Danelle Bergstrom

Afterglow, at Bathurst Regional Art Gallery, will be Swedish–Australian artist Danelle Bergstrom’s first career survey. The exhibition presents key works from the artist’s significant career across landscape and portraiture, including paintings made in the remote archipelago of Åland, where she now lives.

Innately fuelled by emotional response, whether a portrait or landscape, Bergstrom’s work is always a fusion between an empathic approach to the environment and the artist’s own emotional turmoil. It should immediately be noted that there is no small talk with Bergstrom, who steps straight out with her heart on her sleeve. 

Painting with a technique she describes as “Danish pastry, where it’s layer upon layer,” the works can be built up and textural, or veil-like, with figurative layers shimmering through: “The processes is very unpredictable. I have no plans as such, and it develops and changes on its own. I need be prepared for all the possibilities that could arise. It’s like watching clouds form. You have to be aware. Decisions are made, but the actual paint has its own way of speaking,” says Bergstrom

Noting that writers, poets, and artists have always used the landscape as metaphor for emotion, she asks the landscape to take a step further, and both reflect her own emotions and allow her to interpret and convey the plight of the land. “The environment is absolutely everything. Emotion is where it starts and where it ends for me. I can laugh through, or cry through, my art. I have to bypass the eyes, and go straight to the heart,” says Bergstrom.

Two paintings of particular note in the exhibition are Alexarndra’s Lullaby, 2003, and Shannan’s Gully, 2015. Each painted for one of her children, they have the feel of the idyllic in their tonal registers and elegant compositions. To understand these works, Bergstrom describes asking someone to draw an angry line. You can’t, it’s a silly request. She then says to think of something that makes you angry, really angry, and then draw. Voilà: you have anger on the page. Effectively, this is how she channels her emotional self into the landscape – and for these two paintings, what is being channelled is love: absolute, unadulterated mother-love. 

Alexarndra’s Lullaby recalls the memory of her family having escaped Sydney to a tiny house in Hill End in 1997, and exploding with joy at the freedom and delight of their new world. When the children were young, Bergstrom would sit between their beds on the floor at night with arms stretched out to hold the hand of each of her children, while singing about their day to the tune of Brahms’s “Lullaby,” (“Wiegenlied”) – leading to fits of giggles, rather than sleep. For Shannan, the great sense of freedom was profound, having gone from Sydney, where he couldn’t venture from home, to Hill End, where he was free to explore. And indeed he did, with a circuitous trail marked by broken twigs, bones, and stacked stones to lead his sister and mother to a beautiful gully. Yet, neither of these paintings are sentimental or mawkish; rather, they are beguilingly gentle, incandescent with love.

Bergstrom’s portraiture is similarly layered, with her emotional response to the sitter interwoven with the practical aspects of the portrait. “My process is to listen: to not have a preconceived idea, but to locate my knowledge and my feelings towards some ideas of the painting after a few sessions. And then, as I’m working these details out, every time I see them, I’m completely studying their physiology, and getting to know what I’m looking at so I can eventually close my eyes and see them when they’re not in the room. I have to completely absorb everything. In a way it’s a very complicated period, where I live and dream these people,” says Bergstrom.

The Nancy Borlase portrait of 2006 started when Borlase and Laurie Short were living in North Sydney. Bergstrom visited their home, and was taken by the delight the couple shared in showing her objects from their lives. She was also shown Nancy’s small studio in the apartment, where work continued. An unfortunate break in the process took Bergstrom to England, and when she returned, Nancy had fallen and was in a nursing home. Touching Bergstrom particularly was the lack of art and objects surrounding Nancy: “My painting then changed. I had to completely alter it, and add an image of a memory of her walking: a shadow silhouette walking towards her studio, and her just slightly looking back. That’s what she wanted. She wanted to get back,” says Bergstrom. She adds: “It is the essence of your life that you’ve collected around you that keeps you alive, and keeps you there. Your memories and your dreams are as important as your reality. It cannot be underestimated, the significance of objects and images that exist as aide-mémoires, where details of memory bring you back to the moment and make it possible to relive it. And your dream life, which is a real life in a way – we cannot underestimate the power and the importance of that life.”

A recent body of work in the exhibition is from an artist residency on the island of Källskär, Kökar. With no fresh food, Bergstrom climbed to the top of the cliff each day to eat blueberries. Looking down on the sea, she says, “I sat there, mesmerised by the sea – the heartbeat of the ocean, with every wave unique. It was mesmerising, like watching a moth to a flame. Peering down on these rocks . . . was I the rock standing strong with all the turbulence around me, trying to wear me away? Or, was I the water trying to meander around the obstacles in my life? It was my quandary every day trying to work out how I was going to change my life,” says Bergstrom, who made a radical shift in her work and life by moving to Åland in 2018, where, she explains, she is not painting the sea, but rather “creating the feeling of the ocean.”     

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 62, 2023. 
Images courtesy the artist, Arthouse Gallery, Sydney, and Bathurst Regional Art Gallery, New South Wales.

Danelle Bergstrom: Entwined
2–25 March 2023
Arthouse Gallery, Sydney
Danelle Bergstrom: Afterglow
1 April – 11 June 2023
Bathurst Regional Art Gallery, New South Wales

Latest  /  Most Viewed  /  Related