:: Article

Portraits of the authors

Henry Köhler interviewed by Susan Tomaselli


3:AM: Your father, Carl Köhler, was a neo-modernist painter who left Sweden in the 50s and moved to Paris, where he started his authorportraits. Why, do you think he was he drawn to writers? And why those particular writers?

Henry Köhler: My father left Sweden after studying at the Swedish Royal Art Academy 1945-50, and continued his art studies in Paris. When it came to authors – especially the French ones – that was something that grew a couple of years after his time in France. He was always very interested in literature, all kinds of authors, but especially French. I think it came from his own strong literary interest: he was very skilled in the art of writing and this, combined with his unique way of seeing the inner person, created these special portraits.


3:AM: The subjects didn’t sit for the portraits, rather Carl’s inspiration came directly from their works. Presumably your father was a big reader?

HK: Yes, he truly was a reader. He had a huge library at our home, along with my mother, Sinikka, who also loved to read.

3:AM: Carl wrote art criticism – on Gaudi, for example – but, considering the authorportraits series, do you know if he was ever drawn to writing literature himself?

HK: Yes my father longed – and he was talented enough to be published – to write himself, but I think that his self-confidence was not as strong compared to his confidence when it came to practicing visual art.

3:AM: The authorportrait series is an impressive body of work, yet each
individual painting is quite distinct in its own right. What techniques did your father use? Did he favour a particular medium?

HK: My father used whatever technique was suited to the particular subject, and that could be oil, indian ink, woodblock print and collage.


3:AM Your father painted Henry Miller as a demon, Charles Bukowski as a bloody mess. Christian Cardell Corbet said that these portraits “are not for the faint of mind,” as they can be quite violent and offer profound psychological insights rather than mimetic accuracy. Would you agree with this?

HK: Yes, I agree with Christian when it comes to many of my father’s portraits, however there are also many portraits that are a bit easier on the untrained eye.

3:AM: Perhaps a little unfair, but do you have particular favourites in the authorportraits series?

HK: I love the Marina Tsvetaeva paintings and also the Antonin Artaud and Claude Simones.


3:AM: In NY Arts magazine, Carolina Söderholm said your father was “more of an European intellectual, but far too humble to ever consider himself as such.” Is that a fair assessment?

HK: Yes I think Carolina is right. My father was quite humble and that is one reason why he never took that extra step that was needed to reach out more widely with his art. He would have needed a agent of some kind, an ally that really saw his potential, both in Sweden and elsewhere.

3:AM: You’ve successfully exhibited authorportraits in Canada, America
and Ireland, and it’s currently on show in Malmo. Why, though, did you choose to show in libraries rather than art galleries?

HK: Firstly, I’d like to say that a major library or university is a very good fit for the authorportraits. They really belong in venues like that. The reason I chose those venues was the connection to literature, but it was also easier to get in contact with them. Traditional art institutions are hard to get in contact with, they have often already chosen their artists to work with and seldom they take on artists they have not heard so much about, I’m sorry to say. Secondly, I truly wish we could have a exhibition in a prestigious art museum or a large art gallery in Sweden, Europe, America or Canada, so I hope that one day the curators will see my fathers art and arrange an exhibit.


3:AM: Carl Köhler, was a fairly well-known in Sweden during his lifetime. Are you pleased with the reception his art is now received outside of it?

HK: Yes, I’m very pleased how this has developed. But this is largely due to my own work. I’d hope that someone else within the art world would continue to spread the word on Carl Köhler. I’d my father’s work to go one step further, a step I believe my father and his art works deserve.

3:AM: What are your future hopes for your father’s work? More exhibitions perhaps? Would you like to have a monograph published?

HK: There is one more exhibition scheduled, an authorportrait exhibition in Helsinki, Finland, at the Helsinki public library in October this year. My ambition would be to exhibit my father’s other art, not just the authorportraits. We have around 75 interesting drawings that date from 1950 to 2005 and around 60 paintings, many of them inspired by ballet and the human form. And, yes, a monograph would be very nice.


[Images: photo of Carl Köhler in his studio; Marguerite Duras, Charles Bukowski, Samuel Beckett, Fyodor Dostoevsky & Franz Kafka, from the authorportrait series, courtesy of Henry Köhler]

Susan Tomaselli is co-editor of 3:AM and lives in Dublin.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, July 13th, 2011.