La beauté distanciée des images d'Elina Brotherus - Le Monde

L'artiste finlandaise expose à Montpellier des œuvres dont l'apparente neutralité se joue des stéréotypes

Photographie.
Par Philippe Dagen
Envoyé spécial, Montpellier (Hérault)

Elina Brotherus est finlandaise, née en 1972. Photographe et vidéaste, elle est la figure principale et le plus souvent unique de ses œuvres, actrice d'images autobiographiques et allégoriques. L'exposition de 160 tirages présentée à Montpellier est la plus complète qui ait été montrée en France. Ce n'est pas tout à fait une rétrospective, ne serait-ce que parce que l'accrochage prend des libertés avec la chronologie et parce que le mot serait pesant pour une artiste d'un peu plus de 40 ans. Mais il est difficile de ne pas l'employer, tant s'affirment la cohérence et la profondeur de son œuvre.

Celle-ci semble d'abord d'une très belle simplicité épurée : des photographies en couleurs, grandes ou plus petites, aux compositions commandées par une géométrie assez stricte. Le chromatisme est retenu et hanté par le gris, ce qu'il serait trop commode d'expliquer par le climat nordique, Elina Brotherus travaillant aussi souvent en France ou aux Etats-Unis qu'en Finlande. En tout lieu, elle obtient une luminosité égale, animée par des nuances de teintes pâlies et diaphanes plutôt que par le clair-obscur et des contrastes appuyés, procédés qu'elle ne pratique guère. Que les images soient d'intérieur ou d'extérieur, qu'elles soient prises dans des appartements contemporains ou vieillots ou aient pour cadre un lac, une forêt ou une lande, tout y est nettement et aisément visible, comme si la plus objective neutralité était le but recherché.

Nue, Brotherus se montre de face ou de dos, telle qu'elle est, debout ou assise, sans pose recherchée ni artifice qui l'embellisse. Il en est de même quand elle se présente, de dos ou de face là encore, en robe à fleurs ou pull blanc banals, immédiatement reconnaissable, le visage le plus souvent impassible. Elle ne s'inscrit donc pas dans la suite de Cindy Sherman. Au long de son œuvre, depuis la fin des années 1970, cette artiste américaine se maquille et se déguise pour ressembler à une héroïne de soap opera, une collectionneuse de Park Avenue, un garçon manqué ou une adolescente égarée. Ainsi a-t-elle rassemblé un inventaire des représentations de la femme au temps du cinéma, de la télévision et de la publicité. Cette méthode sociologique, proche du pop art, n'est pas celle de Brotherus.

Les deux artistes ont cependant quelque chose en commun : dans leurs images, l'évidence est trompeuse. Pour Cindy Sherman, c'est flagrant, puisque son œuvre est le catalogue des métamorphoses d'une seule personne, elle-même. Il suffit que deux de ses œuvres soient côte à côte pour qu'il apparaisse qu'il s'agit de la même femme dans deux rôles différents et non deux portraits de deux personnes différentes : comédie et non documentaire. Pour Elina Brotherus, la distance s'établit autrement. Il y a dans chaque photo un ou plusieurs indices de sa fabrication, un ou plusieurs détails qui empêchent le spectateur de regarder l'œuvre au premier degré.

Jeu de reflets

L'ironie apparaît dès ses débuts. Le Reflet, de 1999, pourrait être la représentation assez prévisible de l'artiste au miroir, comme il en existe des dizaines en peinture et en photographie. Au lieu de quoi, la jeune femme est peu visible, de profil, sur le bord gauche de l'image, et encore moins sur la glace d'une salle de bain. Le reflet de son visage est caché par un Post-it sur lequel est écrit " le reflet ". Sur d'autres, on lit " le lavabo ", collé sur le lavabo, ou " la prise " au-dessus de la prise électrique. Ces Post-it répondaient à une nécessité pratique : invitée à un séjour à Chalon-sur-Saône par le Musée Nicéphore Niépce, Elina Brotherus, qui ne parlait pas encore français, s'apprenait ainsi à nommer les objets. Mais elle a vu surtout quel parti tirer des mots dans la photo, entre Magritte et art conceptuel, entre visible et lisible. Montrer ou seulement nommer, serait-ce équivalent ? Dans ce cas, pourquoi se donner la peine d'un cliché, si ce n'est pour suggérer la vanité de l'exercice ?

Dans d'autres autoportraits contemporains, le fil noir du déclencheur court sur le sol jusque sous le pied de l'artiste, qui regarde l'appareil d'un air entre suspicion et résignation : pas question d'être dupe des charmes de l'image, pas question de feindre la surprise et la spontanéité. Toute photo est une construction, plus ou moins calculée et savante. Ce n'est pas, comme on aimerait le croire, un vrai morceau de la réalité, mais une fiction avec, éventuellement, de petits morceaux de réel à l'intérieur.

Depuis lors, Elina Brotherus a inventé d'autres façons de suggérer qu'il vaut mieux ne pas prendre ses photos au pied de la lettre, si l'on peut dire. Elles révèlent, à des taux variables, une dose d'incongruité, d'autodérision, de parodie ou de citation. Quand la série se nomme " Etudes d'après modèle ", elle joue avec l'histoire du dessin – Ingres, Degas, Balthus – et celle de la photo – Stieglitz, Weston, Rheims. Quand elle s'appelle Horizons, le romantisme dit nordique en est l'objet : neiges, glaces, sapinières, lacs, crépuscules. De Caspar David Friedrich à Edvard Munch, la gamme des allusions est étendue.

