By Sanne Kofod Olsen
February 2014

The exterior of the form of art is its interior. August Macke, 1912


In 1913 Picasso painted a Cubist picture of Harlequin – totally disintegrated but with an ear and a small beard, like an attempt to maintain some reality amidst the dissolution. Picasso saw Harlequin as an alter ego and painted him innumerable times; perhaps as an untamed messenger from the underworld or the person who tells the truth satirically. Harlequin is Pantalone’s servant in the Commedia dell’Arte theatre. He assumes the role of both servant and jester. The court jester is another figure, but resembles Harle­quin in dress and style. He is the one who can speak truth to power without dramatic consequences. Irrational behaviour follows with the jester as it does with Harlequin, who turns somersaults whenever he feels like it.

Harlequin is a poor fellow from the countryside who is a servant of Pantalone, a mer­chant in Venice who is rich, greedy and naive. Harlequin’s costume is poor man’s clothing. It is sewn together from rhomboid patches in a decorative pattern. The fragmented and composite is an interpretative theme for Cathrine Raben Davidsen, as an image of the composite life of the individual.


On themes and motifs

In recent years Raben Davidsen has worked with motifs like the mask, the puppet, Harlequin and the dancer; images that repeat motifs and themes from the history of art in the early 1900s. The puppet, the dancer and the mask were frequently used motifs in Cubism, Expressionism, Dadaism and Surrealism as well as in the theatre. For many years Raben Davidsen has also worked with the portrait; not necessarily portraits of particular people, but repetitions of portraits from the history of art. From paraphrased portraits of Italian noblewomen to more ordinary portraits of people one might know. Most recently several portraits have emerged of authors, designers and others who have a personal significance for the artist: from the Swedish woman author Karin Maria Boye (1900-1941), and the present chief designer for Yves Saint Laurent, Hedi Slimane, to women, men and children who could be family. The portraits have been painted after photographs, some perhaps from the imagination. The essential thing is that they are not portraits where the artist, with a starting point in observation, tries to depict a certain person’s character or personality. On the contrary, the portraits are renderings of others’ depictions and stagings or self-stagings of such people.

Thematically, the theatrical and the staged play a special role for Raben Davidsen. This can be seen in the portrait series, but it is especially emphasized in two specific series, one sculptural and one photographic. One is a series of sewn masks which together bear the title “Ariadne’s Thread” and one is a photographic series she has done in collabo­ration with the fashion magazine Dansk.

The staging is omnipresent and is reinforced by the mask, the puppet and the dancer as motifs. Interest in the theatre with its intended, self-aware staging and thus also the performative, as well as the conscious play with the mask, seems to be a fundamental element which for Raben Davidsen is both a general reflection over mankind’s psycho­logical existence and being, but can also be seen as an analysis of the fashion world’s deliberate play with the mask and the puppet. A play that is a basic condition of the construction of a visual identity. And which perhaps – only perhaps – is also reflected in the portrait. The portrait as mask or the mask as portrait.


The mask and the portrait

At the beginning of the twentieth century the mask was fashionable in European art. Artists were preoccupied with the African mask as a symbol of the wild and untamed, but also – and perhaps especially – with the formal idiom of the African mask with its geo­metrical forms, its simplicity and its expressiveness. Ethnographic collections of African tribal sculpture were exhibited in the capitals of Europe and the motif was repeated again and again and in many forms; from the formal interest of Braque and Picasso, Blaue Reiter and others (which was also a collector’s interest) to the more specific psychological interest of the Surrealists.

The theatre too was preoccupied with the mask in this more expressionistic and psycho­logical way. The English stage director, actor and theorist Edward Gordon Craig (1872-1966) published the theatre periodical The Mask (1908-1926). The mask, Craig thought, could be used to turn away from external reality and thus concentrate on inner reality.

The relationship between the theatre and the mask was of course by no means new. The mask follows the theatre throughout history and through cultures where it was used literally, but also in the metaphorical sense of ‘assuming a mask’.

