HENRY UNGER: A POETIC DIALOGUE WITH EXISTENCE
By: Victoria Noel-Johnson
The new man will find his religion in nature […]. He will be in dialogue with existence as it is. His commitment will be to nature, and through that commitment he will come to know super-nature […]. His science will be of understanding nature, not of conquering nature. (Osho)
Born in Stockholm in 1945, Henry Unger is what one could describe as a type of perennial traveller in terms of body, mind and soul. His work, which contains an overt Metaphysical streak – and is therefore unaffected by the traditional boundaries of time and space – as well as a preference for Surrealist-inspired imagery of an illogical nature – convey poetic visions of philosophical voyages sans fin. Confronted by a sea of exotic animals, deeprooted trees, remnants of classical antiquity, geometric shapes, and bright primary colours, Unger’s pressing desire to explore the very notion of our existence in this world – specifically the origins of spiritual existence – is evident. That he has elected to do this not only within the confines of the painting’s canvas, but within a seemingly enclosed space with open window that looks out to the sea or view of a classical building in the presence of the sun and moon – further enrich his discourse through their symbolic reference to perpetual timelessness and infinity.
Unger’s interest in ‘travelling’ within the medium of art comes as little surprise. Born into a family of artists and explorers of a continental education and experience, his grandfather was the renowned Swedish post-Impressionist, Nils Dardel (1888-1943), whose work is marked by his strong use of colour and subject matter of distant exotic lands and a fascination with the animal kingdom, traits that find an echo within Unger’s own work. Friends with the likes of Picasso, Braque and Pascin, Dardel formed part of the so-called Paris school in the 1910s, with his future wife Thora Klinekowström sitting for Modigliani in 1919, precisely a century ago. Thora’s father - Unger’s maternal great-grandfather Baron Axel Klinekowström (1867-1936) – in turn, was an Arctic and Antarctic explorer, a zoologist, fiction writer of adventure books and memoirist. Although Unger never met his great-grandfather, his spirit lived on in the family castle with rooms filled with exotic paraphernalia garnered during his travels to faraway lands: a kayak from Greenland, a microscope, a wireless radio (the first to appear in Sweden), taxidermy mounts of animals, antelope horns, an anaconda skin etc. Childhood days spent exploring the Nordic castle and its mysterious-looking objects convinced an eight-year old Unger to follow in his great-grandfather’s footsteps and immerse himself in the natural world as an explorer. Unger stayed true to his youthful ambition. Further to his artistic formation in Sweden, he moved to Paris where he attended the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, the prestigious art school that shied away from the strict academic constraints of painting promoted by the École des Beaux-Arts in favour of a more liberal form of teaching. He subsequently travelled for study in the Baltic archipelago, East Asia, Central America, and Africa, the latter igniting a particularly strong connection between himself, art and nature. In contrast to Europeans, Unger quickly became fascinated by how Africans were in touch with their roots and their close connection to nature; to the origins of nature. During the 1990s, he spent extended periods living in Capri. Attracted by the island’s divergency – its reduced size but natural beauty capable of attracting a large international crowd of interesting figures, as well as its dramatic scenery with steep cliffs – that allowed Unger to feel acutely connected to nature, proved particularly inspirational for his artwork. Such travels provided Unger with much material and ideas for his paintings, works that reference figures and animals that do not exist in the present, but populate a world that vaguely recall fairy tales, mythological legends and fantastical lands, laced with echoes of Nordic and Oriental descent. The occasional reference to Capri’s famous faraglioni, the two coastal rock formations, can also be found in paintings such as Espressioni e dialogo (2003), Favola infinita (2002) and Festa a colori (2000).
Interpreting his works as collages of different experiences, cultures and spiritual beliefs, coupled with a strong Metaphysical and Surrealist influence in terms of style and the nonsensical arrangement of objects (as seen with the classical column mounted by an oval egg-like head, and the illogical application of perspective and unnatural light sources), Unger’s habitual insertion of geometrical shapes and specific animals – particularly the horse and elephant – succeed in flooding the pictorial plane with a sense of spiritual symbolism. With regard to his prominent use of geometric shapes – the simplest of which are found in nature and are used by many different cultures to signify various meanings - one recalls how they have formed a part of human religious symbolism for thousands of years, long before the scientific endeavours and construction projects championed by the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. Unger’s preference for circles– which are amongst the oldest of geometric symbols and commonly represents unity and infinity – heighten his dialogue with the notion of existence: they are the most perfect of creative forms, without beginning nor end. In Zen Buddhist philosophy, which would appear to interest Unger due to his portrayal of the Buddha in Accoglienza (2004) and the aforementioned Favola infinita (2002), the circle represents enlightenment and perfection in unity with the primal principles. The regular appearance of the sun and moon – together with the clock adorned with Roman numerals - in the Swedish artist’s work once again convey his interest in perpetuity. Of note is Unger’s occasional use of a circle with a dot in the middle – an astrological symbol of the sun and therefore giver of life – which can be seen in paintings such as Energia sacra (2003) and Inquietudine dell’anima (2002) with the woman’s breasts, her contrapposto pose closely echoing that of Botticelli’s Venus in Birth of Venus (1485-1486).
The square and rectangle are also lent particular importance in Unger’s paintings, often united as panes of an open window of an undefined internal room that look out to the sea or a cityscape, or both: related to the number four – and therefore a container of space – the square is linked to material things (physical elements, compass directions and the Seasons) and, as such, is often used to represent solidity; a static, earthly, robust and material sense of perfection and order. Less evident but frequently present in Unger’s work, is the use of the triangle, especially in brightly-coloured arc-shaped friezes that frame an exotic animal or figure. Whilst associated with multiple meanings in different cultures and religions, the triangle has ordinarily been linked to the temporal notion of the past, present and future, as well as body, mind and spirit, both of which compliment Unger’s exploration of a type of spiritual Metaphysics. Paired and presented as point-to-point, they symbolise the principle of harmony, a key preoccupation for the Swedish artist and his desire to remain closely connected to the existential origins of nature. Unger’s heightened sense of spiritualism is further compounded by the frequent appearance of exotic animals, many of them spirit animals such as the horse, lion, tiger, snake and fox. The work on display in the present exhibition also includes poetic visions of elephants, rhinos and camels: they often appear in the midst of an excursion to some unknown destination. Unger’s Cavallo metafisico (2019) stands out for its strong imagery and message: here, we are confronted with an almost anatomically-rendered horse’s face set within a flurry of arcs and small circles. Occupying most of the picture plane, its direct gaze captures – almost in hypnotic fashion - that of the spectator’s. A pale small moon appears, together with a tower and brightlycoloured geometric forms, within the horse’s head, as if part of the working mechanism of its thoughts. As a spirit animal, it traditionally symbolises passion, a desire for freedom, driving force, transformation and spiritual guidance, perhaps a subconscious – or indeed conscious - self-reference to the artist himself.