The symphony of color

Pia Fonnesbech and Painting

by Ole Lindboe – Artcritic, Author, Editor of the TV-program “Kunsten i øjet” TV4, Editor of the artmagazine “Kunst”, and headmaster at the artschool Thorstedlund.


“We must simplify to reveal the meaning of art….
reduce its lines to eloquent contrasts, its tones to the seven fundamental colors of the prism.”
Emile Bernard


It all began with a rainbow. Created by the sun, its rays shone down through the atmosphere, and hence the myth which tells us that at the end of the rainbow, there is a pot, brimming over with the purest of gold and shining in all colors. However, gold is not only yellow. And the color yellow is not only yellow, as is the case for all colors. They are all part of the rainbow. They all have innumerable nuances hidden within them, and all these colors are brought out by light.

For light is the great sorcerer, when we speak of colors. The ability to create light in a painting is perhaps the most important quality for an artist when a painting is to be brought to life.

Looking closely at the artist Pia Fonnesbech’s paintings, what you see is light and color. Although each color is not just a single color, for the color unfolds and becomes a complete world of its own. Together, the colors build an entire universe of tones.

One can associate feelings with color, and for instance decide that blue is cold and red is warm. However, this becomes a cliché, as each color has its own enormous range of tones with deep and unexpected qualities. We often speak of complimentary colors, but the alchemy of colors is far more complicated. Color is a tale with no end. Color is a complete universe, where there are no words and the intellect does not exist.

For a passionate colorist like Pia Fonnesbech, the subject of the painting is more or less without importance. Whether she paints a mouse or a mountain, the colors will reveal more of the artist than the subject. She might paint a cherry, a pitcher or a Swedish wooden horse, the kind tourists buy. The subject is practically a pretext for the color. Pia Fonnesbech’s sense of color dominates her paintings. One could also say that color is a prism through which one sees the true nature of everything.

Paul Cézanne, a founding father of modern painting once said that art is a harmony that runs parallel to nature. He continued: “Instead of recreating exactly what I see, I use color arbitrarily to express myself more intensely. Art is by definition never the same as what it describes.”

Another great lover of color, Vincent van Gogh, stated it in the following terms: “Color expresses something on its own, it is indispensable, it must be used . . the result being more beautiful than the exact replica of the motive itself”.

Van Gogh’s phrasing has become a beacon of light for many artists, for whom color is an important part of the essence of painting. It is not a matter of creating an exact replica of the motives one paints. No, a painting has its own rules and creates its own version of reality.

Without colors…no painting. See for yourself in the paintings of Pia Fonnesbech.

It began with color

In 1905 a group of French artists exhibited their latest paintings at the “Salon d’Automne” in Paris. The exhibiting artists painted with vibrant and intense colors, their paintings were raw and spontaneous. The exhibition shocked the spectators.

The art critics had no idea of what to make of this new trend. One of them referred to the group as “les fauves”, the wild animals, which later led to the name Fauvists and Fauvism. Fauvism became an art movement, albeit short lived. Not long after the onset of Fauvism, the artists in the original group all moved in separate artistic directions.

Color and feeling
However, something had been started that could not be stopped. In the period that followed, several members of the group came to play an important role in western European art. Henri Matisse, André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck became the most famous. Raoul Dufy and the Belgian artist Kees van Dongen were also eminent examples of this new trend.

Derain summarized the new art movement in this way: “Colors became charges of dynamite. They were to blow out the lights. Everything would be raised above reality.” The Fauvists agreed that art, with the use of color and form, should be able to evoke an emotional experience.

Perhaps the brightest star of the Fauvists was Henri Matisse (1869-1954). With his clear pallet and consistent approach to color, Matisse created pictures that extended far beyond the decorative. Matisse said of his own work: “ My primary intention is to capture expression. I am unable to differentiate between the sensation of life and the method with which to express it. The most important role of color should be to support expression as much as possible. My dream is to attain the balance of art, purity and clearness, devoid of worrisome or depressive themes . .”.