In ancient Greece masks were used in the theatre. They were used to express clearly the character of the person portrayed, so that the audience need be in no doubt. In the Dio­ny­sian culture the mask was the liberator of desire. With the mask one could uninhi­bi­tedly live out one’s (erotic) imaginings. The potential of the mask as a sexual emanci­pator is also part of the carnival tradition; a tradition of hedonism, among other things, where the mask disguises one’s official identity and establishes a temporary opportunity for liberation – not only sexual liberation, but liberation from the self, from the norm and from morality. When masks were worn during the Carnival in Venice, it was among other reasons in order to circumvent the rules of society, but also to relate to one another equally in a strongly hierarchical society.

In its later European use in the theatre around 1900 the mask, according to Craig, was a means of capturing ‘pure’ emotion for the actors; the mask as a threshold to the world of the imagination, where reality fades into the background. This distinction between the self on the one hand and the mask on the other recurs in Jungian psychoanalysis, which has a quite specific interpretation of the mask in relation to the self. The Latin word for mask is ‘persona’, and the word itself originates in the use in the Greek theatre of the highly expressive masks. The ‘persona’ is also one of Jung’s archetypes. It is the iden­tity we assume to adapt to social life or reality. The ‘persona’ is “what one in reality is not, but what oneself and others think one is”. Jung speaks of an outer and an inner self where the outer one is a kind of ‘false self’ one has constructed. It is the way we present ourselves to the world, but it is a cover for the inner self – what the ego is in reality and what the ego should preferably be aware that it is.

Raben Davidsen’s portraits seem to reflect this Jungian strain. They are masks, people, presences that are nevertheless not felt as present. A sense of absence arises, often as if they exist behind a membrane of colour or fade into a grey colour; or even more speci­fically, plant-like objects grow up in front of the faces. Their emotions seem to have been removed from the relatively expressionless faces, and yet now and then these are recognizable, named people from the past and present. They pose, as anyone does for the photographer. The self-staging is evident: the construction of an identity that is about how we ourselves would like to present ourselves to the world. How the individual wishes to appear to the world can also be seen in the artist’s preoccupation with the pain­ters Gerda and Einar Wegener. The couple were married, but were both homo­sexual. In 1930 Einar Wegener became the first man in the world to have a sex-change operation, and afterwards officially became ‘Lili Elbe’. Lili Elbe was often portrayed by Gerda Wegener, whose slightly mannered lines have also been stylistically important to Raben Davidsen. The sex change operation, according to the statements of many trans­sexuals, is about turning what you feel inside into what you are on the outside, but at the same time it is an extreme identity construction because you transcend your biological sexual identity. You not only assume a temporary mask or role, you become your own mask. Or else you unmask yourself.


Ariadne’s Thread

When Raben Davidsen exhibited her first group of masks at the Gl. Strand exhibition House of The Ax, it was under the title “Ariadne’s Thread”.  Raben Davidsen’s masks are in textiles, leather and fur, and with their rigid expression are both frightening and fascinating. The masks are everything from usable ones with holes for eyes and mouth to unusable ones where there are not even markings of ordinary human features.

The combination of the masks and Ariadne’s Thread is not only about the yarn, which is crucial to the making of the masks, it is also about the tale of Ariadne, Theseus and the Minotaur. The story of Ariadne comes from Greek mythology. Ariadne was the daugh­ter of King Minos of Crete and Queen Pasiphaë. One day the hero Theseus, a youth from Athens, was to be sacrificed according to tradition to the Minotaur. The Minotaur was a monster that was half-human and half-bull, the son of a white bull and Queen Pasiphaë (and thus Ariadne’s half-brother). He lived in the middle of a winding laby­rinth that was hard to find one’s way through. The victims of the sacrifice were to move into the darkness of the labyrinth where they would sooner of later encounter the Minotaur, who killed them. If they were not found and killed by the Minotaur, they would die of hunger and thirst in the endless labyrinth. But Ariadne fell in love with Theseus and gave him a magic sword and a ball of yarn. When Theseus met the Minotaur in the Labyrinth he killed him with the sword, and found his way out of the labyrinth again with the aid of the yarn. And so the love story could have ended happily, had Theseus not fallen in love with Ariadne’s sister and left Ariadne on the island of Naxos. But that is another story.

