Over four metres high and more than three and a half metres wide, The Siege of Constantinople 1995 is a portrait-orientated abstract painting by the Danish artist Per Kirkeby. The work consists of an assemblage of colours rendered in thin layers of oil paint, some of which are semi-translucent to allow lower layers to show through. Particularly prominent within the roughly edged blocks of colour are large areas in various shades of red and orange, a range of muted greys, greens and browns on the right-hand side of the composition and a small bright section of deep blue paint situated just above and to the right of the centre of the canvas. Appearing throughout the work and especially prominent in its top half are a series of thin intersecting lines, mostly in yellow or dark orange, that are reminiscent of cartography. Also visible on the far right edge of the painting is a form sketched in black that is suggestive of a building, possibly a church. The paint is generally applied in an even thickness across the composition with some sharp ridges of impasto, and drip marks are evident along its bottom edge. The work is unvarnished.
This painting, which took one week to complete, was made in Copenhagen, where Kirkeby was born in 1938 and where he continues to live and work. The artist, who does not make preparatory drawings, worked on an unstretched canvas laid out on the floor of his studio. He began by painting the four corners of the work before moving inwards to paint the centre of the composition. This method required him to stand on the canvas itself, and as a result there are faint footprints visible just below the deep blue area of paint.
From the fourth century until the 1920s, Constantinople was the commonly used name of the city now known as Istanbul in Turkey. The title The Siege of Constantinople refers to the capture of the city by the Ottoman army in 1453, which defeated the ruling forces of the Byzantine Empire. The large areas of red and orange paint seen in the composition may be seen as evoking the battles and fires involved in this conflict, while the thin intersecting lines provide a further sense of fragmentation and perhaps recall the layout of a city.
The Siege of Constantinople can be seen in relation to a painting depicting an earlier attack on the city of 1204 – Entry of the Crusaders in Constantinople 1840 (Musée du Louvre, Paris) by the French artist Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863). In 2009 the critic Andrew Graham-Dixon argued that Delacroix’s work was ‘clearly the inspiration’ for Kirkeby’s painting:
Kirkeby adopts Delacroix’s characteristically rich, bright, dry palette of colours and filters them through his own abstract vocabulary of form. The result is a gloomy reflection on war, the clash between East and West, a picture that suggests the collision of human energies and also resembles a map dripping with blood.
(Andrew Graham-Dixon, ‘Per Kirkeby at Tate Modern’, Sunday Telegraph, 2 August 2009, http://www.andrewgrahamdixon.com/archive/readarticle/607, accessed 28 August 2015.)
Kirkeby studied geology at the University of Copenhagen (1957–64) and joined the city’s Experimental Art School in 1962. His paintings from the 1960s contained figurative elements influenced by Pop Art (see, for instance, Brigitte Bardot 1967), but from the 1970s onwards his canvases have been largely abstract with colours and forms that suggest a particular concern with landscapes and natural features, such as the eight paintings in the Atlas series (1981–2). Kirkeby has long maintained an interest in early Christian art and from the late 1980s onwards references to the Byzantine and medieval periods became especially prevalent in his paintings. His diverse practice has also involved performances, filmmaking, works featuring chalk markings on blackboards, bronze sculptures and large-scale brick sculptures, often situated outdoors, that engage with architectural forms.
Writing has been a constant feature of Kirkeby’s career, and he has published novels, collections of poetry and essays on art. In the way in which it draws connections between disintegrating physical forms and the practice of painting, the opening stanza of his 1994 poem ‘Now the Painters Rise’ may be read in relation to the fragmentation seen in The Siege of Constantinople:
A painting is like a wall with cracks
Passion is accumulation
So not until the wall settles
do the materials reveal themselves
in the ruinous tectonics of the cracks
The blinding veil of limewash is drawn aside
(Kirkeby 2012, p.121.)
Jill Lloyd, Per Kirkeby, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1998, pp.9, 25, reproduced p.36.
Achim Borchardt-Hume (ed.), Per Kirkeby, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2009, pp.15, 25–6, 142, reproduced p.123.
Per Kirkeby, Writings on Art, trans. by Martin Aitken, Putnam 2012.
Supported by Christie’s.