Thomas Kvam’s works are sewn together, appearing like paintings dwelling on what looks to be the line of the horizon—recalling the endless seascapes of the photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, and the canon of painting as defined by Mark Rothko. But the reference curbs back from these associations to a place both domestic and mundane. The horizontal fields are suggestive of bed-sheets and pillows, and the motif as an abstracted double bed, the place of dreams, nightmares and sexuality. Thin, hieroglyphic writing covers the paintings, which become the dream-like background for their enigmatic core: the unpublished notes from the psychoanalysis of the Norwegian author Knut Hamsun.
After receiving his Nobel Prize for literature in 1920, the notoriously productive Hamsun faced writer’s block. He found his remedy on the divan. His therapy began in 1926, and it is the notes from these sessions, by his analyst Dr. Johannes Irgens Strømme, which inhabit the paintings. Written in a personal variation of the short hand Gabelsberg, Dr. Strømmes’ observations from the sessions have never been deciphered. The documents – some four hundred pages of Knut Hamsun’s inner thoughts, dreams and desires – were forgotten and thought lost.
When the documents finally resurfaced in the 1970s, they soon became the center of a legal battle. The National Library of Norway started decoding the documents, but the Hamsun family soon halted the translation process. During the following years of legal discussions between biographers and publishing houses, the families of Hamsun and the psychoanalyst, the laws of patient and doctor privilege and the question of copyright were fiercely debated.
Thomas Kvam started to publish the documents, page by page, in his paintings in 2016. Himself now threatened by a lawsuit, Kvam’s paintings emerged as an intervention in the history of literature, a silent activism, where Hamsun research was gradually faced with a crucial question.
For there is an unanswered question of some magnitude – a mystery: How could Knut Hamsun, a Nobel Laureate, one of the 20th century‘s greatest authors and a seminal figure of early modernism, praised by Thomas Mann as a genius, nurture as he did anti-democratic sentiments, employ war-mongering rhetoric, and finally praise National Socialism? What secrets are hidden in these documents, and now, in these paintings?
Kvam‘s paintings introduce further layers of complexity: the codes of painting. While the painting is still a painting in Kvam‘s work, its authority is borrowed from the book. The page is the painting, because the written word here is not some message conveyed, some story told, but rather the page as an accumulation of all pages, of all the books written by Hamsun. Hamsun’s secret, who he was, how he thought and wrote is present here. As an image, a page painting, a biographical novel, serialized and revealed through the pigment and the word, simultaneously.
Thomas Kvam (*1972) lives and works in Oslo and Lindau, Germany.
His first novel Homo Sacco, Pulp Philosophy Vol 1, (566 p) will be published by Cappelen Damm Publishing House, Norway in October 2017.