Galerie Fons Welters - Amsterdam

Sven Kroner – Atmosphere

Sven Kroner in conversation with Annelies Nagels 

When I visit Sven Kroner at his house near Düsseldorf and see the first of the paintings that he will show at Galerie Fons Welters in September, it’s difficult not to discern their resemblance to the famous painting ‘The Sea of Ice’ (1823-1824) by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) in which a ship is wrecked by a pile of ice. Kroner’s painting looks dramatic, but at second glance you notice that it could also be a pile of garbage in a room. This ambiguity runs through all of Kroner’s work. At the time when Friedrich painted ‘The Sea of Ice’, a critic wrote: “Let us hope that the ice painting of the Arctic will finally start melting.” Little did he know how clairvoyant this would turn out to be. Sven Kroner refers to Friedrich several times during the interview. 

Annelies Nagels: The title of your show is Atmosphere. What does this title mean to you?
Sven Kroner: It has two meanings. ‘Atmosphere’ is the title of this painting, that will be part of the exhibition at Galerie Fons Welters, in which you can see a greenhouse. So obviously I’m referring to the greenhouse effect. Here where I live, near Düsseldorf, climate change is a big topic. When you arrive in this region you pass by all these power stations that are working on coal. But it also refers to an atmosphere that I try to create in my work that connects all the different elements that are present in my paintings.

AN: Landscape is your central theme. But I don’t see you as a landscape painter. What is it, do you think, that sets your work apart from landscape painting?
SK: I started painting in the nineties. It was a time when a lot of artworks were ironic. So when others decided to paint flowers, I started painting landscapes. But soon I realized that I wasn’t only doing it in an ironic way, and that I actually liked a lot of aspects in landscape painting. At the time I liked that it was sort of kitsch. 
If you are a classical landscape painter you go outside and you see a nice view, a nice mountain, for instance, and you look for a nice composition. Perhaps you will add a deer in front of it. You get a painting that is nice in a bourgeois way. So I decided to try to paint landscapes in a different way, moving away from the stereotypes, but at the same time, keeping the nice aspects of it. Landscapes are interesting, because they show how we as humans are using our environment. You can see how people treat nature, how they make fields, buildings, highways, factories, airports and so on. My work evolved towards more ecological topics. So, in my work you have two facets. I grew up in a small convivial Bavarian city close to the Austrian border, where nature was very nice. In my paintings you can feel the longing for my childhood. But there was not much culture there. It was pretty much the end of the world. I have mixed memories of my youth, and the landscapes that you see in my paintings don’t only show this idyllic picture, but also what is happening to nature. I guess I can say that I don’t really paint landscapes. My paintings are about how humans see their environment. 

AN: What’s the position of the humans in your paintings? I see a lot of post-apocalyptic aspects in your work, but at the same time I see humans enjoying themselves and not being impacted by what’s happening.
SK: Yes, that’s true. It’s like they don’t notice what is happening. They are mostly just hanging around. They’re taking walks in these dystopic, destroyed or problematic surroundings. You have a human presence in my paintings, but I’m not really painting humans. I’m not that interested in faces or the physiognomy of people. Sometimes there are just some traces in the snow. You know that humans are there, yet you can’t see them. I also sometimes use what we call the Rückenfigur in German. You can see someone from the back, which helps the viewer to get into the painting. It’s a technique that was used a lot in German romantic painting, especially by Caspar David Friedrich.

AN: The titles of your works often tell us that what we see is an illusion. Do you want to warn the viewers? 
SK: Yes, I show that painting is reflective in a Magritte way. What he painted in ‘Le trahison des images’ [better known as ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’] was his central topic. Building an illusion is intrinsic to painting. And you tell the viewer that what you are doing is brilliant. I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and it’s just paint on canvas. I like to cause confusion. Fifteen years ago, I painted crop circles. That was, on the one hand, landscape painting; and on the other hand, it questioned what was being said. The people who made these circles were saying that a higher form of intelligence was telling them to do so. But of course, they were lying. A painter does the same, in a way. Sigmar Polke made a famous painting “Higher beings commanded: paint the top right corner black!”, (‘Höhere Wesen befahlen: rechte obere Ecke schwarz malen, 1969). His work is about casting doubt on painting in general.

AN: Your paintings often have a dramatic character. You can see different moments in time coming together. Do you want your paintings to be narrative?
SK: You are correct about that. When I was at art school, people thought that narrative works were bad. I never understood why. I like to give the viewers a lot of freedom: so they can imagine, for themselves, what is happening next and what happened before. It’s like a short scene from a movie. I like to think that the wolf is perhaps searching for the rabbit, standing on the bridge. Sometimes people say, ‘So it could be anything.’ It can’t be anything, of course, but that doesn’t mean it has to be clear either. I create an atmosphere where some things become possible.  

