The Swedish artist, Johan Furåker (born 1978 in Uppsala), is a conceptual painter who is interested in a wide range of mysterious, eccentric and captivating cultural issues, which he uses as a sort of catalogue of ideas for his meticulously performed paintings. He practices this with convincing artistic skill, owing to the fact that he’s capable of painting whatever he wants because he masters all the demanding technicalities of oil painting as a refined pictorial, historic language. He uses mainly what you might call a “mimetic” style, i.e. an approach that strives to depict and reconstruct the physical world in two dimensions in an imitative way, making use of central perspective and other optical effects in order to make the world and its appearances true and real on the canvas. But, in fact, Johan Furåker does not walk out into the world to paint what he observes “out there” in the field. He is not a plein air painter, who is looking to find beautiful, exciting or picturesque sites in nature or, for that matter, in the city. On the contrary: he paints all of his paintings in his studio in Malmö, in the south of Sweden, since he finds most of his motives in the mass media: in articles, in books or in pictures/photographic material. In this respect, his paintings are mediated through the vast knowledge and image-bank of humanity. Johan Furåker is thusly a modern visual artist, representing the 21st century, and working with carefully selected cultural themes that fascinate and challenge him in his artistic work. However, he’s not making his exhibitions as a classical mise-en-scène – which would otherwise involve hanging his paintings on the wall and placing his objects – which are mostly appropriated ready-mades – on the floor, on top of plinths. On the contrary, Furåker arranges his works as narratives on shelves, with the result that they form compact visual stories interpreting the issues in a multitude of visual expressions – and both in two and three dimensions.
Like the system poetry of the sixties, where poets chose a specific external system and employed it as a grid in order to extend and guide the associations in new directions, or like the Danish “dogma-concept” film directors, who set up precepts and rules in order to intensify and redefine their pictorial language and narratives, Johan Furåker has found a new theme for his exhibition, “A Poet in Need of an Empire”, which he is going to present in Ping Pong Gallery in February-March 2014. He is also using his theme as a grid that provides him with novel visual inspiration and new challenges. His point of departure was an article that he read about the Italian poet and war hero, Gabriele d’Annunzio (1863-1938), who led a special and very interesting life and destiny as a key figure in Italian symbolist poetry and who also was fighting in the Italian army as an officer – and even became a war hero – during World War I. He was an eccentric person and notwithstanding the fact that he was short and not at all handsome, he was a womanizer, who succeeded in seducing some of the most celebrated women in Italy: from the famous actress, Eleonora Duse – for whom Gabriele d’Annunzio wrote several plays – to the hippie de luxe and style icon, Luisa Casati, who was a marquise that was rolling in money and was used to traveling with her cheetah, monkeys, parrots and boa constrictor, going so far as to check them all in at the Ritz in Paris. This lady made some exaggerated and opulent presentations of herself in fabulous dresses and was also portrayed by many highly esteemed artists of her own day, including Man Ray. She was considered the ‘Queen of Hell’ by virtue of being the most scandalous women of her time. When visiting Venice, d’Annunzio and his many artist friends stayed at Casati’s palace, Palazzo Venier dei Leoni (presently the home of the Peggy Guggenheim collection in Venice), which she bought in 1910. Her main goal in life was to become a living work of art. From her palatial residence on the Canal Grande, with its retinue of servants, the marquise would take evening strolls in her white gondola naked under fur and followed by her pet cheetahs, which were held with diamond-studded leashes. She was often accompanied by her black male servants, who were painted in gold paint. Johan Furåker has portrayed this extravagant lady in two small paintings. One of them is named “A Poet in Need of an Empire III”, where Casati is posing in a long and fluffy dress and a monstrous and richly decorated article of headwear while her eyes are highlighted with very visible black lines – causing her to look like a cross between an Inca princess and the female protagonist of a silent film. In the other painting, “Memory of a Dead Lover”, the marquise is posing in an elegant knee-length dress, designed in a typical nineteen-twenties fashion style – art deco’ish – and with letters dancing on her right hand side that spell out her name. Both portraits are painted as monochromes in either indigo-blue or grey-brown – contrasting the other multicolored paintings.
Gabriele d’Annunzio was a quirky intellectual dandy and a brilliant author and playwright who, as has been mentioned, penned a large number of books, collections of poems and plays. He generally lived way beyond his means but the income from his royalties often came to his recue. For him, the most important thing was to make his existence as interesting and as joyful as possible. Here, the female gender enters the scene: it has been claimed that he had 1,000 love affairs, which put him ahead of Casanova himself, by tenfold! At the same time, patriotism and nationalism were important paradigms for d’Annunzio – for example, when he conquered a part of Croatia with the capital city, Fiume (in Italian), which was also known in Croatian as Rijeka, and held this region in Italian control for 16 months – declaring a new utopian republic with a new constitution, stamps and institutions. Among other things, this new syndicalist society extended voting rights to women and was, on the one hand, based on “lyrical principles” while, on the other hand, it had certain fascist-like features, with d’Annunzio holding the reins of absolute power.
In his literary works, d’Annunzio was a part of the Decadent movement – that was related to French Symbolism and British Aestheticism – with a parlance that was romantic, sensuous and mystical. During World War I, the focus of the Italian people’s general perception of d’Annunzio would switch from the man’s talents as a literary artist to his achievements as a national war hero. As a pilot, he took part in several missions and was involved in an accident that injured him severely. In the new republic, in Fiume, he co-authored a constitution that influenced the fascism and the style of Benito Mussolini, who considered d’Annunzio both a role model and an enemy. From 1921 until his death, d’Annunzio lived in a golden cage, imprisoned in “Il Vitoriale deglie Italiani”, a fabulous villa on the coast of Lake Garda, which was financed by Mussolini.
It is these historical facts that have inspired Johan Furåker to make his series of paintings and objects: there is a skull that has been painted black with a golden tooth and a fashionable head-band in an art deco style; there is a bust of Venus in a 19th century version – which has also been painted black and decorated with a head-band as a discrete reminder of the fashion of Luisa Casati. And there is also the iconic ancient discus-thrower, which refers to the strength of the maile physique and makes its appearance on a separate shelf together with d’Annunzio’s collection of poetry entitled “Odi Navali from 1893. At the right side of the shelf, Johan Furåker has painted Mussolini – in conversation with d’Annunzio. Are they discussing politics or poetry?
Johan Furåker has a lucky hand with this interesting story about an eccentric man who lived out his dreams, both in his writings and in his real life, positioned on the threshold of modernity. Furåker’s exquisite paintings possess a rich variety of sizes, colors and motives. With their refined textures and details that one can enjoy, as with all fine painting, they seduce the spectator and they invite us into their mysterious world. The motives are – seen from a certain distance – nearly photographic but when you move up closer to the works, they become more and more abstract. It is indeed a masterly grip!
Lisbeth Bonde is a writer, art critic and journalist based in Copenhagen. She has written several books on contemporary art.