The blood jet is poetry
There is nothing stopping it.
-Sylvia Plath Kindness
Life and death, the sacred and profane, are the umbilical cords that tether Nathalia Edenmont’s art. She cannot escape her thoughts and dreams, the wraiths that invade her mind; the blood that poured from her during her miscarriages; the death knell of words that felled her, ‘your mother is dead’, ‘your foetus is dead’, are her chafing internal screams of loss. Edenmont’s art lays her bare, she flails herself with it; the excessively elaborate sets, the extraordinary sitters; she works until she is exhausted. Her intense and haunting imagery is her rebirth; she lashes her thoughts to the physical act of making, corralling her visions.
Fearlessly re-awaking painful memories, Edenmont’s repository of images are from her dreams, her own past works, art history and contemporary culture, the DNA code she uses to build her powerful lexicon of life and death. Her pain and passion translates into powerful images that attract us with their beauty, and snare us with their honesty. In each new series it is as if she is a chrysalis challenging herself to emerge with different wings; her visions of Madonna’s, paradise, and succour exquisitely composed for her large format camera.
In Edenmont’s triptych, Holy Ghost, Conscious Mind and Lost Soul from 2015, I see the traces of Only Child (2012). The maggot infested meat that Edenmont holds to her breast transmuted into a model sitting with her raiment soaked with blood. In each of the three images the viscous crimson liquid congeals and darkens in the Madonna’s lap, her garment now a bloodied placenta, the dead baby child held to the breast lies in its sac, lifeless. I am reminded of the artist Tracey Emin’s autobiography Strangeland where she describes the terrible pain she is in after an abortion; deciding to return to hospital she feels a second foetus slip out of her, she catches it and cradles it between her thigh and the palm of her hand ‘knowing that it never wanted to leave’ her. Yet I am also reminded of the film Carrie (1976) and her hysteria and horror over her first menses resulting in the catastrophic soaking of her white prom dress drenched with a bucket of pig’s blood.
Other visions of death emerge; the black Madonna’s are harrowing pietas. I catch the thread that passes from Edenmont’s earlier Cord (2012) to The Cross, The Skull and The Blessing. The umbilical hangman’s noose around the baby’s neck in the earlier work is replaced with arms that protectively surround a naked young girl, her face completely covered with black gauze. In each huge photograph the child’s unsullied and sanctified body is turned towards us, but there are subtle differences in the deadened gaze. In The Cross her eyes are covered, in The Skull the child fixes us with a single ‘eye of providence’ from behind the veiling, her stare visible between her mothers fingers, the angle of the head reminding us of the fragility of life and how easily it can be broken or accidently choked: In The Blessing the mother looks down at the child who looks away from us with one eye open, the other completely hidden. As with all of Edenmont’s art the narratives are complicated. She acknowledges that she was sacred that if she had given birth and become a mother she would have found it hard to find the strength to ‘bear the loss if her child had died’. It is this fear that I see embedded in the triptych together with other traces; I find Alexander McQueen’s black wedding dresses, the dark brides of Christ, and Rene Magritte with the story perpetuated by his nurse of his mothers dress wrapped around her drowned recovered body, her face shrouded from the eyes of her son. But I also see a mother protecting her child, as Edenmont’s raped grandmother shielded her son from taunts: But then the black gauze brings to mind other references, Jackie Kennedy in 1963, her black mourning veil a symbol of grief for a nation or the late singer Michael Jackson covering the faces of his children with thin scarves to buffer them from the publics gaze. I look again at Edenmont’s model, she has chosen well, there is a suggested indomitable will conveyed by the androgynous Madonna’s visage, the bright piecing eyes of her sitter a formidable force.
