True north

You know when you’ve been to a place and you come away with a particular image in your head of how it looked (often determined by what your camera chose to capture); with distance the picture becomes a bit grainy, and the longer you’re away, the more faded the image becomes. I have such an image of the Norwegian coast in winter, but the image is no longer mine alone. The visual memory of the journey I made about ten years ago from Bergen to Tromsø is now intertwined with the paintings of Ørnulf Opdahl, whose work I discovered not long after I’d returned from Norway. I remember seeing one of his paintings and thinking that although you could describe it as abstract, it was clear and true to that rugged and strange coastline. When I was on that trip, I tried several times to photograph the landscape, particularly in that weird winter light that dulls and lengthens everything. The camera could not do justice to the place; the landscape was too subtle and complicated, the colours too dense, to be preserved so easily. But in Opdahl’s paintings, that indeterminate grey-blue where sea and sky meet takes on a complexity – it is several colours at once, a colour you can’t describe.  

His new paintings (which we saw on Friday at Purdy Hicks) occasionally introduce slashes of yellow or red or green, little flashes of activity against a dark ground. But mostly the palette is reduced; to that strange grey, and many other shades of grey – slate, charcoal, tarnished silver, pearl, smoke – more kinds of grey than you thought existed, as well as startling white, pure black. He is a painter of winter, but not the bright and populated winter of Brueghel, this is the dark Scandinavian winter that reigns the land for months, drives people to drink. To Opdahl it is far more beautiful than spring, and more intense. And yet, Ørnulf is not a gloomy man; he is someone who can find light and hue even in the darkest night.

‘Light’ is very hard to describe in a poem (as is ‘dark’, which I discovered was the word I used the most – over 30 times – in my previous collection). It is too easy to revert to cliché, to dull the experience. This is when both cameras and poems fail – the first for being too exact, the second for not being exact enough. If you say ‘blue sky’ in a poem, it means nothing, not only because skies are always blue, but because ‘blue’ is not precise enough. You need to be a painter, a very good one, to do it properly.

The show is on until 4th June, and will be up when Katy Evans-Bush and I launch our new books at Purdy Hicks on the 2nd. See Katy’s blog Baroque in Hackney for another take on the Opdahl pv: