AN INTERVIEW WITH BARBORA KYSILKOVA
This is an edited transcript of an interview with painter and actress Barbora Kysilkova, who we hosted on our podcast, Two Virgins. The full podcast episode can be found on Spotify here.
Barbora Kysilkova is the main subject of the documentary The Painter and the Thief directed by Benjamin Ree. The film, released in the US on May 22, 2020, follows the real-life story of Kysilkova as she befriends the man who stole two of her paintings, Karl Bertil-Nordland. The documentary had an initial showing at the Sundance Film Festival on January 23, 2020, and received the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Creative Storytelling. Today, Kysilkova talks about her motivations for making art, the act of “being seen” by another person, and what she’s done after the film.
Teresa: What have you been up to since “The Painter and the Thief” came out? Has your life changed in a lot of ways? Has it stayed the same?
Barbora: It’s a simple question for me as a painter. I still paint. Of course, we all know the corona times were hard for all of us. Me and my boyfriend, actually, escaped to our farm house in the middle of a Swedish forest - it’s where I am now. We’re basically having quite the simple life, where my partner is working on a new book and I’m working on new paintings.
At the moment, it’s a new series [of paintings] that I’m working on. I don’t know if I should tell you a little about that - but it’s a project I started one and a half years ago. It is called “Manikarnika”, which refers to one place in the city of Varanasi, India, where the Hindus carry out cremation of the body when they die.
That’s what I’m surrounded by, here in the middle of the forest. All of these beautiful, colorful, so joyful pictures of a cremation ghat by the Ganga river. We might imagine this thing as something dark or something we don’t want to see, but I have never had such color on my palette. It’s a very beautiful and essential project. Of course, a lot of new paintings of Bertil are going to come as well.
Sam: That sounds beautiful. What drove you to choose Manikarnika as a topic?
Barbora: I remember when I first saw a picture from this place. I was 11 years old. It was a movie by Ron Fricke called “Baraka”. I don’t know if you might have heard of it. There was a small sequence of shots from this place. I had no idea what it was, but it really started to grow in my mind and I started to be curious.
A few decades later, I made my dream come true and went to India with my boyfriend. I spent a beautiful time there with so-called “untouchables” - supposedly the lowest caste. They were the men who made sure the corpses were properly burned. Of course, I respected that photos were not allowed in this place, but I was able to meet the right people and was able to collect some insane images that I use as reference and inspiration.
Teresa: In general, where do you get inspiration from your art and style? It seems a lot of time, for your paintings, it’s an immersive experience for you. Why is your style to completely put yourself into your art and what you create?
Barbora: First, let me note that painting is highly physical, such as stretching your own canvas. Of course, you have to be there. You have to put the colors on your palette. You have to lick the brush and you have to put the colors into the canvas. That’s the real kind of physicality of me when I create the work. My main themes have always been people, so that brings another layer of physicality into the work. I love to create the flesh and bones and to play with skin colors on the canvas and how lights and shadows affect it.
But this is more of an aesthetical description - if we speak more on the themes, I could simply say it’s my curiosity about death. I really am hungry to understand death, as much as a human can.
Yes, that means my works are not easily digestible for most people - I totally accept that. But it goes hand in hand with my belief that art is not supposed to be a decoration that fits the color of your sofa. I believe art should try to get under your skin. If you allow it to, it should make us dare to face things that we’d rather keep under the carpet, should it be our own mortality which our society tends to deny. I want to understand the value of life through understanding the fact of death.
Sam: That’s really interesting, and we can definitely see that in all your paintings.
Barbora: Thank you, I’ll take that as a compliment.
Sam: On the note about quarantine and painting during quarantine, I know a lot of friends, including myself, who have found a lot of time to ourselves and have started doing some painting. Do you have some advice for anyone who has started painting during quarantine?
Barbora: Yes, do it. Come on. If you find the joy in it, if you find the concentration and you realize you’re getting in touch with yourself, just do it. It’s proven when you work with your hand, it triggers new and different parts of your brain. It enlarges your mental capacity. I highly recommend it, should it be painting or anything creative or manual like writing.
A lot of people have been forced to be with themselves, which not everyone can handle. There are some ways we can cope with it, like learning how to be with oneself. Doing something creative is the way to do it, because you suddenly forget about yourself. You realize you don’t matter at all - you’re truly burning there for the work. It’s a relieving feeling.
