Cathrine Raben Davidsen in conversation with Marie Laurberg
On an October day, I meet Cathrine Raben Davidsen in her studio. Under a colonnade in central Copenhagen, I walk from the street straight into a space showcasing ceramics and art objects among flat files of prints. Along the walls and shelves hang and lean paintings in all stages of completion. Piles of art books, clippings from classical and medieval texts, notebooks and big sheets of white paper with organized research notes testify to an artist who works from a variety of sources. While finding inspiration in classical times and Renaissance art, Raben Davidsen is equally engaged with modern painting and the contemporary artists who share her affinities.
We sit down amid it all over coffee served in her own ceramic cups – on each a delicate, little modeled face gazes at the person drinking – to discuss her printmaking. I have followed her art for decades and have always been fascinated by this artist who seems to have found her own way into the visual realm. An artist who stood out in her generation early on and never stood down. Her work is consistent, speaking with a rare and distinctive voice, even as it has changed dramatically over the years.
Across the many media she employs, Raben Davidsen’s work is marked by visual abundance and a captivating play with materials. She is a technical virtuoso, a deft, classically trained craftsperson steeped in materials and techniques. Her work inhabits the borderland between figuration and abstraction with a lightness and depth that only exists where all means, essentially, are at the artist’s disposal. Because she has the skills. She can draw – that’s obvious – and she knows how to harness accident and unleash the rare magic of chemically clashing materials.
Printmaking plays a critical role in Raben Davidsen’s work. Her prints hold the keys to unlocking many of her themes and motifs. Printmaking is an intimate art. Small-scale, fast, closely linked to drawing and writing, it allows easy testing of ideas. Accordingly, it’s a good place to get to know an artist, including Raben Davidsen. Unpacking her prints, we start at the very beginning.
ML: Many people who know you as an artist associate you with painting. But your work in printmaking is no less extensive and goes back a long time. When did you start working with printmaking techniques?
CRD: I first became acquainted with printmaking in 1992 when I started studying at an art academy in Florence under my teachers Rose Shakinovsky and Claire Gavronsky, with whom I have stayed in touch over the last 30 years. We had a studio in a vineyard with an old, simple printing press. That’s why the first prints I made were monotypes. This is a technique where you apply greasy ink or oil paint to a metal plate from which you can pull a single print, then the color must be refreshed. So, every print is unique. I’ve since done a lot of printmaking, but monotypes captured me first, because it’s such a fast process. I became obsessed.
When I started doing printmaking, it was quite primitive. But I also studied works by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), Francisco Goya (1746-1828), Odilon Redon (1840-1916) and, later, Edvard Munch (1863-1949), who were all fabulous printmakers. In fact, the first engravings I worked on were classical, based on the old masters.
What can printmaking do that painting can’t?
Printmaking has an element of transience. You work blind a little bit, and creating the works involves some loss of control. In lithography, you paint one color on one stone, and for each new color you add a new stone. You work without knowing exactly how the result is going to be. It took me years to wrap my head around that. Some artists work with as many as 17 stones. Generally, I work with no more than three or four. Then again, I work with all the values, from very light to very black, on a single stone. And I play around with textures, fine strokes, hard strokes. I use the whole toolbox, all the possibilities inherent in the material. Printmaking is a great medium because it can stand on its own. It’s that simple.
Looking at your printmaking as a whole, I see an aesthetic drama playing out between controlled figure drawing, or line, and abstract areas where the materials are given freer rein. In fact, I think that’s a dynamic that comes out most clearly in your prints. Your lithographs have line drawings of figures surrounded by cascades of color that run and sink into the stone – a chemical-geological aesthetic of materials clashing and creating lovely abstract effects, flowing, frothing and bubbling in a very organic way. A similar contrast exists in your paintings, as if you were consciously dancing on the line between control and loss of control.
That’s the essence of who I am as an artist. Before I start a series of works, I often sit for hours studying and making mind maps, detailed note systems charting the ideas behind the work. But when I paint, I’m extremely messy. I spill things and step in them and use what’s at hand – cola, coffee, whatever – to mix in my ink, if I don’t feel like going out and getting some water. That produces good results, actually. But I must work from very detailed notes.
Printmaking, for me, is a medium that’s full of surprises. It appeals to me that you have to work fast. And work with a reversed image. A lot of unpredictable things happen in the printmaking process, and there’s enormous freedom for me in that loss of control. When I make prints, I can focus on the interplay of invisible and visible, that is at the core of my work.
For me, making art is about playing. It’s not always easy play. My process is like a laboratory study, where I get to experiment. It’s important for me to keep evolving by reading and researching, but also by physically experimenting with materials. As an artist, I’m an eternal student. I acquire a body of knowledge, then lay it aside and let go.
To work with accident in an advanced way, I must know exactly what I’m doing from the beginning. I start with precision. I was classically trained at an art school in Florence and have spent untold hours painting the figure from life. I’ve drawn an insane amount of still lifes and other classical subjects, studied anatomy, light and perspective. If I wanted to, I could paint realistically. Which enables me to let go completely. I could be in complete control, but that’s not what interests me. I’m interested in what lies between the lines.
I would like to talk about your classical training in Florence. In my eyes, your close relationship to the classical tradition sets you apart from many other artists of your generation. Clearly, your work is involved with a tradition that goes back further than the expansion of the concept of the artwork in the 1960s, the cultivation of performativity, Concrete art, social realism and so on. Your pictures are related to modern artists who never let go of the classical tradition but reinterpreted its great myths and existential dramas in a modern form. Artists who insisted on a depth beyond the present. Is Florence a city you keep returning to?
Absolutely. Florence is the cradle of Renaissance art. The Renaissance, which I’ve delved into extensively, was driven by the rediscovery and reinvention of the culture of antiquity, Greek mythology, Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the whole cast of characters I’ve been working with from the beginning. The first time I lived in Florence, when I was 19 and 20, I was mainly into making friends. At the time, I didn’t think about the incredible frame that is Florence. The city is sheer magic. For one, it has stood still since the fifteenth century. You can go into churches that look the way they did 600 years ago. The city is devoid of many signs of modernity, it’s kitschy and there are so many tourists. But it stands as a monument of a time we can still take so much from.
I studied theology for a year before I started art school. I also lived in London for a while, studying philosophy. Then I got into the Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, but during my time there I practically didn’t paint. My approach seemed way too old-fashioned. I felt no one got my work, which made me very insecure. So, I decided to transfer to the Academy’s School of Walls and Space [now the School of Conceptual and Contextual Practices –ed.], which focused on installation art, followed by graduate studies in Art Theory and Communication.
After graduation, I returned to Florence with funding from the Danish Arts Foundation. It was a bit of a lark. I really just wanted to get back there. I wrote in my application that I wanted to study Sandro Botticelli’s (ca. 1445–1510) masterwork La Primavera from the late 1470s. When I got there, a world opened up. Botticelli was an outsider in his day. Compared to an artist like Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), who was his contemporary, Botticelli painted his figures out of proportion, with limbs that were too long, and he also painted women of the theater. So he wasn’t universally loved in his day. Botticelli’s interest in the ancient poet Ovid (b. 43 BCE) led me to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which has meant so much to me.
There’s a strong connection between your recent work and the subjects that have interested and attracted you from an early age: theology, philosophy, renaissance art and classical mythology. You’ve mentioned your fascination with religious texts like the Bible and the Quran before. You’re looking for basic narratives and emotions. What attracts you to the heavy cultural heritage there?
Somehow, it’s all about addressing the big questions of life. What does it mean to be a human being in the world? Certain basic questions have been asked through the ages. I seek to create contemporary art that addresses certain basic human themes while building on a long cultural heritage. The renaissance was an age marked by great cultural advances, but a lot of the inspiration was taken from a distant past, from antiquity. That idea is exciting to me. We live in an age of disruption and faith in progress, but perhaps we shouldn’t look to the future for every answer. Perhaps we can find answers in the past. I’m preoccupied with medieval and renaissance spiritual and esoteric theories. Theories from a completely different time about finding the basic element of life. What even is life? What makes something living? Is there a unique energy of life?
Your work testifies to an awareness of history, but also to a desire to provide some depth – historical and existential depth – to contemporary conversations. In that sense, I see your work as very modern. You don’t depict today’s world – social issues, screen life, globalization, the climate crisis. You keep your distance from realism, as if you were trying to add images to our culture that you think are missing.
Some may believe that my work is romantic, but it really is not. I know what’s happening in contemporary art. But I seek deeper layers and I’m interested in building on a very rich visual language.
The Daphne series is an example of your inspiration from ancient mythology.
Daphne is inspired by one of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In the story, Apollo is chasing Daphne, but her father comes to her aid and turns her into a tree. All the metamorphoses I’ve been working with over the last 20 years are about transformation.
