Review Me: Paul Dettwiler: Cityscapes that swallow us
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Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Paul Dettwiler: Cityscapes that swallow us

Interviewer: Marian White
Published at: Observica magazine, Spring 2021

Hi Paul. Thank you for accepting our invitation. This is going to be a great artistic talk having you here. Please start by telling our readers about your artistic background story and if there was a pivotal moment when you decided to follow your path as a visual artist?

I was born 1961 in a family of craftsmen, restorers, architects and artists where it was high interests in particularly ancient buildings and fine art; certainly that was a significant influence in my childhood. I had my first exhibition of paintings with cityscapes of my hometown, in Karlshamn in Sweden in 1980. At that time, I also co-worked with restorers of fine art and made backdrops for a theatre; also with motives of the city. In 1983 I enrolled as a student at Chalmers University of technology (Gothenburg). Meanwhile, from 1984 I focused on drawing, painting and sculpture at the Visualisation group at the School of Architecture. Worth to mention among my teachers that influenced me were the professors Arne Branzell, Hans Nordenström, Akke Jansson, Graham Stacy, Pål Svensson and Bror Stawe. In 1985 I was selected for a spring exhibition in Lausanne in Switzerland with three surrealist paintings.

Great, what an artistic family and what an interesting background! It seems that you were determined and motivated enough to pursue your art career, considering your fabulous teachers. But even so, was there ever a moment of doubt to question your art career entirely?

Yes, in about 1982 I had doubts about my approach to city painting and gradually I turned more to surrealism where the Italian painter di Chirico influenced me. When I studied at the School of Architecture at Chalmers I did not feel motivated to create paintings with cities since that was a part of my profession as an architect. During that time, I intensely participated in fine art courses in watercolour compositions (often abstract), building mock-ups and to study human anatomy at the art courses. As a post-graduate candidate and a researcher of philosophy I returned gradually to paintings of the city.

Very well explained your professional challenge during your career. Now, after those ups and downs and practices, as an established artist, what is your daily routine when working in your studio?

The main time of my creation is the thinking phase, not the action itself to paint on the canvas. I need to have time to decide the next steps; recognise wrong steps and to correct them. I have about seven to ten paintings simultaneously in work and each painting requires about 4 to 6 months to be finished. I work with ancient painting technique of multiple layers which requires time to dry between layers; so-called glazing. Since I live in Sweden the day-light varies from winter to summer. Therefore, when the daylight is advantageous I prioritise sensitive parts of colouring than should be painted.

How interesting, working simultaneously on seven to ten paintings is not easy at all and needs a great motivation and parallel processing ability. So, please take us a bit more through your process of making your artworks. How do you move from an idea to an artwork? Where does an artwork begin for you?

When I work with cityscapes I prefer to be initially acquainted with the surroundings and must visit the place several times. Frequently I begin with maps of the city and try to find plans of the various buildings. I collect material in form of many photography and pen sketches made in situ. I never use a single image from photography because I feel I must dissect and reinterpret the streets and buildings in my cityscapes. Purportedly I must distort the traditional rules of perspectives in order to render the motive “paintable”. It means that often a façade is two dimensional as it were an architectural elevation. Such step requires a well that the horizontal line must be above the normal height of figures in the painting. Similar technique I used for my backdrops for theatre in the early 1980s. In order to achieve a desired composition that is understandable with the building volumes, I must sometimes adjust placement of building. The differences between reality and the motives of my paintings are made by purpose. The result of the perspective would be similar as to take photography with a zoom objective from a very large distance and at a level about four meter above the ground or street level. Certainly this is not possible to do in reality due to all hindering structures in between.

❝I feel very satisfied to find a work form that unifies my two backgrounds as architect an as fine art painter.❞

Painting the cityscapes with such an architectural mind can be an adventurous journey and it’s like you almost re-engineer the city in your brilliant paintings. Very impressive. Now, from another viewpoint, Is there a central concept connecting all your works together or each series or artwork is unique?

When I work with urban cityscapes I use the same methodology. I select well-known city cores where I give my reinterpretation. It is the same approach as for example a musician who interprets a work of another composer; the notes are there and for me the buildings and urban spaces are also there that I interpret. Apart from paintings with cityscapes I also do experiments with series of minor paintings on corrugated cardboard.

