The exuberant pictorial cavalcade magicked forth by the Swedish artist Ernst Billgren (b. 1957) brings to life a multitude of parallel realities. His enigmatic oil paintings are populated by beasts and human figures dressed in Renaissance attire. Billgren is a story-teller who takes a playful dig at conceptual tradition, blithely fusing the legacy of romantic landscape painting with surrealism, expressionism and kitsch. In addition to weaving rich allusions to art history, he also draws inspiration from historic interiors and animals painted by the old masters. Though his paintings are steeped in references to history, they evade being contextually tied to any particular time or place.
Billgren’s artistic practice has long been driven by an intensive search for self, recently prompting him to completely shed his former artistic identity in 2014 by changing his name, his style and even his dietary habits. Despite these conscious departures, Billgren found that his experience of life did not change; in fact, he began to feel that his personal choices had no impact whatsoever on his fundamental self. Billgren thus adopted a new, intuitive approach for his latest exhibition at Galerie Forsblom, completing each painting in the studio without the use of any preparatory sketches, photographs or the internet, simply by transferring remembered images onto the canvas exactly as they were etched in his memory. His search for selfhood continued on a subconscious level: to his great astonishment, the artist discovered that his new paintings were by Ernst Billgren from the 1980s. In this latest exhibition, he thus returns to the visual idiom of his youth and his earlier exhibitions in Finland.
Billgren is a multi-talented artist who has made his mark in Sweden as a painter, sculptor, writer and scenographer. He is best known in Finland as the illustrator of The Tales of Ensign Stål, an epic poem by Finland’s national poet, Johan Ludvig Runeberg, and as the creator of Meeting Places, a two-part sculpture in Helsinki’s Kampintori Square. Billgren’s wide-ranging visual repertoire includes everything from paintings to furniture, costume design and film. His work is featured in many leading Nordic museums, including Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, Sweden’s National Gallery and Helsinki’s Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art.