Specifically for painters, you have to fail many times. Not even Da Vinci made Mona Lisa right away. It costs pain and suffering, but you need to want to improve and don’t give up. You can fail with a lot of drawings, and a lot of canvases will have to be thrown away. That’s the beauty as well.
Teresa: I also saw in the film there’s a section where it seemed like you were struggling to sell your art. Since the film came out, have audiences that normally wouldn’t digest your art been interested in your art? How has the reception affected you as an artist?
Barbora: Nice and complex question. I sort of hated to be the cliche of a painter - broke, incapable of turning a work into money, or incapable of going out to an opening and socializing. I tried this for seven years when I lived in Berlin. Berlin is kind of the temple of art, so a lot of young artists go there. I understood how all these galleries and art markets functioned, so I got some basic rules. Still, I couldn’t really subscribe to that [rules]. As a result, I was broke, because I chose to stay in my atelier and make new paintings. It’s a sacrifice you have to make. Of course, when your budget is almost zero, you have no regular income, you have no idea when your money situation will change, this is part of the work. It’s really a lot of sacrifices that, for me, were never a question. I just wanted to do all I could to be able to paint.
Of course, as you see in the movie, I wouldn’t be able to do it without the help of my boyfriend, who takes this as a form of investment. He believed and still believes in my work. I’m quite glad to say his investment is slowly but surely coming to a nice profitable action.
After the film came out, first in its world premiere at Sundance, I got a lot of compliments about my work. Not much happened, but then the movie got released on several online platforms in the US, and I started to get an avalanche of emails. A lot of people were showing interest in my art, and surprisingly enough, the first painting I sold in America was the skull of a moose. The next was a painting of dead birds. The next was a painting of the food of a dead person! So I actually had to reconsider my opinion of the so-called publicum - yes, people are able to think about death, and they are willing to make a commitment.
Because when you buy a painting as a private person, you put it in your apartment. It’s not like a museum, where you see it once or twice in your lifetime. You put the painting into your home and you live with it every day, and that’s a serious commitment. It always fascinates me, that there are people who want to live with a small part of my soul - let’s face it, each painting of mine does have a little - and that’s such a magical thing for me.
What I’ve learned is brilliant, that people are able to deal with death.
Sam: On the note of the film, I know for me, even with this podcast, when I hear my voice back it’s -
Sam: I was wondering for you, watching yourself on screen, was it a weird experience?
Barbora: I think we’re all the same - we all have our vanities. The first time I saw the film, it was not completely done. There was no music, no post production, and I watched it with my boyfriend at home. I was just sitting at the corner of the sofa, having a pillow - sort of trying to put the pillow over my eyes so I won’t see it, meaning that no one else will see it. Oh my god, oh my god! I was so ashamed, it wasn’t comfortable.
The next time I saw it, it was the first time and only time I watched the whole movie. That was in Sundance, at the world premiere. There, suddenly, I understood that all these hundreds of people in the cinema came voluntarily, and even paid their money to be there and watch the story of Bertil and me. That suddenly made me feel, not uncomfortable, but I felt an intensive responsibility for them and all of it. This was in spite of the fact that I could not do anything anymore because the film was done.
The movie started to unroll, and with each second I felt smaller and smaller. I just wished to be invisible and not be there at all. Then I started to hear the reaction of the audience - they were laughing or you could feel their tension. They were there, and they were obviously interested in what they’ve been hearing and seeing so far. I started to accept that there is something in the story that people can take.
Then, the movie ended and we got standing ovations. That was so insane. I remember the moment the production lady was then asking me to come to the stage, and there the people stood up again. Imagine for somebody who just came from the small cave of my atelier, this totally unknown person, suddenly I have one of the best film festival’s audience giving me a standing ovation. That was hard not to get high on myself, I have to admit.
I haven’t watched the film in full length since then because there are scenes where I still get ashamed. So many things sound quite dull, especially the scene where I’m confronted by my boyfriend by certain moral issues, such as when I’m drawing Bertil’s hand. I was saying quite a lot of intelligent scenes, but in the movie there was only the scene where I say “The only thing that matters is aesthetics. It has to be aesthetical.” This came out so dull, if I ever hear this scene again I will have to dig myself a deep grave. Oh my God. I definitely believe in aesthetics, and I believe in beauty and that beauty transcends death, but it came out dull in the film.
