As I’m about to start writing, my gaze is caught by a yellow spring blossom outside the window. Indeed, flowers must be the eyes of nature. If trees and leaves are body and respiratory system, flowers give a certain place its scent and atmosphere. Analogously, eyes are not just for seeing, but for capturing our attention. And, of course, attention is not only about what we see, but what we sense.
Browsing through Clara Gesang-Gottowt’s work, I’m similarly struck by an unassuming grayish painting of what looks like a celestial body or, even more so, a dandelion puff before the wind catches the seeds. Indeed, the irregularity of the sphere suggests movement. And the crack of absent paint running diagonally across the surface indicates that the painting is a depiction of an event. The crack is an event, or, rather, the trace of an event which has left its mark on the canvas. Something was there – a branch, apparently – which, when it was removed, left a gap in the layers of paint. A crack in time, through which we can see the sky-blue hue of the canvas as it once was.
The painting’s title, Eye, suggests that it has something to say about perception. And perhaps it is this: what we see is a memory, always a memory. We can’t see without remembering, just as we can’t remember without dreaming. We can’t see without dreaming.
It might be the shimmering gray paint that makes me think of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Buried Giant (2015), about an older couple’s journey through a desolate moorland in sixth-century England in search of their son. Do they even have a son? They’re not certain. Like everyone else, they are suffering from memory loss brought on by the mysterious mist that blankets the land. Still, they decide to follow their intuition, which tells them they have a son, even if they’ve forgotten him.
Ishiguro’s novel can be read as a moral tale about how amnesia causes the couple to not only lose grasp of the past, but also, as a consequence, to lose their child, their future. The fact that they aren’t alone – the entire country has been afflicted – renders it a striking allegory of an era, our era, that has entered a lethargic state because people have lost the ability to remember. And when we can no longer remember, we cannot see. And when we cannot see, we can no longer dream. We become trapped in a haze without a sense of direction; the future is sealed.
The novel can also be seen as an allegory of art. Only by intuitively pushing their way through oblivion can artists recapture the future that real life constantly robs them of. I imagine this is something all artists are familiar with. Yet, Clara is one of the most intuitive artists I know.
When I recently spoke to her on the phone, Clara ruminated about her tendency to paint too fast. She needs to slow down, she said, to make fewer paintings that take up too much space in the studio, to be more discerning.
To describe Clara’s work as serene, which has occasionally been done, seems, in other words, too facile. It’s true that her paintings often evoke a stillness, but it’s a stillness that seems to hide an intense activity beyond the surface. This impression is confirmed when she describes her work process as deeply focused, loud even. She tells me that she can’t even listen to the radio while working because the sound would be drowned out by the noise created when she charges on her canvases with brushes and rags. She applies the paint and then scrapes it away. Takes a step back. Rubs, applies, removes. Starts over again.
Once a painting is finished, not much paint remains on the canvas. The layers are quite thin, yet the color is not diluted. Rather, it is charged with depth and emotion. The important thing is that she is there. The task of the painting is not primarily to woo the viewer with various painterly effects, but to convey precisely what she wanted to express.
This way of deeply rooting her work in personal experience seems to set Clara apart from many other painters of her generation. It is true that she shares both the new materialists’ interest in the material properties of paint and the neo-figurative painters’ urge to depict a reality outside art. But she has too much imagination to be interested in painting merely as painting, and too much integrity to want to illustrate an idea or narrative by depicting it. The images that Clara makes have to be developed through the process of painting, but simply displaying the effects and impressions of that process can never become an end in itself.
This results in paintings that are abstract in the sense that they withdraw from public discourse and profound as they burrow inward into their own experience. Yet, there is always a subject; they always represent something. But it seems less important for Clara to portray what she has seen, and more urgent to access how she experienced what she saw. And to do that, she has to move forward intuitively. Sometimes, identifiable shapes appear during the process; sometimes, an image – i.e. a flower – dissolves and disappears along the way.
The flower might, for instance, be yellow. But how it is yellow is quite a different matter. The yellow can blaze or radiate or shimmer or shine or twinkle or quiver. There is always a how that lends a certain experience its unique sensory character. Add to this its intensity, clarity, mood, etc. Painting the flower doesn’t necessarily equal capturing its likeness; reaching for the how doesn’t always mean picturing the what. You have to add duration, time, to the experience.
Some might say that any painter who takes on a subject matter does not only paint what they have seen, but also how they experienced what they saw. Isn’t that what painting figuratively is? Still, I think that what sets Clara apart is how she lingers in that state, stretches it out in time and insists on reaching a state where sensory impressions haven’t yet been sorted, where our usual way of matching what we see with what we know, and what we know with what we can describe, doesn’t fully apply. It is in that state – which we can often only approach through oblivion – that a certain impression, e.g. of a painting, can reach beyond what is in the moment.
A couple of years ago, I saw the series Sunflowers I–III in an exhibition at Johan Berggren Gallery in Malmö. I remember being impressed by Clara’s resolve to take on such a charged subject matter in such a distinctive way. For these paintings are unmistakably hers, just as they are unmistakably sunflowers. And yet, each painting is strikingly different from the others.
The first painting looks most like a traditional bouquet of flowers; a deep blue foundation shines through the yellow paint in parts, creating the impression of a warm, quivering blaze. The second painting also has a blue foundation, but its colors are less intense and the composition is evenly distributed across the surface. To me, the depleted watery effect makes the sunflowers appear like a riverbed with yellow-green vegetation moving with the swirling current. The third painting has a similar all-over effect, but is executed in reddish and brownish hues. The watery associations are replaced by a warm glow about to flare up.
