The Melancholy Paintings of Cathrine Raben Davidsen by Maria Kjær Themsen.
“Imagine there is no background
Imagine there is no foreground
Imagine there is no Nature”
The world is awash. The sky washes into the sea. The sea washes into the ground. In a world devoid of people, there is no privileged perspective. Nothing is wholly closed in on itself but is always connecting to other realms. It is a very beautiful world, emanating a singular poetic power.
Cathrine Raben Davidsen’s new paintings, As above, so below (2022), are landscapes. Are they from a distant past or from sometime in the future? It is hard to tell. The landscapes seem more imagined than real. Looking at them is like gazing into a phantasmagoric universe conjuring symbols of nature in an atmosphere of equal beauty and shadow. A landscape on the verge of a new mutation.
In Re-enchanting the World, the Italian scholar Silvia Federici writes, “The very sense that we are living at the edge of a volcano makes it even more crucial to recognize that, in the midst of much destruction, another world is growing.”
Is that the kind of re-enchanted world we find in Raben Davidsen’s paintings? A world on the edge of destruction, an investigation of landscape as a bearer of deep knowledge that needs to be recognized anew?
In his 2007 book Ecology without Nature, the British professor and philosopher Timothy Morton writes, “But in attending to environmental phenomena, aesthetic but not aestheticized, we are never sure whether they are real, originals, or copies. A melancholy emerges.”
Raben Davidsen’s landscapes are structured by horizontal connecting lines washing down through the layers. There are no vertical figures, columns or power structures. The paintings have no central perspective, no human point of view rooting the landscape in a body. Oscillating between familiar and unreal landscapes, resonant with a somber and heavy, highly poetic beauty, they exude the kind of melancholy Morton describes.
Even as the paintings formally are almost abstract, their different layers, each with its own dominant hue, chart a recognizable but fictional landscape. The darkest of the paintings (p. 173) has an orange-yellow and rose sky at the top, then a narrow, wavy line of dark mountains, followed by a blue-white strip of sea with blocks of ice or rocks protruding from the water. The bottom of the painting, taking up a full two thirds of the picture plane, is completely dark. It is like gazing into the many layers of earth under our feet. The metonymy arises when the field of earth creates a shadow effect that points to itself as a symbol – a darkness and shadow demanding attention, to the point even of marginalizing the other dimensions. The darkness here becomes a magic plasma indicating the earth as a singularly vibrant organism in deep, unfathomable layers, while also oddly unbalancing the picture plane.
This way of creating a landscape is reminiscent of the Danish artist and geologist Per Kirkeby’s stratified nature pictures, in particular Weltuntergang (2001), a large painting also made up of differently coloured horizontal lines representing the various dimensions of a landscape. As in Raben Davidsen’s paintings, it is not a particular landscape but an imagined one, an allegory, as indicated by the dystopian title (End of the World). Raben Davidsen’s new paintings likewise attach a loaded symbolism to their landscapes, reflecting the ancient philosophical and esoteric tradition that everything is connected. All actions leave tracks. Macrocosm and microcosm are deeply entangled, essentially one and the same. We are of the earth, but we are also, in a deeper geological perspective, of the stars.
ROMANTICISM’S DESTRUCTION OF NATURE
Soil is one of the most overlooked dimensions of the ecological balance in nature. In a recent book, Regenesis: Feeding the World Without Devouring the Planet (2022), the English writer and activist George Monbiot describes how, in the future, we must learn to honour the earth instead of destroying it with poison and monocultural exploitation. He also relates how poetry and art have romanticized agriculture, helping to legitimize an exploitation of nature that has been catastrophically destructive.
Morton describes the role of art along similar lines in his books, most elaborately in the aforementioned Ecology without Nature. Especially since the Romantic Age, poetry and art have promoted the view of nature as a backdrop for human action, helping to establish the erroneous perception that ‘nature’ is apart from us. In his book, Morton advocates for dropping the concept of nature altogether, since it constantly keeps us at a remove, perpetuating the lie that nature and the human body are different. As he provocatively writes, “Putting something called Nature on a pedestal and admiring it from afar does for the environment what patriarchy does for the figure of Woman.”
This act of distancing is toxic and destructive, not only to us but also to what we call ‘nature’. Everything we do to “it”; we also do to ourselves. When pesticides are sprayed in the fields, they kill not only weeds but also a lot of other life that is necessary for a healthy ecological balance. The poison seeps into our common soil and ends up in the water that keeps our bodies alive. Everything is connected, and all our actions can be read in the soil as well as in our bodies. We are fundamentally and inextricably connected to ‘nature’.
Morton sheds light on how art, in an expanded sense, has helped to create an idyllic perception of landscape as a stage that humans long for (because it is basically an illusion), romanticize and continually destroy – and how the two movements are actually parts of the same undertaking.
Romantic landscape paintings almost always situate humans in nature. Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818), the quintessentially Romantic landscape by the German artist Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), shows a well-dressed gentleman, walking stick in hand, poised on a rocky precipice with his back to the viewer, confidently surveying the fog-covered scenery. More than anything, it is a portrait of the grandeur and power of man. Elevated high above the raging elements, the man is not part of what he surveys. The wind may ruffle his hair, but the view is there for him. The painters of the Danish Golden Age romanticized landscapes and idyllicized the peasants working the soil. In general, the landscape in a Golden Age painting is not there for its own sake but to support the human use of it for food production and leisure. In P.C. Skovgaard’s A Beech Wood in May near Iselingen Manor (1857), the new-leaved wood provides a lush backdrop for an intergenerational stroll of landowners. Even when L.A. Ring portrays the harsher aspects of peasant life, in the figure of The Sower (1910) scattering seeds across the brown, bare soil, the image still engenders empathy for the man, not the earth.
