On Lisbeth Eugenie Christensen’s art
By Lilian Munk Rösing
In “The Blank Page”, one of the tales from Baroness Karen Blixen’s Last Tales, there is an account of a convent in Portugal where the sisters cultivate and process the finest linen, sprung from flax seeds brought home from the Holy Land by a crusader. From this flax is woven the canvas that is used for making bridal sheets for Europe’s oldest and noblest families. On the morning after the wedding, the sheet of the night is returned to the convent, where it is framed and hung up in a long gallery of bridal sheets, each with its own blood marking, which offers solemn testimony that the bride was indeed a virgin. This distinctive form of batik art brings forth motives which, much like the ink blot in a Rorschach test, lend themselves to being interpreted in manifold ways:
“Within the faded markings of the canvases people of some imagination and sensibility […] may there find pictures from their own world of ideas: a rose, a heart, a sword – or even a heart pierced through with a sword.”(1)
The most interesting work, though, according to the story, is the blank canvas – the pure white sheet that once was returned without any blood marking: ” … with what eternal and unswerving loyalty has not this canvas been inserted in the row! The story-tellers themselves before it draw their veils over their faces and are dumb.”(2)
This tale retells itself in my head as I contemplate Lisbeth Eugenie Christensen’s art. It appears to me that her works share a number of motives and features with Blixen’s story: the importance of the canvas’s materiality; the foreign seed that has been supplied from elsewhere; the hand-made craftsmanship that can evolve into art; the body’s contribution to the creative process; batik-like splotches and Rorschach-like motifs; and especially the subtlety – the modestly subdued laughter that resounds somewhere in the pictures.
The materiality of the canvas is essential to Christensen’s art: the beautifully prepared sheets of paper that are retained in the cropping they possess upon their arrival to the artist. They offer testimony about the handicraft or handwork that are the foundation for artistic creation, as the sisters’ spinning and weaving of the linen in Blixen’s story are the foundation for the high-born bride’s body art. When Christensen works in such a concentrated way with pencil and creates twinings through shadings so that our eyes are deceived with respect to depth, there is something of needlework’s patient and gratifying monotony about it.
However, the handwork is seated not only in the work’s materiality, in the paper’s quality and in the pencil stroke’s density: it also makes its appearance as a motif. There are splotches of color that look like batik prints; there are motives that look like paper cuttings; there are braidings that look like hair or pleated Christmas hearts.
A recurring motif is the braiding that is being untied. From a scrupulously rendered Christmas heart, pleated in squares, hang long loose ends that twist and turn in graceful disorder. Like hair that is being loosened, romantically, from a somewhat too stiff coiffure. Or maybe as a demarcation of a boundary between needlework and art: needlework’s monotonous patterns have to be broken up by some degree of chaos, some measure of dissolution, so that art can emerge. At the same time, though, it is the handwork’s painstaking diligence, the concentrated work with the pencil, that gets the loose ends to meander and twist.
The braiding can be regarded as the primordial form of traditional female handwork: weaving, knitting and crocheting. Freud writes in a most imaginative way that when a woman sits doing her needlework, she is basically always busy plaiting her pubic hair (… in order to conceal that she does not have a penis, of course …).
Freud would have been fond of the picture where Christensen, against a butter-colored background has, in pencil, braided a circular Gretchen-hairstyle which, at its one end, is led through an unmistakably vaginal opening and re-emerges in a disbanded state as loose strands of hair. But this is also an image that, with its cunning ambiguity, supplements Freud. Is the braid being loosened as it passes through the opening or is it rather the case that the hair is being braided inside there? Does the braiding commence inside the opening or does it terminate there? The opening appears to be a space of transformation, whether or not this involves dissolution or taking form. Here, the braid is not covering over the opening as it might cover some kind of deficiency. Instead, the opening is a space with the potential to dissolve and to give form.
The opening is also a mouth and reminds us that the difference that has to be there in order to give form to something need not necessarily be conceived of as the difference that the phallus posits – it can also be conceived as the difference between two lips. And maybe even with teeth in between – the association to a comb can well serve to give teeth to the vaginal opening. If we, with the opening, acquire a comb for our hair, we acquire, with the comb, teeth for the opening.
But just as we should not be tempted into thinking that Blixen’s Portuguese sisters make up a mono-sexual collective that creates on the basis of women’s energy alone, neither do Christensen’s vaginal openings constitute a female power plant that carries out its transformations exclusively within the closed circle’s self-sufficient circuit. Just as Blixen’s sisters have had the seeds for their linen supplied by the other gender, from some other place, the germ of Christensen’s vaginal form has also been obtained from elsewhere. The form has been delineated after a photograph of an art deco brooch that Christensen found inside a book and that she uses in several of her pictures. To be sure, the brooch is also a piece of handicraft. But it is made of hard metal and not of soft fabric. The brooch thus also poses a counterpoint to the braid, just as the straight lines emanating from its right side constitute some kind of counterpoint to the circle. Or some kind of alternative to the braiding: instead of twining and gathering the strands, they can be separated and arranged in straight lines.
The brooch form is a copious reservoir of associations. Is it body or implement? Is it the labia majora or a uterus with ovaries? Is it an opening or a pin that is supposed to close the opening? Is it a piece of decorative jewelry or a contraceptive coil? It is, to put it succinctly, just as susceptible to a variety of interpretations and just as Rorschach-like as the blood markings on Blixen’s sheets. Like these, it stands in relation to the female flesh. But at the same time, it is, like the flax seed, the foreign element that has been infused into the work so that it can breed and propagate.
