With beauty as a shield
Lars O Ericsson, 2012
Published: Wetterling Gallery, Nathalia Edenmont, Requiem, 2012, exhibition catalogue
We are seated in Nathalia Edenmont’s sitting room in Stockholm’s Östermalm district. An adjoining room in the apartment serves as her studio. On the threshold between the two rooms there is a tripod supporting a large-format camera covered by a black cloth. In the background one notes a row of umbrella reflectors. Here and there on the floor are boxes of butterflies and insects. On the walls there is art. Most of it is Nathalia’s own work. In a corner there is a lamp. The shade is glossy black. The foot of the lamp consists of a gold-painted Kalashnikov rifle. The lamp disseminates a beautiful light. The foot – in actuality – disseminates death. This visual collision by Philippe Starck is a superb accompaniment to the tension of Nathalia’s creative work in which beauty is often accompanied by death, a sense of loss and obliteration. Together we start to consider her latest images. Some thirty of them.
Nine years have passed since we first met. That was at the Rival café on Södermalm in Stockholm. Nathalia wanted me to write an essay for the catalogue of her début exhibition at the Wetterling Gallery. That was in 2003. I knew nothing about her at the time. She was totally unknown. She brought with her a file of photos which she showed me. Despite the fact that the images were far, far smaller than they would be in the exhibition, they made a very striking impression. As a critic I have witnessed all sorts of things over the years. But nothing like this. Nathalia, too, and the details about her life that she revealed, also moved me deeply. I wasn’t aware at the time but now I know: one simply doesn’t say no to Nathalia. Because even if one tried saying no it would not help. Her will and her tenacity are monumental. She can move mountains.
An enormous amount has happened during these nine years. Few people progress from being totally unknown to becoming a major name on the global art scene. And even fewer people achieve this in less than a decade. But that is where Nathalia is today. With exhibitions all over the world, from the USA in the west to Korea and Singapore in the east, Nathalia has convinced everyone not only that she is here to stay, but that she is continuously developing and deepening her art. From her initial images featuring dead animals to her current pictures of butterflies and figurative photographs. And so, when she recently asked me if I would like to write a new essay, I had no hesitations. On the contrary. To be asked by Nathalia to write an essay for a catalogue is a real honour.
Let me begin with a central aspect of Nathalia Edenmont’s art: beauty. A notoriously difficult concept! But important in this context. Beauty is a tool of seduction, people claim. As the bearer of ideal form, of harmony, balance and well-considered proportions beauty aims to give us enjoyment and delight. This Kantian tradition has held sway for more than two hundred years. Indeed, we have been deeply impregnated by it. Art’s task is to be beautiful, Isaac Grünewald opined. Art should function like a comfortable armchair, Matisse claimed. But art has failed to observe these pointers. On the contrary, contemporary art has largely turned its back on beauty. The Sublime is Now, Barnett Newman entitled an essay he wrote in 1948 which attacked the European, originally Greek tradition of beauty. Art should be sublime but not beautiful, he maintained. And his prayers were richly answered. For during the last fifty years, contemporary art has dealt with just about everything – except beauty. At least the contemporary art that has sought a pioneering role in the world.
Nathalia Edenmont has chosen her own, very different path. She deconstructs the Kantian notion that beauty rivals, and is in opposition to, the sublime. In her works, beauty is sublime. This results in her images being able to create a multi-layered world of uncommon intensity. A world that etches itself into one’s consciousness. Sometimes on the limit of being bearable. A world in which accepted opposites no longer apply. The limits are exceeded, turned around, short-circuited, double-exposed. Cold is paired with heat, drama with calm, plenty with scarcity, the seductive with the distasteful, the intimately personal with the universal, private with political. Nathalia lifts her own, personal story to a universal level. But she does not abandon nearness to her childhood and her past. There is a vulnerability, a self-revealing intimacy in many of her works. Not least in the new works that are featured in this catalogue. But there is also a seriousness that is as ruthless as it is profound, that frequently acquires a mystical, almost Biblical aspect.
Nathalia uses beauty, not primarily to seduce the viewer nor, indeed, to provide us with visual delight, even though it definitely does this too. She refuses to follow in the footsteps of Barnett Newman. In other words, she refuses to turn her back on beauty. Instead she makes use of it for her own purposes. It can function both as protection and as a spell – against emptiness, loss and destruction. It forms a sort of veil. Nathalia lets beauty appear as a protective shield, as a shroud and as armour. Beauty is a covering that is protective yet also cold. Like beautiful but lifeless flowers covering a wound that will not heal. “Cut flowers are already dead”, Nathalia points out as we look at the pictures of piles of flowers and floral dresses. They are dead but beautiful.