The art of color – colorist
Matisse visited London for the first time in 1898. There, he began studying the great English master Henry Turner and his sense of color and light. In the same year Matisse continued on to Corsica and the south of France, where he painted a series of richly colored landscapes. He created a series of paintings, in which the color was almost unnatural, but somehow became the principle expression. Matisse formed his own school. He is one of the most appreciated artists of the 20th century, and still today has considerable impact on modern painting.

Naturally Matisse is not the only colorist in the history of art. Color plays a decisive role in more or less all painting, from the earliest cave-painting to pop-art and up to the painting of the present day.

The beautiful.
Color is connected to beauty and the pursuit of beauty has always been essential to art. Perhaps we should try to understand beauty and its complexity and try to make ourselves conscious of the psychological and visual elements of beauty.
Art is often influenced by beauty, which perhaps is due to the fact that we want art to make us become aware of beauty.

Now and in the future

Interesting things often happen when an artist moves across a frontier.
Earlier, artists went on “pilgrimages” to Italy, and there they met the great masters. Later, France became their objective. Today it would be Germany or the USA. Artists are by definition internationalists.

This also applies to Pia Fonnesbech. She is from an artistic point of view, a child of both Sweden and Denmark. She is also strongly influenced by the younger British artists. In Denmark one can place her in the generation of artists, who have “revived” painting. She has a truly genuine will to rediscover the possibilities of painting. After the group of Danish painters known as “De vilde” (the wild ones) regressed the level of painting to zero in the 1980’s, it has now reestablished itself, and many of the artists of this generation have returned to painting.

Matisse in Sweden
Pia Fonnesbech’s Swedish heritage is easily evident. Henri Matisse played an important role in Sweden. In 1910 –1911 the great Swedish painter, Sigrid Hjertén (1885-1948) was the pupil of Matisse. Hjertén belonged to a large group of artists, who wished to rejuvenate painting. For this group, naturalism had become a straitjacket. Moreover, Hjertén married another important Swedish artist, Isaac Grünewald. Together they renewed the expressionistic painting tradition in Sweden.

Hjerténs paintings are rich in color, often decorative and ornamental. Her euphoric brush work exudes energy, light and rhythm.

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) also came to play a decisive role for the Swedish art world. Especially his decorative and stylized paintings 

were a great influence to painters such as: Richard Bergh, Karl Nordström and Ivan Aguéli.

The secret of color
There are yet many other parallels in Pia Fonnesbechs painting. In the 1960’s pop-art broke through in the USA and Europe. In England David Hockney stood out and became an example. Matisse’s colors were a strong inspiration to Hockney. Another example of a pop artist is the Danish painter, Tom Krøjer.
His paintings also have an intensly vivid and sensual coloring.

Color today
The Danish artist Carl Henning Pedersen, who also devoted himself to color once said: “I became a painter when I discovered the joy of putting one color next to the other. Ever since that day, I have been busy trying to find the secret of color. I have discovered in this search that I also am seeking my own identity as a human being.”

Certain art critics have tried to integrate psychology into the artists use of color. The only answer to that is, when good artists paint, it almost always reaches beyond the use of color as a psychological key to their painting.
This also applies to an artist like Pia Fonnesbech. She does not let herself become limited by rules of how to use color. The only “rules” she uses are those which are created while she is painting on her canvas.

Creation and growth

How does an artist create a painting? Is it generated in his or her imagination, in the confrontation with a motive, or when the brush touches the canvas and starts its many strokes toward the finished painting? The question is simple, but nevertheless, not simple for most painters, nor for Pia Fonnesbech. “I never wait for inspiration. It happens to me during the process of painting. One stroke leads to the next and one color leads to another. It can also be a pattern, that then leads to something else. I never know where I land. I would get bored if I knew where my painting was going to end.” explains Pia Fonnesbech.

A good painting should “have an effect”.The colors should be in balance. The composition should be right. But still this is not enough. A good painting should have something else, and more. Something that is beneath what we see, and what we think we see.