The shadows of unborn or dead children haunt Edenmont’s other portraits, her visual essays of mourning. Both Daughter and Baptised are a darker vision than the Carolina Madonna of 2006, the empty white plaster husk with its christening ruff now replaced with christening robes swaddling dead meat. The pure white gown of Madonna is echoed in Daughter with its delicate lace edging, but now the dress is stained with watery blood. In Baptised the bundled surrogate is more defined. A flayed piece of bright red meat emerges from the intricate hand made lace robe, the contrast between the two is disturbing, yet the mother waiting patiently for the baptism seems unaware that the already slaughtered dead flesh is beyond sanctity.
In Deus the mood lightens. Carolina is now both a manifestation of the Virgin Mary and Persephone holding aloft a purple flower the symbol of power and spiritualty. Her pedestal made of blooms and ivy is centred in a composition full of fecundity as the mother feeds her child. Yet even in the midst of life there are portents of death. The ivy, fresh green and abundant, is a plant that grows on graves; it trails around Carolina’s neck reminding us of our mortality. The young child contently feeding is not aware that soon this blissful time will pass, the ripening blackberries and symbolic purples suggesting that innocence will change to experience, happiness to suffering.
Edenmont often returns to autobiographical scenes from her past finding new ways to exorcise her traumatic personal history in her troubled homeland of the Soviet Union She was torn prematurely from her parents when they died, and from her country when she escaped to the West. In Apocalypse the composition from Deus is repeated but as Edenmont explains ‘One year later he is sitting in the dirt where before he was a god, now everything has changed. I had in my mind the last days of Pompeii, it is the end of the world and the mother and child can still have their happy moments, he can still feed, but everything around them is disappearing and he is sitting in the dirt’. The Madonna’s gown is a pyre of earth and autumnal blooms. Perhaps the colours are not only symbolic of her war torn country but memories from past art seen in her native land, the gold’s, russets and browns of wooden icons and Byzantine paintings. I am also reminded of the palette of John Everett Millais in Autumn Leaves (1855-56) with its portent of the passing of youth. I think of the bell jars under which Victorians would preserve their artificial gardens of dried flowers that would darken over time. The mud splashes on the body of the boy have spread to the Madonna’s arms just as statues gather patinas and dirt over time.
The breast as nourishment is a recurring theme and it is in Baby that I next locate Edenmont or at least her surrogate daughter Carolina who has worked with her as a model since she was nine. The bed of flowers that surround the mother and daughter are the colours of her grandmothers Ukrainian shawl that Natalia was photographed in when she was fourteen shortly before her mother died. When she made her precarious journey from the former Soviet Union to Sweden the only item of clothing she took with her was her heirloom, her comforting and familiar shawl. This is happier image than her Self Portrait (Deathbed) of 2007; the greys of mourning have been given life and colour. Edenmont as a baby was fed by a wet nurse not her own mother and the young models lips do not touch Carolina’s nipple as Band-Aids were placed by over them a fitting symbolism. Both Fulfilment and Hungry continue Edenmont’s preoccupation with sustenance and one of her unfounded fears was that she would not have enough money to feed a child. In Edenmont’s Family, the black clad Carolina stands tethered to two empty chairs, in Fulfilment her new symbolic family is created as she Edenmont the mythological mother watches tenderly over her sleeping charges. I find Cranach’s Charitas of 1534 in Hungry but the young boy clutches at the breast rather than the leg of the mother while his sister suckles at the breast. Once again Edenmont is the Maria Lactans, the nursing Madonna in her own Eden, her dead children reborn and resurrected.
In Edenmonts art her past whispers across the years to be caught and restaged in her extraordinary photographs. Her meticulous planning and attention to detail includes her designer hair stylist who creates elaborate, intricate and inventive styles under her direction. From her dedicated models, to the complicated lighting, to the meals that Edenmont provides, she leaves nothing to chance in the pursuit of her visions. We are propelled from Hades to the Garden of Eden, from a visual Song of Innocence to one of experience. In Edenmont’s images we sense deaths tendrils yet there is hope and rebirth, terrible beauty and calm idylls, her work is her bloodline and her life’s blood.