Death is the long perspective

Ingela Lind (Translation: Ian Hinchliffe)
Published in: Wetterling Gallery, Nathalia Edenmont, No Feelings, 2010, exhibition catalogue

What surprises me is the totally uncompromising nature of her work. Meticulous, time-consuming, and with a museum curator’s highly structured methodology for collecting, cataloguing, treating, storing…

Craftsmanship is hardly the first thing people think of when confronted with Nathalia Edenmont’s work. But inside her studio – decorated with ceiling paintings from the 1880s – I realize that it is the collision between state-of-the-art photographic techniques and the mastery of an ancient craft that lends a twist to her pictures.
Or, at least, one of the twists.

The walls are lined with cupboards that serve as curiosity cabinets, their drawers bulging with dried dragonflies and butterflies from every corner of the world. She makes montages of the wings and then photographs them to produce a result that reminds me of the most delicately worked intarsia. In principle, there is little difference between the symbols that she creates or accentuates and their seventeenth-century counterparts in the studio of Velázquez. And the way she bides her time – waiting for that moment when her models make just the right gesture – brings to mind the heritage of Russia’s icon painters. Or the history of art’s long tradition of portrait painting.

Nathalia Edenmont’s photographic technique belongs to the most pre-eminent of the twenty-first century. And yet her attitude to art strikes me as distinctly old-masterish.
She is characterized by an unflinching honesty that cuts right across the relativism of our age. She tolerates no other image but the perfect likeness of the one she carries within her head; allows no obstacles or impediments to bar her path to perfection. She works with the idea of “best” as if our scale of values were absolute; as if flawlessness were there for the seeking, and as if the splintering that is modernism had been consigned to the history books.

I test what it feels like to call Nathalia Edenmont a twenty-first century mannerist. An artist of today who, like Agnolo Bronzino in Italy half a millennium ago, works in a style whose elegance borders on licentiousness, rippling the observer’s skin into gooseflesh with its brazen longing for beauty, its enamel-like surface, technical bravura and acid colour combinations. But there is something else here, too – although, at first, I’m not quite sure what. “Style is what irritates people without their quite being able to explain why,” writes the Swedish essayist Horace Engdahl. I’m attracted to Nathalia Edenmont’s art – and repelled. Sucked in and spat out. For me, the stumbling block could well be her emphasis on style. As an art critic I should be able to see beyond that by labelling it “aesthetic provocation”. But it doesn’t work. What disturbs me lies deeper within than that.

Nathalia Edenmont’s art disturbs me on a personal level.

The greater the clarity that she herself works with, the clearer my disquiet becomes. In the portrait with burned clothes she approaches the point where I am first of all troubled by the fact that the symbolism conceals the motif – crushes it, almost. But when I allow myself time to stare, the splendid finery of the subject is suddenly pushed aside to be replaced by her gaze and its corollary: a virtually imperceptible trembling around her mouth. Now they dominate every inch of the room.

Nathalia Edenmont seeks out the soul. They are her own words; words that today sound both pretentious and out of place in an age when, in contrast to the world a hundred years ago, we no longer conduct a daily dialogue with the soul as our sounding board. But it’s the duty of art to be pretentious, and I think I understand. She is searching for those frissons of existential enlightenment: epiphanies, as we sometimes call them. Virginia Woolf fed off them in her writing – those moments, rapidly scurrying by, when she felt that, for an instant, the world revealed its essence before her gaze.

The paradox is that the soul is discernible only when it is most heavily disguised. In the half-space between different poses. This moment and this moment only, briefly laid bare during one of up to 60 shots, is what Nathalia Edenmont has waited for. Precisely as did her predecessors in the pantheon of art history.

When she creates a picture, the split second that it captures is meant to encapsulate “eternity”. Another of those pretentious concepts that Nathalia Edenmont has no hesitation in using: breaching the boundary of our prevailing diffidence and relativism is her constant ambition.

Nothing unintentional is acceptable within the compass of her art; none of the splintered form, none of the impressionism, none of the atmospheric fall-off or blurred double exposures that are otherwise so prevalent in the world of today’s images. It’s confusing; that her art expresses with such surgical precision something so shadowy, so obscure. If I am right in supposing that Nathalia Edenmont seeks to articulate the stirrings of the soul, why use these frozen, glossy, ad-image bodies posing in front of their neutral backgrounds?

Maybe because she is creating still-lifes from living creatures. Life as nature morte. Dead nature. It is as if comprehending what life in all its enigmatic mysteriousness really is, only becomes feasible when the motif itself resembles death. It’s similar to the way that Islamic art seeks to approach the divine presence through its negation. Through emptiness. I am aware that my association to death may be deeply personal. For me, death in Nathalia Edenmont’s art does not represent the opposite of life, but the opposite of transience and impermanence. Death here is the long perspective. Backwards in time yet forwards too. A proto-form. An archetypal figure.

Some years ago in New York I met Stanley Burns, a physician who showed me his remarkable collection of photographic portraits of the dead, mostly from the late 1800s. In those days official death photographs were common in Europe; post-mortem portraits of kings, church dignitaries and the great names of science and art as they lay in state. Around the same time a very different, more intimate variant of the death portrait evolved in the USA. The middle class and working folk had small photographic monuments made of deceased relatives, on visiting cards, for the mantelshelf, the wall or the bureau drawer.

It’s those that Stanley Burns collects.

In these pictures the dead are placed as if still alive, surrounded by their surviving family members. They seem remote but not removed from this world, as if they have merely withdrawn for a while from the most shambolic follies of life. For us in the twenty-first century, where death is concealed, professionalized and compartmentalized in the cloistered culture of our modern hospitals, this is shocking. Yet less than a century has passed since people would caress, bathe, comb, dress and prop up a corpse on cushions or a chaise longue for a final family photograph. They opened the eyes of their dear departed or painted new eyes on closed lids, and photographed them in the same affected poses as Victorian photographers (such as Lewis Carroll, the author of “Alice in Wonderland”) chose for their live little-girl models.

Death was part of the life cycle.

These folksy photographs of death share the same blend of chilly innocence as late nineteenth-century symbolism, in which beauty was frequently associated with androgynous features and the stifled throb of eroticism. But also with a variety of somnambulistic states that seemed to be particularly suggestive. There was an idea that death, dream, legend and myth (art) were sources of alternative knowledge – an opaque borderland pregnant with possibilities instead of the presumptuous confidence that classifies, contains and closes off.

Nathalia Edenmont’s art seems to me to move within the same landscape. Before any classifications. Between life and death. In a magical neither nor.

Today this uncommon obsession could be interpreted as a debilitating death wish. But I see it as something else. An incantation. The challenge posed by death enhances the experience of life.

Nathalia Edenmont makes frequent reference to the constraints within which women are forced to live. Dressed up and packaged like chocolate in a wrapper, or frozen fast in contours of ice. Sometimes submersed like a pre-Raphaelite Ophelia – white and wonderfully beautiful in a shroud that wouldn’t look out of place in a mortuary.
Yet this woman is not a victim. Look into her eyes. See how she looks into yours. She exists. She is an unflinching survivor. The butterfly’s wings are burnt, but she can still fly.