For Copenhagen-based painter Victor B.P Bengtsson, the canvas provides a stage on which to play out his dreams of an elysian, eternal spring in which humans, animals and nature live in harmonic existence. Drawing on the theatrical presentation of Art Nouveau painting, Victor sets his figures amid floral motifs, ornate framing devices and fine decorative details. Depicted in a hazy, almost surreal palette of translucent oil shades intended to expose and accent the raw canvas, the subjects of Victor’s paintings seem to exist in a state of unreality; the viewer is unsure whether they are witnessing the scene through a semi-transparent veil, or whether the scene itself is the veil – a painted curtain draped over reality.
Certainly, the visions that Victor sets before us, like a scenographer unveiling a theatre set, or a magic lantern operator slotting a plate into a projector, are of a distinctly dreamlike quality. As viewers, we enter spectacular landscapes in which flora and fauna germinate to mythic proportions. Interactions between human and non-human creatures become instances of mythic symbiosis, in which humans take on the physical characteristics of animals, and animals gain the sensibilities of humans. Dogs appear with particular frequency, always close and attentive to their human companions. For Victor, these once-wild, tamed creatures embody an essential link between the human subjectivities represented in his paintings and the natural environments they find themselves in. This is most clearly executed in the work ‘Vårens Tilbagekomst’, in which a humanoid mammal is compositionally and chromatically merged with both a canine body and the surrounding foliage – arms become forelegs; dog tail appears to blend with flower stem; dark, leafy fronds seem to protrude from the figure’s spine; feathers fan across the ground.
Victor envisions a world in which the human and non-human enter into a relationship that is both primal and mythological. The dusky, decadent springtime he dreams onto his canvas is one that is part imagined, part remembered and part longed for – and thoroughly compelling.
AMM: Hello Victor! Can you tell us about your background, studies and artistic development? For example, did you always know you wanted to pursue a creative career?
VB: My dad is a historian and my mom is a graphic designer. Most of my family on her side work in creative arts. I have always been engaged with colour, (art) history and, in recent years, contemporary art. After graduating from high school, I attended two art-preschools and started making installations, in the hope of being very contemporary and getting into the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. I envisioned doing kitsch, industrial and somewhat perverted Marcel Duchamp-like ready-mades. By the end of my term at the second art-preschool, I was working with acrylic paint, but always ended up with dead surfaces of plastic paint. I would take the canvas off the frame once I had made a bad acrylic painting and flip it to paint on the raw backside. I had received the expensive flax canvas from recently deceased Danish painter Frans Kannik, and felt it wouldn’t do it or him justice to just throw it out after a half-hearted attempt. And so, I started painting on raw canvas – first flax and later jute. Even though I was painting a lot at this point, I decided to study medicine instead of art. I preferred to study something tangible, to learn a vital craft that could contribute to my life what my art can’t – structure and a bank of (almost) exact knowledge. However, my interest in painting has never waned.
AMM: How would you describe working as an artist in Denmark? Do you have a good artistic community around you?
VB: My work as an artist is very much in solitude. I do have a lot of friends pursuing fine art education in Denmark and Europe, and we often talk about art, but I wouldn’t describe myself as being a part of an artistic community – at least not in the romantic 1960s sense where you live and work together. This may be because I am somewhat self-taught and therefore haven’t entered the social community that comes with studying fine art at a university or academy.
AMM: We understand much of your work draws on natural environments and organic matter – your images abound with flora, undergrowth and rural landscapes. Can you tell us more about this theme in your work?
VB: Since my adolescence I have had an almost frantic longing for spring and warmth in Denmark. New beginnings with new expectations and the wonderful smell of flowers gives me a very intense joy. But the spring is as short as it is wonderful in Denmark, and the intense joy is unfortunately a very fleeting joy. The Rhododendron of my childhood home only bears flowers in three weeks of May and when it deflowers, I know summer is on its way, and the tenderness and expectations of spring do not get to transfer into June (and especially not July). I found out quickly after I started painting with oil that it was the wonderful spring and the melancholy of its shortness I wanted to be the main component of my practice.
AMM: There appears to be a kind of symbiosis between the human and the non-human in your images – metamorphosis, the splicing of human and animal features, humans and animals always in close physical proximity. How would you describe the relationship between human and animal subjectivities and physicalities in your work?
VB: I knew that I wanted to have a story or relationship between a central human character and an animal. I wanted to portray a romantic symbiosis, but not in a sexual way. I wanted to link my human characters to nature, via a domesticated animal in order to make a bucolic imagined fairy tale, into which the viewer can project their own feelings. I often use dogs – or doglike creatures – to accomplish this because of their relatability to humans. We (most of us) love dogs, but not in the same way we love a friend or a lover. We have molded them, through generations of selective breeding, into our own animal companions. Their minds are pure, and their devotion knows no limit. They are the only other being we could enter an eternity of flowers with, without our love for them vanishing.
AMM: What kinds of artistic techniques and mediums do you use when making a painting? And in what ways are the materials you use significant when conveying particular subject matter?
