The Artist as Harlequin
By Barry Schwabsky
March 2014

It works like this, as it often does: I saw some works—paintings and drawings—by Cathrine Raben Davidsen and something about them made their mark on me. I wanted to know more—to see more. And the best way to do it turned out to be by visiting her in her studio. I saw more, and I learned much more: this artist has a fascinating mind. Later, after she asked me to write some words for her publication, we met again, and again—even more than the first time—I found myself captivated not only by the works themselves, but by the rich inner life that they reflect so beautifully but, of course, indirectly. In particular, as a writer, I was interested in exploring some of her literary and historical stimuli. I found myself delving into Ovid’s Heroides and the poetry of Karin Boye, of which I had not heard before, and unsuccessfully attempting to search out a text by Selma Lagerlöf that seems to have been out of print in English for ninety years. I found my reading, as well, about Gerda and Einar Wegener, a pair of Danish artist/illustrators who had a fascinating but ultimately tragic story: Einar, a transvestite, became the main model for the female characters in Gerda’s erotic images. Eventually Einar underwent a series of sexual-reassignment operations, taking the name Lili Elbe, and the marriage dissolved. Lili stopped painting—that was only Einar’s thing, apparently—and complications from one of her then-entirely experimental operations led to her death. A strange and disturbing allegory of sex, death, art, and identity.

From all this reading I found myself appreciating more and more the range of Raben Davidsen’s curiosity about what is after the essence of our love of art, namely a desire to understand the nature of human feeling, and getting a deeper sense of her intuition about the role of gender, and of the politics of gender, in the structure of feeling. At the same time I began to feel that I was nonetheless getting further away from her art, which is not an illustrative or didactic art but one rich in sensations, constructed of layers and textures rather than propositions and clear outlines—an art in which, as Boye wrote in her poem “The Trees,” “our word ‘understand’ / becomes empty smoke and wind.”[1] I came to realize the need for a less discursive mode of empathy in order to enter into the spirit of this art.

Raben Davidsen’s earlier works, the ones that had first caught my eye, were portrait-like in form. And yet these did not seem to be representations of people one might have met on the street, at a party, or in an office—they were not inhabitants of daily life as I know it. And yet one felt they called for an intimate rapport. How to initiate this relation, however, was a difficult question. These figures seemed to come from so far away—their pictures, to be portraits of ghosts. Typically, the backgrounds and figures in these works, with their sparse and pale colors, were left open, undefined, as if incomplete; only the faces were given a greater sense of volume and detail. It was as if they were figures from nineteenth century portraits, who had become stranded in our present, and the intense melancholy that seemed to emanate from them carried the taste of this strandedness.

But when I came back to Raben Davidsen’s studio a few years later, everything seemed to have changed. Yes, there was still an aroma of historicism about the work, but the reference period had changed, had come closer to the present. Suddenly we were in the full flush of modernism, reinterpreted with the flare of a historical novelist. Consider a painting like Lili, 2013, the three-quarter-length portrait of a slim, charming young woman. This must be that Lili Elbe of whom the artist had told me. As with the figures in her earlier works, there is something ghostly, almost immaterial about this Lili—immaterial but not disembodied. The translucent washes of color, mostly shades of blue, show me an elegant figure whose eyes look off to the side, evading contact. The outfit is pure 1920s: a sailor jacket gives a hint of androgyny, but the hint is a misleading one without the knowledge of Lili’s background; this is not just another girl taking on an insinuation of boyishness to further set off her femininity. It’s more complicated than that. The evasive eyes tell us that Lili wants to be seen but not known. In contrast to those in Raben Davidsen’s earlier portraits, Lili’s face does not strike us as more “real” than anything else in the picture; everything is evanescent—everything, that is, except color itself, which for all its gauzy translucency is sharp, biting. It has a body of its own that is distinct from the body it depicts. It is seductive, too, in a more over way than the rather coy figure of Lili herself would seem to want to risk.

Another recent painting of Raben Davidsen’s presents a very different kind of portrait. It’s called Deco Mannequin, 2013, but while there are hints of Art Deco in the painting (in its quasi-decorative patterns of curving lines) the most evident stylistic reference point is Art Deco’s more austere and obdurate formal precursor, Cubism. As with so many works of, particularly, Analytical Cubism, the painting verges on abstraction; and indeed without the word “mannequin” in the title, one might have been hard put to be quite sure that the figurative reference in the work was intended. But “mannequin” is an ambiguous word in itself, most commonly referring to the dummies used for displaying clothes, for instance in shop windows, but also sometimes to the live models employed to show off clothes. Which kind do we see here? The outline of the head is itself little more than the hooked form of a question mark. Just as from the painting of her we cannot tell whether Lili is a woman or the simulacrum of a woman—we know it only if we know the back story—in this painting we cannot tell whether what we are seeing is the depiction of a real person or a plaster dummy.

