Jean Wainwright, 2012
Published in: Wetterling Gallery, Nathalia Edenmont, Requiem, 2012, exhibition catalogue
So this is how she should be Like a strange flower Moulded in a glow of gold And the rich brilliance of gems.
Stefan George (Die Spange, 1891)
Images haunt Nathalia Edenmont. Like wraiths, they hover, then suddenly materialise with brilliant clarity ‘in her mind´s eye’, compelling her to single-mindedly bring them to life. Her painstaking process is long and demanding, fetishistic in its attention to detail. She ‘can’t rest’ until her new photographic artwork is fully resolved, insisting that ‘If I got the images in five minutes, or two hours, I wouldn’t believe in them’. Edenmont confesses that, for her, art is ‘blood, sweat and tears’. Time, beauty, fragility and death, these are her essential themes; symbolism, metamorphosis and transmutation (deleted the comma) her powerful visual language.
In 1984, when she was fourteen, Edenmont was taken by her mother to a professional photographer. Owning no ‘nice clothes’, she wore her grandmother’s traditional Ukrainian scarf covered in vibrant stylized flowers on a black background. Four months later her mother was dead. Six and a half years later, Edenmont made her precarious exit from her home country, in the former Soviet Union, to Sweden, taking her scarf. In Eden (2012), the artist’s symbol of ‘home’ appears to have sprung into bloom, transposed into a living fabric of verdant decadence. In her raiment of hothouse flowers, brilliantly alive but destined to perish, red anthuriums suggestively point their pistils; a coiled snake slithers disguised amongst the petals, seeking to touch her hand; numerous butterflies rest on delicate petals; all around are portents of sexuality, love and death. Preserved on the photographic plate, framed by two tulips, her Soviet symbols of spring and hope, are barren green branches, there is no apple in this Eden. The artist’s face is a timeless Renaissance visage, as her traumatic past and compulsive present collide in a symbolic symbiosis that resonates in a number of works in Requiem.
Talking to me in 2008 about the making of Self Portrait (Deathbed) (2007), Edenmont spoke of how in the image she ‘became’ her own dead mother holding Nathalia’s [her model Carolina’s] hand, ‘the hand she [Edenmont’s mother] would never feel, but might comfort her’. When she completed the work she ‘felt almost cleansed and very calm inside’. At first glance, her new work Requiem (2011) looks more optimistic: Carolina is older, no longer fourteen, and the stark grey palette of the grave has been replaced by a multitude of flowers. Yet once again the living resides with the dead. Overblown blooms shed their petals, the sunflower has ‘gone to seed’. Baby’s breath, roses, pansies and poisonous red berries repeat the same symbolic messages as 17th century Dutch vanitas paintings. Duplicitous snakes position themselves; one coils around the model’s hand, the other shelters near her heart ready to strike. A pink lily becomes a spear ready to pierce Carolina’s throat. I recall Rodenbach’s Petits Poèmes de Bruges (1892):
‘All alone in the melancholy evening Looking back at the past, as at a flower covered grave.
Yet Edenmont was unaware that she was ‘making graves’ until she had completed the image, an image subconsciously triggered by memories of visiting her mother in hospital the day before she died: ‘I chose a very beautiful dress to cheer her up. It was full of blue flowers almost like forget-me-nots. I had with me a beautiful bouquet of her favourite flowers, daisies. My mother didn't want to look at them at all, she suggested that I should give them to the nurse. I was quite upset. She also didn't want me to stay in the hospital. She wanted me to leave. That was the last time I saw her. There are no daisies in my present art pieces. Before the funeral I asked everybody to bring a lot of flowers, because I really wanted my mother to have them at the funeral. The strange thing is that if you ask me about the flowers, I don't remember any of them. I was totally in a shock. I didn't cry, but I remember I was worrying about the men that carried the coffin, that they wouldn't drop it. It was also terrible when they nailed down the lid’. Seen together with Grief (2012 ) and Not Amused (2011), the transition from summer to autumnal colours not only recalls Millais’ Autumn Leaves (1855) but also the burnt hole that Edenmont found in her dress when she returned to her ironing after a neighbour’s visit bringing the news of her mother’s death.
Consciousness (2012) returns us once more to the teenage Edenmont. A young girl appears to sprout from forget-me-nots; three freshly dead blue birds nest in her golden hair; four more rest on the flowers; their outstretched wings alluding to Edenmont’s butterflies. Behind her back, the delicate flowers emerge like angel’s wings. I recall the poet Longfellow’s Evangeline (1847):
‘Silently one by one in the infinite meadows of Heaven Blossom the lovely stars, the forget-me-nots of the angels.
I also think of Maeterlinck and the themes of death and sickness in his symbolist play The Blue Bird (1908). Edenmont’s symbolic tendrils spread from Flora, Goddess of Spring, to Ophelia and emblems of eternal love. At one point in the shoot the young model started crying, claiming an aching back; not wishing to capture that, the artist retained the image where she looks enigmatically mournful. Edenmont thought that rather than being physically uncomfortable ‘deep in [her] heart she believed [the model] felt sorry for the [dead] birds, that in the morning had been singing in the bathroom’. Life and death are inextricably bound, which leads me inescapably to the image Cord (2012).