Se baigner nue dans un torrent probablement glacial, tenir dans ses bras un basset dans un sous-bois, vêtue d'une tunique verte, sont des symboles légèrement burlesques de l'amour panthéiste – ou plus modestement écolo – de la nature vierge. L'infini de l'océan ou de la banquise : clichés éculés que le tourisme ne cesse cependant de vendre et revendre. D'une aiguille presque invisible, Brotherus crève les lieux communs après les avoir gonflés. Le titre de l'une de ses séries récentes est " Carpe Fucking Diem ", mélange désinvolte de latin et d'anglais.

Distance entre image et sujet

Plus cru et dur est le traitement qu'elle fait subir à d'autres clichés actuels, ceux de la vie intime. La série " Annonciation " a pour sujet l'impossibilité vécue par l'artiste d'être mère. Elle aurait pu en faire un récit douloureux, comme Nan Goldin de 1981 à 1996 dans " The Ballad of Sexual Dependency ", celui de l'amour au temps du sida, avec pour règle unique celle de tout montrer. Devenue référence, " The Ballad " a suscité des imitations innombrables, dont beaucoup sont tombées dans le stéréotype sexuel.

Dans " Annonciation ", Brotherus affecte d'abord de suivre cette mode. Mais la construction des images par les lignes des portes, des meubles et des carrelages, les poses de l'artiste prises dans le répertoire trop classique de la mélancolie et de l'affliction, la neutralité agaçante de son expression et les réminiscences de la peinture hollandaise du XVIIe  siècle établissent une distance de plus en plus grande entre l'image et son sujet. Dans chacune de ces photos, si limpides à première vue, se révèle une réflexion sans illusion sur ce que c'est aujourd'hui une image, sa fabrication et sa duplicité. Sous la beauté, il y a le doute.

Philippe Dagen
© Le Monde

http://www.lemonde.fr/arts/article/2016/08/20/la-beaute-distanciee-des-images-d-elina-brotherus_4985343_1655012.html

Broderies sur soi - Libération

Par Clémentine Mercier Envoyée spéciale à Montpellier

Photo. Rencontre avec l’artiste finlandaise dont les superbes séries d’autoportraits, réalisées sur près de vingt ans, font l’objet d’une vaste rétrospective à Montpellier.

S’il fallait situer Elina Brotherus sur une cartographie imaginaire et la décrire un tant soit peu, ce serait difficile, tant elle se loge dans un entre-deux. Entre deux rives, entre deux pays, entre deux âges, entre deux coupes de cheveux, etc. Le jour du vernissage de son exposition au Pavillon populaire de Montpellier (Hérault), l’artiste arbore une coiffure tout à fait surprenante : hésitation entre un carré blond court de face et des cheveux longs derrière, elle ne sait pas elle-même ce que cette hybridation capillaire veut dire.

Née en 1972 à Helsinki, en Finlande, vivant à moitié en France et à moitié dans son pays d’origine, elle pratique un art à la croisée des chemins entre photographie, peinture et performance, tournoyant en grands mouvements concentriques autour d’un seul sujet : elle- même. Sur toutes ses photographies, on ne voit ainsi qu’elle. Et quand elle n’y est pas, elle crée du vide, brillant par son absence. De temps en temps, un amoureux, des amis danseurs ou un teckel apparaissent dans le cadre. Ils ne font que renforcer la présence de l’auteure à travers ses multiples moi, avatars ou modèles d’elle-même. Ce miroir diffracté d’occurrences d’Elina Brotherus pourrait lasser. Il n’en est rien. Sur toutes les images, on la retrouve, et elle n’est jamais tout à fait la même, jamais tout à fait une autre non plus. «La Lumière venue du nord», exposition de plus de 180 photographies, fait le point, à mi-carrière, sur une trajectoire singulière. Et tout l’enjeu de cette exposition est de deviner quel «je» nous montre l’artiste toute à son jeu avec l’objectif et le spectateur.

Reflet positif

Le parcours est chronologique. Il commence en 1998 avec, déjà, des autoportraits. En justaucorps rayé, Elina Brotherus, 26 ans, les bras en couronne et le pied sur le déclencheur, esquisse une figure de danse classique, imitant une danseuse à ses côtés, double d’elle-même. Sur une deuxième photo, elle est de profil et la regarde, pantin face à son modèle. «Avec cette danseuse qui est devenue une amie, on se ressemble, elle est très expressive, avec un visage intéressant à regarder. Je l’admire mais elle ne représente aucunement la beauté classique.» Ces photos étonnantes, pleines d’humour et peu connues, contiennent déjà le projet artistique : la recherche de la beauté à travers l’idéal classique et la mise en scène de soi. «Je n’ai jamais pensé que j’étais belle. J’ai même toujours été complexée par rapport à l’idéal de la beauté, disons, américaine. J’ai toujours trouvé que j’étais un peu étrange. Mon corps et mon visage ne sont pas comme ceux de la presse féminine.»

A côté de ces premiers autoportraits avec une danseuse, on trouve des autoportraits, dont un peint au mur : dans la mise en abyme de soi, Elina Brotherus a trouvé un nichoir. Très vite, ses premiers pas sont suivis en France. Encore étudiante à l’Ecole d’arts, de design et d’architecture de l’université d’Aalto, elle obtient en 1999 une résidence du musée Nicéphore-Niépce, à Chalon-sur-Saône (Saône-et-Loire). «En France, on m’a prise au sérieux.» Elle s’installe en Bourgogne pendant trois mois et entame une «Suite française», série qu’elle reprendra douze ans plus tard pour «Suite française II».

Sur ces autoportraits juvéniles et espiègles, elle met en scène sa méthode pour apprendre le français. Elle colle des post-it sur le mobilier pour retenir le vocabulaire : le vélo, la brosse à dent, la glace, la prise, le savon, le démaquillant... A l’extérieur, en béret basque, elle vole «le vélo du curé» et le confesse à son appareil photo, sur un petit carré de papier jaune autocollant. Aujourd’hui, elle parle très bien le français et vit une partie de l’année à Avallon (Yonne), à 120 kilomètres de Chalon-sur-Saône. Dans les premières salles, on suit ses débuts : premiers pas sur une terre d’adoption, premiers pas en photographie, premières peines d’amour. Dans «le Miroir» (2000-2001), elle se regarde dans une glace de salle de bains et son visage apparaît petit à petit à travers la buée qui s’efface. Elina Brotherus écrit les premiers chapitres de son roman d’apprentissage et la France lui renvoie un reflet positif.

De son enfance et son adolescence en Finlande, elle garde des souvenirs douloureux. «Je suis orpheline ; j’ai perdu mon père à 9 ans et ma mère quatre ans plus tard. Je n’ai jamais eu le regard bienveillant d’un père qui aide sa fille à grandir. Et la perte de ma mère est la pire chose qui me soit arrivée. Je l’ai perdue à l’âge où l’on a besoin de sa mère pour trouver sa place dans la vie et se comporter en tant que femme dans le monde. La plus jeune sœur de ma mère m’a recueillie pendant un an puis elle m’a envoyée chez mes grands-parents. Mon adolescence a été marquée par de très mauvaises relations avec les gens qui devaient soi- disant m’élever.»

Elle a depuis peu un atelier à Helsinki où elle revient régulièrement, le cœur entre deux pays. En France, elle pense à la Finlande, surtout l’été quand elle manque la cueillette des myrtilles sauvages, véritable rituel national. Une fois en Finlande, elle idéalise la France et ses bons côtés, le beau temps, le bon vin, les gens bien élevés car «nous, les Finlandais, nous sommes un peu des ours». Dans une petite salle, on découvre une de ses dernières séries, réalisée en 2015 dans la maison Louis Carré - aujourd’hui inhabitée, elle fut construite dans les années 50 selon les plans de l’architecte finlandais Alvar Aalto. Elina Brotherus y a vécu seule pendant trois jours et y a joué le rôle de femmes anonymes, blondes sans sourire en adéquation avec ce décor intérieur scandinave. Sur ces photos, ce sont des femmes imaginaires sur une scène de théâtre.

«Automatisme»

Ailleurs, c’est elle, la vraie Elina Brotherus. Au premier étage, dans la série «Annonciation», l’artiste raconte en image sa stérilité et ses traitements pour avoir un enfant : grossie, amaigrie, se faisant des piqûres, photographiant ses médicaments et la cuvette des toilettes, le désir d’enfant a raison de son corps de nymphe. A la fin, c’est un échec, pas de bébé et Elina Brotherus adopte un chien. Le petit teckel dans les bras, elle fait un doigt d’honneur à l’objectif et crie à l’intérieur d’elle-même, la bouche fermée : My Dog Is Cuter Than Your Ugly Baby, 2013 («Mon chien est plus mignon que votre bébé moche»), dans la série «Carpe Fucking Diem».

Au cœur de l’exposition, dans la grande salle du Pavillon populaire, des tirages grands formats de portraits et de paysages s’assemblent avec grâce. Rivages, forêts, cours d’eau, sources, lagunes glacières, scintillent de couleurs tendres. La photographe curieuse et avide de nouveaux paysages furète. Quand elle repère un panorama, elle s’arrête au bord de l’eau pour se prendre en photo. Nue, elle se couche dans l’herbe fraîche, trempe ses pieds dans une rivière. Habillée, elle contemple le paysage. Voyageant seule, dryade saltimbanque, elle emporte dans le coffre de sa voiture une valise pleine de vieux vêtements, un appareil photo et un pied. Des déclencheurs pneumatiques aussi. Elle met tout en place avant d’appuyer sur le déclencheur. «Ma manière de travailler est très simple, elle est visuelle. Trouver l’image, cela passe par l’œil, il n’y a pas d’étape de dessin préalable. Mon travail, c’est de la performance pour la caméra et les œuvres sont les photos. C’est un prétexte pour me photographier encore et encore. Je cherche toujours comment je peux faire encore une photo de moi. C’est devenu un automatisme.»

Dans Model Study 23 (2008), elle rejoue Narcisse qui contemple son visage dans l’eau. Son corps est un «outil de travail» qu’elle n’entretient pas particulièrement, appréciant la bonne chère. «Quand j’interroge le rôle du modèle dans l’histoire de l’art, mon corps devient un modèle, comme pour un peintre.» Dans l’entrée, The Black Bay Sequence (2010) est une boucle vidéo projetée sur un grand mur. Filmée de dos, face à une étendue liquide, l’artiste nue pénètre l’eau. Immergée dans le lac Mustalahti, au cœur de la Finlande, elle effectue quelques mouvements de brasse puis ressort, aussi vite qu’elle y est entrée. Parfois sous la pluie, dans une lumière crépusculaire ou dans un soleil rasant, elle est naïade et sirène, tout entière livrée au paysage. «J’adore les peintures de baigneurs», commente-t-elle.

Écriture intime

Cette nage de l’artiste, où la photographe fait offrande de son corps à l’élément liquide, rappelle la tradition du bain scandinave dans l’eau glacée après le sauna. Mais dans le cas Brotherus, le rituel évoque les baigneurs de Paul Cézanne, d’Henri Matisse, les baigneuses de Picasso ou de Renoir. «Toutes mes photos font référence à l’art, sauf celles qui sont purement autobiographiques. Je me réfère à des iconographies comme Pierre Bonnard ou Caspar David Friedrich.» Elle désigne Model Study 15 (2004), une vue de son dos, un tissu noué autour de la taille et le pied droit dans la mai : «Cette pose-là, je l’ai piquée à Puvis de Chavanne». La lumière venue du nord est celle choisie par les artistes pour l’orientation de leurs ateliers. Celui d’Elina Brotherus est à ciel ouvert. A la fois présente et insaisissable, devant et derrière l’appareil, elle trouve refuge dans cet espace ténu entre photographie et peinture, écriture intime et universelle. S’ils participent à l’élucidation de soi, ses autoportraits sont tout le contraire de la photographie d’identité, tant son mystère demeure presque inentamé. Femme faune, au rythme des saisons, Elina Brotherus pratique la pose toujours en mouvement, sur le mode de la fugue.

Clémentine Mercier Envoyée spéciale à Montpellier

Elina Brotherus : La Lumière venue du Nord 1997-2015 - Pavillon populaire, Espace d’art photographique, esplanade Charles-de-Gaulle, Montpellier (34). Jusqu’au 25 septembre.

http://next.liberation.fr/arts/2016/08/07/elina-brotherus-broderies-sur-soi_1470778

The Double Perspective - Gilles Mora

By Gilles Mora. Translated from French by Damien Rembert.

Published in Elina Brotherus : La lumière venue du nord / The Light from the North, Photographies/Photographs 1998-2015, Hazan et Le Pavillon populaire, Montpellier 2016.

Gilles Mora is the artistic director of the Pavillon Populaire and the curator of Elina Brotherus' exhibition The Light from the North.



We are so used to the many forms of contemporary photography that give way to playfulness or superficiality that being introduced to the work of Finnish photographer Elina Brotherus seems purifying and leaves us, in a way, speechless. How is it still possible for one to go further, we wonder, with such determination and success, beyond the usual conventions of coloured prints, large formats, staging the self, devices that are nowadays used as excuses for fake egotist confidences or the most complacent visual stagnations, to focus on a double quest: discovering the self, mastering beauty. This mission would suffice to exhaust a lifetime of creation: 44-year-old Elina Brotherus has been carrying it out, until now, mixing — with incredible success — the self and its image, the image as an experience, the experience as an image.

Brotherus’ photographs belong, without a doubt, to the galaxy of the ones made by photographers of her generation. At first sight, looking at them individually, or gathered without any leads other than their visual kinship to other photographs that on the surface bear some resemblance (such as the works of photographers known as the Helsinki School1 or the work of German photographer Bastienne Schmidt), there is no difference from this group, or it is minimal, to the extent that many of these productions seem to be interchangeable2. This contemporary photography — that fills galleries, institutional commissions, public and private collections — can easily be mapped: staging the self (following the now canonical model set by Cindy Sherman and a few others), mandatory references to painting and its history, scrutinising documentary recordings, owing to the highly descriptive resolution of large format, along with colour prints of a similar size, architectural or urban spaces of our times. The voyeuristic drive for unleashed autobiography regarding sexual marginality or intimate epics similar to literary autofiction, the commercialist tendencies of which have been illustrated by writers such as Christine Angot in France. There are, in the midst of these, a few conceptual novelties that place the photograph at the service of the installation or museums suspected of placing the visitors in a state of creative interactivity. Elina Brotherus regulates the drives of her work between two poles: highly autobiographical self-portraits and landscapes, in a successful reconfiguration of what she admires most in painterly tradition. In short, even if it does not seem new, between art and life, entwined through photography, in a way that is needed and convincing. There is an imperative without concession that she expresses this way: “I guess this is the essence of it all: light and beauty.3

The evolution of Elina Brotherus’ photographic work, that started some 20 years ago, followed a simple trajectory. It was initially built around her personal life — failed marriage, divorce, an artist residency in France, in 1999 (at the invitation of the museum Nicéphore-Niépce in Chalon-sur-Saône, leading to her Suites françaises), changed direction, from the year 2000, going towards more formal preoccupations, on the relationships between landscape and painting (The New Painting series, 2000-2004). It was followed by a group of interrogations regarding the position of her person, at the same time subject and model, that pushed Brotherus towards photographs in which she puts herself in perspective using her own image, other models (especially professional dancers)4, and different environments. Without adopting a cold conceptual position, the creation of series on the theme of the figure allowed Brotherus to cover, as always with a great formal elegance, a group of photography problems on the changing points of view generated by the positions, whether they are the same person or not, of artist and model(s). Once more, self-portrait seems to impose itself on Brotherus, through these serial practices, not as a simple narrative or introspective device any more, but more like an element of visual thinking following the presence of the artist’s body in the photograph generated around her figure, now a reflecting form, or simply reflected.

Seemingly going back to what she had done before, but really going forwards in her process to understand herself, for the last few years Elina Brotherus’ practice has been even more autobiographical. Following serious health issues (and her incurable infertility), that she narrates with sincerity, often indirectly, she began working on the series titled Annonciation (2009-2013). It led to a new photographic freedom, from which Elina Brotherus, while never betraying her visual idiolect, self-portrait5, is playing with the hedonistic Carpe Fucking Diem attitude. The book and the photographs that resulted from 2011 onwards6 are the result of the experience accumulated throughout Brotherus’ whole work: beyond the artificial aspects of the project, its artistic conventions, photography is still celebrating daily life in every aspect (existential, aesthetic, narrative, oneiric...), beginning a return to the autobiographical documentary of her beginnings, as in the works Love bites (1999, p. 133) or I hate sex. (1998, p. 135). But it never refers to the “trash photography” movement that is so characteristic of American Nan Goldin, or Swedish artist JH Engström, although Brotherus admires his books. While they never clearly establish a hierarchy between good and bad photographs, as only intensity matters, Brotherus never loses sight of the rigorous composition of her photographs, treating them like paintings.
It seems Elina Brotherus is in the position described by Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz in his Diary: “I do not know where the work will lead me but wherever it leads me I have to express myself and satisfy myself [...]. As all of this is a game of compensation: the [...] more [...] inventive, unpredictable [...] you are, the more sober, controlled and responsible you must be7. A struggle between the inner logic of the work and [the] person. [...] Out of this wrestling is born a third thing, something indirect, [...] something that is neither pure form nor my direct expression, but a deformation born in an intermediary sphere”8 says Gombrowicz. The double perspective in which Brotherus’ aesthetic is situated, internal focalisation (the introspective, intimate part of her work), and external focalisation (Brotherus as a figure in the midst of other figures, other shapes) brings tension and have to be balanced while carrying out her projects... The Annonciation series successfully went beyond those two approaches. Brotherus lets us see herself in the most intimate way, without revealing herself too much, as maternity was denied to her. And, at the same time, she is looking at herself (that is to say she stages herself, gives herself a visual structure) as a formal element of this story, studying not only the relationship of her body to the other elements of the picture, but also the archaeology of the image, its connections, references, discrete or direct allusions, to the history of painting. The Annunciation, an essential theme of religious visual art, with strong connotations, is thus turned into the thematic induction through which Elina Brotherus tells us of the hardest years of her life, as in a mourning diary. Beyond any religious references, that are not part of her preoccupations, the artist exposes her intimate self, while modestly distancing it, through special codes and poses.

Mediating reality or life through painterly reference is not something only Brotherus does. This became, in contemporary aesthetic practices, a conceptual device used to question the image, its perception, or even the image of perception. The work of Swedish artist Matts Leiderstam, in many ways, is similar to Elina Brotherus’, especially in the way she puts Western painting in perspective in relation to landscapes. It is nonetheless distinct on one point. While the Swedish artist favours a very elaborate conceptuality through a complex play of installations, in which the reference to painting is always embodied in a way that is almost pedagogic, Brotherus is more elegant and only gives hints. She is not concerned with the device so much as its effect. More than the painterly process, she constantly refers to its impact on the photograph. If she considers it a “New Painting”, it is because one medium is imbued with the other, the very way a child learning how to speak will adopt the language structures that surround him to finalise his own language. Elina Brotherus does not repeat the painting (an unforgivable fault for any pictorialist photography): she carries on into her photography some aspects of the painting that she has assimilated, when she is amazed with its beauty. The pleasure she finds in this is generously carried on to the audience, when, faced with Brotherus’ photographs, they decipher the allusions to the pictorial universe she refers to. Even with the few clues she has given (Caspar David Friedrich, of course, Claude Lorrain’s classical landscapes, Paul Cézanne’s bathers, Mark Rothko’s colour fields, or the wonderful golden light she borrowed from Finnish paintings, by Ellen Thesleff or Magnus Enckell), the outsider’s gaze can find its own references there. This elegant invitation, this light footed demonstration — barely a hint — of the relationship between Brotherus’ photographs and painting, do not use a forced, demonstrative conceptuality. The echoes from an iconography that have deeply influenced her through various paintings and artists, are also carried out by questioning the perception: how can a photographer make the horizon theirs, as painters do, by raising or lowering its line (her series of Horizons, taken between 2000 and 2002, show that most rigorously), while using the versatility of lights, of ridges in the landscapes, of their positions? How are musical occurrences to be treated, when they are transposed in the domain of images (Large de vue, Hommage à Erik Satie, 2006, a true serial suite), by playing on synaesthesia, correspondences between colours and shapes, reminiscent of Baudelaire?

One of her most famous photographs (“Der Wanderer 2”, 2004, p. 99) summarises by itself the way Brotherus can take ownership of the romantic images of painter Caspar David Friedrich, beginning with his famous painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818) or his Woman at a Window (1822), a pose that has been repeated in many variations by the photographer, where the model only shows her back, which became a sort of new norm9 that many epigones of Elina Brotherus have now adopted. These hints at genres that belong to painting (the sublime, everyday life...), these compositional codes, the gesturing used by Brotherus when she stages herself, are not simply a crafty copy of iconography seen through art history. In addition to indicating, beyond their reference, that they inevitably are a part of the photographic medium (lack of texture, maximal definition, redistributing the perspectives and colours using analogue and digital techniques) they underline the attempt to condense meaning through images, which is very characteristic of contemporary photography. This protocol short-circuits the traditional immediacy, the famous “ripping out” of the real to which this medium has been confined to for a long time. Elina Brotherus pushes forward the reflection on the relation- ships of painting and photography from the point where an artist like Aaron Siskind had already pushed it. For the American artist, photography rivals painting in its observation of motionless, out of context shapes that are reconfigured, thanks to the two-dimensional specificities of the camera lens. Brotherus, as many artists of her generation, does not subscribe to that quite abstract approach. Photography or video, that she also practices, interpret, for her personal use, the open index of cultural codes (settings, characters, poses, lights), selected through the filter of histories of painting10. And, for Brotherus, the reconstitution effect, the slowness that it calls for and that she favours, in tune with her meditative nature, borrow as much from painting and from the great primitives of photography of the 19th Century, like Swedish artist Oscar Gustav Rejlander, Gustave Le Gray and many others.

From all of this emerges a coherent group of photographs, the portrait of the young woman, Elina Brotherus, who we have been following for almost 20 years through her transformations, from the naivety of her beginnings, to the melancholy and depressive states, along with some episodes of high spirits. Her face, her body that she presents us through the protocol of her staged photographs and self-portraits, allowing us, at our discretion, to observe the modifications, the subtle ageing, with an impressive and very contemporary good taste; she could have been, if her aesthetic ambitions had not been so demanding, an essential figure of design or fashion photography, her clothes, her gesturing, the architectural or natural settings she inhabits11, manage to bind the spectator and the character that she presents, without narcissistic excess, in a state of happy complicity sharing the events of her life and her instinctive understanding of beauty. And suddenly, in one of the last self-portraits of the Carpe Fucking Diem series (“My Dog is Cuter Than Your Ugly Baby”, 2013, p. 47), in which, with a finger, she mimes that unexpected rude gesture, exhibiting her dog Marcello in her other arm, instead of the child she cannot have, tearing apart with one painful provocation the euphoric pact that she had maintained with us, the spectators, who had become, over the years, her accomplices, her confidants. This provocation that is so far from what we imagined of Elina Brotherus, with just one photograph gives gravity to her whole work, something that we could nonetheless sense behind all these photographs: beyond the lights, the obstinate pursuit of beauty met with uncommon success, there is a fissure that gives a deeper meaning to what could have been mistakenly seen simply as a controlled exercise in style carried out by this very gifted contemporary photographer.

Gilles Mora


1. The Helsinki School refers to a group of artists — photographers and videographers — who studied at the Aalto University, School of Arts, Design & Architecture, in Finland. They all share a model of visual creation that was born and taught in the ‘90s, aiming at training students to think the creative act in a new way, but also to teach them how to present, redact, order their aesthetic ideas through the most demanding professional standards that until then the Finnish art scene had been lacking. In photography, the teachings of internationally renowned Arno Rafael Minkkinen influenced three generations of students of the university. Elina Brotherus is part of the third generation. Many exhibitions and publications have put forward the Helsinki School, praising what is regarded as the most productive of the Finnish contemporary photography scene.

2. Especially, in Bastienne Schmidt’s work (her Home Stills series, 2010) and Elina Brotherus’, self portraits with their back turned, chromatic ranges (red dresses for each of them...), the way their bodies are set in interiors or natural landscapes, this same very acute understanding of design...

3. Elina Brotherus. The New Painting, London, Next Level & Creative Scape, 2005, p. 75, interview with Sheyi Antony Bankale.

4. This is the work she produced in 2007, collaborating with 6 dancers of the Opéra de Paris, published under the title: Elina Brotherus. Études d’après modèle, danseurs, Paris, Textuel, 2007.

5. “I wanted to see what happens to me, because the “me” is my tool, it’s a sign in my visual vocabulary. So, if it changes, I want to be able to see that change.” Interview with Ellyn Kail on the Annonciation series, of the 13 January 2016, available at the following address: http://www.featureshoot.com/ 2016/01/carpe-fucking-diem-one-photographers- courageous-discussion-of-involuntary-childlessness.

6. Elina Brotherus. Carpe Fucking Diem, Heidelberg and Berlin, Kehrer Verlag, 2015.

7. Witold Gombrowicz, Diary, Vol. 1: 1953-1958, Evanston, IL, Northwestern University Press, 1988, p. 88.

8. Ibid., p. 80.

9. “I love the back. The back is calm, discrete, polite and distant. It doesn’t challenge the spectator as the direct gaze would. [...] The situation invites to contemplation, not confrontation.” Elina Brotherus. The New Painting, op. cit., p. 72.

10. “I went to look for help in painting. Other pictures that I saw in museums and books led to my pictures.” Ibid., p. 74.

11. See her recent series Les Femmes de la Maison Carré, shot in 2015, in the house designed by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. Brotherus stages herself, in tune with the light, the lightness and the fluidity of the volumes and lines of the French building.

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The Rules of the Game - Elina Heikka, Anna-Kaisa Rastenberger

By Elina Heikka and Anna-Kaisa Rastenberger.

Published in Elina Brotherus : La lumière venue du nord / The Light from the North - Photographies/Photographs 1997-2015, Hazan and Le Pavillon Populaire, Montpellier 2016.

Elina Heikka and Anna-Kaisa Rastenberger are respectively director and chief curator at the Finnish Museum of photography, Helsinki.



This interview is based on a conversation that took place in Elina Brotherus’ home in Helsinki on 6th March 2016.

Anna-Kaisa Rastenberger (AKR): What does this retrospective mean for you?

Elina Brotherus (EB): This word is rather pompous, it sounds like a joke – I would rather really not use it. But Gilles Mora, who curated the exhibition, wanted to display my most recent photographs along with some of my first works. My first exhibition was with Finnish photographer Andrei Lajunen in 1998 after I graduated, some 18 years ago this year.

Elina Heikka (EH): So this is a mid-career retrospective. This is quite usual, isn’t it, at this point, after 20 years of artistic work?

EB: I would rather be a young artist than halfway through my career, because when you are young, you have fun and everything is in front of you. You can still be discovered. Youth is looked up to nowadays. When you’re 40 and over, you become invisible – no one is looking at you in the street. In a way, I feel nostalgic but at the same time, I’m still curious. This is how the mind of an artist works - endlessly producing new thoughts and ideas that seem interesting and that you want to put into practice.

AKR: Looking at the series you have produced throughout the years, I notice a cyclical aspect, same themes and same pictorial motifs, and an idea of recurrence. A retrospective offers the opportunity to highlight visual vocabularies and strategies.

EB: You don’t even notice it yourself at the time, especially in the beginning. Ideas appear from outer space and you create art with an extreme naivety, in a way.

EH: It takes a large corpus of work for its inner integrity to become noticeable.

EB: I became aware of it for the first time when working on the book Artist and Her Model (2012). I wanted to deconstruct the chronology and proceed by thematic and formal juxtapositions. I realised that I had taken photographs with a dancer in 1998, and that in 2007 I was working with dancers of the Paris Opera. The first time, you deal with the subject innocently. The second time, you understand that it is especially interesting to you, but you don’t remember that you have already worked on it. In the end, when enough time has passed, you want to do it again to see in what way it would be different from the previous attempts. In the series 12 ans après (2011-2013), I went back to the places of my artist residency in 1999, in Chalon-sur-Saône, to my French roots. I wanted to photograph the same bedrooms and the same landscapes in order to suggest the passage of time through showing what has changed and what has not.

Playing adult

AKR: You use yourself as a model in your photographs. You reuse the same figure, with small variations, which makes it function as a recognisable sign. But you have used it so often that its signification is totally different from what it was the first time.

EB: I repeat the same thing for as long as possible. I become attached to one motif at a time, for example a figure seen from the back in a landscape. I wonder how many times I can show a character looking at a landscape before it is too much. Or what variants I could invent, have them face forward or add a second person maybe. After a few years, you can compare the first and the last photographs. Time travel is made real. When you are young, you can’t even imagine that a time will come when you can look back and compare what you have done at different times.

AKR: This comparison might imply an empathy for the past. Returning to a time when you did not know what life would bring to you.

EB: And you can even look back with a certain amusement.

AKR: I have been really moved by the way your series Das Mädchen sprach von Liebe (1997-1999) and Annonciation (2009-2013) deal with parenthood and generational transmission. Putting the old and the new series in parallel creates a strong experience that comes from knowing them both. In the early series, you photographed yourself wearing your parents’ wedding clothes and your mother's funeral dress. You treated your parents' absence from the standpoint of the child. The Annonciation series illustrates in a very personal way the topic of childlessness. You now have the role of the parent, but the absence is still there, yet this time the child is absent.

EB: The perspective is inverted. Before, I was a child mourning her dead parents, and now I am the one who never became a parent and is mourning the absent child. On the other hand - because I have no children, I will never be totally adult either.
I am an artist, which allows one to do crazy things, contrary to ‘proper adults’. The older I get, the more I play. The things I’m most interested in at the moment can be done with lightness and humour, even though my work also has a serious side. This is the very essence of a game: you determine crazy rules, then you follow them.

AKR: Indeed, there must always be rules in a game. The crazier, the better. And the rules also define the world of the game.

EB: The rules can be very simple, for example a place and a defined time span: the Maison Louis Carré outside Paris, designed by Alvar Aalto, where I went to play for two days and a half in May 2015. The night before, I rushed and shoved clothes in my suitcase, including my grandmother’s dresses from the 60s and my gym suit. I had been told where to get off the train. The guide was waiting for me there, led me to the house and gave me the keys. She showed me the kitchen, where to find bed sheets and towels, I said "Salut" and locked the door. I couldn’t wait to be alone, to begin my obsessive but amusing work.

EH: Playing and art-making have that in common, you totally immerse yourself in them.

Autofiction

AKR: In your first works, it is hard to know if you’re playing with life in your art or with art in your life. Recently, you returned to autobiographical themes. But in between, you have worked on landscape and art historical issues. What do you think of the relationship between life and art?

EB: I think that art follows life, or that life guides art. What happens in my daily life impacts my work. In the beginning, when I was still an art student, I did autobiographical photography because there were events occurring in my life that I had to process. Such as my parents’ deaths, my marriage and my divorce. Then I got interested in art history, which is natural, because I had just graduated and started to travel and to visit museums. I was assembling an iconographic stock for myself by studying the works that were an inspiration to me as an artist, and reacted to them. Later I turned to the relationship between artist and model: who is the model? Who is looking at who? What happens when the model looks back at the artist? This topic kept me busy for a long time. Then I turned 40 and life became complicated. The autobiography returned. I did not decide that but I didn’t fight it back either. My strategy as an artist is to let the images come, without getting in their way. It’s like a spiral: I come back to the beginning, but not exactly, because there is some distance between the starting point and the arrival point.

AKR: You have an extraordinary way of demystifying things. One of the most classical topics in art history is the relationship between autobiographical elements and their visual representation.

EB: I often had to talk about this when I produced series like The New Painting (2000-2004) or Model Studies (2002-2008). Everybody could see that it was me on the photographs. Lots of people thought that I was still telling the story of my life, but I always insisted that I wasn’t. To be totally honest, I can now state that my photographs do say something about me: I was in those places and I picked them for personal reasons – even if I try to pretend that a photograph is nothing but a photograph.

AKR: You have often said that this recognisable figure in your photographs is like a word in your artistic vocabulary. I find this to be an interesting idea, considering the countless times the nude female body has been represented and analysed in art. If we consider your body as a word with a meaning that is always changing a little depending on the context, your character is perceived differently than if it was mainly considered as the shape of a woman’s body or the battlefield of values and expectations.

EB: Rather than seeing my figure as a word, I would like to think of it as a polysemic sign, some kind of icon, that can be recognised but has more than one meaning. It can mean something one day, and something else the day after.

EH: When the artist engages painful topics, it’s easier to imagine that the work is autobiographical.

EB: In such case, it is also more honest to say that it is autobiographical, that it reflects something that happened to me, but that I am aware has happened to many others too. I also see my Annonciation series as the peer support that I didn't get when undergoing years of infertility treatment that every time ended up in disaster. For the public, stories of infertility always have a happy end: as difficult as it was, it was worth it because in the end we went home with a baby. But in reality this is the case for only 25% of the treatments. I think people should know that 75% of treatments do not lead to a child being born. I am surprised to see how taboo this subject is in our society. I have received more feedback for this series than any other work. My intervention was clearly needed.

Nevertheless, when working on the book Carpe Fucking Diem (2015), I decided not to include any text. Nothing felt adequate, because a text would bind the pictures too strongly to a given meaning. The way it is, you can also stay on the surface and look at the photographs just as photographs, you’re not forced into a story. I was lucky to meet the Dutch graphic designer Teun van der Heijden. I meant the book to only include the Annonciation series, but Teun insisted that the beginning and the end of the book should be open, with plenty of images before and after.

EH: I often react to your work in a very emotional way. Can you personally identify the emotions behind your photographs? Or rather, do you associate a special emotion with each photograph?

EB: It depends. Personally, I see a clear difference between my autobiographical photographs, for which I know the emotion in question, and the other ones where I appear as a model. In the latter, there is not necessarily any emotion that I could identify. It's about composing a picture with a human figure in a space, and it can represent anything you want. That’s what’s fun. The pictures allow all kinds of readings. When setting them up, I am the Mad Hatter and the Alice in Wonderland at the same time. It’s strange, a little surreal.

AKR: In the series Annonciation and Carpe Fucking Diem (2011-2015), alongside carefully composed photographs, you introduced an iconography related to spontaneous snapshots. Going from one genre to the other creates different levels and modes of treating emotions. You add to the autobiographical aspect also through the transient quality of the snapshot. We feel that the photographs refer to a personal daily life, precisely because of the instantaneousness that is specific to snapshots.‬

EH: We might also be looking at emotions that are still quite unprocessed.

EB: This is the very essence of the snapshot, isn't it, you are taking a photograph at the time when everything is happening, and you can’t see yet what it is…

AKR: … or what the meaning of this instant will be.

Landscape

EH: You say you never use an assistant, even for your landscape photographs. Instead you use a long cable release, or you run to be in the frame within the 20 seconds of the electronic self-timer. Even when shooting a landscape, most of the time you put somebody in the picture. What is the role of pure landscapes in your work?

EB: It might be physically impossible to introduce a character in some landscapes. If I want to photograph the horizon for example, the camera angle might be such that only my head would be visible at the bottom of the frame. Yet I feel many landscapes need a human presence - or are made more interesting thanks to it.

AKR: The human figure gives the viewer someone to relate to or a companion to share with.

EB: The gaze is also made more concrete: here is the view that I have chosen to look at. Welcome to join in. Sometimes a plain landscape is enough, if it has something special. But what? Often the landscapes I find interesting in themselves, empty and pure, are geometrically simple. The subject matter may be the division of the picture plain. In fact it’s extremely hard to work in a rectangle. Symmetry is the most obvious way to construct the image, and you need a good reason to deviate from it.

AKR: In what way does working indoors or outdoors impact your photographs?

EB: I never work in the studio, by this I mean the closed and empty photographic studio with large lighting equipment. I prefer real places, where I frame the photograph by choosing where to place my camera and sometimes moving a few objects. There are not great spots everywhere outdoors, so it takes a lot of footwork. I like riding a bicycle, or walking, or I look at maps. If a place looks interesting on the map, I go there. My eyes crave novelty. I get bored easily and seeing the same streets all the time dulls the mind. I always get excited when discovering new places.

AKR: What pushed you to work with moving image?

EB: I have always made videos, and always been interested in them. I first tested, a long time ago, shooting still images and video of the same subject matter, a mirror on which the reflection of a face appears as the mist fades away. I noticed a big difference. The stills are like tableaux, while the video is more real – it’s harder to watch. The moving image lacks the detachment introduced by a frame hanging on a wall.

EH: In what way is the moving image harder to watch?

EB: It is so realistic. I think there is less realism in photography than in moving image. In the latter, the dimension of time has a concrete existence, it shows processes. Also sound and silence play important roles. To get on with one's artistic work smoothly, it can be beneficial to look at same thematics in two different ways. I was not trained in cinema, and that's why it's easy to work with it lightly, playfully – because I do not know how it “should” be done and what the conventions are.

Non-standard

EH: Your works are often considered as female art, which is strange considering that your art is not problematizing gender. I don’t feel as if you’re dealing with questions revolving around femininity in particular.

EB: The so-called feminine iconography feels foreign to me. I don't go around thinking every day that I’m a woman and someone else is a man. I am not interested in it and that is not a question I meditate on. Reality, for me, is what I see. The reality of the body is irrelevant.

AKR: Despite what you are saying, I think it is really beneficial for many young talents that you are a role model, a woman photographer, even though it is not the central theme of your work – or maybe for that very reason. And although you yourself consider your gender irrelevant, it might not be the same for the viewer. Inevitably, some signs are more charged than others, and a naked female body is still a very charged one.

EH: And – obviously – the appearance of the body that we choose to use as a sign also has an impact on the photographs.

EB: That’s probably true. If it looked like the American ideal…

EH: …then it would be easier to interpret it as a comment on womanhood.

EB: And there’s also the fact that I find myself totally ok. I remember the first time I made a self-portrait in my student times: a nude that I meant to use in my visit card. When I saw the contact print, I thought: oh my god, I can't use this, this is too awful: skinny and bony, small breasts and a peculiar face, really non-standard. I was 24 at the time. Nowadays, I couldn't be more comfortable with my appearance. It’s a question of getting used to it, because you’re looking at your own image over and over again. It’s really fortunate.

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