The crossings of the infinitely vast and the minute in Maria Wandel‘s painterly universe

Acquired by Ny Carlsbergfondet

Since the Renaissance, numerous artists have cast a certain clear sighted eye on the difference between literature and visual art. Leonardo da Vinci went so far as to claim that a pictorial language of forms can convey a knowledge of ourselves and the world around us in a manner that neither the spoken or written word can adequately express, and that in some cases these vocabularies are unable to capture at all. He invokes »a pictorial science«;   

»which does not speak in words (and still less in numbers) but in works that exist in the visible just as natural things do 

– yet pass on that science ’to all the generations of 

      the universe’«1

In more recent times, both Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky in particular, have each in their own way emphasised that both figurative and abstract visual art is an independent entity, encompassing an expressive force, different from the power of words, and capable of revealing new facets of reality as we know it. Paul Klee points out that artists do not merely reproduce the observed; »For not only do they, to some extent, add more spirit to the seen, but they also make secret visions visible.«2  Kandinsky focusses on the special experiential character of abstract art, which gives rise to » an enrichment of the soul, unattainable through any other means than art.« But he adds that even in figurative art, it is the language of form, line, colour, composition and other artistic means that imbue art’s special power for meaning.3 Precisely because painting, sculpture and many of the more recent artistic modes of expression are so palpable, intense and dominated by varied material choices, the experiences and life interpretations they contain appeal strongly not only to the viewer’s intellect, imagination and emotions, but also to their senses. In some cases the viewer may even be invited into the art work either in the fictive or real space. As the language of form contains its own experiential power to generate meaning, it is capable of revealing new aspects not only of our surrounding reality, but also of old and new texts, in poems and novels. A fruitful encounter between visual artists and poets often results in the emergence of new dimensions of experience and perception in their work. 

Changing tracks in Maria Wandel’s artistic universe 

Since completing her studies at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts (1997-2005) Maria Wandel has experimented widely with various artistic methods and established new and unexpected visual dialogues between both visual art and literature and between photography and painting. In 1998, at the Nikolaj Kunsthal, she presented a series of dark brown paintings featuring some of her student contemporaries, bathing in the hot springs in Iceland. These provide an early example of her work within a figurative idiom. Contrastingly, at the Kunsthal Charlottenborg in 1999, she exhibited large, expressionistic, non-representational paintings of grids, spheres and other figurations. That same year, she presented new examples of this form of expression as part of the exhibition Første Afkalkning (First Decalcification) at the disused Soya Bean Processing Factory (Sojakagefabrikken), together with, among others, artists Tal R and Kristine Roepstorff.

In the following years she sat non-figurative art aside, concentrating instead on exploring a figurative idiom in a variety of unexpected ways and through other pictorial genres. 

A number of her figurative paintings were presented in a catalogue titled The Unbearable Lightness, in 2005, containing associations to the Milan Kundera novel of the (almost) same title. 

 In the paintings we encounter different fragments, applied in broad, sketch-like strokes, depicting aspects of love-life, female clothing and other ephemeral and capricious elements of the contemporary world. In the paintings there are also allusions to our information society’s stream of images, signs and texts, gliding by us so swiftly that there is no longer time for contemplation. Sentences have been inserted in several of the paintings, not as political propaganda, but are rather an »an extra poetic addition that can be mystifying, enigmatic or simply humorous. «4 These short texts allow us time to pause and pose other questions. They interrupt the fast-flowing stream of images around us. And they afford us time to examine the particular character of the slices of reality in the paintings. The viewer’s body and sensory experience is the focus of all of the works. 

In the catalogue accompanying Still Pictures (2010), predominantly films with an elevated historical status have been subjected to the artistic treatment. As in many of her other works photographs are the starting point to be reworked as paintings. This painterly transformation succeeds in creating work that convey its own mood and meaning; unwrapping new aspects of the original material from the various films, in Luchino Visconti’s film adaptation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice for instance. 

Portraiture as a genre has also been a specific area of interest for Maria Wandel. Drawing on this preoccupation she has painted black and white portraits of prominent philosophers and writers of our time. They are modelled on photographs, emerging from intensely coloured backgrounds, catching our eye and providing new understandings of their individualities. They include such luminaries as Albert Camus, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Franz Kafka. 

