Nathalia Edenmont and the photograph as scherzo

Arthur C. Danto, 2010
Published in: Wetterling Gallery, Nathalia Edenmont, No Feelings, 2010, exhibition catalogue

A number of Nathalia Edenmont’s recent photographs of women seem to stand together as a kind of sisterhood, distinguished by their garments which are variations on a theme, and by their scale, their stance, their beauty, and their allegorical titles - Courage, Aspiration, Devotion and the like. It is as if each has achieved a kind of moral distinction, and the ensemble of their portraits belongs together as a tribute to heroic achievement in the crucible of life. Each of them reflects an intense illumination, augmented by the impenetrable blackness that surrounds them, standing like soldiers at attention, their faces as expressionless as sentries on duty. But there is nothing military in the way they are costumed, in bunched silk and floor-length silken sheathes. It is as if an anthem is being played, and their posture is what is called for by ritual circumstance. The anthem is for them.

One function of the pitch blackness is strongly to suggest that the light comes from within. “When I make art I portray the model’s soul,” Edenmont writes, “and that truly is luminous.” The blackness is a color, rather than merely a dark value, as in black and white photography, and it serves to present the personage it surrounds, rather than to depict a space in which she stands. We are not, that is to say, looking as if through a window, as Alberti suggests happens when we look at a well-painted picture. The lighting is theatrical, as when spotlights pick out the figure of a singer in the darkness of the stage, creating an illusion, as if a goddess had materialized before us in a space discontinuous with our own. It would destroy the illusion if the women were all in the same frame. It is essential to the power their presence requires that we view them one by one: Courage. Devotion. Aspiration…

I have not seen the photographs as they will be shown, but only versions that have the size of a page in a large book. I have been told that some of the photographs will be eight feet tall by four feet wide. I would be disappointed if these particular photographs did not have that size, immense, heroic, and sublime. My countryman, the painter Barnett Newman, created a painting he entitled Vir Heroicus Sublimus in 1950 -1951. He wrote "If we are living in a time without a legend that can be called sublime, how can we be creating sublime art?". His painting is seven feet, eleven inches high – the tallest he had painted until that time. Edenmont’s photographs, at eight feet high, qualify as sublime if his does, and so do the women they portray. In all the photographs she made for this exhibition, the women are beautiful, but they are not always sublime, as they are in this set. I should mention that there are two photographs of male youths that belong to this group in that their garments are like those the women wear, but they are not depicted as full figures.

The woman in the image titled “Courage” has the look of an angel, wearing only a mannerist frill that has the shape of an ornamental Y. The Y covers her sex and then divides to cover her breasts. But whether this explains the title, or if her courage is due to something deeper than wearing a daring garment is not explained. She is barefoot, like her sisters, and her hair, like theirs, is pulled back in a severe fashion, like a tightly fitting cap.

The figure called “Cinder” has the look of a sunburst, and one wonders whether the black smudges are intended to be read as sunspots. Edenmont explained the spots in a letter to me, and it perhaps offers a clue as to how we are to think of these extraordinary figures:
The background to this series of burnt garments is the following. I was 14 years old and was supposed to pick up my diploma from the art school. I was ironing my dress. Suddenly the doorbell rings. I continue ironing, I don’t want to be disturbed, but the doorbell continues ringing. I get angry and answer the door. It’s our neighbor crying out ‘Your mother is dead.’ I’m completely shocked, my mother is my last relative. I go back to the dress only to find that the iron has burnt a big hole. At this time I had to be independent, I had to be devoted to myself and I look back at the times before this with nostalgia.

In the photograph “Independence,” Edenmont writes that “We see a young boy Philippe. He recently lost his father and is an orphan like I was when a child, since his mother predeceased his father. And just like me, he has to be independent now.” Philippe, a handsome boy, is wearing a beautiful green garment with a high collar. If we look, though, we see that one layer of cloth is burned along the edges, and that his collar is burned as if by a cigarette on the other side. In “Youth,” a young girl is wearing a deeply flounced garment, like a party dress, all froufrou, but badly singed. “A young girl in a burnt dress just as I was burnt that day 26 years ago.” The photograph “Devotion” is a self portrait. “I’m devoted to my work to such an extent that I ‘burn’ myself. The color of the dress is red due to the fact that when I grew up in the rural parts of the Soviet, there were only red cloth for women and girls, and only blue for men and boy.” In the photograph “Nostalgia,” we see “a young thin girl in yellow, like a solitary birch in the fall, this gives the feeling of nostalgia to me.”

These photographs, then, express what we might think of as the artist’s philosophy of life. “I believe everyone has been or will be burnt in this life.” Thus her figures wear garments charred by life, badges of the inevitable martyrdom of having lived. So the undeniable beauty of the photographs is a metaphor for the moral beauty of the ordeal in which life consists. The imagery derives from the artist’s personal experiences, as of an orphan who has had to achieve a certain independence. But the work is not strictly autobiographical. Life is an ordeal, and she shows us as wearing symbolic emblemata of our sojourn. None of us is spared. In a way, these works especially seem to illustrate the philosophy of Schopenhauer, for whom aesthetic experience, especially of works of artistic beauty, lift us momentarily from the action of a blind will that drives all before it. The burnt patches mark the ordeals we cannot escape but can set at a distance by contemplating beauty.
The remaining figures in the exhibition are often shown with a piece of luxurious furniture – a white bed, implying virginity; an embroidered chair; a rocking horse that looks like it belonged to a carousel; an Empire chaise longue, with a dreamful youth; a settee with a caned seat.

The young women in the beds appear to be examining their menses, though in one of the cases, the bleeding soaks the sheets so copiously that it may signify a miscarriage. One woman lies on the floor, attempting to tighten the hangman’s noose around her neck by pressing with her feet against the rope. No picture has more than one figure in it, and everyone is beautiful to look at – but a light melancholy has settled over everyone. Each photograph could be a still from one of Ingmar Bergman’s films, and set in the era depicted in Wild Strawberries. Each of the subjects is lost in his or her own thoughts. They have not been burnt by life, but none of them, for all their beauty, is an advertisement for life on earth.

Nathalia Edenmont must certainly have been burnt by the show that also made her famous. I knew nothing about her or her art when I was first shown the photographs I’ve been discussing, and asked whether I would write about them. So I sought her out in Google, for though the images were fascinating, they were difficult to interpret, and I felt as though I needed to know something about the artist whose work seems so distinctive, and so different from anything I had seen. The items in Google mainly spoke about the fact that she had made “a huge mass media breakthrough in 2004, when Swedish tabloids carried headlines like “The animals are being killed for art!” This alludes to the fact that her first show consisted in photographs of composite works typically made of the head of a small animal – rabbits, cats, rats and mice, and chickens – affixed, often, to a piece of crystal or porcelain for which Sweden is well-known.

Thus the head of a white rat is posed on the body of an angel made of Swedish porcelain, replacing the figurine’s original head. The composite figure has the look of a meditating rodent, and, as the title is “George W.” one must suppose he is plotting some fresh outrage. Or perhaps she had a more benign conception of the controversial American president, as part angel if part beast. Whatever her political motivation, the artist had to photograph “George W.” rapidly since signs of life ebb quickly in dead animals. I would suppose that once a satisfactory photograph is taken, the head is soon disposed of.
In another work, called “Star”, what I imagine is Edenmont’s hand is shown with the heads of five mice, one to a finger, like finger puppets. The catalog tells us that the picture is not a photomontage. The artist made a point of killing the animal herself, but in a manner considered humane. It had first been rendered unconscious. The snarky texts in Google were mainly blog-like complaints about her practice of killing animals. The writers went so far as saying what she did could not be art. Certainly they were not treated as art by the bloggers. There was little response to them as art.

What has to be said is that quite apart from animals being exploited to make artist’s materials, like using a glue made of rabbit skins to size canvases, animals have been used in still-lifes for centuries, a fact that explains the name of the genre. The hare in Chardin’s rightly admired still life, “Dead Hare with Powder Horn and Game Bag” must have taken enough time to paint that there would be little incentive to cook it for supper when Chardin was done. What has happened in recent art is to have preserved animals in formaldehyde, like the shark in Damien Hirst’s “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.” When one of the three versions of “Apart from the Flock,” which consists of a lamb immersed in preservative, was exhibited in Baltimore, it had to be protected by armed guards, and his works have been subject to vandalism, though the animals stuffed and placed in dioramas in natural history museums have been immune to this largely, I think, because art is dismissed as less valuable than science.

In any case, killed animals play only a small role in the recent work. Two works contain dead white rabbits. In one of them the rabbit seems dead but whole. In the other, a woman holds the head and upper body of a rabbit cut through its mid-section. The woman, in a red dress, has thrust her hand deeply into the animal’s body cavity while she holds it up for scrutiny. The rabbit has been freshly killed – blood flows down the woman’s bare arm. She stares into the rabbit’s face, as if seeking the answer to a question. I imagine that the question has to do with whether she is pregnant. In the 1920s, it was discovered that if a female rabbit is injected with a woman’s urine, an examination of the rabbit’s ovaries will indicate whether the woman is pregnant, depending upon whether a hormone secreted by the woman is found there. “The rabbit died” was an American slang expression loosely used to indicate that a woman is pregnant, even though the rabbit would have been killed either way. It would have been possible to check the test rabbit’s overaries without killing the rabbit, but it was generally felt not worth the trouble, given the plenitude of rabbits. There is something a bit comical in Edenmont’s photograph, titled “Behind the scenes.” The woman holds the rabbit in a pose comparable to that in which Hamlet holds the skull of Yorick. Her expression is quizzical, and somewhat reproachful, as if her condition is somehow the rabbit’s fault. In truth, the woman looks pregnant and even seems to be wearing a maternity dress. Red has replaced black as the surrounding monochrome, and the way in which the woman’s wiry black hair is woven into the background color is masterful. It is like a black halo. “Behind the scenes” is a self-portrait, since Edenmont would not have asked anyone else to manipulate the dead bleeding body of a rabbit.

Edenmont’s “Venus”, holding a white rabbit, is a mirror image of Botticelli’s depiction of the goddess’s birth, and, shown as she is against a black background, has certain infinity to a famous version of the goddess by the elder Cranach. I have been unable to track down art historical connection between Venus and rabbits, other than that suggested by the fertility associated with that animal, which makes the connection so obvious that it is surprising that an image search did not turn up other examples. But it is also possible that there is something a bit ridiculous about the goddess of love holding an animal that has played a role in determining whether someone is pregnant, or which might even suggest that Venus is already pregnant, given the way that “The rabbit died” remains a common expression, though pregnancy tests are readily available without having to be responsible for anther rabbit’s death.

There is an undeniable vein of dark humor that runs through Nathalia Edenmont’s oeuvre. I propose that we borrow the term scherzo from Tiepolo, who created a series of drawings under that name which no one has been able to decipher. The term means “jokes” in Italian, and almost certainly most of the works in Edenmont’s first series of works were intended as scherzo, though obviously there is nothing funny about killing animals. Still, placing an ornamental ruff around the neck of a rabbit, giving it a wig, and taking its picture has something of the preposterousness of the rabbit Alice first meets when she enters Wonderland by falling down a rabbit hole. He wears a high collar and pocket watch, which he constantly consults, murmuring “I fear I shall be late.” There is something absurd in commissioning one of Sweden’s leading boot maker, as she did, to fashion a pair of boots for a bodiless chicken. So lets consider the two photographs involving rabbits in the new series as scherzo. In truth, many of the remaining works in the suite are scherzo, including the picture of a child sleeping in an antiquated electrical chair.