VB: My visions for the themes of my paintings have a dialectic relationship with my materials. The raw jute and undissolved oil paint supported my idea of making romantic and dream-like outdoor scenes, when I started using Franz Kannik’s colours (literally) and raw canvas. I found out how nicely the colour blended into the raw jute. It allowed me to work light into my painting by the pressure of my brush, just as it muted the oil colour slightly to achieve a dreamy feeling. I am unsure what had the biggest effect on the other – whether it was the oil paint and raw canvas or my love for colour that compelled me to paint something dreamy and opaque. Or perhaps it was indeed my love for different themes, such as spring and fairytales, that led me to use a specific palette and technique.
AMM: Tell us about the dreamlike scenes your work depicts – where do these images come from and what do they represent?
VB: It was in my work with the raw materials and blunt colours, and my quest to create an everlasting romantic and gloomy spring and a weird, surrendering love between human, animal and nature, that these dreamlike-images began to occur. The theatrical staging of the paintings and the muted earthly colours have the ability to convey this feeling of something surreal and romantic – sometimes also mythological and sometimes slightly decadent.
AMM: What relation do the more surreal scenes in your paintings have to the real world we live in? Are they completely detached from our own reality or do they seek to reframe and distort our perception of that ‘objective’ reality?
VB: Even though the feeling I try to portray has its beginning in my own life, the paintings are themselves completely detached from our reality. I try to create a story and convey a feeling from an indefinable point in time. The motives may give associations with fairytales, but they do not refer to specific fairytales and they are not parables. Even in my paintings with references to specific characters (such as ‘Finding the Head of Orpheus’ and ‘Icarus and the labyrinth of Knossos’), I only use mythical characters because their legends transcend their historical setting.
AMM: As a counterpoint to the natural and organic imagery, there is a decadent, Art Nouveau quality to many of your works, in the details of framing and patterning, the languid elegance of your figures and the dramatic compositions. How does your work draw on and reconfigure these artistic traditions?
VB: The theatrical scenes of Art Noveau influenced me to use these very dramatic and ‘staged’ scenes. I liked the idea that this very theatrical setting with dramatic and beautiful outsized flowers and women could help me create a dream-like feeling in my paintings (I don’t, however, see the need for the main character in the painting to be a woman). That flatness of many Art Noveau paintings also gives the sense that something is ‘just for show’. Scenarios that can’t and should not be entered – like a wonderful scenography that would fall apart if you touched it, like waking from a dream.
AMM: Are there any particular artists, either from art history or currently practicing, whose work you consider to have been impactful for your own practice?
VB: I discovered the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and Art Noveau or Art Floreale which (quite clearly) influenced my paintings a lot. Among other more recent artists that have inspired me are; Tal R, Pierre Bonnard and Jesper Christiansen. Tal R has the ability to use very soft pastel colours in a very intense way. He often paints a scene which you could ride your bike to and see for yourself (if you live in Copenhagen at least), but with this very dreamy palette. Something so tangible creates this unreal and dreamy feeling. “There is something impossible about that”, as he once said in an interview. The colours and tenderness of Pierre Bonnard, particularly his painting ‘The Bowl of Milk’, changed the way I viewed the relationship between colour and mood in a painting. Jesper Christiansen grounds his works with black gouache, and then paints these amazingly detailed pictures of nature and life on top, capturing a fragile and gloomy feeling.
AMM: What else influences your work? Are you ever inspired by literature or any other art forms?
VB: By the time I began specifying my practice and looking to these artists for inspiration, I also discovered my parent’s old copy of the Danish author Morten Nielsen’s poems. Morten Nielsen was in the Danish resistance movement during World War II. He died in 1944 when he was 22 (a year younger than I am now). It is particularly his romantic and melancholic descriptions of the Danish seasons that have inspired me, and I have borrowed from the titles of his poems more than once.
AMM: What is your working space like and what conditions do you require in order to be able to make your art?
VB: I paint in between reading anatomy, physiology and chemistry. I find these two sides of my life to be great counterparts. I paint in my living room; I like this way of integrating my practice into my life. It feels like a natural extension of being at home, with the painting constantly looking at me, expecting to be finished.
AMM: How do you hope your practice evolves? Do you have any creative challenges that you’re looking to overcome?
VB: In the future, I hope to develop the relationship between the raw spaces of my canvas with my motifs. Thus far, I have used the brown jute as a colour in itself, but only as background. In my next paintings I plan to use the brown jute in the foreground in the hopes of making the main characters even more fragile, and then try to work the background to more detail. This goes against basic rules of composition where the foreground and subject are the most detailed elements, but I think it might just help me create a new relationship between the scene and the animals and humans.
AMM: Are you working towards anything at the moment that you can share with us?
VB: I am currently working on my first solo show at Contemporary Art Gallery, VÆG, in Aalborg, Denmark. Which (if everything goes to plan) will open on April 1, 2021 – just when the Danish spring begins to show its charms.
Find out more about the artist: www.instagram.com/victor.benzin
Interview by Rebecca Irvin for ArtMaze Magazine.