The induced foreign element is a recurring feature in Christensen’s pictures. In a number of them, we find variations on a computer-generated form consisting of rods and spheres. This cybernetic and phallic form is sometimes juxtaposed with the more organic, meticulous and vaginal forms like the brooch. It becomes a male-anatomic counterpoint to something female-anatomic. In order to associate the phallic forms with masculine space, it is not necessary to know that it is Christensen’s boyfriend, ceramist Per Ahlmann, who has generated them on the computer. But it is quite amusing to note this fact and it serves to drive home the point that the form has been brought into the work by a man, as the flax seed was brought to the sisters’ convent. Elevated onto the more abstract plane, this tells something about a creative process that depends on having a foreign element induced. This can be taken to be a general principle for artistic creation but Christensen has turned it into a tangible principle for her working procedure.
In a manner that is somewhat akin to how, in Blixen’s tale, the beholder is confronted with something that can be both a challenging enigma and a bawdy joke, the viewer of Christensen’s images is often confronted with forms that seem to refer in an altogether vulgar way to the genitals and simultaneously to enter into enigmatic mechanical and dynamical relations with themselves and each other. However, in contrast to the bawdy joke, the genitals are not implicit associations but rather overt expressions that are subsequently refined by the application of color and by the interplay between the gestalts.
In one picture, the brooch’s gestalt, rendered in a luminous color, converges with a green and one-dimensional variant of the rod-with-spheres motif. Here, the brooch is not merely form but also ornamented surface: its undulating chasings have been highlighted, giving depth to the figure – and this is further enhanced by the slightly phosphorescent lighting effect. Taken together, the brooch and the rod/spheres fashion something that might be recognized as a whip.
There are a few teasing inversion figures hovering about in this picture, giving rise to an interplay among foreground and background and spatial sequence. The opening’s depth could, strictly speaking, also be a raised surface. The rod’s flatness can cause it to look both like it is positioned in front of the brooch and that it is behind it. There is, moreover, a third possibility of perceiving the two joined gestalts as being situated on one and the same plane. As far as the direction or the course are concerned, we could imagine that the green rod is a handgrip from where a whip is hanging (here, we are scanning the figure’s spatial sequence from right to left) or, alternatively, that the brooch is a kind of plumb bob or body from where some kind of cable or trunk is hanging (now, we are scanning from left to right). The figures’ combination takes place under the shelter of a black grille. It is a kind of interlacing braided pattern, once again, but something that leads the mind toward steel constructions rather than toward fabric. Is the black grill a grid that gives rise to order? Or is it rather a kind of cobweb that is reminiscent of the dissolution of every kind of order?
In addition to this ornamental pin, Christensen has taken another piece of art deco jewelry into her pictorial universe: a brooch fashioned in the form of a bat. Its symmetrical apparition spreads itself out in several of the pictures: sometimes rendered in bat-like fashion – in black, and sometimes more in the manner of a paper cutting – in white. Sometimes loathsome, sometimes prim. When the white version of the motif is a who-am-I Easter snowdrop-paper cutting mystery letter,(3) it is an affectionate greeting that the work brings to you, even though it may have been sent from a repulsive and creepy creature – not a bird without wings but a mouse with wings. In the white version, the snowdrop-paper-cutting letter is also ambiguous in the sense that it can look both like it has been painted on paper and like it has been cut out from the paper. Is it a hole or an extra layer? And what effect does it have on the bat-gestalt that a black grille has been placed over its head? It is a grille which, in itself, can resemble a kind of carcass (a mouse’s or a chicken’s) or a torture hood, be it the victim’s or the executioner’s … Very simple forms contain a complexity of possible meanings and call forth the viewer’s own associations. Much like the visitors to Blixen’s gallery of stained sheets, the spectator is being referred to “pictures from [her/his] own world of ideas.”
The ambiguous meetings between prim and loathsome, between handicraft and art, between phallic and vaginal, between foreground and background, between figurative and abstract, between designing and dissolving and between bodily and art-generated forms all serve to render Christensen’s pictures witty in a very special way: in a way where you might be inclined to understand “witty” as being something that has to do with both wit and with wittiness. What could have been a boisterous guffaw in response to the overtly sexual (i.e. phallic and vaginal) motives is countered by an equivocal meticulousness, with the result that we do not quite know what to believe. As is the case in Blixen’s story, the coarse-grained meets the subtle, the joke converges with wit.
Blixen’s story elevates the unblemished sheet to being the most outstanding work of art. The speaking silence among the series of signs. The completely blank canvas for the viewer’s projections. (Was the bride not a virgin or has she remained so?) The textural materiality, which is the work’s foundation. Do we find this kind of blank canvas in Christensen’s work? Well, not in the most concrete sense, of course, but we find pictures that constantly prompt us to sense the quality of the paper upon which they have been painted or drawn. And we find the speaking silence: if a Christensen piece were a sentence, it would presumably be followed by three ellipsis dots in order to specify the moment when the work itself trails off into silence and leaves the viewer suspended with a special thoughtfulness … and a little smile on the lips.
Translated by Dan A. Marmorstein
(1) Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen): “The Blank Page”, from Last Tales, Putnam, London 1957. p. 129
(2) Op. cit. p. 131
(3) A “gækkebrev” is sent, typically without any return address, as a “guess-who-I-am” message and often contains a special Easter greeting. One of the more poetic texts that frequently appears on these kinds of paper-cutting letters is the couplet: “A snowdrop, a summer’s joke, a bird without wings / a little friend who cares for you, a loving greeting brings.”