'Initiation' oil on canvas
Image: Lars Elling 'Initiation' oil on canvas

Lars Elling, is lithe, almost balletic in his movements. He appears as well balanced, both physically and mentally, as a top, curious about the world, tolerant of other people’s foibles; everything that a Norwegian Social Democrat should be and kind to boot.

He is married with three daughters; the youngest only 3.

His exterior reveals little of the paintings he executes, which are filled with dark intelligence and the shadow of madness. One gets a sense of the beauty and savagery of the world simultaneously, something that seldom happens in real life.

He has the same facility with metaphors as Angela Carter’s fiction (I recall a pink corset sticking out of coal scuttle) but less overwhelming, more controlled and never sentimental or sensational.

All the pictures have a narrative with an emotional texture that can send you right off your chump with intrigue.

These are paintings that can be looked at on a superficial level but also on a much more intense level, threaded through as they are with Sub Rosa dialogue that throws up new secrets all the time.

Lars Elling
Lars Elling

His new studio on a farm in Elgin is square and white and reflects the green orchards and mirrored lake that surround it.

He is easy to talk to, keen to discuss his painting, unposy with a calming presence and a honking laugh. We discuss many things, the wonder of children, food, his favourite places but there is always this third presence: the current painting, the intruder.

You did once say that you found moving quite difficult. Your place really is in Oslo. Coming to South Africa at the other end of the world must be quite challenging? It was just dreadful, facing a blank canvas in a blank studio. It is not a virgin studio anymore. It has its first painting, which has broken the seal. I think of it as a light sanctuary.

You have said many times you are scared of cliché. Cliché is the enemy. You can move very close, but you have to know the boundaries. You try not to be as frigid as staying too far away. I play with nostalgia, story telling but I am never sentimental.

Do you fear criticism? Criticism if the point properly made with no agenda, I love it. Every time I try to make a painting that is really interesting to look at it will always have flaws.

'Father's Apartment' oil on canvas
'Father's Apartment' oil on canvas

What is a valuable lesson you have learnt? Everything in the painting has an accuracy that suddenly falls apart. Now you see it, now you don't. Every part of the painting has to be justified by other parts. Every square inch should have value. You can’t be sloppy, nothing is extraneous.

Your paintings have often been compared to dreams, are these your own dreams? I do dream a lot. When I wake up by myself, I always remember them. When the kids wake me, they go. I think what it does is tell you your state of mind. It choses really interesting metaphors to tell you about yourself.

Do your paintings conceal secrets? The paintings are full of secrets. Without secrets they are not much good. If I do a painting with no enigma to it, then I usually just paint over it. The faces for instance are painted first and then blown out. Sometimes I think that just a posture or a shoulder or a neckline is much more expressive than a face.

Do you think that your paintings will be different now you are working in another country? Crossing the Sir Lowry’s Pass the other night, we had very interesting weather. There was this cloud on this side of the mountain and we had the sun on our backs. It was very different to Norway. So dramatic and such an interesting colour scheme, I feel pretty certain that this landscape will seep into my work.

'The Comfort of Strangers' oil on canvas
Image: Lars Elling 'The Comfort of Strangers' oil on canvas

Give us an idea of the process. When a painting starts out it is so cold, there is no improvement you can make to the white canvas, it is painful and boring but in a short time, just a few days, the canvas starts giving back. You can hook on to thoughts that were original and gain inspiration for another thought.

I paint myself into happy accidents, I see possibilities and I see the canvas change, the confirmation of the picture, and I can follow that and play with that and it goes on for a long time. Then towards the end when the painting is 80% done it sort of dies a bit. Then it just becomes a painting when before it had been a living thing.

I always think, this will not be a painting, it will transcend painting, and then there it, just a painting.

What is the most exciting part? Between 35% to 80% done, that part of it is very exciting. I see possibilities. I have to keep at it; I have to keep feeding it. If I am away for a week it dies on me

Do you cheat? With proper painting you can’t cheat there are things you can do and things you can’t do. Originality will always prevail. That is the one thing you can never fake and if you have a bit of perseverance you are completely unbeatable.

Now you are hitting 50 what is your preferred age? Twenty six.

Do you believe in love? I believe in crazy love that hits you in the face, wonderful and dreadful.

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