Beyond the Figure
By Mads Damsbo
August 2009

Reflectively, the faces emerge. At once floating and fixed in the fluid space of the pictures, they calmly take form, absorbed as they are in their surroundings and their own inner spirit. As with any other classic portrait there is a recognition and an exchange between the subject portrayed and the viewer. The personality is manifested in and with the face, but the story does not end there. Like icons from a bygone day, the faces are somewhere between presence and absence, between frank realism and obscure imaginings. And while their gazes lose themselves in the pathless depths of self-reflection, the narrative takes form in the atmospheric colour of the background and the light contour of the body.

Cathrine Raben Davidsen creates images of another world. With her point of departure in the inciting presence of the faces, she strikes up a tale that slowly unfolds in the fine drawing of the figure and the scattered patterns of the colour. Woman as metaphor of the human is the artist’s recurring motif, and the changes, shifts and final metamorphosis in the female figure make up the action and the true drama of the pictures; a drama which, with the artist’s eye for the tight-fitting masks of the cosmetic industry, bears the marks of the present, but whose memories of the female images of the past go back centuries: through the Victorian ladies of the nineteenth century, the sensual princesses of the Renaissance, and all the way back to the fatal demi-goddesses of antiquity, whose sensual shrugs of the shoulders could drive their admirers over the edge of desire and impossible love.

Such an impossible love story is the specific model for this collection and exhibition of Raben Davidsen’s paintings, photos and prints. It is the ancient Greek myth, familiar from Ovid, of the sisters Philomela and Procne, and their ill-starred love triangle with the easily aroused Tereus that has been subjected here to a highly personal contemporary interpretation by the artist. And while the tragic details of the myth are retold in fragments scattered around the pictures, with the metamorphosis of the three main figures into birds as the visual climax, Raben Davidsen’s true purpose is the depiction of the gradual awakening to consciousness of woman followed by the loss and rediscovery of her own voice.


Philomela and Procne

The myth of Philomela and Procne offers all the elements of the classical Greek tragedy: passion, betrayal, murder and final transformation. The myth speaks of the beautiful princesses from Athens, Philomela and Procne, the latter of whom is married off to King Tereus of Thrace. After a few years of separation Procne can no longer bear the loss of her sister and asks Tereus to escort Philomela to her for a visit. However, during the journey Tereus become so attracted to the beautiful Philomela that he cannot restrain himself and rapes her in a cabin in the forest. Philomela, who must at first bear both her sister’s and her own violation, threatens Tereus that she will tell Procne about the outrage, and Tereus sees no other solution than to cut out Philomela’s tongue and lock her up in the cabin so that she cannot tell her tale.

And from then on the story only continues at an even bloodier pace. In the cabin, Philomela, now mute, is able to weave a tapestry that reveals Tereus’ crime, and manages to smuggle it out to her sister. As expected, Procne goes mad with rage, and after releasing Philomela she kills her son by Tereus, Itys, dismembers him and serves him for dinner to her husband, who discovers too late whom he has feasted on. Frantic with rage, Tereus starts a hunt for the two sisters, who flee from the palace for their lives. Only at the last moment do the gods intervene in the story, and transform both the sisters and Tereus into different birds to save the two women: Procne becomes the plaintively singing nightingale, Philomela the mute swallow, and Tereus is transformed for all eternity into the harsh-voiced hoopoe.

Like all Greek myths and legends the story of Philomela and Procne involves a complex of existential messages and meditations over the various stages of human development. In the story we recognize the image of castration in the cut-out tongue, of blood vengeance in the murder of the son, and the actual metamorphosis motif in the transformation of the three main figures into birds, which in the Greek world symbolized the important passage from child to adult; the relationship between sisters as a metaphor for the individual’s mirroring of and observation of the self, and finally the image of the woman’s voice in Philomela’s tapestry, a feature peculiar to Ovid.