Sam: It’s funny because the way you’re describing your experience, being the subject of the film at Sundance, kind of parallels to the first time you showed Bertil the painting of himself in the film.
Barbora: That’s an interesting comparison, though I think it’s between two different universes. We can maybe say that Sundance was the first time where I truly felt seen at an insane scale, whereas Bertil when he’s reacting to his portrait was, as he told me later, the first time he felt seen.
There are certain comparisons, but I wouldn’t dare to compare this with Bertil’s. I think he had to go through a much deeper, inner process at that moment. I was just “Yeah, of course! I’m the celebrity, give it to me.” *Laughs*
Teresa: I cannot imagine. I think there are so many powerful moments in the film. For me, it was the moment where you first showed Bertil the painting of him. But for you, watching the film, what was the most powerful moment?
Barbora: That was, once more, at the Sundance premiere. That was also the first time I saw the film with English subtitles for the sequences where everything is in Norwegian. I don’t speak Norwegian, despite living in Norway for six years. I don’t speak the language, because I paint. I don’t talk any language.
For me, the highly emotional moment I wasn’t ready for was when Bertil says he knows that I see him, but do I know that he sees me too? At the time, at that minute, at that second, in my seat at the Sundance cinema it really struck me. It really touched me, deeply. He was right. I didn’t know that he saw me, too.
I think it says a lot about Bertil. Now, with certain time and distance, I do recall. It’s true. He saw me too, or has been seeing me, too.
Teresa: What was the moment of your relationship? When you first met him, when did you realize that there was something deeper between you two than just a person who stole your paintings?
Barbora: I’m sure that we’re all familiar with the time we meet a person for the first time and there’s some kind of chemistry there that we can’t explain or predict. That was the case for me when I entered the courtroom. I was prepared to see the two thieves.
What I saw there was one of the thieves, the other didn’t show up at the trial. And I saw this guy with a Viking-style haircut and a nice ironed white shirt, yet you could see his tattoos sneaking out of the sleeves into his hand. I’ve always loved tattoos, so I started to be beyond curious. Also, I started to make sense of why this happened. I still can’t really understand why someone would break a law in order to get my two huge paintings. It didn’t make sense back then, and it still doesn’t make sense to me, even today. I’m not Edvard Munch, I’m not an artist you can easily turn into money in the black art market. Foremost, I wanted to make sense of what happened.
That’s why one of the first things I said to Bertil when I approached him was “Please tell me why you did what you did.” I knew already that as I entered the trial, I wanted to make a portrait of both of the thieves. And I wanted to recreate the crime scene when they were removing the canvasses from the blind frames. So I did already have the idea inside of me that I wanted to approach them and ask them to pose for me - for that “majestic” scene of the two men stealing my paintings.
But this concept totally fell apart as I entered the courtroom, because no matter how hard I tried, I just could not see the thief or criminal inside of Bertil.
I really felt that his sorrow was so true, and I just couldn’t resist believing him. I was sort of proven right. He’s everything - he’s also a criminal, he did what he did - but there’s so many layers in this person. I’m glad I went for that, I’m glad I was curious if there was more of Bertil to see.
Sam: Yeah. On the topic of forgiveness, I kept on thinking during the film that this process of forgiveness and trust was a long process. Because in that first meeting, you both said you were keeping an eye on each other - there wasn’t immediate trust. Could you talk about building that -
Barbora: Of course there wasn’t immediate trust. We’re not living in a Hollywood movie, we’re living in real life. You probably have to be aware that there are good guys and bad guys, and women of both kinds, of course. It was two weeks later after the trial when we agreed to meet with Bertil, I thought “Wait, wait Barbora. Are you really inviting the thief of your paintings into your atelier? Yes, you are doing that, but is it as crazy as it sounds?"
When I was able to look at the beginning of this story from a different perspective, I had to agree that it was rather insane. But, my gut feeling told me, yeah just go for it. I don’t deny that I had pepper spray hidden in my pocket, that’s true. I don’t think I even said this to Bertil. *Laughs* But I did not have to use the pepper spray at all. As you say, my mistrust is quite obvious - or the reason I should have doubts is obvious.
