Elective Affinities

Ann Lumbye Sørensen

Elective Affinities is the English title of a novel by JW Goethe, published in 1809. However, it could also be an apt description for the kind of inspirational exchange that an artist can have with the artistic creations of the past as well the present, and which may confirm or challenge the point at which the artist is located at a given time. Elective affinity is an inner dialogue on artistic possibilities and solutions which takes place across the boundaries of time and space, and which is drawn in as an undercurrent to become an integrated element in the artist's own work.  

When an artist is to be located in art history, it was formerly customary to examine only the possible influence and impact of earlier art. Typically, a repeated motif such as a hand position, a cloth fold or a distinctive silhouette might give rise to some extensive detective work in order to clarify the artist's intention and illuminate a progressive history of development.Nowadays, such a linear approach has however been superseded by a more cyclical understanding of the dialogues between past and present. Amongst others, the art historian Hal Foster has made a convincing case for a recursive process in which the artist may at any given time look back and find inspiration in the work of an earlier artist or the style of a particular period, and thereby add new aspects to his or her own work – or, as Foster points out, continue where previous generations have ceased their explorations. Foster views minimalism, for example, as an updated version of Russian constructivism, both conceptually and in terms of form. The motives which lie behind an artist's updating impulses are naturally highly complex; however, one potential strategy for analysis could lie in the concept of elective affinities.  

In the early 20th century, the art historian Aby Warburg undertook a study of the interest of Renaissance artists in Greek antiquity, and the reasons for the reappearance of certain motifs. His basic idea was that the relationship between image and human being is reciprocal: the human being absorbs the idiom, but the work itself, through its pathos, contains such strong impulses that it also exerts an influence. Renaissance artists did not merely observe the earlier models, but also immersed themselves in the idiom of antiquity and feltits effects.

Like many other artists past and present, Kathrine Ærtebjerg has recognised that by studying and assimilating the artistic legacy from former times, she can bring new expressions and significance to the special narrative strategy of her ongoing work, which binds together fantasy and reality. It is interesting that someone who is so much a product of her own time, and who paints pictures which are unmistakeably contemporary, can nonetheless find use for parts of the art historical archive. Ærtebjerg's elective affinities with Hieronymus Bosch, symbolism, surrealism and Japanese contemporary art are of a complex nature, but there are however certain common features in their points of fascination, in that the grotesque and demonic, together with sexuality, are traces which, along with ideas about dreams, the unconscious and spirituality, immediately link Ærtebjerg's own works with the context in which she places them. An impression emerges of visionary image formation, with the rational and the irrational existing in parallel on the same picture surface. Ærtebjerg's artistic universe has long been dominated by variations on a girl/woman figure, and is played out in dreamlike states in which the figure is inserted in a kind of weightless world of large plants and tiny creatures. The past few years, however, have seen a greater dissolution of the fixed contours of the pictorial space, with the result that the pictures evince an enhanced degree of metamorphological dynamism in their refractive field of heterogeneous figure formations, gestalts and splashes of colour. 

Kathrine Ærtebjerg is interested in medieval alchemistic and religious images, particularly the controversial and magical work of the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch.Bosch was active from 1480 until his death in 1516 – a period which saw intense religious conflict. He painted proverb-based moralising tablets as well as depictions of religious themes, with a predilection for the battle between the weakness of the flesh and the willingness of the spirit. Bosch is also known for his depictions of hell, the evocative effect of which have an intense effect on the observer. The atmosphere is red-golden and dark; the teeming chaos of bodies, detached limbs, weapons and instruments of torture exert a strong emotional effect and thereby speak directly to our ill-concealed fascination with the violence and destruction in his apocalyptic world theatre. The pictorial strategy unfolds here in a montage of ill-matched elements, bound together in a consistent irrationality. There is no end to the madness, which has many points in common with the famous grotesques of Bosch's near-contemporary, the writer Rabelais. Since being rediscovered by a group of symbolists in the late nineteenth century, Bosch has inspired many contradictory interpretations, which is fascinating in itself. 

Kathrine Ærtebjerg may be described as an artist who is also working in the arena of the irrational and the imagination in order to reveal a reality that lies beyond the banal world of everyday life: a place between reality and dream. Recognisable everyday activities and motifs are counterbalanced by an atmosphere of 'unreality' which has parallels in Bosch's distinctive use of scale displacements, and which helps to convey to the observer the impression of an alternative reality. However, Bosch's grim apocalyptic tone and religious iconography are not a domain for Ærtebjerg. In this respect, her updating of Bosch is primarily limited to an effective formal command of reality and reality levels. 

A central work by Kathrine Ærtebjerg, Dream/reality (2003), also displays links on the motif level which lead all the way back to Italian gothic painting, such as the fourteenth-century portrayal of the sleeping Virgin Mary with a tree growing from her stomach, upon which Christ is shown crucified. Gothic painting manifested a different and simpler approach to spirituality than we are accustomed to today, and a picture can therefore, without any problems of explanation, visualise multiple levels of consciousness within the same framework. Ærtebjerg applies a related solution, translated to her own times, in Dream/reality – the title of which clearly identifies the painting as a symbol of multiple, simultaneous planes of consciousness. The picture is thus not merely a post-modern surface, but is first and foremost a field of significance which reveals the artist's balance between the rational and the irrational. More is suggested than is revealed to the eye. There is no one particular reality. In Ærtebjerg's works, we identify the clearly delineated contours of human beings, plants and creatures as part of a story whose direction is often indicated by the poetic titles of the works – but there are also eruptive splotches which interfere with the story that the clearly defined figures are telling about this or that. We may perceive the two kinds of forms as each possessing their own pictorial logic, but the logic could also be manifested in the fact that they are juxtaposed on a single level related to both Gothic painting and Bosch, and linked to symbolism. 

In this zone of uncertainty between dream and reality, the symbolists are willing to sacrifice "the communicative anecdote for the evocative arabesque" as art historian Lise Serritslev Petersen puts it, with reference to Félix Fénéon.

 Petersen describes symbolist visual art as an art practice which is not "consistently abstract (or 'objectless'), but characterised by such a consistent strengthening and development of the picture gestalt's abstract ("musical") dimension that illustrative portrayal and anecdotal communication come to play subordinate roles." 

 Kathrine Ærtebjerg finds, for example, an identification model in Odilon Redon, whose floating faces with closed eyelids in an indefinite, spiritual and mystical space are related to Ærtebjerg’s later pictures. Here we are led into the landscapes of imagination, or perhaps more accurately those of dream visions, in which she, like Redon, aims to give form and colour to an inner reality – possibly in resistance to the penchant of external reality for the calculated, the factual and the substantive. Ærtebjerg's elective affinities, however, are interwoven and complementary; a detached, smiling mouth is not, for example, associated with Redon, but is a motif more inspired by surrealism. Her communion with "the surrealist mouth" results in the mouth undergoing a transformation from being merely a mouth – a woman's mouth, which both Man Ray and Salvador Dali made an independent motif – into a highly ambiguous organ. As a symbol of liberation from the tyranny of reason and thought, the surrealists created motif collocations which are not known in the real world; for René Magritte, day and night no longer follow the laws of nature, while Max Ernst allows nature to assume an almost metamorphological character which reveals the existence of realities besides that regarded as being the only true one. Kathrine Ærtebjerg, who is a poet as well as a painter, displays such an affinity with surrealism in her reflections on the texture of reality, through which she also finds a sounding-board for her own work in Magritte's view of the picture as a meta-reality. This concept, however, is often confused with the reality of dreams – an interpretation Magritte himself rejects when he states that it is more a matter of willed dreams, devoid of the diffuseness which characterises most actual dream states. It is this deliberately elicited dream or vision that Ærtebjerg aims to create in her pictures. 

The link with Magritte, in particular, is an indirect relationship, whereas in other cases, she openly builds upon an external (and internal) relationship, for example when she is inspired by Marcel Duchamp's reclining female figure in Étant donnés … (1946-66). Duchamp's naked female body with its spread legs is an erotic presentation of flesh and sex which has roots reaching back to Gustave Courbet's painting The Origin of the World (1866)– a close-up of a woman's genitalia. Kathrine Ærtebjerg calls her picture Mother Earth (2009). In her interpretation of Duchamp, and thereby of Courbet, the woman is transformed from being a passive object of desire into a vigilant and challenging hetaera. The surrounding landscape is in a state of metamorphosis between something animal and botanical, in which expressive symbolic forms are combined with surrealistic-influenced eroticism. But the works of Kathrine Ærtebjerg are works of contemporary art that absorb these many impulses, and upon that basis form new mythologies, with her own life, world and experience as the indispensable foundation. It is a kind of mythology we know from the genre of science fiction, and which some parts of the Japanese manga and animation tradition are skilled at visualising. But links can also be perceived with the Italian trans-avantgarde of Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi and Sandro Chia, who in 1980 presented their interpretation of the post-modern condition with paintings, drawings and sculptures in which private mythology mingled with the local and global arsenals of art and cultural history. 

In a 1960s memorandum on influence, the poet Gunnar Ekelöf remarked, amongst other things: "What he [the poet] can learn from painting is completely unpredictable, as painting is itself a schooling in how to perceive, how to see life and the phenomena around us. This schooling in seeing is also a schooling in how to reproduce and to choose, from among thousands of options, what you consider valuable and important to reproduce. And this, once again, is a schooling in the potential register of one's own personality, your own world of elective affinities, and the usefulness and necessity of highlighting this rather than of that. And not at the expense of that, which is never implied by such a choice of values. The instinctive sense of appropriateness is decisive. We call that which is most appropriate inviolable, but alone and in itself, such inviolability does not suffice. It must be surrounded by a court of lesser but equally necessary functions which tend towards and highlight it. This is vision. Vision is an attempt to concretise in picture, sound or words that which we desperately need. God is not something that exists, but something we lack." 


1Karen Benedicte Busk-Jepsen: Menneskebilleder. MA thesis and Prize Paper, University of Copenhagen, 2007. 35.

2Lise Serritslev Petersen: "Om symbolismens grænser", in: Sjælebilleder. Copenhagen, Statens Museum for Kunst. 2000. 259.

3 Ibid. 259.

4 Gunnar Ekelöf: Tag og skriv. Digte og notater. Selected and translated by Karsten Sand Iversen and Jens Smærup Sørensen. Viborg, Arena, Forfatternes Forlag. 1977. 98-99.