Once more Jungian psychoanalysis can be used to shed light on the work, to find a connection between the mask and the story of Ariadne. The labyrinth itself is a power­ful symbol that is used in many contexts. For Jung the labyrinth is an archetypal symbol of the psyche and the unconscious, but also of our life as such. Moving around in the laby­rinth is a part of life and ‘finding oneself’ is part of this process. The Minotaur represents ‘the fear of the unconscious’. You can easily get lost in the labyrinth, but you can also find your way out again. And this is where Ariadne’s yarn becomes important, because according to Jung, finding the yarn and thus getting out of the labyrinth symbo­lizes finding oneself. Overcoming the Minotaur in the labyrinth means confronting one’s problems and achieving awareness. When we find Ariadne’s yarn it can take us, enriched, further in life.

The juxtaposition of the sewn mask and the title Ariadne’s Thread should not perhaps be interpreted so directly, but the exhibition House of The Ax took its point of departure in the artist’s father, who was a designer and who died when she was a child; so this was a highly personal matter. The idea of the outer self and the inner self is thus inter­woven in “Ariadne’s Thread”. The inner journey is expressed through an outer sym­bolism in the form of the work, which clearly indicates a difference between the outside and the inside that is inscribed in the duality of the mask.

Minotaure was also the name of a Surrealist-based periodical edited by André Breton which appeared from 1933 until 1939.


The puppet

It isn’t always about self-presentation in Raben Davidsen’s works; it’s also about being represented by others. The marionette/automaton is a puppet with human features, which as such is controlled by others and lets others decide who he/she is. The outer self – perhaps not even a self – is only a mask and a figure that others have created for you. The marionette is closely related to the fashion industry and the model as figure. The model is the person who has a superficial identity dictated and who acts according to the directions of others. The model of course has his or her own identity, his or her own self, but in the modeling work the person must step out of his or her own identity and become an outer self who permits herself to be formed by others. The model is both the puppet and the mask, because the person you see clearly has nothing to do with the real self behind the ‘mask’ carefully constructed by others. This is not even a ‘persona’. The mask is not used to contact your inner self, but to construct an exterior that cannot even be said to be a self, but is in fact only an image. In Raben Davidsen’s stagings, which were photographed for the fashion magazine Dansk, the constructed identity was shown as grotesque and became a more or less dystopian, monstrous narrative about a disfi­gured exterior (perhaps the Minotaur), disguising an interior we cannot see and which is not important either. In Raben Davidsen’s latest collages, too, which have been worked up from pictures from a male catwalk during the International Fashion Week in collabo­ration with the photographer Nick Knight and Showstudio, Raben Davidsen points to the construction of an external identity by giving the models a kind of mask that completely hide their identities, which are simply not present. But at the same time the mask indicates that this puppet does in fact have an interior, or that the meaning of the mask is to be assumed in this context too.



Cathrine Raben Davidsen works with complex psychological issues in her works, which are about constructed identity, the self and the (self-) awareness that is a part of life. By reflecting forms of cultural expression such as theatre, dance, fashion in her works, she points to the performative in our being and how we present ourselves to others. By showing the external self in portraits, masks, dancers, etc., she also points to the inner self that exists beneath the surface of the portrait and not least behind the mask. With a powerful personal incentive she reflects over universal states of our being and existence and the character and meaning of the performative identity.

The portrait, the mask and the puppet are fundamental elements in this analysis of the self and life.


By Sanne Kofod Olsen, Rector at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts