Swedish artist, lives and work in Stockholm


Written by: Nina Weibull

Fata morgana. An Old Tale. A Strange Meeting. Preparations. Bride and Bridegroom. The Discovery of the Bride. She doesn´t Know I Know. Confession. With her choice of titles Meta Isæus-Berlin seems to allude to motifs in 19th century French and English literature in which the reader´s continued interest in the book is ensured by each new chapter heading. The novel, and its more trivial cousin the magazine serial story, needs to be able to capture the reader´s attention and to activate her empathy and ability to picture the story.

Imagining a scene can be described as thinking in line with an expansive and attractively permissive versatility. Fantasizing in a creative sense involves imagining and also producing contexts beyond what we can see or what is immediately given. Fantasizing challenges me to take my powers of insight seriously and to follow the flow of feelings and thoughts wherever it leads me; set out, go with the fl w and you may catch sight of something utterly new. In fantasizing I see both an attitude and a structural theme in Meta Isæus-Berlin´s more recent paintings. The dreamy, transparent figure who sits leaning against a white-painted chest of drawers with one of the drawers slightly open in Self-portrait after the Summer 2005 gives me a lead into her visual world. The woman indulges herself in a state in which dreaming transforms her body as well as the characteristics of the room, a mood in which fantasy rules over reason. The angular piece of furniture is at once a room and an embrace with an unimagined interior and from the spiral pattern on the wall a flood opens…

Young girls´ fantasies can, contrary to current conventions, turn out to be far from innocent. With her nose pressed against a dark window the same pale girl, now in a different painting, is absorbed in what is going on in The Tobacco Shop. Between the mysterious figure behind the counter and the curly headed woman with fingers that wriggle like maggots a network of connections develops. The figure at the bottom of the picture is asking for something that overlaps and displaces the man´s body. The shop counter is loaded with things to eat – sandwiches, bananas, sweets – which run in a stylized pattern from his dark figure down towards the eagerly entreating customer. The network of rhythmically arched lines grows in the direction of the girl, binding her together with the couple in the shop. Do the shopkeeper and his customer only exist in the imagination of the girl? Perhaps she is jealous of the intensive negotiations that she views from a position of loneliness and reluctant exclusion?

The opposite of play is not earnestness but reality, Sigmund Freud wrote in an essay entitled Der Dichter und das Phantasieren in 1907. Adults are expected to have left play behind them and instead to act in the arena of common-sense reality. They are expected to be able to deal with the weight of those disappointments and limitations that are unavoidable aspects of the unsatisfactory reality that is our lives. The space for fantasizing that daydreams allow us gives some compensation to the frustrations of adult life. But daydreaming only becomes really valuable if the more or less conscious desires and fantasies that secretly power daydreams are dealt with and given artistic and aesthetic expression, Freud maintains. The wishes that are the driving force are directed towards two evident goals. They aim to establish the social status of the dream and to fulfill the daydreamer´s need to feel sexually attractive. Fantasies of ambition share a young man´s thoughts with erotic fantasies while the erotic theme is dominant among young women eager for love. Today, a hundred years later, Freud´s view of how the desires are apportioned between the sexes seems somewhat dated. But the production of culture in our own time can be seen as massive confirmation of the fact that he had good reason to insist on the sexual content of both women´s and men´s waking fantasies.

Recurrent in Meta Isæus-Berlin´s paintings are female figures that radiate desire or, alternatively, that mark a wish that it does not seem possible to fulfill l. This desire can be represented by a small child with hair like an angel and the alarming company of a wolf as in the nightmarish Persuasion. Or it can be represented by an elderly lady who is haunted by fantasies and who inquisitively seeks their realization in the innards of a buxom desk (Too Close). Love-seeking scholars with breasts like silk purses gaze at partners of various ages. Young women send trysting signals to idealized men in Doctoral Student at a Party and In The Professor´s Library. Flattered, authoritative, expectant and almost faceless these desired men tend to embody a stereotype of masculinity.

On occasion two female figures meet in a picture, one of them maturely elegant with her hair put up and her neck showing while the other is a teenager. One of them, and this may apply to them both, repulses the other by retiring into her own thoughts. There is some sort of conflict or silence between them but they are also interchangeable. However one interprets the perspective of the title She doesn´t Know I Know it promises a sort of double secret. What is revealed in the painting Confession is equally ambiguous; it is equally unclear whether it is the younger or the older woman who is “confessing”. It is evident that it is the standing woman´s cold elbow that is reflected in the tabletop and that a red spot, like a deep wound, shines between them on the polished surface.

When “Beate and Dina” share a picture they wrap themselves in a fable-like veil of intimate and internal essentials while they “discuss the events of the night” or use each other to create their own image (“Are You Twins? No, We are just Sisters”). Sometimes the fifigure that can be identified as the artist´s own ego retires and disappears while at the same time filling the entire picture with her thoughts and her devoted fantasizing.

In the double exposure of the bedroom and the sea view in I don´t Know what to Say to my Daughters she is so caught up in the visual construction, so folded beneath the red covers of a book that the “I” of the narrative is almost only visible in the title of the painting.

All of these painted interiors vibrate with whispers and murmurs, with words that are left suspended half way and that are consumed by a mute and negating silence. It seems to me as though the voices constantly concern themselves with notions and fantasies about the link between the female, sensuality and eroticism. It appears as though everything that can be seen as belonging to the field of desire, including sexuality, is conditioned by fantasies rather than by concrete objects and experiences. Without access to the flood of thoughts and ideas – of longing that feeds desire – the erotic action would scarcely take place at all.

In these large paintings a sense of longing and passion constantly spills over into the surrounding room. When the blood-red markers of consuming passion fail to create a response they are transformed, like the ice-cold fish in Frustration, into signs of shameful desire. People seek out furniture that swells from its metaphorical content. Red velvet armchairs embrace the privileged performers in She who has, and she who hasn´t and The Idea of a Friend. The rings on the cooking stove glow with the intensity of the passionate kiss that takes place behind the window in Fata morgana. The seats of the chairs swell like mighty cauliflowers while breasts and thighs appear from the pink upholstery of the settee (I Understand what You Mean and Agree and She who has and she who has not). The floral ornament violently seeks attention between the telephone hut and the bidet, two ports of call that ingratiatingly frame the bed where something seems to be expected to take place beneath the waiting mirror…(When did the telephone booth made of stained brown wood in the entrance hall at the Liljevalch Gallery disappear?) I find a cheerful companion to the “Love” installation in the rococo fantasy entitled Don Giovanni [Don Juan] is Sick. He rests, delicately and sumptuously tended by four cakes that feed him with eggs. And isn´t he glancing secretly in my direction? I immediately realize that, wherever I happen to be in relation to the room defined by the painting, I am invisible to all the people involved except Don Giovanni who is out of sorts himself.

In another picture of Don Juan he sees neither me nor the “bride” who, in a casually attentive manner, surveys his actions through a peephole in the ceiling. Perhaps he is merely a temporary guest in this chamber; one of numerous users of the room. The man beneath on the bed “does not know she knows” (and if he did perhaps it would make no difference). In The Discovery of the Bride the female main character, who is dressed in a superbly laced gown, has one visible arm with a small hand turned inwards but the lower part of her body is missing. There are no legs or feet unlike the other figures including the table with its heavy drapes. It looks as though, on account of her discovery, she has been transformed into a rare orchid or a goddess who, like Indra´s daughter (in August Strindberg´s Dream Play) chooses to fl oat above human trivialities.

I often wonder where I actually am myself in relation to what is going on in the picture. Nor is this ever a question of the ambiguity of the subject. Once again my vision surveys the space in which things are measured in frozen distances. In paintings like Another Room and Slow Leak the empty glass surfaces mark a distant backdrop which simultaneously radiates a hectic dynamic through the pale shifts of the colours. Still one´s vision is met by interiors that suggest a state of assertive proximity. Large paintings like The Melancholy Hour and The Last Couple now exhibit a bright space and now a dark one in which the perspective can be imagined as emanating from a lamp at the top of the picture or from a spider that hides in a dazzled state between the wall and the ceiling. It is as though my field of vision coincides with a section of the atmosphere from which there is a long way to fall. Sometimes one´s vision has to find its way in expansive as well as cramped spaces that are hidden beneath the surface of the water.

Now it seems as though I have become one of the pop-eyed fish in Aunt Sofi a´s China Ornaments. If here my gaze is that of a fish, in paintings like The Discovery of the Bride and Frightening Spring Feelings I paste myself like a spot on the ceiling high above the room that opens itself up like mental excavations.

The subject of Frightening Spring Feelings is reminiscent of the plans for an ideal room of one´s own that children like to draw as they mature into teenagers. Chairs, fi replace and display cabinet stand in a neat row as though in a dolls´ house. A pair of shoes and an empty wedding dress imply that the interior belongs to a woman; though someone who has left the stage. The bed is neatly made up with white sheets, the lamp is waiting to shed its light on the pillow. The invocative order in the room is transformed into a compulsive instability. Where a homely rug should be supporting the fourth leg of the bed, a winding staircase reveals itself against a veiled shaft and I feel my way down – eyes wide shut – towards the coals that glow in the depths of the darkness. Does my view of the room coincide with that of the absent woman? Is it perhaps my own mental floor that the shaft reveals?

I seek safety in a magnificent piece that balances its curvaceous weight on strong lion´s paws: the neo-baroque settee in Bride and Bridegroom. It dances on the highly polished fl oor like a hymn to the body. It occurs to me that this item of furniture can be seen as a metaphor for a woman´s body illuminated from within, a blessedly impregnated paradise filled with trellised fruit trees and paved with onyx and cornelian. The view of the ethereal landscape and the tree comes from Sandro Botticelli´s Annunciation which he painted in the 1480´s. A bridge links the tower to the right of the gentle river with the castle on the other bank. All doubt has been dispersed and everything is bathed in supernatural, transfigured light. What the picture, with its power to disguise and to displace meaning, can truly offer is a privileged moment for fantasizing.