Museum director at The Museum of Religious Art, Christine Løventoft (CL) in conversation with Cathrine Raben Davidsen (CRD)
CL: The exhibition is titled Hybrid, meaning cross or blend. What kind of hybrids do you practise in your art?
CRD: The term hybrid is derived from the Latin hybrida, meaning bastard, referring to something which is illegitimate or a mixture of two different races or breeds. I also regard my works as hybrids because they fuse different historical references, sources, and ideas. My works spring from the present time, but having said that, they also point far back in time. I like that kind of dualism. My hybrid creatures are sort of agents of change addressing our mutual affinities – and our affinity with the surroundings. They are, in a sense, the ancestors of a story taking place right at this moment in time.
CL: When I look at your works, I am overwhelmed by their staggering beauty, but also impressed by the numerous references to the art of the past while, at the same time, you manage to give your works a modern expression. Would you care to describe your artistic journey or source of inspiration that precipitated this expression?
CRD: I think it’s extremely interesting to ponder over the kind of pictures that represent our world today. In a sense, the role of an artist is a response to what’s happening in the world. We translate both conceptual information, ideas, and perceptions while, as an artist, you’re continually in touch with (art) history. But I also believe it’s important for contemporary art to reference the time in which we live. As long as we exist, the here and now will continue, but art does not only mirror its own time – art is also timeless. It’s an interesting idea since people have such a strong tendency to be looking ahead. Common to the artists with whom I have an affinity is that they, too, look back. My works should be able to stand alone, and people should be able to interpret them at many different levels: I don’t do art for my own sake. Of course, if people know their history and are aware of what’s going on, or if they know about esoteric matter, many would probably be able to form their own connections when they see my works.
CL: Can you give some examples of esoteric wisdom that has inspired your works?
CRD: The Helena Blavatsky (1831–1891) quote at the beginning of the book is quite telling. She was a theosophist and observed the doctrine of ’There is no religion higher than the truth’. The theosophical system would preferably unite all religions, sects, and nations under a single common ethical system to be based on eternal truths. It’s a beautiful thought. Today, there are lots of philosophical directions which also examine our existence in this world, some of which also place nature on an equal footing with animals and plants and even above man. I can easily relate to this, as back in Plato’s time (427–347 BC), people were already talking about viewing man in a micro- and macrocosmic context. I think that’s extremely fascinating.
CL: So, am I right in thinking that, in reality, your inspiration comes from a lifestyle and philosophy of earlier times, relating them to the challenges we’re facing today such as the climate, for example? On the other hand, there seems to be some sort of wish to dissolve boundaries between the past and the present and between man and nature?
CRD: Well, yes and no. I’ve always been very much into philosophy, and I basically believe that history is a rich source of material, and the great thinkers have always understood the significance of art and creativity. Like them, I’d like us to think about the eternal principles in relation to how we decide to live our lives, to our interpersonal relationships, and to the world around us. We tend not to think about the significance of art. Just think of any civilisation from the past. What has survived, exactly? Art, of course, and it has continued to speak to us because that’s all people left behind – that’s their contribution. I’m trying to understand the great thinkers, those from the past as well as those living today, since what they have in common is that much of their thinking rests on Platonic ideas, which also strived to form a holistic understanding of reality.
CL: Several of your works in the exhibition have titles referring to the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC–AD 17). What is it specifically about Ovid’s stories, or antiquity in general, which moves you, a visual artist, to work with them now?
CRD: The old Greek legends about transformation have always appealed to us. The idea of mythical connections between man, animals, or plants are deeply fascinating, and Ovid’s very early ideas of man’s fusion with nature and the cosmos are still relevant today. I began working with Ovid more than thirty years ago. The first works I did, inspired by Ovid, were some drawings, Heroides, from 2005 based on the so-called ‘Letters of Heroines’ – twenty-one fictitious letters written by mythological women. In these letters, he writes from the perspective of these women’s lives, using their voices to narrate the stories. His approach must have been exceedingly innovative for his time.
CL: There’s a group of works in the exhibition titled Ancestor Hybrid. In one of these drawings, there’s a figure with a human face and a furry animal body.
CRD: Somehow, the hybrid figures exist in a process of constant evolution. They signal an ability to (d)evolve. The idea of humanity co-existing with non-human creatures appeals to me. We depend on one another! This could be what these works allude to.
CL: In many portrayals of Daphne from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, she’s pictured being chased by Apollo and in the process of being transformed into a laurel tree. In one of your paintings of Daphne, we see a thoughtful woman, not a fleeing woman, but perhaps the green lines might hint at the moment when she’s transformed and dissolved as a human being, re-emerging as nature?
CRD: Daphne is one of the many mythical figures changed through metamorphosis in Ovid’s writing. Her story of being transformed into a tree to escape the god Apollo’s desire is a very violent one. Her transformation occurs when she can no longer muster sufficient strength to outrun him. After her transformation, Apollo reaches out to touch the trunk of the tree, which shrinks from his touch, but he nevertheless manages to make a laurel wreath from its twigs to be used in rituals in his honour, so she will never escape him despite her transformation from a human being into a creature of nature. My painting of Daphne might well show that very moment.
