Desiring interpretation / Intimations of Mortality

by art critic Hilde Øvreness

He is dead and gone, lady
He is dead and gone;
At his head a grass green turf,
At his heels a stone.

(Excerpt from Ophelia’s song in Shakespeare’s Hamlet)

For her most recent aquarelles Marianne Darlèn Solhaugstrand has drawn inspiration from romance novels, erotic horror/pulp films and the pre-Raphaelite era, and has painted narratively ambiguous landscapes bordering between the macabre and the harmonious. Disrobed male figures take up the foreground of the images. Above the figures rests the contours of an unknown drama. Just like aquarelle paintings allow colours to mix and blend into each other, Solhaugstrand has allowed seemingly irreconcilable states like light and dark, peaceful and sombre, and violence and pleasure to flow together, forming independent expressions. The form the aquarelles have been given stems from a fusing together of pop culture and 19th century paintings. Ultimately, however, her wish has been to rid herself of the prejudices marking the stereotypes we meet both in popular culture and the 19th century paintings. To this aim Solhaugstrand has found it necessary to rid men of their clothes.

It has to be said, she wanted to as well. The denuding has been accompanied by an urge to explore the pleasure contained in the gaze together with the desire contained in the brush strokes. Solhaugstrand has undressed men before. That has resulted in a series of seductive beach boys from California and a line of remarkable animal boys who seem to have originated in a Norwegian fauna. The animal boys have amongst other things been outfitted with animal ears, and at least one of the boys can be recognised in the most recent Ophelia-aquarelles. This time Solhaugstrand has gone even further. She has unveiled stranded figures, floating between life and death in the water’s edge. What has been brought to light through this process is a pattern of gender roles supported on an ever more uneven footing. The undressing has in addition to having consequences for the men, also led to a shaping of Solhaugstrand’s own gaze. The attention has been directed inwards as well as outwards in a painting process which also can be viewed as a process of liberation.

It has long been a widespread conception that there is a difference between men and women regarding the act of observation. This shall amongst other things have entailed the relatively sizable production of images depicting scantily clad women, and the correspondingly small production of pictures of denuded men. Film theorist and culture critic Laura Mulvey writes for instance that “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly.”2 Mulvey’s observations can, however, appear excessively oversimplified and generalising. When faced with the Ophelia-series they seem to fall completely short. Here the male figures are the ones styled according to Solhaugstrand’s imaginative abilities.

The aquarelles still cannot be said to topple Mulvey’s categories just like that. Rather, they point out something inherently unstable about these categories. The stranded male figures can no longer be described according to established standards. As if to underline this, the figure in Ophelia – Curse of the Devil gradually shifts to something resembling a woman’s face. The series of images can in this way be said to confirm Sigmund Freud’s statement that: “Pure masculinity and femininity remain theoretical constructions of uncertain content.”3 Behind the constructed dimensions affixed to gender there exists an underlying uncertainty with regards to the gender categories. The disrobed figures in Solhaugstrand’s aquarelles confront us with this uncertainty. The landscapes in the images form a narrative ambiguousness the observer can get lost in at their own whim, and the observer is invited to explore his or her own gaze when facing the exposed figures.

A number of artists have problematised conceptions of femininity in different ways in their works. One who has employed the effect of narrative ambiguousness is Marie Yates, who in 1983 exhibited her piece The Missing Woman. Here an unknown woman was depicted through fragments from different narratives. This made it possible for the audience to create their own image of the woman. Yates has stated that “whenever we look at an image we are its authors through the field of discourse and generally put images to use in providing narratives to our satisfaction.”4 Art historian Lisa Tickner adds that “In seeking to make sense of images, we also work to produce a coherent position for ourselves.”5 When faced with images we seek both to place the image and at the same time situate ourselves relative to the representation. Solhaugstrand’s aquarelles also work in accordance with this principle. Contrasting with the fixed stories of the romance novels she has been inspired by, the ambiguous landscapes of the images lie open to the observers’ own tales.

Instead of directing attention towards the female role, Solhaugstrand steers the focus towards the male figures in her aquarelles. In this lies a recognition of how one cannot claim to problematise the role of women without also examining the man. But who are they, these male figures in the aquarelles? In their toying with the animal world and flirtations with death they seem almost about to decompose. Still, the men do not surrender completely to decay. They also appear as indulging subjects. Beauty has been given a significant place in their suggested mortality. The perfection and harmony of beauty cannot be viewed as anything but a contrast to death’s decomposition and decay. “If any discussion of death involves masking the inevitability of human decomposition, it does so by having recourse to beauty”, writes Elisabeth Bronfen.6 Beauty then functions as solace and a means of ousting the fear of death. Furthermore, the juxtaposition of beauty and death in Solhaugstrand’s aquarelles cannot be viewed independent of the thematisation of pleasure and desire showcased in the images. Desire points both towards the beautiful and towards death understood as the final reconciliation, the reunion with the beloved and the cessation of gender in a state where the gaze does no longer exist.

The titles of the aquarelles stem in part from the pre-Raphaelites’ representations of beautiful young women. John Everett Millais’ painting Ophelia from 1855 constitutes an important source in this regard. In addition, the aquarelles each carry the name of a horror/pulp film. While the motif of the stranded figure alludes to Ophelia, the film titles point to the different motives that form the outlines of the aquarelles. These outlines become frameworks for the drama played out in the images while becoming images themselves. The outlines also influence how we view this drama. Thus Solhaugstrand makes it so the Ophelia motif and the motives from various films cannot be viewed independently in the aquarelle paintings.

Likewise this dualism contained in the images makes itself known through the thematisation of desire. In Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction, for instance, desire is characterised as vulgarity and disgust:

The object which ‘insists on being enjoyed’, as an image and in reality, in flesh and blood, neutralizes both ethical resistance and aesthetic neutralization. […] In the face of this twofold challenge to human freedom and to culture (the anti-nature), disgust is the ambivalent experience of the horrible seduction of the disgusting and of enjoyment, which performs a sort of reduction to animality, corporeality, the belly and sex, that is, to what is common and therefore vulgar.7

Bourdieu proposes desire as a contrast to aesthetics and good taste, instead equating it with sensual pleasures and the corporeal. He chooses however to disregard the ties that aesthetics originally had to sensuality. The term itself comes from a Greek designation for things pertaining to the senses – aisthesis. Traditionally, desire is also related to art through its attraction to beauty. In Solhaugstrand’s aquarelles sensuality takes centre stage alongside the wish to depict male beauty. The desire beauty stems from must be seen in light of both the pre-Raphaelite strivings for beauty and the more vulgar expressions of popular culture.  Similarly, the aquarelle genre both connotes and distances itself from the purer tradition of oil paintings.

The image Ophelia – Orgy of the Dead shows a figure from the chest down only, stranded in the water. The better part of its body disappears under the surface, allowing us only to glimpse its contour. This image places the observer where the remainder of the upper body should be, allowing him or her to identify with the painted figure. In this way the observer is drawn into the image through the male figure. Its identity remains in the hands of the observer. The male figures of the aquarelles cannot be tied to any one interpretation. Instead they partake in the ambiguity marking the landscape surrounding them. Whatever meaning they contain cannot be dictated. The ambiguity of the images kindles a desire in the observer to interpret, and in consequence each image becomes an unopened novel, where the story depends on the eye of the beholder.

Translated by Kari E. Hardersen

1 William Shakespeare. 1997. [1959]. Hamlet. Oslo: Aschehoug s. 104

2 Laura Mulvey. 2006. «Visual Peasure, Narrative Cinema» i Meenakshi Gigi Durham og Douglas Kellner (red.). Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks. USA/UK: Blackwell Publishing s. 346

3 Sigmund Freud. 1925.  “Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes” i Sigmund Freud , James Strachey og Anna Freud. 1953. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth s. 285

4 Marie Yates sitert i Lisa Tickner. 1984.  “Sexuality and/in Representation: Five British Artists” i Donald Preziosi (red.) 1998. The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology. Oxford: Oxford University Press s. 366

5 Lisa Tickner, ibid.

6 Elisabeth Bronfen. 1992. «The ‘most’ poetic topic» i Elisabeth Bronfen. Over Her Dead Body. Manchester: Manchester University Press s. 62

7 Pierre Bourdieu. 1984. Distinction. A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. [Overs. Richard Nice] London: Routledge & Kegan Paul s. 489