Tears, water, colour
Written by: Katarina Wadstein Macleod
“My current pictures are involved with the scale of human feelings, the human drama, as much of it as I can express.” Mark Rothko
The name of the exhibition – Reminiscences – places us instantly in a temporal dimension that is both now and then. The word implies a recollection of something you seem to remember but which is not entirely clear, a faint memory bubbling under the surface. A recollection of something in the past is being activated in the present. According to the dictionary definition reminiscences also suggest something borrowed, the unintentional borrowing from a literary or musical work. Several of Meta Isæus-Berlin’s paintings take familiar stories and material from the history of art as their starting-point. Highlighting fragments she weaves a new web of meanings. The result is a world of images that is filled equally with fairy tales, myths, symbols, material, colors and abstractions.
In one painting we encounter two small children, alone and lost in a snow-covered forest – it is Hansel and Gretel. As soon as we see the title, the well-known tale of the children deserted by their father and left in the forest by their evil stepmother is triggered in our memory. Meta Isæus-Berlin’s paintings never tell us what actually happens to Hansel and Gretel, however, or retell the story. What we experience is the headlong plunge into the children’s feeling of being abandoned. If fairy tales are used to provide us with tools to handle loss and hardships in life – especially the vulnerability of children – Isæus-Berlin’s paintings offer an in-depth look at the emotional life that is laid bare. There is no happy ending in which Hansel and Gretel return home to their father with the riches of the witch, free of the stepmother who abandoned them. Isæus-Berlin’s paintings have no end at all. What we encounter in her painting is the distilled feeling about the abysmal darkness that comes from being rejected by a parent.
If the story of Hansel and Gretel is about being abandoned, the mythological tale of Orpheus and Eurydice is about the bottomless grief that comes from the loss of a loved one. Ovid tells us what happens to Orpheus, the musician, and the nymph Eurydice: his yearning gaze sends her back to the realm of the dead. Isæus-Berlin’s Orpheus and Eurydice series is characterized by a kind of calm – death and loss are already a fact. The setting of Isæus-Berlin’s version of the myth is both a place that we recognize and one devoid of any geographical connection. Where They Lived shows a log cabin by a lake, surrounded by a wintry landscape, far from the aesthetics and nature of classical society. We can still see the skating tracks made by the dancing lovers on the ice – and that is exactly what Isæus-Berlin offers: traces and tracks.
This is also how we get to know Nadja, the character in Breton’s novel: through the traces she leaves behind. “When I am near her, I am nearer to the things which are near her.”1 Breton describes Nadja through what surrounds her: physical traces like a glove and her impression on others. In the same way, we experience Orpheus and Eurydice in Meta Isæus-Berlin’s paintings through their absence. With few exceptions, she tells her story by allowing the objects and the staging to advance the action. Just as Nadja may be described as a state of emotion, as a projection, the paintings of Isæus-Berlin reflect the mental and emotional states that the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice produce as well as those invited by nature and interiors.
In Orpheus Sets Out he does so through the sea which is seen behind a table laden with seashells. The shell itself, a souvenir of the sea and a collector’s item, becomes a metaphor for death through its metamorphosis from live organism to desiccated object. As in the paintings and sculptures of James Ensor, the seashell assumes a multifaceted role in Isæus-Berlin’s works, in which beauty and death are two sides of the same coin. In Transience, Sigmund Freud reflects on his conversation with the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, in which the latter expresses sorrow and melancholy over the transitory nature of things of beauty. Rilke, as reported by Freud, claims that wherever there is beauty, death will soon take its place. Freud reacts strongly to this pessimism – on the contrary, he maintains, the transitoriness of nature, as in art, serves to reinforce its beauty.