These are very creative points that need a motivated mind to explore them in your deep and meaningful paintings as a visitor. Normally, would you like to give some particular interpretation of your work to your audience or you prefer to leave the whole interpretation to them?

Good question! Similarly, as we walk in the city various things happens; a window open, a dog stops to walk, the owner waits, a bird flies away but the spectator do not have an explanation. The street is a theatre without a script. I let the spectator guess and speculate what happens. Sometimes I include transparent shapes that could interpret as ghosts. In fact we use the same buildings as a human have done several centuries ago and gives me the temptation to regard a building and all human activities in a timeframe as one entity.A theatre without a script! What a thoughtful expression! It is clear that an important part of your inspiration comes from your family and childhood artistic experience. Other than that, how do you seek and use inspiration for your works? My inspiration for my works is not the buildings and streets themselves but in fact the created space between objects. Therefor it is necessary to be acquainted with the surrounding and urban spaces.

Yes, like the music which some say it is about the silence between notes as well as the tune itself. In terms of the choice of the artwork subjects, how do you select your cities, scenes and streets? How do they relate to your intended message?

I find it very interesting to use parts of cities that are well-known. The motive becomes a kind of communication. For example, if I paint Bredgade in Copenhagen; every local habitant knows this place and then is the factor of location pre-defined. The remaining features are lightning and all the independent events that belongs to a city core. I hope it can give initiative at the spectator to guess and to question what is happening.

Even sometimes giving a new look to popular places in your paintings can fascinate the viewers as well. It is obvious that there are plenty of your artworks that you might point out, however, is there an artwork or series that you would like to be remembered for? And if yes, what is it?

I am the architect who paints motives of buildings and cities with an own interpretation. I also use ancient painting technique with oil and tempera, multiple layers and glazing.

In your prominent career, what have been your art influences? Who has been your favourite contemporary or historical artists and why?

Currently I do not seek influence by other artist. However, in my youth in the 1970s the Venetian painters from 1500s to 1700s influenced me strongly like Tiziano, Giorgione, Tiepolo (both), Francesco Guardi, Canaletto, Nogari. In the 1980s I was influenced by modern painters especially di Chirico Later on the British painters Hogarth and Laurence Stephen Lowry gave me a new approach: art must not be deadly serious but can also contain a slice of irony and humor.

What a nice tip! So, you might have read a lot about Tiziano or Laurence Stephen Lowry, however, if you could meet one of them from the past, who would it be and what will you ask about?

Certainly it would be an honor to meet the great Tiziano and hopefully he would reveal more of his layer technique. For example, what kind of resins he used.

Most of your submitted artworks display ancient, tall buildings in narrow streets. It is a sign of architectural expertise combined with an artistic vision that has accepted a very risky perspective challenge. According to our readers, they have enjoyed looking at them a lot. As you mentioned, the ancient buildings have been one of your lines of work from the past. Please describe the reasons behind choosing these specific buildings. Was it only artistic reasons or maybe historical or even personal values?

Good and difficult questions. An art professor at Chalmers, Graham Stacy, told me once when we students had the exercise to portray assembled rubbish as still life; “paint whatever you want as long as you create art, nobody checks if you have painted the rubbish correctly” He also referred to anatomic illustrations that have to be simplified and sometimes must “lie” in order to make an image understandable. These two approaches have influenced me. In my case I feel the architecture of the buildings and dimensions must be portrayed more or less correctly in terms of proportion and architecture. In the same time, I feel tempted to create views not seen before; perhaps by extending the view around a corner or to place the horizon line on five meters above the ground.
Ancient buildings have to me a charisma that younger buildings seldom have. Modern buildings have however very interesting role in painting larger cityscapes like São Paulo, whereas ancient building with ornaments and details I find more interesting in a narrow scale. I do not only choose interesting buildings but also the surrounding space which I find more significant. Consequently I do seldom portray the entire building. The words face and façade has the same origin. On portraits of e.g. Rubens, and Rembrandt the focus is mastering the human faces with its multitude of nuances. My challenge is the portraying of facades of buildings and their surrounding space. Human activities between the buildings become thus a secondary element in my paintings; as we live the actions are not understandable or rational. Things happen in the street that becomes a thousand year old theatre. Often I find a symmetric building is not worth to paint on its entire length (even historic) because studying the surrounding space is more relevant for me. I find it is a significant part of the composition to be able to cut the building in a motivated way. My Copenhagen paintings have its practical reason because I live a couple of hours away from this splendid historic metropole and during the pandemic travels abroad was/is limited.

