Painted Memories – then, for always
Lillian Presthus’s art involves us – not because she debates contemporary issues, but because she focuses on eternal human themes.
On how we continually see our reflection mirrored in other people’s eyes, and how their reaction to us forms how we see ourselves – and thus our identity. In her paintings we meet people who are sometimes presented in an extremely stylised way, almost like stencils, whereas others are portrayed almost photographically. The reason is that these people have been taken from old photographs. What all her subjects have in common, is that they are resting in their own pictorial universe. They are frozen in the positions in which the photographer captured them, and are then transferred to canvas. Many of the photographs clearly belong in a bygone age, and in this way the persons on the canvas are no more than a memory. But these people are observing us, they want to tell us something.
The artist’s characters are presented in intense imagery, which emphasises the frozen nature of their positions. They are placed between, behind or over ornamental wallpaper or curtains. Occasionally the repeated pattern in the background engulfs the figures, which disappear into their surroundings. The people are in the process of becoming invisible. To themselves? To their surroundings?
The colours are powerful and manifold. The form of the paintings challenges us. The characters in them face us and look at us. In this way the paintings represent a meeting between the persons in them and the observer. But there is to be neither a duel nor a dialogue. The characters are not observing us, for they are too occupied by their own lives. A different era. Even so, they want to tell us something, and I ask myself: What do they want? Who are they?
The people are often portrayed so naturalistically that we can recognise them from one painting to the next, and the pictures are those of a family’s life. They are dominated by young girls, alone or in groups. In one of the pictures we see the whole family together: Family Portrait (2004). Here we sense an imbalance in the picture: the smiling mother and the serious father are sitting like complete opposites on either side of the picture, with their children between them. This polarisation of male and female is a familiar motif in many of the paintings, where the man is often dominant and active, and the woman is passive and subdued. The female characters in Presthus’s paintings often appear to be of the classical type: they seek acceptance and reassurance for their existence and behaviour. The father figure can symbolise the society from which acceptance is sought.
Frida Hansen was for a long period a woman whose artistic production was largely neglected and forgotten. For much of the twentieth century Gerhard Munthe was pre-eminent among Norwegian textile artists. However, when an art student called Anniken Thue began to take an interest in Hansen’s beautiful tapestries in the early 1970s, she had to spend a lot of time rediscovering what turned out to be an outstanding production. In Presthus’s paintings we find many traces of Hansen’s woven patterns, and the background in her pictures are full of references. Ornamental and botanical patterns are repeatedly entwined on the large canvases.
The fragments of Hansen’s tapestries form part of the visual environment surrounding the persons in the paintings. The past is brought into the present, and with it come traditions: our roots. In the same way that Frida Hansen was an “invisible” woman until Anniken Thue brought her into the open, The Wallpaper Girl (2004) is an example of a girl who has become invisible. She merges into the wallpaper behind her, and we can only see her outline. It is up to her surroundings to decide if we can make her reappear. In order for her to exist, she must be seen by someone.
Another historical document in the pictures is a poem taken from old albums:
“No matter how far you wander
You will never find a place
Where hill and dale are bathed
In the light of you childhood years.”
Together with beautiful patterns, this poem creates a down to earth and authentic Norwegian atmosphere in the pictures. History is not the forgotten past, it is an important part of our time.
Titles can be a more or less important part of a work of art. The titles of Presthus’s paintings are very expressive, and the first impression may be that they demand a certain interpretation of the picture. However, although the text and the picture are one, they do not exclude different interpretations.
The use of photographs, Frida Hansen’s motifs and direct use of text create a complex universe in which the characters exist. The wealth of associations makes it possible to interpret the paintings in many different ways. As with all art, much depends on the individual observer’s approach and perspective.
In Matisse’s painting The Red Room, also called Harmony in Red (1908-09), we see how the ornamental wallpaper covers the foreground and thus reduces the picture’s three-dimensional effect. It is therefore close to the modernistic perception of a painting as a flat surface. In Presthus’s paintings the function of the wallpaper is not to remove the illusion of space. The artist does not wish to exploit the characteristics of a painting, for in her case the wallpaper has a symbolic function. The persons in the foreground are disappearing into the background. They are being swallowed by their soundings. Perhaps they are about to be annihilated? The wallpaper can refer to the demands made of us, or the feeling of being powerless, or of being unseen or misunderstood. As in The Wallpaper Girl. Another series of paintings which it is natural to mention in this context is Pattern Girls (2004-5), where we meet young girls that are stencilled. They are themselves a pattern, inasmuch as they are repeated across the whole canvas. This can be interpreted as her identity being erased, either because no one sees her, or because she is not seen for what she is.
Many of Presthus’s paintings have the title Good Girl. The girls are more or less recognizable persons, and are portrayed as apparently innocent, wearing skirts and posing for the photographer. But their faces tell a different truth. There is an expression of seriousness and deeper wisdom in their gaze than their years would suggest. We see an adult person portrayed as a child. Or more precisely: a mature person looking back and seeing childhood from a new perspective.
Childhood memories and experiences can be a burden that many people carry with them, good or bad. The expectation to please and be a “good girl (or “good boy”), can be painful of one feels unable to satisfy the demands. Presthus questions the wisdom of measuring a person’s value by what they achieve, physically or intellectually, which can leave people feeling unseen or worthless. Being a “good girl” can be associated with an expectation to succeed: she must be successful in addition to being kind and pretty. Presthus’s girls expose this feeling of inadequacy.
Since the paintings allow the observer to recognise faces that are present in several pictures, the artist is also concerned with outward similarities. Because the paintings are based on photographs, the fact that we are dealing with a particular individual is doubly documented. Portrait with Wallpaper (2005) is a series of pictures in which we see the same girl’s face in front of a background of different colours, which alter the mood from picture to picture. Have these girls taken a step further? They stare directly at the observer in a challenging fashion. They are no longer apart of the background. They want to be seen, and are clearly visible. The background is in colour, but the girls are mainly in black and white – a photographical abstraction. Again one of the many paradoxes that there are so many of in Presthus’s art. Because of their black-and-white abstraction there is no direct confrontation with the observer, also because they belong in the past and appear more as symbols rather than individuals. They act as spokeswomen and demand to be seen.
By using photographs so explicitly – persons in black and white against a colourful background – Presthus focuses on several aspects of photography as a medium. Where a painting will often present an imagined reality, a photograph gives a pictorial representation of something that has happened. This is particularly the case with documentary photographs. In these paintings we meet family photographs that have been transferred to canvas. A photograph shows us the past, so that once something has been photographed, it becomes the past – a moment that was. But since it has been photographed, this moment has eternal life.
In his book Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes presents his reflections on photography. An experience that he particularly looks for in a photograph is what he calls “punctum”. This is a unique quality in some photographs that fixes our attention and captures us in the moment that the picture represents. An experience like this will make us painfully aware of the fact that the picture shows a piece of frozen time, that everything we see no longer exists. In this way a photograph contains a strong presence of death. The transience of existence. For Barthes a photograph is also a “Memento mori” - "Remember you will die”.
Since Presthus takes photographs as her starting point for persons in her paintings, Barthes becomes a natural reference. Presthus brings the past into the present. The pictures of the persons are the same as before, but we understand that time has passed, and that the people have aged. The fact that the persons are presented in black and white emphasises this leap in time. The child’s experience and the adult’s present life are woven together. The child now has the adult’s wisdom, and in the adult we see traces of memories. There is room for both happiness and sorrow in what has passed. The memories live on, no matter what.
The transitory nature of life is also a present in Presthus’s art. Since the past plays such an important role, her paintings can be seen as a grieving process over what used to be, or a desire to come to terms with an unresolved issue. The last point is further underlined by the fact that there is an element of reconciliation in so many of her paintings. Reconciliation with oneself and one’s life? A reconciliation with being alive, which entails growing older, and the fact that the past is not just “dead” history, but also an important part of what we are today.
Unlike the neo-baroque trends in contemporary art where the idea seems to be “I shall not die” or “I am eternal”, Presthus is much more attuned to the intimate, to the personal and genuine experience. She confronts the observer in a direct fashion, and we can feel her art in our body. In life there is death, and to feel happiness, we must have experienced sorrow.
In The Princess Portrait (2005) we again meet the little girl that we recognise from other portraits. But here there is a hint of a smile and her gaze is proud. She is wearing her finest dress, with a red ribbon in her hair and a white blouse. The background is composed of variously patterned textiles on the wall and floor. There are also two female figures that we do not recognise from any of the other paintings. Our attention is caught by the girl in the foreground who is in the middle of the picture looking directly at us. Like the background, she is painted in colours. In this painting the sense of the past is not so strong. The colours express optimism, and the atmosphere is different. This girl is in command. She believes in herself and comes forward out of the background. The two older women merge into the surroundings from which the girl has freed herself. She stands alone, steadfast.
Lillian Presthus dares to be honest. Honest about life’s existential truths. About what it is like to be human, and perhaps especially: what it is like to be a woman. The subject matter is probably familiar to most people – also men. The feeling of inadequacy, that we are not good enough, or thoughts pertaining to identity and acceptance. These paintings have the potential to strike a chord in many people, when they recognise the vulnerable nakedness that we all carry inside us.
We are after all only human, for good and for bad, with all the opportunities that it entails.