Daphne features a recurring composition in your work: a face surrounded by more or less abstract forms. Usually, the face is relatively detailed, dissolving into soft lines and shadowless contours. What are faces for in your work?
Many of my figures are in mid-transformation. The face is an entry into the work, an easily relatable point because faces can be read. At the same time, the face sets a mood or vibe that resonates through the work.
Oracle (p.23) shows Daphne turning into a jumble of branches and, to one side, Apollo who’s almost throwing up. They’re in a landscape. The work has a companion piece, Oracle (Ghost) (p.50-51). I like to make ghost prints. I reuse the stone or printing plate but add white ink instead of black. When you print it on black paper, a ghost image appears. I think both prints are very powerful.
When you begin a print like Elegy, how exactly do you go about it?
My approach to the lithography stone varies. Sometimes I start by pouring ink directly on the stone. I usually don’t have it all planned out when I start a new series of prints. Typically, I work on several stones at once. I work very fast and see what happens. Without quite knowing, I have to trust that I know what it takes.
How much do you discard?
Almost nothing. Very rarely.
With Elegy (p.38-39), I started by pouring big puddles of ink on the stone. You can see them along the edges. Those are washes. It’s an effect I struggle with. I really want to do washes. In my big lithograph The Dwelling(p. 243)I did an extremely successful one.
What is it about washes that interests you? Why do you want to work with them?
Perhaps because I can’t master them. It’s stubbornness. The beauty of washes – and printmaking in general – is working with materials that don’t get along. You apply a greasy base on the stone and the result depends on the temperature in the room, the thickness of the ink layer and whether the stone collapses or opens. Hours can pass while you wait for a wash to dry. Sometimes when I do a big stone, I have to wait until the next day, because it only comes together when it’s dry. Sometimes I put salt on the stone. You can see that in the Materseries, where I used salt and coffee to create a kind of womb. If you look at the details of the wash (p. 16), you see amazing patterns that look like internal organs or something from outer space.
After the wash, what’s the next thing you do?
I let it dry and return to the stone on and off. I’m actually pretty rough with the stone. I scratch into it, I pound it and when I want to make holes, I attack it with an awl. The stone has to be ground thoroughly when I’m done with it.
The fine wavy lines that look like tape from an old cassette fluttering in the wind – what tool did you use to make them?
That’s my line. Here, I used a combination of a litho crayon and a brush. I play around with thick lines, thin lines, quivering lines, straight lines. I work by bringing out and pushing back, making some things very defined and leaving other things completely open.
In your lithograph A Tree Crown Takes Her Face (p.40) I can clearly see your inspiration from Redon: the little face growing like a plant. The picture feels like a secret you discover all by yourself. In Redon’s works I see a similar feeling: they’re very secretive, as if granting access to something hidden that only the person looking at the image is allowed to see. There’s enormous intimacy in his work.
I love this quote from one of Redon’s diaries, where he says that, at the heart of his work, lies “a little door opening onto a mystery. … All my originality, then, consists in giving human life to unlikely creatures according to the laws of probability, while, as much as possible, putting the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible.”
I’m particularly fond of his 1889 lithograph Germination, where he depicts hybrid creatures as little atoms in the universe, and the little planets have eyes. His engagement with nature and the human connection to it is something I recognize in my own work. I’m sure he read Ovid, as well, and was into classical art and the human place in the cosmos. He says somewhere that he paints “shadow people”.
Color plays an important role in your prints. Tracking your evolution over time shows that you initially held back on color. A colored line appears sometime in 2007. It would seem that, at the time, you needed to tame color and know exactly how it would behave in your pictures. Color is assigned a very specific role. In your most recent works, yellow comes in all guns blazing. There’s color everywhere. As I see it, you deal with color much more freely now.
When I started painting, I was into Hindu theories of chakras, and I still am to some extent. Colors affect us both physically and mentally. Turquoise is a color I’ve used a lot. As a chakra color, it is located in the neck area and represents expression or speech. I lost my father very suddenly, within a couple of weeks, when I was 13, and consequently I also lost the ability to “talk” about difficult things. In a way, turquoise gave me a language in painting.
The Algae etchings are very delicate little things, where you concentrate on a single object. The Daphne series involves the great drama of landscapes and figures. In your lithographs, you cultivate spontaneity. But your etchings look extremely controlled to me and very slow, as well. What’s it like for you to work in etching?
