Jan Svenungsson

"Reality check – an interview with Paul Osipow", in: Svenungsson, Jan & Valjakka, Timo: Paul Osipow Paintings 1980 – 2005, Kunstnernes Hus, Oslo, 2005

We are in Grassina near Florence. Paul Osipow has rented a studio from the Artists’ Association of Finland in an old mansion on a hill outside the village. Paul and I are seated at a table in the garden. Birds are singing. Dogs are barking. Miles of hilly landscape scattered with the traces of human strife spread out before our feet. It is an early spring day in late March, 2004.

"What are you doing here?"
"I’m finishing the paintings I started in Grez-sur-Loing outside Paris, the paintings I showed you a while ago: ruins and pastries."

"Ruins and pastries… a castle ruin and broken pillars."

"The pillars come from Selinunte on the Sicilian south coast, it’s an old settlement that was destroyed by the Carthaginians in the 400s B.C. I was there last spring and took loads of pictures, which I started painting six months later. I start by drawing, and then I paint. I don’t have any intentions with them, I just want to create paintings!"

"I can’t believe you don’t have any intentions."

"But what would they be, in that case? You want to make a painting, and you happen to be incredibly fascinated by what you’ve seen – that’s the whole starting-point, I think. Then there’s that sensation from having been in a place that had a culture around 2,400 years ago that was wiped out by the enemy. That adds some kind of spice…"

"When we first met, more than fifteen years ago, you were working on large paintings with squares and circles and flat fields of colour, and now you’re talking about having seen something that’s a relic of a culture and having to depict it."

"But it isn’t really a depiction, surely you can’t call it that!"

"Then what is it?"

"(laughs) They’re paintings! I wouldn’t call them depictions. That photo that exists, and the memories and all those undifferentiated emotions surrounding the subject matter – all that is just a vague starting–point."

"OK, so it’s a starting–point; but for what?"

"I’ve always tried to paint a painting. When I was fifteen and started painting, my only desire was to achieve something that would be a painting, something I could acknowledge as a painting."

"In relation to what?"

"Well, in those days, I hadn’t seen many paintings, but there were a few that I felt were alive, that not only attracted me, but affected me, and that was sort of what I wanted to achieve. Something that at least came close to that. I wanted them to be as good as the ones I had seen, or preferably even better. There were painters in that area whom I still think about from time to time: am I approaching the intensity those paintings conveyed to me then, when I was fifteen-sixteen?"

"You’ve always taken a strong interest in other painters. Who was the first to become a permanent favourite? Who was the first whose work you still feel has a spark, when you look at it today?"

"Around 1955, an exhibition of works from the Moltzau collection in Oslo was shown at the Ateneum in Helsinki. It included a painting by Nicolas de Staël called Les Martigues, which made a deep impression on me, and some paintings by Soutine… Some time later, in a collection from the Guggenheim Museum, I saw a painting by Cezanne of a silversmith or goldsmith, a straight forward portrait which has somehow etched itself into my memory and which I actually saw again not too long ago. It still worked – the painting was as strong now as it was then. That painting evokes a feeling of life that surpasses the life represented by a "depiction". I held Cezanne to be a fantastic painter also in the sense that he painted exactly what he saw…"

"He did?"

"Well, that could be debated, but it looks bloody real! It looks very like a depiction to me!"

"I thought he painted according to a rather abstract formula… talked about cylinders and cones and things?"

"I’m not sure, actually… I used to be enthusiastic about his idea that everything in nature is based on the cylinder and the cone and so on, and that he’d created this formula for himself – but I wonder if Cezanne really bothered with that. Look at his early paintings, those skulls for instance, those paintings are very plastered, painted with a palette knife…"

"Of course they don’t contain any cones! That was before the idea had rooted itself.."

"Absolutely! But then comes that period when he might have been contemplating those things, around 1880 – but if you look at the later paintings, I wonder if he was still thinking about cones and that sort of thing then. He talked of something I’ve never quite understood; this striving for his ‘petit sensation’.. I think that is something that lies far beyond all this stuff about cones. We’re looking at something that is no longer programmatic."