CL: What exactly would you like to tell us with these works, which basically dismiss the idea of modern man being distinctly separate from the animals?
CRD: Well, I really like the multiple layers. It’s a way of thinking that I subscribe to. Being in nature, we’re faced with something that we can’t quite fathom, something that’s so much greater than us. Our perception of nature has changed over the course of history, since primitive cultures had a far more immediate relationship with nature, seeing themselves and nature as an organic whole. Today, we perceive nature as being separate from us. We’ve lost sight of the fact that we’re dependent on the complex systems of nature, precisely because we’ve pursued a line of thought that has placed man at the centre of everything.
CL: You’ve created large-scale landscapes for the exhibition entitled As above, so below. They feature mountainscapes with water, applying a very distinct boundary between land/earth and water, almost like a reflection of heaven and Earth. What kind of meaning is embodied in the works and their titles?
CRD: As above, so below is a sentence reputedly written by the mythical Greek figure Hermes Trismegistus. It derives from the occult alchemistic text Tabula Smaragdina (The Emerald Tablet), dating from c. AD 800.
As above, so below embodies the idea of the ultimate force behind everything and is about going deeper into both a physical and mental recognition of the origin of everything. The mirroring of light and darkness, Heaven and Earth in my paintings is somehow about discovering the link between the various dimensions and about facilitating an encounter between the material and the spiritual. Today, we can also use the text to help us understand our situation right now. How should we exist in the world, how should we live, and how can we change and learn from our present situation? I believe that the pandemic taught us a lot. We adopted different values. Became aware of our immediate surroundings but also of the significance of nature. Both demand a sense of presence.
CL: Do your landscapes depict specific places?
CRD: No, my landscapes are not ’real’ landscapes. But the source material are my own photos from places I’ve visited. It’s important to me that I know the places I paint. But the landscapes could be any and every landscape. All landscapes merged into one. Landscapes are magic, as we’re faced with something so much greater than ourselves, a place in which we can truly lose ourselves. It embodies everything.
CL: The exhibition is presented at the Museum of Religious Art. In what way do you feel that your works address life’s big questions or religious aspects which, after all, is the museum’s focus area?
CRD: Our part of the world has always entertained the idea that the Earth was entrusted to mankind by God, thus giving us the right to control nature. This is the idea embodied in Genesis in the Bible, where it is written that man is created in the image of God to rule over nature. Placing man at the centre is something we’re taught from our earliest childhood. Different interpretations do exist, of course. Some believe that man was vested with a responsibility to look after nature, and that humans were not only placed on Earth as rulers but rather as shepherds.
CL: So, it might be true to say that your landscapes, in overall terms, relate to Genesis?
CRD: I do believe that we have to abandon our credo of being ’above’ other creatures. It’s a telling characteristic of our time, and the situation we’re in right now forces us to change our entire notion of existence – of the Earth and of society. The philosopher Timothy Morton (b.1968) believes that all creatures are interdependent, pondering that everything in the universe possesses a kind of consciousness, be they algae, plants, and even objects. He asserts that human beings are cyborgs of a kind, since we’re made up of all manner of non-human components, and he takes pleasure in pointing out that precisely the things that ostensibly make us who we are – our DNA – contain significant amounts of genetic material from viruses.
CL: We also show the work The Cross, 2021, featuring the crucified Christ. A very classic motif borne out by solid iconography. I note that although the cross is absent, we’re in no doubt that the hovering figure seemingly addressing the viewer is the crucified Christ. What were your thoughts behind this work?
CRD: Yes, it’s true that I’ve got a small sketch in the exhibition where the arms of the figure form a cross of a kind. We’re so used to seeing a cross that our brains draw their own conclusions at the speed of lightning. The cross is a powerful symbol, but it’s also full of contradictions.
CL: Which contradictions do you associate with the cross?
CRD: To be quite specific, the term cross is derived from the Latin crux, which can also mean contradiction. The cross symbolises Christianity and with it suffering and death but also salvation and resurrection.
CL: Another of your works shows a swan. Are swans special to you?
CRD: The swan is a very personal symbol and I’ve painted quite a few swans in recent years. There’s even a swan on my father’s gravestone. I’ve read Rainer Maria Rilke since I was quite young, and I particularly love the poem where he compares the slightly awkward and faltering walk of a swan to our stumbling progress through life. The swan metaphor is fantastic. Clumsy death yielding to beauty, grace, and liberation. After having ’worked through’ the last things, we can finally let go and slide into the water.
This laboring through what is still undone,
as though, legs bound, we hobbled along the way,
is like the awkward walking of the swan.
And dying-to let go, no longer feel
the solid ground we stand on every day-
is like anxious letting himself fall
into waters, which receive him gently
and which, as though with reverence and joy,
draw back past him in streams on either side;
while, infinitely silent and aware,
in his full majesty and ever more
indifferent, he condescends to glide.
– Rainer Maria Rilke