“There should be some kind of a distortion, a surprise, perhaps a riddle,”
says Fonnesbech

This riddle is often what separates the banal from the original. A painting must never be too perfect. It should never become too polished, because it then closes in on itself, and becomes so to speak confined within its own technical smoothness.

This concerns also the subject of when the artist should stop painting the picture. Far too many paintings get painted to death by an artist, who just sought to add another detail. Pia Fonnesbech is exceptionally aware of this danger.

True paintings
“I have ruined many a good painting by not stopping in time. On the other hand, perhaps painting a picture to death, is also part of the process. For this could be a way to a better and more truthful work of art. A ruined painting can be revived however, if the will is there and one is lucky”, says Pia Fonnesbech.

Pia often works in series. Her paintings group themselves as if they were related to one another. Each painting is a step on the road to becoming more deeply absorbed. No painting can contain everything, but each painting can contain an important part of a feeling.

Working as Pia Fonnesbech does, for an extended period of time on a particular type of painting, something important happens. She penetrates deep down through several layers. No painting is what it seems to be, when Pia Fonnesbech uses color the way she does. It is a process for her, that goes on for several years. Colors are an exploration towards higher insight. It is like drawing a map, while moving through a landscape. The route only becomes clear, the moment you have arrived.

“Sometimes I come to a dead end and I can’t get any further with a particular type of painting. Then, there is nothing else for me to do but start on something new. In this connection a new motive can be the turning point, even though the transition really takes place with the colors.
What should “a good painting”do to its observer ?
“It should make demands. It should not reveal all its secrets at once. It should fascinate. It should contain a tension, that only the observer can solve by studying the painting. A painting should not be “understood”, as so many other things in this world. It should be felt, sensed, pondered upon, percieved….it should make the observer ask himself what is this all about ? The beautiful should not just be beautiful. The sombre not just be sombre. It should mirror the dualism, that is in everything,”says Pia Fonnesbech.

The good painting
One should be able to see something new every time one looks at it. “There must be something underlying, a problem – perhaps something unsolved, that makes the painting come alive,” according to Fonnesbech.
One should, in other words, be able go exploring, the same way as one moves in an immense, new and unknown landscape.
When the artist has delivered his painting, the analysis is up to the observer. This is not as easy as it sounds.

Storytelling and painting
” Stories in my paintings ? Not at all!” answers Pia Fonnesbech, when asked if there are stories in her paintings.
Perhaps she is mistaken. A story is not just a coherent story with a point and a nice ending, as tradition and habit will have it. A story could very well be a glimpse or a fragment, an atmosphere, a feeling, an expression, that reveals itself to us as a significant figure.
Stories are exactly what one can discover in Pias paintings. Especially in her portraits, although they also are influenced by her strong coloring. So much
so, that the portraits often are a good excuse to let the colors unfold exorbitantly.

The almost visible
With her portraits she revives a tradition, that we have seen many times before in the history of art. The portraits of the Fauvists and also the expressionist painters reveal more phsychic energy than an accurate rendering of the subject. Strong, intense portraits of people, where the dynamics of the coloring underline their personality.
For instance, Fonnesbech has painted a portrait of Billy Holiday, seemingly stereotyped, but with both a light and an intense coloring, that characterizes the great old blues singer.
Pia Fonnesbech knows that every good painting is in a cross field between what you see and don’t see – between the tangible and the almost invisable. In a good painting new meanings and new perceptions turn up all the time.

A mirror
The atmosphere of a painting can be created by what barely is suggested, or by what unfolds, lightly as a summer breeze, brushing the petals of a flower.
Every painting contains a number of moods and feelings. Perhaps they are in the periferi of the painting, where one can barely sense them. This has to do with intuition. We are smarter than we think and smarter than our intellect thinks. Our eyes are perhaps smarter than our minds.
To see is to be aware. To be aware is to see anew. A confrontation with a painting is like looking in a mirror, that reveals yourself and the world around you.


Pia Fonnesbech was born 1961 and she recieved her education at Idun Lovéns Art School and Stockholms School for Liberal Arts. She has also recieved education at the Royal Academy of Art in Copenhagen and the Art Academy in Gothenburg.