Ambiguity is at the heart of both paintings, yet each one expresses it in a very different way—the diaphanous layerings that convey the equivocal image of Lili versus the bolder construction of the abstracted figure of the deco mannequin. If nothing else, this shows the impressive stylistic range at Raben Davidsen’s command, but it seems important here to point out that she is not merely indulging in pastiche—at least not, or not exactly, in the sense in which that term is often used when describing certain kinds of postmodernist art and architecture: “the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language,” as Fredric Jameson once famously called its literary equivalent, “devoid of laughter and of any conviction that alongside the abnormal tongue you have momentarily borrowed, some healthy linguistic normality still exists.”[2] That kind of postmodernism amounted to an encomium of the false, whereas Raben Davidsen is, on a deeper level, questioning our construction of the dichotomy between true and false.

And isn’t that what the story of Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe asks us to do—to question our sense of true and false? Was this person’s true identity the one she had to all appearances been given at birth, or was it rather the one she eventually assumed in the course of living her life as she could? She never found complete satisfaction; the project of embodying the Lili she felt herself to be was not one she was able to fulfill and the effort to concretize this identity led to death rather than to its accomplishment. In this sense we can only conclude that the very passion with which she pursued this intuition that (to borrow and as it were détourne Arthur Rimbaud’s famous phrase) “je est un autre,” I is someone else—that this very passion is a token of the imperfection, perhaps of the imperfectability of the project of assuming and embodying one’s true identity.

And yet Lili is not merely—to use Jameson’s word—a mask worn by Einar. Neither are the twentieth century historical styles assumed by Raben Davidsen in her recent works so many masks put on to dissemble some true, “normal,” and proper artistic identity of her own (let alone the absence of such). Although identity (including, but not limited to, gender identity) may never be self-consistent (since it is always under construction) it is not necessarily for that reason simply artificial or false. Likewise, in her recent works, Raben Davidsen seems to be attempting to reclaim art-historical styles as more than simply an exercise in aesthetic masquerade or even as convenient atmospheric reference points for the evocation of characters and events from the early twentieth century (though they can certainly function in this way as well). I would say instead that the artist is not taking these styles as essentially “finished,” as what Jameson calls “dead languages,” but rather trying to enter into their spirit as projects—as structures of desire.

Another painting in the form of a portrait, Hellequin, 2013, synthesizes the distinct pictorial modes we saw in Lili and in Deco Mannequin. Here there really is a mask—it is one of the standard attributes of this commedia dell’arte character. In this case it lends the painting a distinctly uncanny feeling, but this is entirely appropriate to this agile trickster who crosses boundaries with impunity. Pablo Picasso famously identified with Harlequin and painted him many times, so we cannot be sure whether Raben Davidsen’s efforts to delve into Cubism, and to understand it within a broader context of early twentieth century form languages, is a by-product of her fascination with Harlequin, or vice versa, for as Theodore Reff once put it, “More than the other costumed figures in his art, those of the circus and fair, and especially the ubiquitous Harlequins, are intimately related to Picasso‘s most important formal invention, Cubism.”[3] He quotes the British art historian Phoebe Pool, who noted that “the clothes of the Harlequin, like the color blue, tend to remove him from the world of reality . . . [and to] link him with a more mysterious and generalized order of being having its own mystique and ritual.”[4] This connection with the color blue is of evident important for Raben Davidsen’s interpretation of Harlequin as well. For her, as she told me, Harlequin is associated with the god Mercury, with alchemy and the underworld; he can, not only take on many forms but can even become invisible.[5]

It’s one thing for a male artist like Picasso to identify himself with Harlequin. What does it mean for a female artist to do so? Harlequin may be a transformationist who can take on almost any guise, breach every boundary, but rarely is he seen to cross the borders of gender. Yet when I reflect on Raben Davidsen’s Harlequin, I have to admit that I cannot assign a sex to this masked figure. If Raben Davidsen identifies with her Harlequin, if she sees this mysterious character as the model of the artist, who exerts a kind of alchemical transformation on the very substance of existence, it is not that in so doing she identifies with the traditionally male genius with his Protean ability to elude definition through constant change—as Picasso certainly did—but that she sees this male identity as one more limitation to be discarded. If she’s fascinated by Ovid’s Heroides, it is surely in part because of the male poet’s ability to speak with the voice of a woman—but it’s not that she wants to make that kind of crossing in the opposite direction. For Raben Davidsen, Harlequin is essentially an androgyne—an interpretation not often found elsewhere, and certainly not in Picasso. She succeeds in conjuring for us this “mysterious and generalized order of being” in which the soul participates in every inflection of gender without excluding any. Would Lili Elbe have been happier in this realm? I think so. And the rest of us too.


By Barry Schwabsky, an art critic for The Nation and co-editor of international reviews for Artforum. Schwabsky’s essays have appeared in many other publications, including Flash Art, Contemporary, Artforum, London Review of Books and Art in America.


[1] Translated by David McDuff,

[2] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991), p. 17.

[3] Theodore Reff, “Harlequins, Saltimbanques, Clowns, and Fools,” Artforum, October 1971, p. 31.

[4] Reff, p. 36.

[5] Cathrine Raben Davidsen, email, August 21, 2013.