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Laris Strunke. Photo: Stina Åström

It sounds simple but it’s not 0

An interview with Laris Strunke

Vilnis Vējš

The notable Latvian-Swedish painter Laris Strunke (1931) has appeared several times in Latvia. His first exhibition in the land of his birth took place in 1998, at the Arsenāls Exhibition Hall, as did his second showing, in 2002. In 2012 Strunke had a joint exhibition with his partner, Eva Lange, at Riga’s Māksla XO gallery. Gundega Gēbere has written a book on the artist (Neputns Publishing House, 2004), and in 2014, a documentary video film was made. Nevertheless, each ensuing appearance is awaited as something unprecedented – the intervals between these visits are too long for one to perceive Strunke’s art as being a constant presence in Latvia. On April 10 the exhibition Aiza /The Gap opened at the Latvian Railway History Museum. Organised by the VV Foundation and featuring 26 new paintings by Strunke, it will be open until May 22.

The exhibition Aiza /The Gap opening at the Latvian Railway History Museum. Photo: Kristīne Madjare

The exhibition features new paintings. Does this mean that you work every day?

I work every day. I justify it with the fact that I have to in order to accomplish everything I want to. I don’t perceive myself as having finished. There’s so much that still has to be painted.

Do you keep coming up with new ideas all the time?

I can only speak about this exhibition. It’s not so much ideas, per se. Because the whole exhibition is about one and the same motif – as you know, the gap. This motif is repeated in every painting. Naturally, you can imagine that there are many more paintings that didn’t make it into the exhibition. You can’t put any more than this in one exhibition. To paint a painting like the ones you see here, there must be who-knows-how-many that came before. When I begin a new work, I don’t know what will come after. A natural process takes place. One painting can give the impetus for the next one. Then you think – it’s done; but it may very well continue carrying on. I don’t try to paint in various ways with the goal of making paintings that are very similar but also different. It all happens as I perceive it, without any is the activity of painting that determines it. The theme repeats...a theme that can be turned any which way.

Does there come a moment when you feel that a motif has been exhausted...that you need to find a new one?

I think to myself – how long will I keep at it? Sometimes it ends up being ten, twenty years. But I don’t decide beforehand that after ten years there will be a different motif. It is also simply a natural process. Sometimes I don’t even know, or realise, that the process is heading towards its end; I discover this gradually. One day I simply notice that I’m painting something else.

I read an interview with you in which you recalled an incident with your father, Niklāvs Strunke. He was looking at works you had made during your student years and said: ‘The boy is experiencing a period of abstract expressionism!’. Could one say that this period has gone on to last throughout your whole life?

I remember this very well. He was showing my works to his friends. I was very, very young and had just started going to art school. At that age I had a strong reaction to the traditional, and my father used those words or concepts to discern me from his style at the time. The meanings of concepts are constantly changing because it is people who give language meaning. No concept is absolute in itself. We can’t even use the word ‘bread’ in a way that everyone will understand; because there are cultures that don’t have bread. For instance, the bread in Latvia is completely different from the bread in Sweden

Could your style be said to be consistent?

No; this is also a construct. In my youth, it was understood and accepted that painting does not have to be naturalistic. I thought, why be naturalistic if everything is nature already is? Painting is like a language. Not a single word that we use is naturalistic. It is a construction that we use to communicate with one another. And then we can use words for practical purposes, for instance, to write down a recipe or to write a poem. A word does not try to be that which it describes. It seemed to me that it was also very simple to not be naturalistic in painting. I could paint a red sea and a green sky if I so wished.

Did you feel that way, or did you really see things like that?

I didn’t see things that way; I did it so as not to do things like others did. I think that it is very typical in one’s youth to feel revolutionary. I also gradually came to believe that there is also geometry in painting. If I look at my father’s earlier work, it’s always there. If I look at how people used to paint, there’s geometry also in that. However, if you paint realistically and build a painting geometrically, then most people don’t see its structure.

It is hidden.

Yes, just like in music. All works from the classical periods have structure. But sound is another matter.

Laris Strunke. The Gap. Oil, canvas. Photo: Ann Eriksson 

The 1950s, which is when you were a student, were a time of changes in painting. You were a part of the generation that reformed many things.

Including construction. As I remember, one had to struggle – in terms of painting, that is – to find both oneself and a certain method. In order to move forward, where everything would have much greater meaning, one had to take a rather large step. One had to know how to do it.

Did you come into contact with any conflicts or resistance?

It has always been important – and it always should be – to stand on your own two feet and not just be following something. It doesn’t matter what is being followed. It is much more important whether you are following something or not.

You have worked as an educator. Did you teach your students things, or did you let them search for it on their own?

It was my intent that I would enlighten them. But the courses that I taught were so short – actually, too short – to teach a person something. Nevertheless, I wanted to do it and I did. Which means that everything happened very intensely; often times my students didn’t understand what was going on at first. I had to be very clear, explicit and compelling. In the best cases, when I would happen upon former students a few years later, they would say that it had been good. Which is why I think that even if one doesn’t understand, that doesn’t mean it’s all been fruitless. One needs time to mature enough to accept things. 

Comprehension comes later?

I think that all comprehension comes later. No child is a psychoanalyst.

Is it true that your career developed rather smoothly?

First of all, I don’t see my activities in that way. I am always somewhere. The same goes for this exhibition – I couldn’t say how important it is to me. I have a sense of it, but I’m not completely aware of it because I am here. I could say something about it perhaps ten years from now. The same holds true for the answer to your question: I’ve never thought about making a career, not for a moment. Even when I participate in exhibitions, including international ones, I don’t think about what that means for me. Because I’m busy with simply participating. So, I’ve never looked at myself in that way and I still don’t. 

