Still Born

By Jean Wainwright
Published in: Wetterling Gallery, Nathalia Edenmont, Still Born, 2008, exhibition catalogue.

‘There I was, alone in the apartment where she had died, looking at these pictures of my mother, one by one, under the lamp gradually moving back in time with her, looking for the truth in the face I had loved. And I found it. Roland Barthes. Camera Lucida

I begin with End; a fragile white butterfly is pinned to a white rope on a white background. Here is the metaphor for Nathalia Edenmont’s art, beauty, fragility, purity and sexuality with the tendrils of death never far away. Photography’s ability to preserve the life of a dead past is an apt medium for Edenmont. Each image for Still Born obsessively created, styled and then captured by her large format camera is a portrait of the artist inhabiting the body of a teenage girl, an impossible place made possible by her images. Edenmont’s portraits are a story told in fragments through enigmatic signage as troubled shards of the past penetrate her imagination. The Greeks, stated Barthes, believed that at death you see your life before you stretching backwards which he intuited as one of the essences of the photographic. Edenmont’s death of innocence is arrested and stilled in the multiplicity of narratives that make up ‘Still Born’. Yet as I attempt to unravel her reference points, to secure her images and attach them to art historical anchors I find that they are a chimera, the ground shifts beneath my feet. These are images reached by the artists visual osmosis there is no original for her work rather they play a game of hide and seek with Art Histories and memories.

In Cranach the Elder The Virgin and Child Under the Apple-tree (1472-1553) in the Hermitage Museum in Russia I find Edenmont’s Madonna but there are no apples in her image, only a young girl with pale skin dressed in white. The fine cotton of her raiment is material used for christening gowns the Broidery Anglais resting on the skin of her chest is fetishistic in its delicacy. Madonna’s innocent face gazes at us in compliance and supplication the infant Jesus nursed in her hands is now an empty plaster husk, its christening ruff surrounding an empty void. Metaphors and metamorphosis are Edenmont’s visual language but this time the work appears autobiographical there is a powerful sense of loss and history. We as viewers complete the transgressive mirages.
In Cranach’s Portrait of a woman (1526) I find Edenmont again. The twisted plait of gold around the woman’s neck is transposed to the white rope in Necklace. But while Cranach’s woman is passive, quietly sitting with her hands folded in her lap Carolina’s gaze is active, questioning, we are immobilised locked in and powerless to act. I find her again in Sally Mann’s Terrible Picture (1989) but while Mann’s image of her daughter Virginia is of the act of hanging as portent - the child’s eyes closed as if dead her naked body covered in mud – Edenmont’s is a ‘clean’ image. The fetishistic attention to detail is again provocatively present. The delicate straps supporting the white dress touches the girls skin and contrasts with the new thick white rope expertly knotted in a Hangman’s Noose and the snaking coiffured hair coiled round her head. The rope is the umbilical cord of life and death, the collective narrative of ‘Still Born’. Outwardly these images retain their innocence, the model gazes out at us and we gaze back at her; but this is a contemporary post-modern image, the contradictory sublime of repulsion and attraction, there are undertones of teenage play acting and nightmares. Necklace and Carolina are multilayered and disturbing. Is Carolina Eve or Madonna? the perfect control inherent in the images is seductively alarming. Carolina resides in Eden but round her neck is the passionate stranglehold of the snake its duplicitous tail almost touching her skin. I hear Robert Browning’s Porphyria’s Lover as he strangles her to death: The moment she was mine, mine fair Perfectly pure and good: I found A thing to do, and all her hair In one long yellow string I wound Three times her little throat around’.

The oscillation that exists in Carolina and Necklace is held by the alchemy of photography capturing like a bee in amber the stilled moment of portraiture.

In Morning we are refused the voyeuristic pleasure of the models gaze. Carolina sits on the bed holding a mirror angled at her vagina, but we see ‘nothing’ reflected back, the image is a deconstruction of counterpoints. Morning contains complex signs which have explicit referents: The bed with the snaking iron work, the white counterpane spilling to the floor, the delicate white garment like a butterflies wing, a girlish ribbon tied in the hair, the held mirror. The classical composition is the arena within which the elements perform. Cupid is absent, but his mirror is there and so is Lacan and his psychological theories. The mirror stage is critical in the development of the ego for the external image of the body is reflected to give representation of the “I”. Ingres Venus Anadyomene (1858) shows the moment that Venus has risen from the waves but has yet to look in the mirror that Cupid is holding to her to reveal her unknowing nakedness. The power of Morning lies in its questioning of our gaze, expectations are denied the teenager remains intact. The double displacement, the Venus who looks in the mirror but sees nothing is made more poignant by the ominous shadow under the single bed. In Childhood House Ormsley writes ‘somehow I had assumed that the past stood still in perfected effigies of itself. …and that at least our past, our childhood, waited always available at the touch of the nerve’ but he concludes this is not always so. So Lost is recovered from a photograph of Edenmont as a child holding a rabbit but is also Leonardo Da Vinci’s Lady with a Ferret (Ermine) (1485-50) from the Krakow Museum and Mann’s Virginia Holding a Weasel (1989). A traditional Eastern European shawl swathes Carolina in Last Portrait she is the contemporary Lady and the Unicorn from the tapestries of the Middle Ages. The field of flowers now covers her body and the purity of the unicorn’s presence is transgressed by a blood filled condom camouflaged within the vibrant flowers of the woollen shawl while its delicate neck masquerades as skin, a cunning chameleon.

Unmade Bed has me reaching again for Sally Mann’s image of Wet Bed (1987) and Ingres Valpinçon (1808). In Edenmont’s image the single bed has white ornamental fretwork and the perfectly white top sheet is crumpled. The model sits with her back towards us in the classical pose of Ingres’ nude but the red discarded slipper of his image is transposed into the fresh red menstrual stain on the sheet. The model turns her back on the evidence of her womanhood and again we are denied her gaze. The white light that fills Unmade Bed becomes darkness in Still Born. This is the only image where the bed sheets are stained, the evidence of ‘time spent’. A body lies beneath its mantle in a foetal position; the creased sheet not only conceals the form but also becomes the intricate construction of a vagina. The sheet has assumed a watery presence as it flows to the floor. The three ages of man meet, life birth and death poignantly resonating from one image in a perfectly balanced structure. Once again we are burdened with our own imagination, is this then death itself, the covering a shroud, the tumbled sheet the River Styx. 

Self Portrait (Deathbed) continues the theme of death. Edenmont lies on a mattress as Carolina holds her hand and gaze out as us. The starkness of the image conveys Edenmont’s feeling that she would like to ‘hold her mother’s hand’. As Edmund John’s poetry lingers in my mind ‘ yes close your eyes, lie still…as death …my lips hold yet the memory of your breath’ the palette of greys and the pose of Edenmont evoke sarcophagus. I am also reminded of the Cornelia Parker’s The Maybe (1995) where Tilda Swindon lay in the Serpentine Gallery London for eight hours on seven consecutive days motionless and with her eyes closed in a raised glass casket. Edenmont is both a contemporary sleeping beauty and her own dead mother as Carolina assumes her position as child.

Carolina, Empty and Soul are links in the chain that join Edenmont’s cycle of life, the latter abject images. In Empty Carolina is dressed in white her head bowed and her stomach held as she expels her blood in a long pitiful stream. We are never far from Christian iconography in Edgemont’s work and here we inhabit the symbolic realm the colours red and white – Body of Christ, Blood of Christ. But Empty dwells in a contemporary world where debates with body image, size zero models and bulimia are teenage concerns. This is not the bloody nose of Mann’s Emmett or a scraped knee but something far more disturbing. With Soul the cycle of life ends. The worms that crawled from the Madonna’s veil in Evil are now offered up to our gaze. The Zophobas Morio exposed in Edenmont’s hands have nails inserted in them. In this image we are given no respite from the traumatic surreal. Faithful to the end to her conceptual metamorphosis these worms change into beetles when mature. Edenmont’s attention to texture and contrast is unerringly calculated. I find her dwelling now with the Pre-Raphaelites and Lizzie Siddel in Beata Beatrix Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s flame haired muse whose body he exhumed to retrieve his poems which he had earlier buried with her.

Edenmont is a potent portraitist and storyteller she strips her images to their compositional essentials then fills them with exactly crafted elements. As vista’s from paintings appear and recede before me I visualise Edenmont showing me her apartment with its historic beams and hand painted ceiling and its decorative educational mantra exhorting her to Be Happy in the kind Day. But make the evil day better. Do your work seriously. It is here that she makes her portraits of an allegorical world and where she told me of escaping in a garbage trolley in Warsaw with her long red hair and hiding her diamonds in a bottle of fizzy water which she kept shaking in order to conceal them. In her apartment I met Carolina her teenage model not the fashioned icon but rather a vibrant personality. In Edenmont’s images she emerges as a species, her visage staring back at us from paintings since the Renaissance. Sally Mann in the introduction to her book Immediate family suggests that she is ‘spinning a story of what it is to grow up …a complicated story of …anger, love, death, sensuality and beauty. But told ‘without fear without shame’. In Edenmont work we also see these grand narratives of birth and death the inevitable transitions from one physical stage to another but told with a different visual palette and iconography.

In an era when digital photography is ubiquitous Edenmont tethers herself to the cumbersome process of large format photography and the anxiety and frisson of never quite knowing how the image will look until it is developed. Her staged sets in which Carolina performs wearing especially fashioned clothes are not re-enactments of witnessed scenes but rather scenario’s that demand to be released from Edenmont’s memories which oscillate in and out of focus. We are left with these traces in pristine images, beauty and magnetic femininity fixed on the photographic plate.