In 1900 the Theatre Restaurant opened in a corner of Århus Theatre’s building. It was the architect Hack Kampmann who designed the rooms and the painter and sculptor Karl Hansen-Reistrup who completed a very long frieze consisting of wild animals as a fresco in the whole restaurant. The room has been put to many different uses during the last 100 years and this has been one of the causes of the degradation of the frieze. However a fragment 3 metres long by 1 metre high remains. This depicts a tiger with its gaze fixed on some vine ranker with clusters of grapes at the top of the picture.
Café Hack has now been reopened, designed by the architect Mads Møller from C F Møller’s Architect Group, so that the bar is situated in front of a 15 metre long wall. The fragment of the old frieze is situated at the top left of the wall and it was my job to continue the frieze in a new interpretation, so that the old piece was retained and integrated in the new version, in a way that shows clearly which part is which. Some sketches and photos of Hansen-Reistrup’s animal frieze still exist.
They depict tigers and lions in harmonious union enjoying life and eating grapes. It is almost a state of paradise created to give the café room a distinguished style and create an idyllic mood. Zoologically no traces have ever been found of wild lions in Asia, nor wild tigers in Africa. It is absolutely impossible for the two animal kings, being equally strong, to tolerate each other – and by the way neither of them eats grapes!
Inspired by the combination of tigers and grapes in the café’s frieze I couldn’t help thinking about the Greek legend related by Plutarch about Dionysus (or Bacchus, the power of nature and the god of wine)
Plutarch explains that Dionysius was madly in love with an Asiatic princess, Alphesibée. One day when the princess was out walking with her companions, she caught sight of a large tiger coming towards them, which started to play. The tiger, who was Dionysius in disguise, quickly managed to separate the princess from her companions. He chased the beauty until they reached the River Sollax and she could no longer flee from him. The tiger offered to take the princess on its back, but jumped into the river with her and swam to the opposite bank….
They had many offspring and the river was named after the nymph and the tiger. It was called the Tigris. With this inspirational starting point I now had a motivation for painting the 15 metre long frieze with Karl Hansen-Reistrup’s remaining fragment integrated in the fable.
In the original frieze Karl Hansen-Reistrup has with natural ease used earth colours to paint the ochre-coloured animals, because most animals of prey are these colours, apart from the dark stripes or spots.
Earth colours and their use up through the ages have always fascinated me. The oldest paintings we know of are cave paintings created over 25,000 years ago. These spectacular animal pictures are painted with ochre colours in so powerful a style that even today they make a great impression on present day humans. Recently, not more than 30 kilometres from where I live in the South of France, subterranean caves have been found full of animal pictures. In one of the caves there is a long frieze with lots of lion /tiger heads painted with a single earth colour in a powerful calligraphic style. The name “ochre” is thought to derive from the Greek “ochos” meaning “sallow” or “pale yellow” actually rather a misnomer as ochre colours often possess enormously powerful colours. The raw material, which mainly consists of clay, coloured by yellow, red or reddish-brown iron compounds, is to be found in larger or smaller amounts all over the world. They can vary considerably, for example, from the yellow or yellowish-brown Italian Terra di Sienna, to the red or reddish-brown Spanish ochre. Actually the colours differ not only from geographical location to location but also within the individual location.
In the large ochre pits in this area a great variation of colour can be seen, from pale pink over greenish, yellow and orange nuances, to the deepest red and dark violet – caput mortuum. The strong sunlight which shines on the yellow or reddish yellow slopes causes them to shine brilliantly as a great contrast to the cerulean blue of the sky. The dark green pine trees that grow in this area are covered with a fine layer of ochre dust, which is whirled up constantly by the wind, so that it almost disguises the vegetation’s natural colour scheme. But first and foremost it is the richness of colour tones in the ochre material itself that is important and which inspires me in my painting.
In the sun the ochre colours can almost reach the same intensity as the synthetic yellow, orange and red cadmium colours, while they become subtle yellowy brown colours in the shade. In the same way the tiger’s yellowish brown coat shines in the sun, while it blends with the surroundings in the shadow because of its combination of stripes and subtle colours. This is in reality an interaction which suits this temperamental beast well.
One thing is what one sees and experiences in nature, it is something else completely when one is standing in front of the easel having to translate these often contrasting ideas or feelings into images. One has to penetrate into the subject matter itself and thus find out what one really want to do. Therefore I have started on the job in Café Hack with great enthusiasm, – a 15 metre long challenge with a built-in traditional fragment in earth colours.
The way I use earth colours is an attempt at using them as one sees them and experiences them in nature in different lights. Through systematic studies I have discovered a way to compensate for the weakening of the colours which occurs when the paint comes into the studio in the form of a tube, out of which a brown substance can be squeezed onto the palette. My experiments have included the theory of colour, pigments, fixing agents and undercoat colours.
If one studies the frieze from left to right one sees Karl Hansen-Reistrup’s tiger fragment as a starting point. To mark in a clear way the transition to the new part I have placed to the right of it a standing blue tiger, seen from the front as a vertical movement in the picture. Further to the left Dionysius can be seen as a tiger with Alphesibée on its back.
The red tiger in the middle of the frieze is on its way towards Dionysius looking back towards the other active tigers. If the Dionysius figure symbolises the artificial, the disguised, the theatrical, then this tiger depicts the observer which approaches the picture to see better and therefore to understand his fellow humans , – or tigers!
The five tigers in the right hand half of the frieze move in the picture in such a way that creates a figure of eight movement and represent the active and positive life-principle, as an echo of Bacchus’s festive amorous scene. The picture can also be studied from right to left, as on the far right of the frieze I have placed a large yellow tiger head facing left. The difference in size between this head and the other figures accentuates the space in the picture. It is coming out at you and welcomes you in a festive way. It lures you into the picture.
The room itself, which is decorated very tastefully, is dominated by a red ochre colour on the walls. Painted with a technique going right back to the Greek wall paintings (Encaustic), where one mixes melted wax into the colour pigment, which is then smoothed to an even, beautiful, living surface. The Romans later adopted this technique (Stucco lustro) which was used in the Pompeian wall paintings. This very beautiful and characteristic red colour (Pompeian red) gives a positive sounding board in the room to set off the various ochre colours in the frieze. These two colours interplay eminently, where the red surface is smooth and calm in contrast to the frieze which, being painted on canvas, has a more structured surface with different colour vibrations.
As the frieze is situated high up on the wall, I have allowed the animals to look diagonally down on the audience to created further contact. In this way it is my hope and desire that the people in the theatre café should experience something that is different and special for this place. For my own part I love to just sit and look at the picture and allow my thoughts to fly, and this picture gives one ample reason to do so, in my opinion.