Freud points out that our call for immortal beauty is a way for us to cope with, maybe even control, the reality that surrounds us. “But this demand for immortality is a product of our wishes too unmistakable to lay claim to reality: what is painful may nonetheless be true.”(2) The shifts between reality and fiction in Isæus-Berlins works are reflected in the way painting varies between figuration and abstraction. Her paintings are unmistakably both figurative and abstract. They depict actual objects and allude to familiar tales at the same time as the colors are playing with expressions wholly their own. In the above quotation of Mark Rothko, who more successfully than most allowed colour to speak for itself, the artist states that his paintings are about expressing emotions and drama. Isæus-Berlin reaches the dark depths of the human drama through her often subtle humor and a cascade of color.
Her painting I Remember Eurydice creates uncertainty as to who is doing the seeing and who is actually thinking. Is it Eurydice who is sitting in the window in her white nightgown, looking out over the landscape? Or is the figure an extension of me as viewer or, in other words, am I looking at the figure or with her? It is simply not certain who owns the gaze, as Laura Mulvey so well formulates the problem of the viewer.3 Could it even be Orpheus himself, played by a woman as is often the case in Gluck’s opera of the same name?
In her interpretation of Orpheus and Eurydice Isæus-Berlin highlights the painful fact – often invisible in our culture – that the story is seen through Orpheus’s eyes. It is his desire, yearning and love that are satisfied when he seeks to bring Eurydice back from the underworld, and it is also these that send her back again.
In her painting Remembrance we identify with the female figure in the lower right of the picture. Her look is introspective and she is holding a doll, gingerly as if afraid it would break; maybe it is made of china – or why not as delicate as the threads that hold together our fragments of memory. The central figure is her dress, however, the imagined figure that the musing of the serious young woman seems to call up. Again, we are treated to Isæus-Berlin’s fascination with material, for what is this phantasmic creation – an echo of the turn of the century with its high neckline, sleeves edged in lace, and the sheer yet heavy material – if not an homage to the art of tailoring in another era. Every button is sewn by hand and to throw things away is an alien concept. The material of the dress is flowing and the transparency of the fabric testifies to its transitory nature and symbolic function. It reminds also of André Breton’s phantom. To him, woman was as unattainable as the phantom impossible to define. A ghostlike shadow from the past. In one of his manifestos, Breton describes this ghost as at least two hundred years old and retaining a bit of French: “The Phantom is around 200 years old; he still speaks a bit of French. But in his transparent flesh the dew of the evening and the sweat of stars are paired”(4).
If Breton automatically assigned the shadow from the past a male identity, it is female in the works of Isæus-Berlin. She describes the world from a woman’s perspective. It is women who occupy the space as a matter of course; the space is allotted to women as the most natural thing in the world – a poetic protest against the dominance of the male perspective in the history of art. Two Sisters is a picture of summer: two girls on their way somewhere in life and – as Rilke foresaw – beauty will eventually be replaced by death and loss. These two figures are far removed from art history’s plethora of bathing nymphs and titillating young flesh. To look at these young women is to be struck by life as seen in the rearview mirror, to look back from where you are. On their way to the beach, one is carrying a bucket and is about to play in the sand, the other is carrying a handbag, looking forward toward adulthood. The painting is not so much about predicting the trials and tribulations in life for these two young women, however, as the way the trials of life make themselves felt in the moment of recognition.
In Women’s Time, Julia Kristeva describes the three waves of feminism. The first concerns the struggle of women for equal rights, such as the fight of the suffragettes for the vote and equal citizenship. Men and women should be treated equally in society and women incorporated into the structure. Kristeva’s second wave is dated post-1968, even though her time periods are not necessarily tied to an actual time span, but are every bit as much about an attitude. The second wave, briefly, involves acknowledging the differences between men and women and to change the structures of society instead. The second wave occurs in the sixties and seventies with the demands of the women’s movement for an equal society in which women’s household work is credited and where work outside the home is an option.
