Inferno V is the first work by the Danish artist Per Kirkeby to enter the Phillips Collection. Born in 1938, Kirkeby is a solitary figure of Nordic art; apart from being Scandinavia’s foremost living painter and sculptor, he also is a geologist, filmmaker, architect, writer, and poet. Kirkeby began painting while still studying geology in Copenhagen.
Kirkeby’s approach to art-making is informed by a mode of enquiry whose near-scientific methods can be traced back to his training as a geologist. He describes his process of painting as laying layer upon layer like geological strata: “Each new layer is infected and colored by the underlying one.” The Inferno series was painted by Kirkeby in 1992 and consists of eight individual paintings. Its title and somber mood seem to echo Virgil’s words in Dante’s Inferno: “Follow me and I will be thy guide / And lead thee hence through the eternal place, / Where thou shalt hear the desperate lamentations, / Shalt see the ancient spirits disconsolate, / Who cry out each one for the second death” (Canto I).