"I’m sure you’re right. I haven’t read or looked at anything by Cezanne in a long time. As for his geometric speculations, I can see how he might have written himself into that at some point, full of enthusiasm. And then it suited different people’s needs so well, being able to project him as a programmatic [painter], so this particular aspect was emphasised and determined everything."

"Taken out of context…"

"You’re referring to his ‘petit sensation’, doesn’t that stand for the insight that all artists experience sooner or later, and that de Kooning calls ‘content is a glimpse’? I don’t remember where he writes about ‘petit sensation’ – wasn’t it in a letter to Emile Bernard?"

"I often think about Emile Bernard and Cezanne: Cezanne who lived his life over there in Aix-en-

Provence and probably felt very lonely. And then, towards the end of his life, this enthusiastic young guy turns up, Emile Bernard. On a personal level, Paul Cezanne must have felt quite flattered, and he does his best to satisfy him…"

"What do you mean: that he invents something he doesn’t really believe in?"

"I prefer not to use the word believe, I guess he did apply it.. With some hesitation he applied it. He may well have discovered that it helped him, but to claim that it is central to his art, as some people do, that’s what I find hard to accept. That Cezanne was some kind of spatial geometrician."

"But how do you yourself work, do you have some form of theoretic foundation? Are there any rules that you maintain and cherish? That you relate to when you’re working on a painting?"

"I have a kind of tools, not a programme. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m an unprogrammatic painter, but over the years I have come to feel a growing doubtfulness about everything I do. Everything that is said about painting makes me utterly wary. Perhaps due to my own experience that every time I constructed a system… it broke down. At a certain stage a kind of reality creeps in, from somewhere – and the whole system disintegrates, collapses. That sort of thing makes you – and I hesitate to use the word – into some kind of relativist. It leaves you very uncertain about everything."

"Isn’t that because you’re part of a generation of Finnish artists who take the whole thing about building systems very seriously? And practically all your colleagues have kept to their systems, which they have gradually developed. I can’t, off the top of my head, recall anyone else who has changed several times like you. Seen their systems collapse but still had the energy to build a new one, or, like now, when perhaps the final system has fallen, tried working without one. How do you see yourself in relation to your peers or colleagues?"

"There are perhaps three or four in my generation with whom I still have a rewarding relationship, and who I feel that even if they had their systems – and perhaps they still do – they nevertheless experienced some form of collapse, like me. I’m thinking of painters like Tor Arne and Juhana Blomstedt and the recently deceased Timo Aalto. Throughout his life, Timo retained the beliefs he had as a 17- or 18-year-old, when I first met him. His paintings were strict modernist compositions, but his work moved towards a growing stillness, and eventually there was hardly any composition left; the paintings were merely a sort of atmosphere, they were dissolved. I have a very vibrant relationship to all three [artists].."

"So, is this experience of seeing systems disintegrate particular to your generation, or is it an exception?"

"I don’t think it is a generational experience. These are three or four individuals who have discovered the futility of constructing systems for themselves, and yet they keep on struggling and keep on painting. Then there’s the paradox Matti Kujasalo, whose system is based on pure chance, but whose work over the past 25 years is completely homogeneous…"


"What does Italy represent to you?"

"Scandinavia gets so tedious in the winter, so dark, and you always get depressed there. And here… it’s so beautiful here! There are many kinds of beauty. Look at the olive grove in front of us: it’s simply fantastic!"

"Would you have been receptive to this beauty in the same way 20 or 30 years ago?"

"I think I’ve grown more sensitive. I’ve been for short visits to Italy ever since the 1960s, so it wasn’t new to me in any way, but I was probably more interested in America in those days. More urban places. Paris is the kind of place I used to return to in the sixties and seventies. London in the seventies was like a preparation for New York."

"What was it about urbanity that attracted you?"

"I guess it was the art, being able to see what was going on, and, of course, things that had been made earlier, and I was simply more interested in various phenomena then than I am now. Maybe I had a broader approach to reality. The new is best seen in a large city. And then it was trendy to be involved in New York. That illusion that Manhattan is the centre of the world."

"Has New York lost its meaning, or have you changed your perspective?"

"I don’t know. For me, New York has grown less interesting. Since the last time I was there, in the 1990s, I haven’t had any particular urge to go there, because I feel that what they are doing there, and especially what they show in the galleries, is uninteresting. I’m not boasting or anything, but last winter I was in Rome, and I didn’t go to one single gallery, instead I visited loads of churches and museums and monuments. I’ve somehow lost touch with contemporary art."

"But intensified your contact with classic art?"

"Absolutely, yes!"

"Could you define the purpose of art?"

"No, I can’t. I got so beaten up doing that in the seventies, and it was always shattered.."

"Why did you have to try then? Because you were teaching, or because the politicians demanded it, or because you yourself felt the need to?"

"All three reasons. Many artists experience an insecurity: Why do I exist? What am I doing? Is this just a selfish activity without any significance whatsoever to society in general? – and yet, we sometimes get support from society. So we have to find some sort of justification for it. That was one reason. The artist unions were rather active in those days, and we tried to influence politicians to support culture. And then teaching, it follows naturally: when you teach, you present your opinions to your students, sometimes even using the same arguments you used with the politicians."

"Can you remember the most useful reply you used, when you were asked that question in the seventies?"

"Oh, what might that have been…: ‘to make everyday life richer and more diverse,’ perhaps, and that the artist helped to open people’s eyes to, say, the good and bad things in their surroundings, that sort of thing was heavily propagated."

"Was that entirely wrong?"

"No, a lot of it still feels right, and I was closely affiliated with leftist circles and cooperated with them, and now, after the fall of socialism, I can’t say I feel that the fundamental ideas were wrong. I don’t regret a thing."

"Were you politically active, an activist?"

"I was active in the union. In the Artist’s Association from around 1970 to 1980 I was constantly doing Finnish exhibitions abroad that were part of the Finnish cultural exchange, and a lot with the socialist countries – even if I was considered a rather unreliable person and they didn’t send me everywhere – I never went to East Germany, for instance, I guess I wasn’t sufficiently loyal to the party for that."

"If you were a budding artist today, what do you think you would be doing?"

"God knows… I’ve never thought about that. You know, I became an artist because I loved painting… it was a sort of self-assertion for me. My friends did other things, some were simply good at tennis, others were fine musicians, skippers, sportsmen in general, and there I was, with nothing to show off with, and then I focused on that feeling I got from painting – so perhaps I would try to paint if I were a young artist today."

"Things aren’t that different, in other words."

"I don’t think so."

"What does freedom mean to you: when do you feel free?"

"Well, what I do… is some kind of more or less conscious manifestation that I am doing what I want, or that I believe I’m doing what I want… and I guess that’s some sort of striving for freedom…"

"What does religion mean to you?"

"I’m irreligious…"

"Is there something to believe in, is my next question."

"When we hear the word religion we immediately think of Christianity, that’s something we grew up with and I frequently feel an instinctive and immediate exasperation with everything to do with Christianity."

"And yet you visit all these Italian churches!"

"(laughs) Yes, I do, and I’m totally fascinated by them… I have friends who are believers – Catholics, for instance – and in that respect I find them marvellously incomprehensible."

"But you must believe in something… you must have a set of values? Something to fall back on when you make your paintings…?"

"I guess so. But that word, that verb: to believe, I guess I have some sort of perpetual conflict with that. Take the expression: "I believe in myself as an artist." That’s a cliché that in some ways comes with our training, we have to believe in what we’re doing. I prefer to say: "I hesitate," and "I suspect," because I don’t have a conviction in that way – and yet, there is something, perhaps a hope for something – that’s probably my quest for freedom."

"Yesterday, we were looking at one of your paintings of a ruin, and in it the sky is a vivid green. How do you choose the colours in a painting, or how do you choose the dominant colour for a painting?"