The work is called “Chair.” It is almost a black and white photograph of a child of about five years old, strapped to a vintage electric chair. What sort of heinous deed demanded that this five year old pay the ultimate penalty? We know, I think immediately, that the picture is allegorical in some way – that it has the structure of a riddle it is impossible to solve, like the riddle of Rumpelstiltskin in the fairy tale. One has to be told the answer. It is a challenge certainly to art criticism, in as much as it cannot release its answer by close visual reading. The only oddity, apart from the gross oddity of the entire conception, is the fact that the metal bowl through which lethal charges of electricity are administered does not fit the child’s head. The child sits passively, wearing a nightgown and looking out from beneath its curls with no particular expression on its face. So I wrote the artist, asking for an explanation. Here it is: “Growing up in the old Sovjet Union was really like growing up in an electric chair, although I´d like to stress that it doesn’t mean you lose your strength or dignity from that experience, quite the opposite actually.” One might point out that an electric chair is not a place to grow up in, but the point is that in her view neither was the old Sovet Union a place to grow up. At the beginning of her catalog for the show that uses killed animals, she wrote:

I was born in a country that no longer exists and given a name common to many other girls. I walked the streets of my hometown wearing the red scarf around my neck and from the bottom of my soul I believed in the ideals that were served to me (can lies become the silver platter?)
Did I really believe in this without doubt?
Yes, without any doubt.
Photography is able to contain and mimic the same hypocracy that coloured my upbringing. In photography, wilting flowers bloom long after they have withered.

Or: in photography, dead animals look alive (though not for long) so we have to take the photograph right away.

Something like this criticism has been said about art from the beginning of the discussion about art, in Book Ten of Plato’s Republic: that there is no room for art in the ideal republic because it causes false beliefs (though the whole foundation of Plato’s republic rests on lies.) As we saw, Edenmont’s dress is red because she was “burned” by her Soviet education, which explains why she defected the moment she was able to, and made a life for herself in Sweden - about which she has some reservations as well, as, given her character and her demand for perfection, she would in all likelihood have had about whatever place she settled in.

Her perfectionism is connected with her resistance to digitalizion in photography. She uses a large format analog Sinar camera producing 8 by10 inch images, and sometimes slides. And, whatever she may say about hypocrisy in photography, she is clearly obsessed by beauty, and concentrates on photographing beautiful things – flowers, butterflies and beautiful women especially, whose beauty she preserves long after it has faded from the objects of her art, consider “Cocoon”, which shows a woman emerging from a shirred silk cone, in the fullness of her beauty, the way a butterfly does when it emerges from the cocoon and unfurls its wings. Her obsession with beauty extends to the cocoon itself. Ordinary cocoons have little claim on our aesthetic sensibilities, so she has devised a cocoon that has a beautiful geometry, to match the girl who, like Venus, is born at her most beautiful. Beauty makes life (just) bearable, and art comments on why we need it.

No one evidently asked Tiepolo to explain the point of his scherzi, so they remain an art historical mystery. I did not feel it fair to ask Nathalia Edenmont how to interpret each of her brilliant photographs. But I will pass on one of her helpful answers for those who view the show. The photograph shows a luminously beautiful nude woman from behind, her copper colored hair swept up into an elegant coiffeur. She is lightly holding the two separated halves of a white painted wooden chair, cut in two. Its title is “Weightless”. I wondered if a chair so divided that it would no longer enable any one to sit in it referred to some Russian proverb. No, she answered, it refers, once more, to her own orphaned condition when she was fourteen. She sent me two earlier photographs. In the first, a young girl sits between two such white chairs, one on each side of her. She is sitting, her hands clasped, dresses in a mourning dress, far too big for her. The skirt spreads out in a circle on the floor, and the two empty chairs sit on the circle it makes.. Her copper colored hair is swept up in a high coiffeur, again much too big for her. The title of the work is “Family”. The family consists in her and her two absent parents.

In the next photograph she is now a woman, kneeling on the chair. She is nude. Edenmont writes: “The exact same chair appears in “Gravity” only now the girl is a woman. She is crouching like a fetus in the womb. In a sense she is trapped, weighted down and at the same time trying to balance, holding on to this awkward position. Turning now to “Weightless,” the artist continues, “She has broken free, she is reborn experiencing a sense of weightlessness, and the chair is in half.” She has triumphed over life. She is ready to wear the red dress, with its burnt patches, proudly displayed like battle ribbons.