On Sven Sandberg’s Portraits

The paintings are portraits, yet the eye is also drawn away from the figures and toward the backgrounds. Here are masks, windows, vegetation, and walls, which recall the stylized settings of silent cinema. One imagines the painter’s studio as like a small film set. The model is carefully positioned amid art objects, props, and painted backdrops to produce a new staged reality. In the resulting portraits, human figures appear fully part of these artificial constructions, where painting from life becomes indistinguishable from borrowed images and recreated dreams.

In their faces, gestures, and distant looks, the figures themselves seem aware they are caught in the long shadows of modernism. The colors and brushwork are similarly evocative, producing effects both familiar and strange. Modern pressures of attention and distraction intensify here to the point of trance. The figures turn away or look inward, grasping at objects and fabric, as gestures of both resistance and resignation to contemporary demands. The atmosphere of the paintings is charged with this inward focus, which affects the viewer as well.

If we consider paintings to be limited to representing a single moment, as Gotthold Ephraim Lessing argues, then the work must provoke us to imagine what came before and what comes after. Minor dramas in these cases: moments captured just after an unexpected memory, a confrontation, an obscure comment. But what comes next? In silent film, it would be the fade-out. The character looks off and withdraws. The image fades to black. These paintings, one could say, are forever waiting the fade-out. The impression is not of a coming end or closure, however. It is that of the passing of time itself. In these moments, as Béla Balázs once wrote, the frame of the image opens and “lets the mysterious shadows of an uncertain future flood in.”