Nevertheless, with time there comes recognition, opportunities to exhibit one’s work in larger halls…

I see that as a practical aspect, not as a career. I could also say that life doesn’t go in a straight line. 

Laris Strunke. The Gap. Oil, canvas. Photo: Ann Eriksson 

Have you experienced crises or periods of doubt about whether you’re doing everything right?

Since I don’t have any answers as to what is the right or wrong way of doing things, I can’t look at things like that. I’ve had difficulties and various periods. That is very normal; I doubt that one can get anywhere without any difficulties.

Do you see yourself as a representative of Swedish art? After all, when fleeing Latvia, you could have ended up in Germany or America instead.

We came to Sweden in 1944, when the Soviet forces were heading in [to Latvia] for the second time. One couldn’t flee very far, so we were happy that we got away at all. As we felt that the war was coming to a close, we thought we’d be going back in a few months. The waiting went on, and on, and on. No one could have foretold that we wouldn’t return. Everyone thought – why wouldn’t we?

When did you understand that that was probably not going to happen?

It’s hard to say exactly, but I’d guess that once it was clear that there was an absolute Soviet dictatorship. I read somewhere that, just like all dictators, Stalin would never die. Because if the dictator dies, so does the dictatorship. And that’s the way they thought in the Soviet Union as well.

You experienced your youth at a time when there were rebellious ideas in the West as well. Were you into politics back then?

No, I clearly was not. I was busy with the schools that I was going to and holding down a job so that I could pay for those schools. Since I didn’t sleep, I had an alarm clock in my pocket that would ring when it was time to switch jobs. When I was around twenty, my teeth became loose because I wasn’t getting enough vitamins. From then on I carried fish oil in my other pocket. The clock would ring, I’d take a swig of fish oil and then run on to my next workplace. I had neither the time nor the interest for politics. That’s the way it is – if you have to struggle just to exist, a lot of things get left by the wayside.

I understand that you’re very practical when it comes to painting as well.

That’s very perceptive of you. I can talk about philosophy, but I don’t use it in my painting. I think that everyone who does something – even if it’s travelling to the North Pole – they do it for themselves.

Are there moments when inspiration strikes?

No; I think I’m afraid of them. I don’t want to analyse, I don’t want to find the logic in events. My view is that it happens, it may happen, but I don’t want to know. Then I can steer towards that myself.

How about from a purely practical standpoint? For example: as a painter, you control the whole space. Let’s say that this part has worked out well, it shouldn’t be now let’s go to the other corner! Or – this didn’t work out, it must be redone… You must be thinking rationally in some manner, right?

No. I will reveal my method: all of my paintings, even the large ones (and I’ve had ones that are bigger than the ones you see here), I paint in one go. It sounds very simple, but it’s not. Usually, one starts with one part of it, then moves on to the next part, and so on. I didn’t plan on working the way I do, but I felt that since I am in this situation, I’m going to do it! It’s just like in a dance – you can’t stop.

You mean you paint the whole canvas at once? Do you move around with a stepladder?

No, I don’t get anywhere with a stepladder. There’s a rhythm, and to have this rhythm, you can’t be using a stepladder. That would be like dancing with a wardrobe. I’ll also tell you that I don’t step back to look [at the canvas]. That would be very usual. I stand as far as my arm can reach.

The size of the painting does not matter. When I go up to the canvas, which sometimes is very large, I don’t even know where the middle is. I can sort of sense it, but there is no objectivity.

That is very surprising to hear since your compositions are very balanced. They are not asymmetrical – they don’t tip to one side.

One can gradually learn how to sense the surface of a painting, one’s self, and one’s method. I can say that I create rather impossible problems because I rarely paint something over. In most of my paintings, I haven’t changed anything. I could ask why I make it so difficult for myself, but I don’t have any good answers. All I can say is that while I’m able to do it, there’s no reason to change anything.

Laris Strunke with his life partner sculptor Eva Lange at the exhibition Aiza /The Gap opening at the Latvian Railway History Museum. Photo: Kristīne Madjare

I’ve read that you like to ice skate and mountain climb. Does that have anything to do with the way in which you paint?

Perhaps it sounds as if they should be somehow linked. But since the movements are so very different, I can say that painting is painting and that ice skating is ice skating. Swedish television once did a story on my calligraphy and skating – with the thought that there must be some relation between the two. And then I understood that there was none! The programme was interesting – I skated, and then I painted with ink. But my movements were too quick for the cameraman – ‘I didn’t get it!’, he said. But I could do it again! So I planned out the whole painting, and then he got it. There really wasn’t anything linking the painting to the ice skating. Except for the fact that I’m the same person doing both.

We journalists like to think up all sorts of ‘hooks’, but they usually don’t work… Do you think that abstract painting will ever experience a renaissance?

First, one must define what abstract painting is. All painting is abstract, even if it depicts something. Since the concept is so unclear… If I draw a line, is that line abstract? Why would a line be abstract? Why do you call this table a table? In my opinion, that’s very abstract. I can imagine that language would feel a lot better if the notion of ‘abstractness’ would simply be erased and not used anymore. This could be an article in which the word ‘abstract’ does not appear even once. 

That’s a good idea! But in order to retell this conversation, I doubt I’ll be able to avoid it.

Then you could call it something else...just ‘a’. No one will know what you mean by that. For instance, paint as such. It’s abstract, isn’t it?

It’s a substance.

I squeeze it out. Does it then immediately become abstract? Then I push it along [the canvas] with a brush. At what point does it become abstract?

Probably in our minds, when we don’t understand what it means.

People often say ‘abstract painting’ and indicate something with that. I’ve never understood what that is.

So we should use this word cautiously?


Laris Strunke. Photo: Stina Åström