Theater of Cruelty

A romantic essayist

Romantic Essays
POSTHUMOUS ESSAYS / Stian Grøgaard was looking for an authenticity that is difficult to find. At the same time, he takes the reader by surprise and sweeps him away without reservation, apology or warning.


Art theorist Stian Grøgaard (1956-2021) writes because he wants to find out something he doesn't know. He is looking for the nerve in art, that which grabs you, but is difficult to capture in words. Grøgaard reaches out towards what still allows us to be touched in a real way. This process is typical for the essay. The project is definitely against time, spoiled and overstimulated as we in the West have become.

Is this 'romance'? The collection of essays gives associations to the endless striving known from the German romantic Friedrich Schlegel, but also the search for origins and origins, a fixed point. "The philosopher is homesick," said Novalis.

Grøgaard often brings us suddenly into the middle of a problem without an introduction: in media res.

Grøgaard is attracted to the vulnerable, the innocent and the original. "An origin should have no age. It must be the hidden cause of something we know about, and which comes late," he states mysteriously (p. 396). But the longing for the real and original is not let out of the bag unmediated. IN The essay as a form (1984) used Theodor W. Ornament the metaphor of the iron filings forming patterns when holding a magnet under the table. Grøgaard has a recognizable way of organizing the material, but does not wave the style-creating magnet in front of the reader's nose.

Private photo: Knut Stene-Johansen


The repetitions and fads are the foundation, the bass on which the improvised melody lines in the essays float. The tension between the dogmatic and the testing, innovative and investigative is a basic structure in everything essayistics. When the essayist is on the rim, the prejudices and the clichéd truths are put on auto repeat.

Unlike the ancient speech genre, the essay has no clear outline. The old rhetoric has survived in the Norwegian style: introduction, middle part and conclusion. But an essay is no Norwegian style. Grøgaard takes the reader by surprise and sweeps him away without reservation, apology or warning.

Private photo: Knut Stene-Johansen

Meta-projects in all art forms can become enervating: you talk about what to do, instead of doing it. Then the meta-discourse soon becomes dominant, while the content disappears from the horizon. The reflection eats up what one had to express. estheticallyone is locked inside his own conceptual prison. Grøgaard tends in some places towards this and also reveals it in the artistic expressions he discusses. An example is the essay about Robert Smithson difficult to follow for someone who is not trained in art:

"Smithson stands askew on the usual distribution of the opposition between generic og specific. This corresponds to the fact that he found the distribution impossible and 'abyssal' (abyssal). It is certain that he would have understood specific as something other than Donald Judd's specific and genre-independent objects, just as certain that by specific he means the opposite of conceptual, and the same as the material when the form is not a cubic a priori. This is how he often talks, and plenty of space was made for Smithson in postminimalism report material. Nevertheless, there are things he writes that either become impossible, or perhaps an escape route between generic and specific in these positions. It's the dead end of the sixties. If he lets it out, the sixties will be emptied of everything but itself."

This is from the first paragraph! Grøgaard often brings us suddenly into the middle of a problem without an introduction: in media res. He was in a continuous discussion with himself and others – which lasted his whole life. There was no time for small talk. With an exaggeration: The form of production becomes manic and the themes occasionally depressive. When Grøgaard's concept grinder goes into high gear, you quickly fall off the load due to overkill. 5-6 pages will do. But those pages can, in return, often be read several times with benefit.

Forgetting and remembering

Several of the painters he writes about are connected to high romanceone (Hertervig) and Munch (neo-romanticism). Finally, metaphor is the trope of romanticism: "Kant's metaphor theory" is the book's most difficult-to-access essay. He also writes about the musicians Robert Johnson and Bob Dylan and perceives them as romantic artists. The Western film understood as romance has also received a separate essay.

Something repressed lives on in us that we only manage to grab bits of.

Grøgaard links some of the ineffable that art is supposed to "reveal" (cf. the romanticist Welhaven) to memory. Psychoanalysisn is one example: Something repressed lives on in us that we only manage to grab bits of. Memory "is involuntary before it becomes technique" (p. 309). It also has an impact on perception: Everything that has been seen before creates new impressions. Grøgaard links this to ikonone that "tunes the perception, is both a visual expression and a form that imposes its grips, simplifications, repetitions on the visible". The impression is conveyed, it "becomes optics, as one sees Boknafjorden through it Hertervig, or Jølster through Astrup". Modern painting changes memory:

The painting The sick child expresses the memory of Munch's sister who died of corrosion when she was 13.

"Modern painting was something that happened when memory failed painting, and painting began to run parallel to perception. In this way, one can say that modern painting contributed to weakening the image as something to remember. An image that recalls its materiality, holds back the brush and delays itself".

Against the presentation of tools and reflection on the communication, Grøgaard is looking for an authenticity that is difficult to find. This is evident in his doctorate on Edvard Munch from 2013, of which he gives a taste in one of the essays. The painting The sick child expresses the memory of Munch's sister who died of corrosion when she was 13. Another theme with Grøgaard also appears here: the relationship between memory and melancholy – art as the processing of a loss.

Blues and melancholy

Blues is both an expression of melancholy and a medicine for it: "Popular music does not need to hide that it is to be used for something, not even to improve the mood. In the blues, the therapy also becomes thematic, because the sadness always undergoes musical treatment during the song".

He writes about early blues and spends a lot of time trying to figure out how it came about. There is something melancholic in the fact that the origin of the blues turns out to disappear in the darkness of history, but Grøgaard nevertheless dabbles extensively in the attempt to "define an authentic blues". When he finally selects five examples, including of course Charley Patton and Robert Johnson, on the other hand, he is astonishingly sober in his description of the music. Then there is the mention of Jon Fosse's novel Melancholia more aggressive:

"On the laundry list will be Pit presented as one of our most 'idiosyncratic authors'. The idiosyncrasy should give a kind of copyright to the use of repetitions. […] If there is a poetics for the melancholy in the novel, it is here. The repetitions are carried out until the ornamental. The ornament organizes the extension of the melancholy and qualifies the novel's title: a noisy symbolic frame about the imaginary point Hertervig. Only in the second volume does it start to work, but then the melancholy has disappeared in the text".

Inherited sin

The collection ends with an unfinished essay about original sinone – the last thing Grøgaard wrote. "Schelling believed that the rest of creation was sad because of the Fall. Nature was characterized by Schwermut". Several of the favorite themes appear here in a new context: the original, melancholy and the basis for aesthetics.

"Modern painting was something that happened when memory failed painting."

The problem is important enough: no one is innocent, and we inherit a number of problems from previous generations. Despite this, we can not only blame others, but have a certain degree of freedom. This secular version of original sin works for me – and I refrain from following Grøgaard further into theology.

A week before he passed away, he summarized the project to editor Matias Faldbakken: "I write against a modernist arrogance that tells us that the past is dead, that it can only be forgotten. I inquire into historical spaces for new reasons". Yes! We still find ourselves between Novalis' homesickness and Thomas Wolfe's "You can't go home again".

Grøgaard's essays quivering in this tension.

Stian Grøgaard (1956–2021) was
artist and philosopher, educated as
painter at the Norwegian Academy of Fine Arts.
Grøgaard's master's thesis Taste
as cosmological idea. About some critical ones
transitions in Kant's aesthetics (1995) became
followed by a doctoral thesis
published as a book under the title Edvard
Munch: An exposed life (2013). From 1993 was
he theory teacher and later professor at
The Norwegian Academy of Fine Arts and
The Academy of Arts in Oslo.

Eivind Tjønneland
Eivind Tjønneland
Historian of ideas and author.

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