After exhibiting Still Pictures, Maria Wandel chose in 2013 to create an exhibition entitled I’m Ready. Curated by Christina Wilson it was mounted in a large empty flat. For this exhibition she presented black and white works of exceptional intensity. She successfully tried to transform the poetical form of narrative expression know as »stream of consciousness« in to painting. This is a form of thought-activity that flows in a chaotic and associative fashion, revealing our inner world, before we begin to arrange the ideas and information we ourselves create or receive from without. James Joyce employed this technique when writing his celebrated work Ulysses (1922), heralding a breakthrough for the modern novel. I 2015 Maria Wandel presented the exhibition Parks & Hotel Rooms at the Vendsyssel Museum of Art. In the exhibited paintings, we encounter sections of parks vacant of people, and seemingly unoccupied hotel rooms, permeated by a sense of existential emptiness and perhaps a longing for love as well. In one painting, the dark silhouette of a man falls across the surface. In another, we observe a woman lying on a hotel bed, alone. But these paintings also invoke memories of a presence. Many of them contain allusions to the paintings of the American painter Edward Hopper; redolent of emptiness and a feeling of existential loneliness, they also strike an almost enigmatic note, revealing that people once populated these empty urban spaces and landscapes.  

When Parks & Hotel Rooms was later shown at Kongernes Lapidarium (The Lapidarium of Kings, Copenhagen) under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture, Christina Wilson wrote:

»The motifs are refined and stylised. We see the black trunks of the trees and their green crowns. They cast strong black shadows, down across the uniform green lawns and gravel paths. 

The images are almost abstract in their stylised rigour. The same can be said of the hotel rooms. They are pared back and the rooms appear puritanical and severe; like a monk’s cell. We are given no superfluous information. We have no opportunity to identify the few people in the pictures. We cannot see their faces. They are either cropped or painted from behind. «5

In 2018 Maria Wandel presented a small exhibition at Galleri Tom Christoffersen, with the title Hun har til på mandag / She has until Monday, where she combined selected works from the two series I’m Ready and Parks & Hotel Rooms, with photographs of a woman running agitatedly in high heels around a hotel room, unable to find a spot to settle on. Again, we encounter a visualisation of our fragmented and transitory world, where it is often difficult to find meaningful contexts. 

Maria Wandel has not only worked in painting and other visual art genres, she has also explored the relationship between text and image, grounded in conditions of difference. In the books she has created paintings for, we realise that the conjunction of the world of words and images intensifies the reading of them, creating new perceptual dimensions. In 2005, Maria Wandel published a book entitled My Life as a Matchstick, where she let the matchsticks write poetry and discuss their emotional lives. The reproductions of her paintings that comprise her own visual interpretations of the sensory texts in Hans Otto Jørgensen and Maria Wandels book Hjernens egen store hund / The Brain’s own Great Dog (2009), unfold with humoristic and sarcastic touches that reveal new aspects in the narrative through the shifting points of view. In the physically imposing publication Hemmeligheder alle vegne / Secrets Everywhere (2017) there is a network of unexpectedly crossing lines. These appear between Maria Wandel’s expressive and suggestive paintings, reproduced in the book, and the texts; A Poem by Per Aage Brandt, Eleven Situations by Christel Wiinblad and Seven Prose Pieces by Christina Hesselholdt. The paintings were exhibited at Kunsthal Charlottenborg as part of the book launch and at the opening of the exhibition Director Michael Thouber commented:

»No Kunsthal is better than the artists that choose to exhibit in it. Maria Wandel’s ink paintings, here behind me, are one of those types of presents that I hadn’t expected. She has produced a stunning publication and at the same time, taken over our foyer with a hundred ink paintings from the book, and transformed the arrival to Kunsthal Charlottenborg the inspirational space it always should be.«6

Maria Wandel has inserted small humorous comments in the pictures that encourage the many relationships and contrasts between word and image, portrayed in the book. Hans Otto Jørgensen has characterised her ink drawings thus: 

»As an artist, Maria Wandel is a storyteller; there is clear attentiveness to both poetry and the epic in each individual drawing. Something has always just taken place, or is about to. Every single scene encapsulates a meaning that extends far beyond itself. «7

Here (Once Again), Leaving the Gold

In the period from 2018-19, a change of direction and a new development occurred in Maria Wandel’s artistic universe.  She abandoned recognisable reality as her motif and anchoring point. She had previously been more or less fastened to the concept of the motif. Now shrugging off these ties, she has taken hold of the worlds of fiction, visions and dreams. She had already hinted that this sort of new development was on its way, in her book Hemmeligheder alle vegne / Secrets Everywhere. Commenting on one of the pictures in the book she wrote »I now think that fiction is the only reality we have. « She works from the insight that painting as a whole contains an advantage, in that by working through it, one can abstract from the reality surrounding us. 

In some cases she has created entirely non-figurative paintings, where the colour and the dynamic brushstrokes combined with line and composition, in particular, create unexpected experiences and bear meaning in the painterly universe. We see this in the painting Nighttide from the exhibition Here (Once Again), Leaving the Gold, where small, blue and yellow formations of different sizes and thickness seem to be flying through the pictorial space. 

Perhaps observing the firmament has served as an inspiration for the painting; it resembles a cosmic vision. In other works she reshapes scenes from reality to inner, mental spaces that can reflect the feelings and moods of the viewer. Such a transformation occurs in her landscape The Future is Always Present. In Catherine, the image of a lady with a cigarette and blue jacket is cleansed of all extraneous detail. The pictorial space becomes indefinable, placing it outside time and space. The entirely monochrome blue cloth forms an abstract plane with its own meaning-conveying qualities. Many of the paintings harbour imperceptible transitions between the world of reality and that of fictions or dreams. In the painting End of Season, as a case in point, chairs appear to float in a space dominated by bright blue and yellow colours. The painting could conceivably reflect memories of happier times. But those that have experienced them have left the stage. The intense lingering presence that pervades the space reveals that they were here, before. 

In almost all the paintings where fragments or elements from real life occur, the viewer discerns that the motif is lifted out of reality and placed in a larger universe. This is the case in The Quest in Yellow, where the viewer is confronted by a large expanse of yellow, painted with great intensity, creating an open space. A brown arm emerges from the picture plane. The fingers of the hand are grasping, as if seeking an anchor to fix on, in our transitory and changing world. Both in the paintings where a transformation of reality has taken place and those where it has totally disappeared, one senses that Maria Wandel has swung her brush like a wand, creating an almost magical space. Spatial relationships, vibrating with presence, life and movement, are established in the paintings through the sketch-like brush work, appealing strongly to the viewer’s imagination, intellect and thoughts. The viewer will no doubt feel that they are both an experience and poetic encounter richer, and that the veil of conventionality which has often enveloped their everyday life has disappeared in favour of a new outlook. In the paintings in this exhibition, where the shifting realisation of the enigmatic reality of dreams and abstract visions has conquered the pictorial surface, Maria Wandal succeeds in capturing both the smaller and larger aspects of the world; where one can catch a glimpse of infinity, at the edge of the picture. In a small, compact poem, William Blake describes such a world; where the infinitely vast and the infinitesimally minute constantly cross each other: 

»To see a world in a grain of sand 

And a heaven in a wildflower

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand

And eternity in an hour. «8


1. See Merleau-Ponty, Maurice’s interpretation of Leonardo da Vinci’s text in The Primacy of Perception, ed James M. Edie, trans. Carleton Dallery, Evanston: Northwest University Press, 1964. The original French text is entitled L’Œil et l’Esprit, Paris 1961.

2. Klee, Paul, On Modern Art, trans. Paul Findlay, Faber & Faber 1948, p. 51, translated from the German, Über die moderne Kunst, Verlag Benteli Bern-Bümpliz.

3. Kandinsky, Wassily, “…eine seelenbereicherung sein, die durch kein anders Mittel, als durch die kunst, en erreichen ist “, Über die Formfrage, Der Blaue Reiter, Munich 1912.

4. Lindboe, Ole, Maria Wandel. Den ulidelige lethed / The Unbearable Lightness, 2005, p. 3.

5. Wilson, Christina Parks & Hotel Rooms, essay. The basis for her speech delivered at the exhibition opening,  9 October 2015.

6. Thouber, Michael, on the opening of the exhibition Hemmeligheder alle vegne in the foyer of the Kunsthal Charlottenborgs,  8 Februar 2017.

7. Jørgensen, Hans Otto: Quoted in Hemmeligheder alle vegne / Secrets Everywhere, the exhibition folder published in connection with Hemmeligheder alle vegne/ Secrets Everywhere. Horsens Art Museum, 2018.

8. The opening lines of the Auguries of Innocence by William Blake. Written in 1803 and published in 1863.