From his side, I think it’s much more, not interesting, but deeper. That’s what I understood later, how much this mistrust in people - how deep it goes in Bertil. When he came with me to my studio, imagine being in his shoes. You’re the person who stole the paintings of the person who is letting you in their studio. You sort of are supposed to give something back to her. Of course, so much must have happened in his head at that time. So, I really tried to do all I could to make him feel as comfortable as possible, to make him understand that I’m not here to squeeze anything I can and throw him away.
He knew that I wanted to paint him, which also means I need to get his trust. I need him to allow me to see him, as he really is. Then, we started to talk in my studio and have coffee. I think he started to, intuitively, understand that I’m not necessarily there to misuse him for my gain. And that’s how it started.
Then, I realized that this mistrust in Bertil comes from a much deeper reason than just the fact that he was in the studio of a painter he stole from. It goes to day one, when he was born. Those who were supposed to love him were not really there for him. So many people just dropped him. I think that’s quite enough to build a serious doubt about mankind.
Even more I said to myself, I wanted to prove him wrong. That there are people who can take him as he is instead of not kicking him away. It took him a time to understand that there is someone who can be there for him, as a person as a friend. He took a long time to accept it, but he did in the end. And I’m so happy for it.
Teresa: So how is Bertil doing? What is he up to? When was the last time you saw him in this corona time?
Barbora: I have to say, with the biggest pride, that Bertil is doing so good. He’s now sober for almost two years, no alcohol and no smoking. He’s a totally healthy guy. He’s finishing his bachelor's studies in Sports and Medicine. When he’s done that means he can work with professional athletes and also with youth who have similar backgrounds to him, which is what his wish is. To help them overcome certain issues that lead to addiction, to drug use, and turn it into an addiction for sports.
Not only is he finishing his studies, but he’s also dating a gorgeous woman. None of them were in the movie, that’s a totally different woman. He’s also building his own home. He’s put his feet on the ground as I’ve never seen before, and I trust that he’ll only get stronger and better in what he’s doing.
Watching him going through this process and how much he’s achieved by his own hard work, that’s something I have never seen with anyone else. This guy has my immense respect, and I’m proud of him.
Sam: On that note of your guys’ relationship - and we only have a couple more questions, so we don’t want to take up too much time -
Barbora: That’s okay. I’m just in the middle of a forest, I have all the time in the world.
Sam: Did the film ever feel intrusive? Did you ever feel like there you had moments that you didn’t want captured on film?
Barbora: What is there not to capture? I’m just standing in my studio and painting. If you feel like that’s something interesting to film, then be my guest. Film it, sure! No, I didn’t have any of these moments.
Not that I want to speak for Bertil, I don’t, but I think we understand that he did have such moments. He did not express it explicitly, but I can only imagine that there were times when he was really close to saying “I’m done, I can no longer do it.” I’m beyond happy that he did not say it, that he continued.
Now, as we see this life journey, we see three years of our lives and we see Bertil’s rollercoaster of up and down. So I’m beyond happy to see that the “up” where we end in the film is actually the “up” where he is.
He allows the film to show to the publicum the nasty truth of drugs - that would be the scene where he goes to rehab and buys heroin on the way, and then he’s begging his girlfriend to give it to him. For him to watch this scene today, I think it must be insane. And I understood that, actually, he was asking the director not to use that scene in the movie. Of course, the director with no question respected that.
But then the next day Bertil called the director again and said “No, you have to use that scene. It’s actually really important.” To have people see the nasty truth of drugs. When the party is over, what it looks like. How nasty it is. I understand, for Bertil, it’s even harder to watch the film now, because he’s being confronted by a very dark part of him, where he’s hitting rock bottom. His bravery is really big here.
Sam: Last thing, we were both introduced to you from the movie, and I think we’ve both fallen in love with a lot of your art. I know you mentioned the one series you’re working on. What should we look out from you in the future?
Barbora: Well, look out for good art! Guys, painters really need you. We need to bring our paintings to the world. We need the paintings to be seen by the world. Support your artists, that’s all I want to say. And what you should look up with me, you should - I’m trying to update my website as often as possible. My website is artbarbar.com, because “barbar” is my artist name because no one was ever able to remember my full name. Now it’s probably different, but I’m barbar. There, I’m putting my new works. You’re more than welcome to stop by there from time to time to see what I’m up for, but please guys. Just support artists. We really need it, definitely.