To Kristeva, the third wave is the phase of the future. She views the difference between the sexes as a positive thing, but in order for it to become a creative, productive and liberating force it must neither be macho nor limiting. Aesthetics is a way of reaching the new ethics that Kristeva paints as the utopia of the third wave.5 Contemporary art contains many examples of the way women, sexuality and the different conditions for the sexes assume or are accorded a place. Meta Isæus-Berlin’s works have a feminist foundation that reveals a deeply felt need to allow women to take the lead as a matter of normality, without actually describing that this is what is happening. In Meta Isæus-Berlin’s hands, home, interiors, textiles, all the various genres and materials traditionally associated with the female sphere, become something universally valid – human, but from a woman’s vantage point. As was Kristeva’s hope, the female perspective can teach us something about humanity as a whole, not just about femininity.
In The Laboratory two women are conducting an experiment. One is facing us, busying herself with her flasks and test tubes; beside her is a seashell – a gesture both to the sea and to the cavity of the female sexual organ. Behind her is another woman whose figure and hair resemble her, but with some minor displacements. The hairdo is somewhat different; her clothes are of a different colour. It may obviously be seen as a kind of Janus face where one side is looking toward the future and the other toward the past. That is not to say that the woman working with textiles is describing the past, a time when a woman’s creative place was associated with the home and with soft materials. It is on the laboratory table that the remains of the past are spread out: a seashell, an urn or a lace doily. The pictures of Isæus-Berlin pose questions, but she refuses to provide any readymade answers.
THE MEMORY OF THE MATERIAL
Throughout her career as an artist Isæus-Berlin has always worked with transformations, exploring the material’s potential through its properties. In her project, I am not at Home, an exhibition placed in a container in Copenhagen, 400 kilos of playdough acquired a life of its own. The dough is obviously associated with her home and with childhood. We all have our experiences of taste and smell that awaken memories of childhood, as did Proust’s Madeleine cookies. Isæus-Berlin’s unbaked and odorless dough testifies to memories waiting to be finished, and processed.
The home has long been a central motif to Meta Isæus-Berlin. In her art, she has made the home the setting for her stories while, at the same time, its contents and physical characteristics with its spatiality and furnishings, have become a material, a tool. In her installation What Memory Selects (2001) we see, for example, a bedroom that we are all able to recognize but which has been distorted by cuts. Parts have been removed from the bed, the nightstand and the mirror, only to be reassembled again. We still have no difficulty recognizing the objects, but they are of no practical use to us. What is left is fragmentation, an end product that reflects our own fragmented memories.
What then is a memory? And, is it possible to represent? In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard describes how the home becomes something deeply intimate, something which has the capacity to house the influential memories of childhood, and therefore becomes the perfect venue for our daydreams. If we find a way of reaching these dreams and memories, Bachelard says, we may also have a chance of understanding our psyche. After abandoning large-scale installations and immediate material experiments, Isæus-Berlin turned to more subtle experimentation involving the properties of the material.
Her exhibition Imprinting and Filtering, shown in Stockholm in the winter of 2008 (Galleri Andréhn-Schiptjenko), visualized how memories are housed by the home, a visual repartee of Bachelard’s philosophy of the mind. Regardless of the motif, the material of the paintings – oil on canvas – possesses an inherent characteristic that tallies well with the qualities of memory. The creative act of painting in itself may be associated with processing something, handling something from the past in a liberating, therapeutic act. But the reflection of memory in painting may also be about recalling and preserving and, not least, about creating new memories.
