature experience seems ever more insistent in her work. Suddenly, she introduces horizon lines, and her pictures consist mainly of a field-like foreground with the sky above, or the images might spark associations to the earth, the sea and the sky. Not in naturalistic colours, although the field (or whatever it is?) often takes on a dark tint, but colours that defy the obvious nature inspiration that is in play.

Already in 2001, yet another change appears to be emerging, as the foreground of the picture seems to take on an even stronger sense of field or sea. The structures seem to become coarser, rendering the associations to vegetation or perhaps waves even more apparent. This is the case with the important exhibition La Vera, but the nature inspiration becomes even more apparent in later exhibitions such as Summer Lightning, which was shown in New York in 2003, and Luces Septentrionales, which is shown in a museum in Mexico City. In an accompanying catalogue, the director of the Danish national gallery, Allis Helleland, writes lyrically about some of the paintings that “the four small landscapes were created during the raging of the November storm. They are the current climax of this autumn’s work and form an extension of a series of larger landscapes that Pia Andersen painted in recent months. Taken as one, these landscapes might be seen as the calm before the storm. They are all based on the grain field. The large expanse of soil covered with grain and wild flowers, the sea a narrow band of light in the ever higher horizon line, and the motionless sky above – completely calm. Here are no drifting clouds and stormy skies, no rapid strokes or fierce moves. Instead, there is a grandiose calm, the horizon line is stable, and an almost heavenly light pours over the landscape.”

About the La Vera exhibition, the Danish art critic Karsten R.S. Ifversen writes, “How to portray a field of flowers in a painting today without striking a false note? Pia Andersen provides an answer: As an abstract painting. That may sound paradoxical but that is not the way it appears on the canvas. Pia Andersen’s paintings appear as highly textural coloured constructions. Horizontally, they are divided into two or sometimes three or four fields that distend a spectrum of light with a dominant foreground, a high horizon line and a sky. The unmixed colour is applied with a spatula as tiny, thick, intense sparks of colour. Like pixels or bricks, her pictures are constructed of sky and sea or fields, with complementary colours often appearing side by side, resulting in maximum light effect. With a myriad of these glimpses of colour and dark, she creates diversity images with one single motif emerging from meticulous repetition.”


In recent years, Pia Andersen has received several orders for large paintings for the public space, including the joint Nordic embassy in Berlin, a convention centre in the Danish city of Aalborg, the headquarters of the Danish Confederation of Industries, the Danish parliament and the recently constructed opera house in Copenhagen Harbour. Around this time she also begins to experiment with painting on jars and dishes and working in glass with the leading Danish glass artist in the field of pictorial art, Per Hebsgaard. The artist is also represented in a growing number of museums in Denmark and abroad.

The large-scale decoration assignments seem to enable her to work through the large landscapes that, at least to a Dane who comes from more or less the same part of Denmark as Pia Andersen, seem so strikingly reminiscent of the flat landscapes found in parts of Jutland, while the decorations – and her work with dishes and jars – heighten her awareness of a more abstract expression. At any rate, an exhibition in 2008 in Copenhagen – planned in cooperation with the Danish gallery Provence – seems to once again indicate a new direction or at least a movement toward a higher degree of abstraction. The exhibition was entitled “Striber i landskabet” (Stripes in the landscape”) and consisted – apart from a series of abstract but clearly nature-inspired glass dishes – of a series of paintings where the previous tie to the landscape had been rejected in favour of a more abstract expression. The paintings still spark associations to fields, tidal flats with thousands of birds, sunrises, night-black moods, diurnal variations in light. However, Pia Andersen is still not a naturalist artist. Nature – and perhaps the landscapes of childhood – still appear an essential and necessary source of inspiration, but these are not pictures of particular locations, and impressions from all over the world continue to mingle in the mind of this well-traveled artist. The result is paintings that are not reproductions of reality but pictures in their own right.

Torben Weirup is an art critic at the Danish newspaper Berlingske Tidende and the author of a number of books about art and artists.