AN: Another dramatic element in your work is that you are really staging all these elements as if you are making a scenography. You also play with the scale by using cardboard models that you often make in preparation of your paintings. 
SK: Yes, I put things together. But I try to make a realistic atmosphere. A realistic atmosphere in a fake world. I don’t want it to be surreal. This is what painting can do: you make dead things come alive. The wolf here, for instance: you can think it’s a toy or a model, but I try to paint it realistically.  
In 2021 there was this big flood in the Eifel/Ardennes area. In Germany alone 180 people died because this small river, the Ahr, became a giant mud stream. Everything was destroyed by it. You got to see all these catastrophic images. So, for me, this is the reality that I paint and not so much a dystopic future. But at the same time, a painting could be still a place in the basement, where I store all my house models. I like it when it’s not clear. It’s a catastrophe, but at the same time it could be the result of child’s play with model houses.

AN: How do you use the models when you paint? Are they the props that you use for the staging? 
SK: I used to paint studio views, where all this stuff was standing on the floor: my brushes, my models, older paintings. But now you don’t see the studio anymore. You see something, but you can’t really tell what it is you see. You see a model world, but one with books in boxes here and there. 

AN: I notice that your paintings are often nocturnal scenes, and are also scenes with snow, both moments in time when you see the world in a different way. Is this a coincidence?
SK: I use this in a deliberate way. Snow and night have very ambivalent connotations to me. I don’t mean snow in a Christmassy way. I grew up in a region where snow came at the end of October, and it lasted until April. At school they told us there were four seasons, but I always thought no, you only have two. Six months of winter, and the other three seasons take place in the other six months. I like snow, but it’s also depressing. It gets dark early, and it’s really cold. Snow can also have a dark side. And it’s the same with the night. It can be very romantic, but it’s full of danger too. The light in the painting is unheimlich and heimlich at the same time. It can be very cozy, but it can also be scary. 
For a painter there is something seductive about painting snow and nocturnal scenes. The opposite of snow and night is mist and fog. I did some fog paintings in about 2004. This was a challenge. The paintings were about not seeing anything. It can be also very suggestive. Unlike mist, snow and night offer lots of painterly opportunities. It´s easier to define things. You can make paintings with white, blue and dark blue. Sometimes a few colours are enough. So it’s the ambivalent aspect that I like about night and snow, but it’s also a way of reducing things and concentrating on the atmosphere. 

AN: Often the window plays an important role in your work. Do you observe the world from the window in your house?
SK: The first time I painted a window, I painted one with steam on it. For me, it was the idea of being bored as a teenager and looking outside of the window and seeing nothing but the opposite house. It’s a romantic idea, and depressing at the same time. 
The window is also a very classical element in painting. It’s among the favorite subjects. If someone had told me fifteen years ago that I was going to paint window paintings, I would have said no. But actually, it’s so interesting. You have so many aspects. You have the aspect of looking at the outside, of looking from the inside. You have the aspect of bringing two worlds together: each with its own light, its own temperature… it’s exciting. You don’t really see what’s outside. It’s suggestive. You don’t see anything. You can guess. 

AN: You said you like the kitsch aspect in landscape painting. Do you think that by emphasizing the artificial you can achieve authenticity?
SK: Maybe we should first talk about Kitsch. Figurative paintings are always in danger of becoming kitsch, and abstract paintings are always in danger of becoming decorative. Maybe the term kitsch is a bit problematic. I think kitsch is when some stereotypes and cliches are repeated too often. Like a sunset over the Aegean Sea. There is a thin line between stereotypes and paintable things, things that are worth painting. My emotions are in my paintings, so there is always a danger. Especially landscape painting is charged with kitschy emotions But to be honest, I ditched these thoughts. Yes, about fifteen years ago I did some paintings that had a bit of a ‘Bob Ross’ feel.  Those paintings show people camping as a storm approaches. The scenery was very whimsical, apocalyptic Hollywood, with overtones of Otto Dix and Bob Ross too. At that time I was using some clichés from trivial culture for my paintings. But that disappeared from works of the last fifteen years. In my recent work I try to paint things as they actually could be, although they are not real landscapes. Sometimes it’s just a model, sometimes it’s part of my studio. I don’t want it to become fantasy. I stage it as a landscape, but I still want it to look as though it could just be the mess in my studio. 

AN: Final question: why do you have so many ships in your work?
SK: It started with ships that passed by here, on the river Rhine. When there’s high water they are not allowed to sail. What I like about them is that they are a slow means of transport. They promise us adventure. Caspar David Friedrich painted them too. He saw them as an icon of exploration. 

AN: Thank you for this interview!

In 1826 art critic Carl Töpfer wrote about ‘Das Eismeer’: “[…] Stücke gehäuften Eises führen uns nicht zur Anschauung des Eismeereres. Mag immerhin jenes Schifflein zersplitterter Dreimaster, uns die Größe der Schollen andeuten, das gethürmte Eis wird nicht groß durch die Kleinheit des Schiffes, sondern das Schiff wird zu einem zersplitterten Modell, klein durch die Größe des Eises, und wir wähnen, einen geringen Theil des Oder- oder Elb-Eises zu sehen, in welches ein muthwilliger Knabe ein Miniaturschiffchen zerbrochen warf.“  

Carl Töpfer, Erste Kunstausstellung in Hamburg. In: Originalien aus dem Gebiete der Wahrheit, Kunst, Laune und Phantasie 10, 1826. Pp. 417-419, 429, 437f, 443f, 454f. Compare Börsch-Supan, Jähnig (1973), p. 107.