Such pictures, Monbiot and Morton contend, have done great harm to nature, because they promote the view that nature exists for us. We need new images, new concepts, to reckon with the Romantic idyllization of nature and the capitalist exploitation of the soil, both deriving from the same power-structural notion of human dominion over nature.
In recent years, a number of new movements have been gaining momentum, heightening awareness of the ecosystem we are part of and continuously impact. Many more people now realize that we can no longer view humankind as the supreme ruler in a vertical hierarchy.
As the Indian activist Satish Kumar writes in his book Soil, Soul, Society: A New Trinity for Our Time (2015), we need to recognize that we are all connected through the earth:
“If we take care of the soil, the soil will take care of us all. Through the soil we are all related and interconnected. We depend on the soil. All living beings depend on the soil.”
This recognition is not new. Most indigenous cultures, mystical traditions and esoteric circles have always been profoundly aware of the interconnectedness of all things.
THE EMERALD TABLET
The title of Raben Davidsen’s new series of paintings, As above, so below, is a line from the Tabula Smaragdina, an occult alchemical text from around 800 CE attributed to the mythical Greek figure of Hermes Trismegistus.
In alchemy, which is both a physical and a philosophical practice, The Emerald Tablet expressed a basic esoteric wisdom about cosmic forces, material properties and spiritual insight. The full sentence reads:
“That which is above is from that which is below, and that which is below is from that which is above, working the miracles of one (thing). As all things were from One.”
The basic assumption of alchemy applies not only to chemical compounds but also to cosmic forces and human temperaments. Essentially, it is about reaching deeper into a physical and spiritual recognition of the origin of all things, and into the connection between the different material dimensions of the world, in order to imitate nature’s refinement processes, linking the material and the spiritual.
The Emerald Tablet’s occultism originates from the ‘secret learning’ it contains. This includes ‘the original substance’ that alchemists pursued, thinking it capable of refining and creating life, turning silver into gold and extending life. In the text, “As above, so below” is followed by “It ascends from the earth to the heaven and again it descends to the earth and receives the force of things superior and inferior.”
This could be a description of Raben Davidsen’s painterly landscapes, whose elements seem to wash into each other from the sky. At the same time, however, an equal force appears to be at work from below in a dynamic exchange of power that makes the landscapes crackle with energy.
METAPHORICAL AND MATERIAL ALCHEMY
The title connects Raben Davidsen’s landscapes to old knowledge, particularly to the alchemical and occult tradition of experimenting with substances and liquids. As mentioned, the paintings are awash. The elements of the sky, sea and earth, seeping into one another, are connected by coagulating liquids that, though fixed to the canvas, represent a continuous process that never ossifies but is always in motion.
Each section of the landscape has its own basic hue, yet contains myriad tones. The large dark section of one painting ranges from deep black to dark purple, with notes of warm brown, flaming yellow indigo and other colours shimmering in the darkness.
In contrast, another work, in cinematic widescreen, is dominated by an ultrabright yellow (p. 178). The landscape is so sunlit it ends up being not just an image of the sun’s rays but about them. While the above work dives into the darkness, this painting depicts an overheated landscape with a sun so bright it is almost synthetic. Even though we do not see the sun itself, the sunshine fills almost the entire picture plane as a brilliant yellow reflection in water.
In a third painting (p. 175), the elements are clearly represented – bright sky, two big mountains, strip of water and, again, the band of earth taking up half the painting, but with far more green than dark this time. Alchemy not merely provides symbolic inspiration through the title but is a material dimension of this painting. The different colours combine like alloys on the canvas, running into each other and connecting the different dimensions and elements of the composition.
We witness a process that, though fixed in time on the canvas, looks capable of evolving, mutating and changing at any moment. This is not an old, petrified Romantic or Golden Age landscape but one in constant change.
HYBRID LIFE FORMS
While there are no traces of humans or animals in Raben Davidsen’s paintings, her new series of black-and-white drawings teems with different life forms – nocturnal beings, creatures of the sea, algae women, gods shedding their skin.
As always, Raben Davidsen is exploring metamorphosis, the transition and transformation from one life form to another. Like the above alchemical investigations in paint, the drawings reveal an interest in processual life forms that are not static, binary or frozen in any predetermined form. Raben Davidsen’s work has always brimmed with ancient myth, especially its marginalized female figures. Her art is a story of creation that never ends in rigid forms but is always changing, in flexible exchange with the world around the creatures. Her mystical figures possess an adaptability that contradicts the more dogmatic Christian binary world order.
Raben Davidsen places ancient myths and creation stories in a contemporary context, in which the world is being created anew. In this world, humans are no longer in the lead but act in new interspecies mutations and formations. As the Italian philosopher Rosa Braidotti writes in her book The Posthuman, “We need to learn to think differently about ourselves […]. The posthuman condition urges us to think critically and creatively about who and what we are actually in the process of becoming.”
What we are becoming depends on our imagination, Braidotti seems to imply. Art shapes that imagination. If Romanticism helped legitimize destruction of nature, contemporary art can aid in the creation of new visions – about a place where capitalist exploitation of our common resources has hopefully been replaced by deeper insight into the delicate and subtle interconnectedness of our lifeworld.
By Maria Kjær Themsen