Among Isæus-Berlin’s most recent paintings Below the Surface seems to me a key work – a synthesis of the materials and motifs that have occupied the artist throughout her career. As in a Caspar David Friedrich painting, a woman with her hair pinned up and wearing a white gown is looking out through a window. Whereas in Friedrich the boundary between inside and outside is clearly delineated by means of a window or by allowing a horizon to separate foreground from background, Isæus-Berlin’s pictures contain no obvious drawn boundaries. If anything can be said to be typical of her painting it is the absence of a clear horizon, the demarcation which might help a viewer to orientate themselves in the picture. In Below the Surface, the woman is under water and the constituent parts are floating. Within the home, outer reality is represented by a chair and the suggestion of a window sill to lean against, at the same time as the woman is surrounded by an inner, psychological landscape. This concurrence may be compared to Melanie Klein’s theories of the way past and present are united. According to her, our notion of time is spatial, not chronological – i.e. all is contained in the mind at the same time without any hierarchical divisions.6
Outward and inward presence, the oscillating stage between reality and the dreamlike, is a recurring theme with Isæus-Berlin. We may try to interpret all the details in e.g. Below the Surface, we may ponder the possible symbolism of the white dress, note the art historical references, marvel at discovering the tiny sperms seeking out the egg. Losing oneself in too detailed an analysis of the symbols would probably be a mistake. Instead, we can approach these paintings on their own terms and observe the unique ability of visual art to express a non-linear thinking, a state of mind. In the end, Isæus-Berlin’s paintings resemble daydreaming which, according to Bachelard, provides access to our memories. To him, it was through poetry that house and memory became one. To me, Isæus-Berlin’s paintings are the visual counterpart to that poetry.
In her installations Isæus-Berlin makes the viewer experience the works with their whole body. Our bodies have a memory of how a bed should feel, we experience a sense of discomfort when that same bed is filled with water.7 Her paintings continue this material experiment with the viewer. Looking at Isæus-Berlin’s View of Hades, for example, is like trying to see something through a flow of tears – something that anyone who has tried to follow a film or read a text through a flood of tears will recognize. The oil paint has been added without any straight lines so that it sometimes looks like it is running, as if the paint were water. Water – one of the most important themes in Isæus-Berlin’s art, in her installations as well as in her paintings. In View of Hades, sharp, almost over-the-top colours are poised between beauty and madness.
In the painting, we are looking toward Hades, where Isæus-Berlin has been inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead. But the calm which characterizes Böcklin’s painting has been replaced, in this painting, by a torrent of color. We get a clear view through the partly blurred painting as through an open window, a free space; the paint is running down the canvas like the rain down a window or like a curtain obscuring the view. We join Orpheus in a mad dash toward Hades.
In a comment on his painting which is often described as blurred copies of photographic originals Gerhard Richter says: “What we call blurred is imprecision, that is to say something quite different if one compares it with the real object represented. But since paintings are not painted in order to be compared with reality, they cannot be blurred, nor imprecise, nor different from (different from what?). How could painting be blurred?”(8) This fleeting feeling in Isæus-Berlin’s paintings transports us as viewers to a state where we are no longer in control, we do not own our own gaze. It is as if the painterly aspects force us into a state somewhere between dream and reality – just as Bachelard’s hopes for poetry, Isæus-Berlin’s paintings make us daydream.
Introductory quote: Mark Rothko, “Address to Pratt Institute” (1958), from Rothko: The late series (Tate: London 2008), p. 92
1 André Breton, Nadja (Grove Press: N.Y. 1960), p. 90
2 Sigmund Freud, “On Transience” (1916), from Complete Psychological Works, standard edition, vol 14 (Hogarth Press: London 1957), pp. 303-308
3 Laura Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures (Indiana University Press: Blomington 1989)
4 Breton, “Soluble Fish” (1924), Manifestoes of Surrealism, trans. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane (University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor 2007), p. 52
5 Julia Kristeva, “Women’s Time”, (1979) trans. Alice Jardine och Harry Blake, from Toril Moi (ed.), Kristeva Reader (Blackwell: Oxford 1986), pp. 187-213
6 See Mitchells discussion regarding the essence of Melanie Klein’s theories in eg. Juliet Mitchell (ed.), Selected Melanie Klein (1986) (The Free Press: New York 1987), p. 28
7 About Meta Isæus-Berlin’s installations, the physical effects and the reflection of reality, see Torsten Weimarck, “Meta Isæus-Berlin: The Animated Installations”, Meta Isæus-Berlin: Fickla Vrårna (Liljevalchs katalog nr 47, Fälth & Hässler: Värmamo 2006)
8 Quote from Benjamin Buchloch, “Readymade, Photography and Painting”, Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry: Essays on European and American Art from 1955-1975 (The MIT Press: Cambridge 2000), p. 388