Etching is an extension of my writing, which relies on precision and concentration. Alternating between the intimacy of etching and the free play of lithography appeals to me. I made the etchings in Skagen with seaweed I gathered on the beach. I added little alchemy jars. In recent years I’ve been into alchemy, which was not just about turning lead into gold but also aspired to turn people into better versions of ourselves. The plates for these prints measure just 10 by 8 centimeters. In this case, I must have a clear plan before I begin. Etching has no room for wildness.
One of the things that touches me most about your prints is their darkness. There’s a major theme of darkness and light in your prints. You told me that you use sandpaper to create areas of light shining through dark color. I’m very interested in the idea of the picture’s own light. This is a very important concept in religious art, the idea that a picture can shine on you, bathe you in light. The background of medieval religious paintings was covered in gold leaf because the image itself was considered sacred. The gold leaf reflected the light, and when you looked at the picture, you felt its divine light shining on you. The renaissance saw the gradual development of the realistic tradition where everything is illuminated by a light source within the picture. It has to be lifelike. Some of your works play with a new idea of the picture’s own light. They evoke a feeling of the picture opening in places and letting light stream out at us.
These are thoughts I have become extremely aware of in recent years. For a picture to work, it has to have light and darkness, as well as mid-tones. You can’t make a work without darkness and light. In terms of composition, it’s about working with the entire spectrum. If there’s just one value, the picture is like someone who only operates on a single frequency. Just as people need the capacity to be angry and happy, it’s important to have different levels to create a complete work. It’s about bringing out light in darkness, letting it shine through.
Another important thing about printmaking is that it invariably gives me my next theme. I’m currently painting a lot of landscapes, and the subject of the landscape isn’t foreign to me. When I lived in the mountains in Italy, I would often get up at five in the morning and paint landscapes, especially when there was morning fog. That is one of the best times of the day to paint landscapes, because a mysterious glow is gifted to you. Foggy and indefinite. A dissolved landscape.
I see similar interests in several contemporary artists. The American artist Kiki Smith (b. 1954) has also worked with Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and the British artist Chris Ofili (b. 1968) recently made a number of new works based on the Metamorphoses. I starting working with Ovid 30 years ago. The artists I feel a kinship with are Peter Doig (b. 1959) and Kiki Smith – as well as Tacita Dean (b. 1965), who is currently working with Dante’s Inferno (14th cent.) All these artists look back, too, and dare to be students. I want to keep learning. Look at crypto art, digital assets based on cryptocurrencies. What does that art look like? I think it’s an interesting idea, but boy is it ugly. I don’t make art for myself. I want my works to be able to stand on their own and be approachable on many different levels.
Why do some artworks keep speaking to us? What does color mean? Or brushwork? What do shapes mean? And why are we still fascinated by, say, the work of Rembrandt? Maybe because he had a special sensibility and honesty. His self-portraits were so revealing. They show the vulnerability that great artists have.
You say you don’t make art for yourself. That makes me think about an interview – to shift the frame of reference – with the musician Bruce Springsteen. The interview was about the role of the artist, and Springsteen said that to be a great artist, you have to have a huge ego to begin with. Deep down you must believe that what you have to contribute is so important that the whole world should know about it. But at some point, he says, it is no longer about ego. Then you make yourself a source through which something else can flow. You serve the world with your art. That’s beautifully put.
Bruce Springsteen actually owns one of my works.
Yes, one of the Ovid drawings. It would be an ego trip if I gazed at my navel and made it all about me. What’s a self-portrait good for, you might ask. What does it have to say about anything? But it could say something about us. Looking at one of Rembrandt’s most important self-portraits, we clearly see that he’s old. He’s vulnerable. Death is coming for him. We can mirror ourselves in his work. We should be able to feel it. I feel with my figures. They come alive in my works because I make them real. An artist’s role is to translate ideas and thought into physical form.
You keep your rules on your worktable. I’m going to read a few of them: “Practice silence. Do not judge. Practice meditation. Law of full potentiality. Law of giving and receiving.”
That’s my mantra, in a way. One of the biggest dangers for me when making art is if I start comparing myself to others. When I work, it’s a kind of meditation. I must not judge my work but just go with the flow, bear in mind that there’s a greater meaning to what I do. I’ve gotten better at leaning back and trusting in that. I also think it’s my engine and strength that I don’t hang onto anything. I’m not afraid to change, move in new directions. I have my core. I know that I have my own history as the person I am. I don’t run away from that person. And that gives me the freedom to go in new directions.