This dual strategy works very well both in the butterfly collages and in the staged, figurative images. The butterflies are often strikingly beautiful in their shimmering magnificence. They are powdered with beauty. But their beauty is not just beautiful. It is also there to hide and to protect. It acts as camouflage. It is there, too, to frighten. To chase off the threat of death. The beauty of butterflies is sublime. Their lives are so short. They often live just for two or three days.
“There are even butterflies that do not have mouths”, Nathalia explains. They cannot eat but are predestined to die of starvation at the end of a brief life. Beauty lives next not to God but to peril, annihilation and death. Butterflies are perfect vanitas symbols. Vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas (Vanity of vanities; all is vanity, Ecclesiastes 1:2).
“How did you come to work with butterflies?” “I had done Madame Butterfly. This is an eye on a stem surrounded by a pink, wing-like flowering orchid. That was in 2004. Suddenly I realized that it was a butterfly. That was how it all started. My first butterfly collages were quite small. The most recent one is much bigger. It has taken me 500 hours to complete.”
“Where do you get your butterflies from?” “Mostly from Indonesia. It’s a difficult task. We sit on the floor and remove the wings from the bodies; me and a dozen local people. It takes days. The butterflies have been impregnated with acetone so we have to use gasmasks. And I have to wear a gasmask when I am making the collages. In spite of the mask one still gets rather dizzy and nauseous from the fumes. But I have sometimes worked for seventeen hours without stopping.”
Nathalia picks out a French book on butterflies. Some of the species are extinct, she tells me. She points to a picture of a very rare moth (Baorisa hieroglyphica). The pattern on the wings is reminiscent of paintings by Kandinsky and the moth bears his name. The moth in the picture is very small. It is owned by a French collector living in a small village outside Lyon. Nathalia contacts him and asks to be allowed to come and see his collection. She is given permission for the visit on the understanding that she does not attempt to buy the Kandinsky moth.
“I visited him and he showed me his collection. By the time that I left I had purchased not only the Kandinsky but also numerous other butterflies from his collection.”
As I noted earlier, one does not say no to Nathalia. And even if one does, this seldom helps. Nathalia proudly takes out a transparent plastic bag. Lo and behold it contains the Kandinsky. Painting as nature and nature as painting. In her first butterfly images Nathalia transformed butterfly wings into petals. She glued the wings onto thin twigs and photographed the result with her large-format camera and then enlarged the images to a monumental size. Fauna were transformed into flora. As in Self Portrait (October), from 2005. A single autumn-leaf-coloured butterfly wing is attached to a single, thin, vertical twig. The background, which takes up most of the surface, is pitch black and glossy. This seemingly simple work radiates both cool elegance and astral beauty. At the same time it is a picture that is extraordinarily fragile and vulnerable. Time is running out. Soon all will be darkness.
I talked about a multi-layered world. As with all significant art, Nathalia’s work embraces numerous levels. I shall give some examples and I want to begin with the autobiographical level. It has always existed. Bride (Red), 2003, which was included in her début exhibition is, to a large extent, a self portrait. The rabbit’s hairstyle is a replica of the way in which Nathalia wore her hair at her first wedding. But the autobiographical level has become all the more pronounced over the years. Only Me is, in my view, a highly autobiographical image. We see Nathalia behind a large bunch of white calla lilies. Calla lilies are funeral flowers. Death’s flowers. The stems form a foot-length, pleated green skirt that is reminiscent of Issey Miyake, Nathalia’s favourite fashion designer. The flowers that Nathalia is holding cover her naked torso like a Baroque blouse. The autobiographical aspects hide the universal ones. We seek shelter behind what is beautiful, but death is not fooled.
“I have been married five times”, Nathalia tells me. I was first married at the age of eighteen. That was in the Soviet Union. I had booked a time at the hairdresser’s to get my hair put up and the bridal veil fixed. But when I got to the hairdresser’s something had gone wrong and the staff were all busy with other customers. I told them that the matter was urgent because I was going to get married in three hours but nobody could or would help me.”
Nathalia acted in her usual fashion. She refuses to give in. She finds solutions to seemingly insoluble problems. A stout lady busily sweeping the floor of the salon came to her rescue. “Can you help me with my hair”, Nathalia asked and the cleaner answered affirmatively. The result was better than expected and Nathalia was able to hurry off to her wedding.
“Only Me is the memory of five weddings”, Nathalia explains. But now I stand alone. I am the only one left. Marriage is death.
“In Self Portrait (Deathbed), from 2007 the redheaded girl is me at the age of fourteen. I play the role of the dead woman, my mother, myself. In Requiem a number of years have passed. The beautiful pile of flowers is like a burial mound. Worms, insects and snakes crawl around among the flowers. The bold and beautiful tones of Mozart’s requiem reappear here as bold colours. The colours represent the tones. Eden is a sort of continuation of Requiem. Now I am older, time has passed. Trees are growing out of the heap of flowers. They bear no fruit and they have dead branches. I have no children”, Nathalia adds with a hint of melancholy.
Of the mountain of dead flowers – le mont – only Eden remains. Requiem is a Latin word for rest. Requiem both introduces and concludes the Latin mass for the dead. Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine. Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord. The faithful pray for God’s mercy.
“I am Greek Orthodox”, Nathalia remarks casually.
In Nathalia’s work, to pass on to another level, art history, or rather art histories, are constantly present. Russian icons, Malevich, portraits and still lifes by Dutch masters. Perhaps something of Russian folk art too. Definitely nature morte. True, in Nathalia’s work nature is dead but it is all about life. Or, as the title of one of her exhibitions put it: Still About Life.
“When I was fourteen I saw Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights reproduced in an art book. I found it distasteful and frightening. But it must have made a profound impression on me. In 2008 I saw it live for the first time at the Prado in Madrid. I spent two days there because there were a lot of people wanting to view the painting which is not very large. It was difficult to see the painting properly. So I kept watch and took advantage of times when there were not so many people looking at it. In retrospect I have discovered that certain pictures I have produced have an unconscious affinity with details in Bosch’s painting. It is rather scary to discover that one has been influenced by something that one hasn’t any recollection of being affected by. In my work Kid, from 2011, a naked child sits on a goat like a rocking-horse from an antique roundabout. In Bosch’s painting there is a naked figure riding on a goat. In the central panel of the triptych there is a fish with a gaping mouth. In my Ester a girl holds a gaping carp in her lap. The entire staging has a certain Jewish aspect.”
“Have you any Jewish ancestry?” “On my mother’s side.”
While we are sitting on her sofa we try googling Nathalia on the Internet. There are, of course, numerous images. As we look, something strange happens. On the left side of the screen, Bosch’s famous triptych suddenly turns up! Probably because the central panel is often referred to as The Garden of Eden. Eden – Eden-mont. Nevertheless, it is all rather spooky. Strindberg would have regarded it as a sign. How accidental are coincidences?
“When I was at art college in the Soviet Union, first at Yalta and then in Kiev, I only had access to books with reproductions of historic art. Principally Dutch masters from the 16th and 17th centuries. I think that the pleated collars in my early works come from there. Peter Brueghel’s The Blind Leading the Blind is one of my favourite paintings. Alongside works by Bosch and Cranach.
Nathalia is a perfectionist. She is prepared to spend the rest of her life in realizing a detail in an image she is working on. Everything has to tally. If it does not, then she repeats the process. Until everything does tally. During a day in the studio a dozen people can be busy, each with her or his special task. When Cord was being produced, the model had to sit in the same position for six and a half hours. When the child in her lap had finally fallen asleep there was no film left and Nathalia only had a Polaroid of the scene. The chance of achieving exactly the same position that the child had on the Polaroid was minimal. But, as usual, Nathalia refused to give up. And in the end she achieved her goal. The effort is not apparent in the end result, nor is it intended to be. But without the extraordinary demands that Nathalia places on herself and her assistants the final result would not become what it is, namely, significant art.
One of the greatest challenges facing an artist – particularly a younger artist who, in a relatively short space of time has achieved considerable success and whose work has gained a great deal of attention – is to go on developing; not fastening in a particular mode and just repeating her successes. And she needs to develop in a way that is not seen as capricious or arbitrary, but that manifests a sort of continuity at the same time that she takes steps in new directions. Would Nathalia succeed in this? This was a question that a number of people in the artworld must surely have asked following her initial successes in Sweden and other countries. She has given us the affirmative answer in a succession of exhibitions in a variety of countries. In her most recent images she works with butterfly wings that form intricate patterns that seem to dissolve the boundaries between plants and animals, between nature and culture, between figuration and abstraction. Nathalia does not reproduce nature in painting. She paints with nature. Although it looks abstract! Here there is an evident continuity with her early works. But there is also a series of figurative images in which the symbolic thread that Nathalia has always spun gives new and exciting results. This development is an impressive achievement – a sort of ultimate test – achieved by an artist who only made her début in 2003.
In earlier times Nathalia had what might irreverently be described as two parallel production lines. On the one hand there were the butterfly collages and the butterfly images and, on the other, the staged, figurative “tableaux”. In the case of the most recent images – reproduced in this catalogue – the two production lines have started to converge. The colours of the floral dresses and the heaps of flowers have obvious points of contact with the colours in the butterfly pictures. In my view, this signifies that her art has achieved a deeper significance, that it has matured. Branches that pointed in different directions turn out to have the same stem as well as deep common roots.
Lars O Ericsson
Paris in June 2012