The Human and the Conditions

  • Artist: Karen Holtsmark
  • Creation date: (1935)
  • Object type: Painting


This painting presents a magnificent narrative about the human condition and the relationships between people, formulated in an unexpected way. Here there are bold colours, flat shapes and contorted figures. Cubism, surrealism and abstraction, all in one.

Against a spectrum of clear colour fields, three human figures emerge, as though on a stage. Primary colours predominate: red and blue against a bright yellow cone of light. There are many straight edges and sharp contrasts here, but the colours glow, and a few arched lines pull the composition together. 

Three goddesses?

The three figures are rendered with soft lines and curves. But they have no individual features. If we take a historical point of view, the composition can bring to mind portrayals of three goddesses of Roman mythology: goddesses of beauty, grace and joy. But the stylistic idiom is by no means old-fashioned, and the figures do not look particularly beautiful, graceful or joyful. Rather, the motif has an aura of drama. It is as though the figures are performing on a stage. Perhaps there has been a conflict, a challenge or a disagreement of some sort. Is it something between the figures themselves or between the figures and something or somebody outside of the picture? Could it also involve us?

A narrative about interpersonal relations

Could the three women represent different mental states? One of them is portrayed as excited or agitated, while another is seated in a more contemplative pose. They appear to be having a conversation. Two of them seem to be dressed, and the third naked – more vulnerable or exposed. Is she turning away, or is she turning towards the others, and towards us? The title of the work suggests a universal theme. Are they discussing deep, interpersonal issues? The colour of life and love is, in any case, a key element of the picture. The red colour field dominates the centre, almost like a beating heart.

Spontaneous and enigmatic, but still incisive

The painting is the largest and most ambitious artwork Karen Holtsmark created as a young, rebellious artist. In the years around 1935 she made a significant mark as one of the most internationally oriented, but also unusual and confrontational, artists in Norwegian history. The painting’s approach draws on much of the art that was innovative in Europe at the time: the Cubists’ interest in play on abstract shapes, masks and separated picture planes, and the Surrealists’ attempt to evoke irrational, enigmatic elements of our unconscious inner lives. Developing spontaneous forms of expression was a trend of the times. Holtsmark used some of the same visual devices, thus imbuing her art with incisive but very open content. Her pictures were harshly criticised at the time. In connection with a controversial exhibition in 1935, works such as The Human and the Conditions were ridiculed, but Holtsmark countered the criticism as follows:  

The painting is a new experience, not a dead representation of something that was already known. […] We want to create our pictures according to the shapes we have within ourselves, not in the conventional shapes created by the painters of the past. Then every shape and every line will live its own life and convey a message about something that we would otherwise have had no idea of.

– Karen Holtsmark, art journal Konkretion, 1935


Henrik Sørensen: “Tre bilder av Karen Holtsmark” (“Three Pictures by Karen Holtsmark”), Konkretion (Copenhagen, 1935), 26-27

Holger Koefoed, Astrid Mørland: Karen Holtsmark: retrospektiv utstilling (Karen Holtsmark: Retrospective Exhibition), catalogue, Oslo Kunstforening, Oslo, 1994


Karen Holtsmark

Visual artist, Painter

Born 11.11.1907 in Ås, death 07.03.1998 in Ås

Work info

Creation date:
Other titles:
Mennesket og vilkårene (NOR)
Object type:
Materials and techniques:
Olje på lerret
  • Width: 210 cm
  • Height: 168 cm
  • Depth: 2.2 cm
Acquired 1993
Inventory no.:
Cataloguing level:
Single object
Owner and collection:
Nasjonalmuseet for kunst, arkitektur og design, The Fine Art Collections
Børre Høstland
© Holtsmark, Karen/BONO