"In that particular case, when that green sky appeared, the ruin was more an attempt at rendering colour tones. I wanted something that would stand out against the rather black-and-white rendering of the ruin. I have loads of paints, I love going into art supply shops and buying colours I haven’t tried before. This was a cadmium green I wanted to try out, and I think it looks bloody awful, but at the same time it’s rather potent, so I decided not to remove it; instead, I added a dark green up there, to really emphasise its extreme ghastliness. I admit it looks dreadful, but it also fascinates me and I’m trying to find a way to maintain that greenness and manipulate the rest of the painting.."

"Does good taste exist for you?"

"I guess it does, but I’ve always been sceptical of the notion, because if you start painting tastefully, I think the result would be very boring pictures. We used to laugh at the concept of good taste when we were students at the Academy. We defined good taste as things like Finnish design: Tapio Wirkkala, Timo Sarpaneva, classy stuff…"

"Has your approach to art history changed over the years?"

"My focus has changed. I used to care more about contemporary or relatively recent art. But now, I’ve become more and more interested in 13th century Italian painting and onwards, and consequently, I’m also interested in the Baroque era and, to some extent, in 18th century art, especially Tiepolo. In that respect, my approach has changed. The curiosity I used to aim at contemporary artists is now aimed at the Renaissance painters. But I still have a deep fascination for Arte Povera, for instance, particularly Kounellis, who explores the historic perspective, to mention but one example. I keep buying books about Richter, I buy everything I can get my hands on, to see if and how he changes – even though I’m bloody irritated by Gerhard Richter!"


"It’s so idiotic, his method: first he paints something, and then he drags something across it. He’s a prisoner of method. Like so many postwar painters. They focused on finding a method and then stuck to it 100%. This is where the freedom aspect comes in: it’s like saying the painting isn’t mine, I’m not allowed to tamper with it, and whatever happens it has to be respected unconditionally. That’s what I was reacting to when I gave up doing my random stuff in the early ’90s."


"Are there any theoretic approaches or attitudes that have really made an impression on you and stayed with you in your career?"

"Do you remember that essay Matisse wrote some time in 1907-1908: Notes d’un peintre?"


"In it he describes how he works, how he applies a few dots of paint and sees relationships, and so on. At the same time, he is not at all formal about ‘why’ he paints. He says that he expresses a feeling for life, but also that thing about striving for ‘an art that should be like a good armchair’ – do you remember? If there’s any one theoretic text that I like, it’s that one, although it’s more of an autobiography. There’s another text by him that I also remember, where he somehow justifies himself; he had just completed the chapel in Vence…"

"So it’s from a much later date!"

"Yes, nearly fifty years later. On one of his last visits to Paris, he goes to Notre Dame, and ponders that those glass paintings are really great, along with the entire church and the setting – and then he says something like: ‘My little chapel down there is a flower, compared to Notre Dame; but it is a flower..’ That’s hardly a theory, but there’s something in it that I often return to in times when I perhaps need a little help and encouragement…"

"That’s lovely! But it’s still a painter who on two different occasions used words to describe his work. I was wondering more if there’s any art theory formulated by a theoretician, someone you can’t identify with as a fellow-artist, but someone different."

"I’ve never been able to identify with theories produced by people who weren’t artists themselves, except perhaps… do you remember Stravinsky wrote a book called Poetics of Music which was published a long time ago?"

"Haven’t read it."
"OK, but it exists and it was written by someone who wasn’t a painter…"

"He was nevertheless a composer!"

"But he’s not a painter, he’s not a sculptor, not a visual artist! But apart from that, I can’t think of anyone, at least not at the moment. You think I’m keeping something from you?"

"No, I’m just curious. There are so many artists today compared to when you started. Art education has exploded, there are courses for curators, courses on various aspects of art, and so much theorising about art in a way that I suspect can’t be compared to how it was when you began painting."

"No, you’re perfectly right."

"And I’m just trying to work out if you, somewhere along the line, have tuned into any of the things that have been said about art, about your art and the art of your colleagues – if you think any of it is true, something that wasn’t said by another artist?"

"No, I can’t remember anything (laughs)."

"What is the purpose of art in culture?"

"Can there be any culture without art? Culture is art."

"Art is a permanent presence in mankind?"

"Yes, I believe it is – but now we’re sitting here in what is most decidedly a cultivated landscape, and the people who shaped this landscape weren’t artists at all; they were farmers, vintners, olive-growers – and in that light my bombastic statement about art being culture appears rather narrow."

"And the purpose of art in the future?"

"The same as now."

"Which is?"

"I like to quote an aphorism from Elmer Diktonius: "Art is the deepener of moments." And that, I believe, is true, because art has the capacity in some way to bring time to a standstill. So we perhaps perceive more richly the sixty seconds that make up a minute."

"How, would you say, does art relate to science?"

"I know nothing about how art relates to science, but I do encounter scientists – classics researchers – here sometimes, and I often feel a greater affinity with them than with many of my fellow painters. I have a young friend who is doing a thesis on Roman law, and that’s miles apart from painting, and yet, we connect in some way and can discuss things that are neither painting nor Roman law. We somehow get in touch with reality in a way that I find really enjoyable when I meet him. And I got to know both him and other people here in Italy, for instance at the Finnish Institute in Rome, where I’ve stayed. That’s my experience of science and art, and here I could say that Diktonius’ definition takes on a new relevance. These people convey to me a strong experience when they talk about their activities. Suddenly, a few sub–clauses make me see everything with much more fullness, so rich… I am truly grateful for having met these people."

"Today, people within the art institution are working hard to put artistic work on an equal footing with scientific work."

"Yes, somewhere around there is where it starts to go wrong, because I can’t help thinking of all those PhD theses. The way I see it, artists are revealing a lack of faith in the medium, the discipline, they are working in. When they try to behave like scientists I think they’re out on a limb."


"To make a clumsy comparison: if a scientist were to behave like a landscape painter, it would go straight to hell. It’s not in line with his discipline. The same goes for artists who do ‘research’ and write things and all that, they’re simply revealing an inferiority complex. I think artists ought to have a degree of self-confidence and shouldn’t need to play at being scientists and writing theses. I once told one of these young doctorates, ‘I think what you’re doing is a load of crap, I don’t understand it at all, but now it’s actually your job to prove the opposite.’ But instead of proving me wrong, she just turned on her heel and walked away. I hope she’ll do it some other time… And I went to one of these disputations – it was a complete farce, like a comedy act from a student drama society."

"You’re Finnish with Russian ancestry, and Swedish happened to be a dominating language in your childhood; you also speak several other languages. Has this influenced your artistic oeuvre?"

"I think so. Even as a young man, I had this fantastic dream of Scandinavian community – I sought actively to establish contacts abroad from an early age…"

"Scandinavian idealism?"

"I can’t deny that I have benefited from it. Perhaps more so than many of my countrymen. Early on in my career I had contacts with Swedish artists and later on with other Nordic artists, and things have developed from there."

"And you travelled a lot and lived and worked abroad frequently and for long periods."

"Well, others have done that even more than me, but perhaps they haven’t quite as actively tried to get into the local scene like I have. What I’m doing now is an exception, because I have no contact with artists here in Italy and don’t actually feel a need for it."

"And when you were younger, what were you looking for then?"

"I was simply looking for a piece of the experience that those people had, I wanted to learn, to understand what they had done. I’ve met Henry Moore, Sir Henry Moore… I thought it was extremely funny to find that he was so small, a tiny gnome, and I think he had piles, because he sat jumping up and down. He was so self-centred… one of my most wonderful memories is drinking tea with him at his home in Bishop’s Stortford, I had 45 minutes, he told me that from the start. It was wonderful! I can’t even remember what he talked about, but there was something infectious about it anyway. In those days, I used to think he was a marvellous sculptor, but I’m not sure I think so any more."


"You were talking earlier about your new paintings, how they are disparate and yet how you attain a totality, a synthesis in each of them. Can you explain?"

"I haven’t achieved it yet, but I have a feeling I will. Even if they are very different to each other, a painting like this contains something… let us call it a stream or flow, and I believe I will be able to complete these paintings without too many disasters along the way.."

"Is it true that when you embark on a painting like this you know very little about where it will end – that it is an experimental process that could lead to a variety of results?"

"Absolutely. I have no idea about anything. I have a drawing which is almost always based on photographs, and that’s the only structure. I may have some vague colour scheme at the outset, but it goes through radical changes on the way."

"Is it conceivable that you might return to non-figurative painting one day?"

"I often feel a slight yearning for that, but the yearning is, as yet, so vague that I don’t know if I will get to that point very soon, or, in fact, if I ever will… But there’s always the possibility."

"To me it seems that when you embarked on your current project a couple of years ago, it was like you started from scratch. And since then, you seem to be involved in a learning process concerning the fundamental possibilities of painting, arduously explored from square one."

"I think there may be something in that. And there is something of a return, because at some point I felt that my painting had become hermetically sealed, that it lacked the freedom I had when I started painting. That feeling of freedom has returned with these new paintings. I no longer have that feeling of being in some kind of sect…"

"Is that how you used to feel?"

"Yes, it became… especially those paintings from the ’eighties, the ‘shaped canvasses’, as they are called.. I was trapped by the rectangle or the square. I had too much respect for those primary shapes. I was interested in minimalism, but it began to feel like a straitjacket."

"That was in the early 1980s… but you carried on for another ten-fifteen years with sundry attempts to vary the straitjacket?"

"If you look at what I did after that, it was a slow process: first, I introduced a diagonal, then I dissolved the picture plane into a mass of small squares in those paintings titled Katharine and Paradise View, and there was also a lot of chance operating there. That was followed by a period when I poured paint and threw squares over my shoulder and utilised chance in various ways.. All the time, I was rebelling against the austerity of the square and the rectangle. And that’s how I regard this theme I’m working with now, it stands in an anarchistic relationship to the basic format of painting. In some ways, it still concerns the same private, personal revolution."

"You’ve replaced the play of chance within the framework of a system with a complete openness to inspiration."

"Exactly. That’s one way of expressing it."

"But you don’t feel that freedom sometimes tends to become too vast?"

"Yes. That’s one of the problems with painting now: it sprawls in so many different directions."

"Your new paintings sometimes strike me as being a bit undefined: you could do this, but you could just as well do that, or something other, and then you’re not sure which you prefer?"

"In my experience of art history, practically anything goes."

"So what determines which works will go down in art history?"

"To me, the place where painting in general is at today is far too reductive. I’m thinking of the painters we’ve been talking about, Richter, but also painters like that Swedish one, like this Torsten – what’s-his-name?"


"No. Yes, him too. It’s so limiting somehow, that a guy goes on, year after year, painting a figure against a white background… Actually, he’s a good example, he always paints in the same format, for years he’s been doing that, then he paints a blob extending from the lower edge of the painting. Sometimes it’s red, sometimes blue, sometimes yellow. Then he adds the word "Sculpture" or "Statue" or something equally short. I saw in a catalogue that they’re a bit more jazzy now, but I feel that even if he is both consistent and admirable, he is still a prisoner of his own consistency. Painting that results in repetition on repetition on repetition. I can respect his consistency, there are lots of things I respect about Torsten Andersson, but I can’t feel that his painting is that remarkable in itself!"

"Because the overall expression is captivity, not freedom?

"That’s right! And the same thing goes for that other Swedish painter who is much younger, but slightly older than you, the one who knows Greek: Håkan Rehnberg. His paintings are beautiful, incredibly beautiful, and I really like them, but when I look at them I always wonder: how can he control himself? Why does he stop, why doesn’t he add more? He must be stifling strong urges underneath all that – he makes this beautiful gesture, and then he has…"

"…a thousand opportunities to carry on the gesture, from which he abstains?"

"Right, from which he abstains! He walks out, closes the door, goes home, and that painterly process can’t have been going on for more than half an hour at the most."

"But in any painterly process the artist has to decide to stop at some point – and Håkan happens to stop earlier than you do. But at some point you also decide to stop!"

"Yes, I do – but before then, I’ve smeared on a damned lot, and that, I believe, is where I go back to something that is simply a primal urge to paint. It’s almost like being a child. You keep painting, it’s something that just happens. I haven’t a clue what my painting is supposed to look like! Except that it might be based on a Greek ruin in Southern Italy, perhaps… with reminiscences of Philip Guston, but sometimes I think I catch a glimpse of de Chirico."