Let’s get to the lighting, very mysterious lighting in some of your works. For instance, an eye-catching game of shadow and light waves has been emphasized in “Break at St Nicholas Church Copenhagen” and “Knabrostraede Copenhagen,” where the daytime lighting and the sun waves have been artistically painted. Our readers would like to know if you have deliberately chosen that time of the day to unite the lighting and the buildings together? Maybe to increase the livelihood? Any particular reason?

Painting is often called a silent art. I was told that professor at the Architecture school at Chalmers once have said that some facades are mute, some facades speak and still some facades sing. I interpret works of other architects and builders that have created our historic cities. When I paint I can sometimes feel that I am the “chef d’orchestre” who interprets works of composers i.e. the architects. I search for cityscapes that have history, rhythm and charisma and where I feel a mutual communication. When I paint a cityscape I feel that I am the owner of the motive, streets and properties. Still, perhaps audaciously said, I am per happens more an owner that the real estate owners of the properties themselves. When I paint, I feel as if I am present on the place. I experience the bricks and mortar and the mouth blown window glass panes that reflect the light. I feel I am within the painting myself. If the walls could speak they would reverberate the human sounds of activities and events that have taken place through the ages. I would like to put the question: To what extent is it possible to own a property? You cannot physically be in all spaces simultaneously; you cannot grasp with your hands all the bricks and windows. When you pass away you cannot bring the property with you. The notion and idea of the cityscape with its properties would possible remain on equal psychologic value and level as the notion of my painting. The paintings are my given “concerts” where I hope the audience will be able to consume at least some part of what I wish to communicate.

According to our readers’ observation, you haven’t focused much on humans inside the paintings and painted them like shadows or ghosts. This gets interesting in “Brolaeggerstraede Copenhagen,” where a group of people are painted like ghosts on the left side. What was your purpose for such a decision?

I think most activities what is happening in a street or a market place are insignificant. I have heard that Canaletto had a specialized painter who painted only the people in his Venetian paintings. What are the portrayed figures doing? Not very remarkable things I presume; quite ordinary and normal activities. If there were no people at all, how would we experience the paintings of Canaletto? Compared to music, some concertos could favourably be played without some instruments in the orchestra.
Some superfluous instrument may destroy the concerto. As a comparison, If you cook some spices may enhance the dish and in the same way also capable to destroy the dish. The appropriate dosage of humans, dogs and activities etc. in my painting is always a challenge. If you walk in a street, to what degree you observe surroundings, houses and activities? I think it is very individual and dependent on the circumstances. I do not think we always try to understand everything what is happening in the street. Why do they need to inspect the waste water on Knabrostraede? Why is a man crossing the street and talking to a dog? These activities are a part of our human civilization in the cities. We know intrinsically what normal and extraordinary events in the city are. Similar to a still life painting that represents materials in a meditative way, I feel sometimes that buildings and street do not need any particular figure whereby the street paving or the brick walls are able to speak for themselves. Sometimes I feel I would like to create a painting as a catalyst for story telling or even a thriller that occurs in the mind of the spectator.

The brick walls are carefully painted and look very realistic in “Break at St Nicholas Church Copenhagen.” In addition, some of our readers were curious about a couple of details such as the dog collar in a man’s hand in “Nikolajgade,” or the people repairing a car at the left side of the street in “Knabrostraede Copenhagen,” while as mentioned before, humans have been painted almost transparent. Was painting such details intentional in some of your paintings? Why?

Perhaps I answered a bit of that question above. I find it interesting to portray buildings and spaces that have hosted humans and animals for a long time. Similarly as today, people 200 years ago had also the everyday life problems and must-does that had be dealt with. There problems disappeared when the inhabitants passed away. The cityscapes become some kind of a time machine. We can imagine that the walls have recorded all events in time. An everyday issue in 1721 has possibly the same value as an every issue of today since we all sooner or later leave the present dimension. Inevitably our everyday must-do’s fade way in time but the scene is still there. Still, as I am a scientist I confess that I am a bit contradictory; I do not state that there are necessarily ghosts however we have all the notion of ghosts which give me a reason to include other possible dimensions in my paintings. There are three main elements in my paintings (1) tangible constructions; street, houses, squares, (2) air, space and ether and (3) beings in some extent that perform some activity. In Northern Europe in particular it is regarded as a bit strange to stand still on a street. Interestingly a street can be regarded as a transportation tube where you feel forced to move either upwards or downwards in two dimensions. However we need additionally the street as a an intrinsic experience of city where the space of the streets has a value of its own as described by both e.g. Jan Gehl and Camillo Sitte.

Selecting the artistic scenes is one of the cornerstones of cityscapes art. Please describe to our readers how you find the best and most relevant scenes from urban areas, cities, streets, and buildings in terms of lighting, angle, objects, and the crowd (if not trade secrets). What do you recommend to those who love to paint cityscapes and want to follow this path?

There are two relevant distinctions of communication of my paintings: (1) ubiquitously well-known cityscapes like old city core of Europe and (2) unknown cityscapes. The former distinction can be compared to another concerto in a row of thousands of given concert of a well-known composer (or here a well-known motive), just with an individual interpretation that somehow challenges the former interpretations. Certainly when painting a well-known cityscape you must be the composer as well. My approach is to paint the buildings but primarily the spaces between and around buildings. A challenge is to make the appropriate cut that permits description of appropriate amount of the architecture of each relevant building that is partially portrayed.
The second distinction is freer; nobody else has earlier painted this cityscape. The composition with light and colour might be a pioneering work without comparison to other interpretations. Here I am more both the composer and the interpreter.
The audience give the grades if it was worth consuming or if it was an interesting and new approach. Will they come back for another look and will the painting give rise to another question in the minds? If yes, I feel that I have achieved something.
My recommendations are: never take a single photo and paint after it because then it is a risk of misinterpreting the structures and spaces. Take multiple photos and draw sketches in situ. Study maps to see and analyse the surroundings. Often I have to construct the lightning angle of the sun. It is important to be sure about where the directions of points of compass are. I do not find it necessary to portray the photographic reality per se but rather to create art, in order to communicate my ideas and explain structures that I want to express.Based on research I find it motivated to adjust the motive; for example the painting “Rosenborg castle” has today a brick walled door opening where it was once upon a time a real door. Here I permitted myself to reinsert the door opening (the lighted opening).
I must acknowledge that most of the facades I have painted I have also been physically close to and touched with my hands. When painting a cityscape of especially buildings with dense ornamentation, the challenge is to simplify according to your honest personal painting manner. For me the lightning and reflections are more important than ornaments. Here I may be more influenced by the Venetian motives painted by Guardi, Renoir and Monet who omitted details. In my paintings I use mostly layer technique and very rarely alla prima. This gives the effect that there are multiple nuances and colours in every square centimetre and renders the painting somehow to vibrate. Additionally free hand painting is preferred; I rarely use a ruler to make strokes.
The structure of design and proportions of the buildings must not be neglected. Does the pillar carry the upper levels appropriately? Does this part protrude from the main façade? When I discover a major error of proportions or structure I never hesitate to make radical corrections even if it may be very time consuming. Frequent visits in studied places are important for me. It is especially an interesting and mixed feeling to visit a place after finishing the painting.

Surely our readers will become even more interested in your work after reading your viewpoints here. And they might ask for more! Any upcoming works or future projects that you would like to share with our readers?

At the moment I work with a series of three paintings of São Paulo which has only modern buildings. I do not feel obliged to select only ancient city cores of the old world. The importance is the activities, the lightning and the space between buildings.

I would like to thank the reviewers for the thorough and interesting questions. It gave me undoubtedly reason to reflect on raison d’être of my approach. I diverted perhaps away a bit when I searched to answer the questions; however I hope I have succeeded in some extent to convey my approach on painting and architecture.
(Worth to mention here, since I hold a PhD, I am occasionally invited as a reviewer for the scientific journal "Journal of Cultural Heritage Management and Sustainable Development")

Well, very happy to hear that Paul. That was a very inspiring talk and once again, I would like to thank you for your time and kindness to accept our invitation. I hope to hear more about you in the future. Good luck and best wishes.

That's it!
We hope that this interview answered a considerable part of your questions about Paul's artistic mind. If you want to ask your own question, please scan the QR code and proceed.

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