Among these many figures and motifs, each of which involves a number of archetypes, Cathrine Raben Davidsen is particularly interested in the relationship between the two sisters and in Philomela’s woven tapestry as an image of the female voice. In the ancient world woman appears, if not as directly incapable of action, at least rarely in a speaking role. Despite the magnificent array of powerful goddesses, the heroines of antiquity are often to be found in the domestic sphere, awaiting their male counterparts and thus reduced to the role of passive partner in the story. And Philomela and Procne are different in this respect. With her tapestry Philomela not only answers the man back, she does so in woman’s own special language – the woven cloth. It is this cloth and this female language to which Raben Davidsen’s title White Ink refers; in itself a reference to recent feminist theory, the title relates to a present-day reflection on the status of woman in the modern world, but also conceives of Philomela’s tapestry as a specific image of the woman’s voice.


The figure and the text

Text and figure represent one of the strongest of complementary relationships, whose origin is lost in remote antiquity long before the Greeks. Before language proper arose, the earliest humans communicated in figures as symbolic images of life around them. And among the Greeks too, the figure was crucial to narrative. The robust heroes and shapely heroines of the myths possessed both intellectual acuity and physical beauty, and this particular ideal came to expression in the innumerable sculptures and literary images of the period. In ancient Greece the naked body, living or as represented in the depicted figure, had divine significance, and precisely this living mixture of spirit and bodily sensuality were characteristic of the Greek view of the figure: the spirit was expressed in the figure, or the body – and the figure was an expression of the spirit.

This balance shifted with Christianity, which condemned the body and glorified the spirit. When Søren Kierkegaard, in his discussion of Don Giovanni, singles out Mozart’s opera as a tribute to sensuality, this is because in Kierkegaard’s eyes sensuality was still repressed in the bourgeois world of the 1840s in favour of language and the rational intellect. For Kierkegaard, Mozart used music to heal the rupture that Christianity had caused in the vital world of the Greeks, where sensuality and spirituality were one. And that was quite a claim in the Copenhagen of the bourgeoisie, where the aristocratic Rococo had not only gone radically out of fashion, but was further associated with amorality and wild abandon in the face of a bourgeois, republican order whose male values were based on the rational meaning of language as against the seductive form of the female figure. No wonder the bourgeois realism of Danish Golden Age art was also very closely associated with literary models and literal meanings.


Towards metamorphosis

Cathrine Raben Davidsen both has the figure weaving in and out of the narrative and the narrative penetrating below and beyond the figure. On the one hand she has given a myth thousands of years old contemporary expression, and delivered a highly personal and original interpretation of the story. On the other she has created an independent gallery of drawn, painted and photographed female figures that leave the imagination free to make up its own self-invented stories.

It is very much an introspective universe, manifested in the visible, that lies before our eyes in Raben Davidsen’ work. The often macabre and eerie figures that balance on the edge of metamorphosis, on their way to becoming birds, or towards a fusion with their own reflection, are dream images rather than real external forms. Unlike Kafka’s modern nightmare, where the protagonist wakes up one day and has turned into a giant insect evoked by the outside world’s view of him, the many strange forms of Raben Davidsen’s two heroines are solely expressions of their internal emotions. In the drawn series of pictures Voice of the Shuttle, which became a book with the same title in 2007, the artist makes an in-depth study of many facets of the myth of Philomela and Procne that are absent from the narrative surface of the tale. Here we find the severed head of the son Itys, the cabin in the forest as a metaphor of the birdcage, and the imprisoned female life as well as the dual face as images of the two women’s shared destiny and latent reflection of each other. Everywhere birds look out from the drawings as disturbing reminders of the tragic and yet redemptive outcome of the story.

For in the final analysis it is this continued progress towards metamorphosis that is at the core of the works, and carries the artistic message of Cathrine Raben Davidsen: metamorphosis as a promise and a fated consequence of the action of the narrative, and transformation as a constant event and state, as a poetic expression of the process of being human – and being a woman. With her original, profoundly personal figures, Raben Davidsen has created an artistic language that refuses to re-enact the female figure as a submissive object of the male gaze, but rather, in the emphasis on transformation and process, brings out the independent and obstinate character of the figure. At the same time the artist insists, with her living line and depth of colour, on the sensuality and intuitive awareness of the female figure, which even in its most fragmentary and suggestive form gives her a degree of seductive, alluring mystique that makes her wonderfully unique to the gaze.


By Mads Damsbo, Director of Brandts Artmuseum, Aarhus, Denmark