"Guston loved de Chirico!"

"I know! I discovered that last spring. I got a catalogue from the Guston exhibition at the Tate, I think it was. He had written a long list of artists he thought were good, and de Chirico was somewhere near the top."

"de Chirico shows a total disregard for the idea of the coherent production of a controlled oeuvre. There is no end to his contradictions. He pulls the carpet from under the feet of all those who think artists should stay quietly in their niche – so that they themselves can control how different artist niches are criticised and combined with one another."

"It’s quite simple, really: he allows himself to paint how he wants! I myself went through classical art training, and we were taught to avoid outlines and things like that, and de Chirico couldn’t give a damn – he loves to draw his shapes with distinct outlines, even if they aren’t as thick as mine. Sometimes it’s as if he ‘colours in’ his pictures in a remarkable way and I find that admirable too, especially when you consider the time he lived in. At that time the impressionist colour revolution must have been very dominant."

"Would you say there is a connection between the revolution in your painting – because I think it could be called that – and Italy? I’m not thinking only of de Chirico but Italy as a whole, which is chaotic and has a kind of nonchalant attitude to its cultural heritage that comes from having so much of it that they can’t be bothered to take it too seriously? Everything exists simultaneously, and they don’t care much more for a building that is 500 years old than for one that is newly-built."

"I’ve never thought about it that way, but now that you mention it I can identify with it – perhaps that’s why I like being here. When you arrive in Rome, which comprises 2,500 or 3,000 years of contemporaneousness, everything exists at the same time and everything is ruined at the same time. I guess something about that has affected me mentally, or perhaps there was already a reason that drew me here…"

"Like the opposite of Finland… the Finnish-speaking culture began to be codified independently around 150-200 years ago…"

"Something like that, yes."

"…so it hasn’t had much time to develop contradictions – and yet, in your work, you have been strongly influenced by American art culture, which is also characterised by a form of linearity, where one thing has led to another and everything stands in a systematic relationship to everything else."

"That’s how I started to feel about American art; after my first infatuation, which lasted quite long, I started to see it as fairly – boring is perhaps too strong a word, but that’s probably the only word to describe it. I saw a film long ago called Me and the Colonel with Curd Jürgens and Danny Kaye. The two have somehow got marooned in occupied France. Danny Kaye is a Jew and Curd Jürgens is from I don’t know what country, but he’s a typical officer: He’s forever saying, "For a true man there is only one possibility." But Danny Kaye waves his finger and retaliates, "There are always at least two possibilities." And that is what is lacking in American art, they get stuck in a rut. A wonderful example, for good or bad, is Robert Ryman, who is actually a very fine painter. But despite my great admiration for him I’ve always thought, ‘How the hell has he been able, throughout his career as a painter, to resist the temptation of painting a blue line right across his white canvas – or a red line or whatever.’ That puritanism – does it exist in Italy? Things are contradictory here."

"We were talking earlier about faith and conviction… Do you believe in anything, was my question."

"And my answer was that I find it hard to believe in anything – that I need to doubt, that I doubt most things, and that was something I wanted to explain, that thing about contrasts, the justification of contrasts. In my case it’s not a question of an unconscious aimlessness, but on the contrary, its a highly conscious aimlessness – and that’s a completely different matter."

"You seem to me almost frighteningly sincere. In your most recent paintings you allow yourself to appear totally without safety nets, and by your own choice!"

"This could possibly sound pompous, but the important thing here, I believe, is to be as honest as possible. If I, as an extremely insecure person in relation to the world, were to attempt to construct some kind of absolute ideal world, it would be in total conflict with my fundamental observation. The observation that every time I’ve experienced a system or been engrossed in a system, then reality comes in from somewhere and destroys, pulls down, that very system. If I were to build a system like that again, I would be lying to myself. I would be building on a very shaky foundation. Instead, I check reality now, with signals that I transmit in the form of paintings."

Jan Svenungsson