What is fascinating is that, despite their internal differences, each painting in its own way seems to capture something like the essence of the flower. It takes me a while to understand why, but then I realize it must be due to the swirl or vortex that reoccurs in all of them. Now, a vortex is phenomenon that appears both in water and fire, in our thinking as well as our emotions. A centripetal movement in a body of water pulls in whatever is nearby, whereas our own whirling thoughts make us lose our way in pursuit of what we were thinking, etc. The sunflower being associated with this figure is no coincidence, presumably due to the two spirals running in opposite directions in the flower head and adhering to the proportions of the golden ratio. And the fact that sunflowers are said to instinctively turn toward the warmth and light of the sun has probably contributed to the connotations of ecstasy and insanity. This blending of inner and outer realities through the vortex seems to be exactly what Clara’s paintings are about.
If the vortex is a sensory phenomenon with similar properties regardless of where it appears, something analogous can perhaps be said about the wave. I am thinking of the painting January in which dark water appears to be crashing down over the viewer. Clara often rubs away the traces from her tools, but here the brush strokes remain in the form of dirty green and red parts scratched into the paint. She must have used a hard brush (or its tip) in order to achieve the roaring impression of something towering at the top of the canvas and falling down the middle.
To me, the painting is about being overpowered, pulled down, and drawn in by a strong force, about the experience of drowning. Of course, there might be a subjective dimension to that interpretation. Nevertheless, is there not also a common sensibility to what a darkness or a wave actually feels like? I think anyone who sees the painting will understand what I mean.
In 2019, Clara was the recipient of the Aguéli scholarship for a painterly and spiritual endeavour akin to the Swedish painter, anarchist, and mystic Ivan Aguéli (1869–1917). The choice felt logical, not necessarily because she has very much in common with Aguéli’s political and philosophical views, but because both artists seem driven by a similar longing for freedom beyond the narrow confines of modern society. Perhaps one can speak of a kind of critique – in the guise of an internal determination to be absolutely true to painting, to one’s own experience, rather than to the linguistic concepts used to describe and categorize it (as abstract or figurative, for instance) – of civilization.
There is little indication, however, that Clara shares a fascination with the esoteric or supernatural that has become so common today. Rather, what I see in her work is a sensory and material approach to painting, one which does not rely on any external principles or claims of truth, but only on the volatility of its own immanent process of knowledge.
Clara has even said that it’s painting that teaches her how she wants to live her life. This recalls Swedish philosopher Martin Hägglund’s idea of a “secular faith” based on the recognition of the inevitable ephemerality of existence. In his book This Life (2019), Hägglund expounds on how true spiritual freedom must be based on a concern for the sensory diversity and fragility of “this life,” not on some otherworldly or timeless principle. The point here is that life’s evanescence is also the temporal dimension of painting simply because what is depicted is always a memory of something that has happened, which the painting preserves. To truly recognize this would mean to approach painting tentatively and gently, with a strong focus on its immanent process. Like Clara.
If Clara’s expression is reminiscent of anthroposophical painting, this can be attributed to being influenced by Rudolph Steiner’s Waldorf pedagogy as a child. In a series of figurative paintings from her years at the Royal Academy of Art in Stockholm, 2007–2013, she has even depicted what could be the kind of ritual celebrations of nature that are a cornerstone of Waldorf schools. These images are based on staged photographs, and show groups of people dressed in ceremonial garb involved in mysterious rituals. There are also bonfires, aggressive dogs, and people dancing around a maypole, all contributing to the solemn, almost sinister, atmosphere that characterizes this body of work.
Looking closer, these early paintings appear to invoke the memory of a mythical childhood landscape where certain experiences reoccur and are reinforced while others fade into the background only to remain as shadows or moods. In a sense, that description is still apt for how Clara’s paintings are still structured by the continuous interplay of memory and forgetfulness.
In a group of acrylic paintings on unprimed canvas from 2018–2019, she actually tried to relive how it was to paint, wet-on-wet, as a child in a Waldorf school. Eye is part of this series. As is the somewhat larger Memory Shard, in which a group of red and blue flowers appears to float like some half-forgotten memory above a shimmering purple haze.
As opposed to the labour-intensive oil paints that Clara favors, the water-soluble acrylic paint gets absorbed quicker by the unprimed surface. This requires a different kind of planning, as well as different kinds of material effects. Just right of centre in Memory Shard, there is such an effect in the form of an irregular absence of paint, a light and almost circular void which reads as an index for longing after something that is no longer there. On closer inspection, the flowers too follow a circular pattern. Now the void is not an emptiness as much as an opening, just as the flowers are not just flowers, but small energetic bodies: children twirling in a playful dance.
The painting makes me think of Swedish Romanticist Nils Blommér’s iconic Ängsälvor (Meadow Fairies, 1850), in which a group of fairies dance in a reddish-blue evening light. The fairies express a similar sadness and yearning alongside a force of nature that makes them flicker. The dance becomes a fire; the dancers become flames. The same thing occurs in Memory Shard. Despite its melancholy expression, the sorrow is depicted as something like a shared experience. There is always a warmth and friendliness to Clara’s work, which differs from the notion of the solitary painter in the studio. For her, painting seems connected to commonality rather than heroics.
As far as I know, there is only one example that deviates from this by communicating a sense of loneliness or desolation. I’m thinking of My Duras Painting (p. 2), in which black vertical stripes are painted over a set of horizontal blue, green, and purple stripes of similar width. At first, one might see a painting which mimics the textile weave of the canvas it’s painted on. But then an image appears: the horizontal stripes expose a beach and a blue sea, while the black stripes become a semi-transparent curtain separating the viewer from the horizon in the far distance.
It’s easy to imagine how working on the painting led Clara toward a place reminiscent of how Marguerite Duras describes proximity to the sea, to darkness and solitude. Hence, the literary reference. And just like Duras’s prose, Clara’s way of painting reaches outward while also bending inward toward its own experience. This can certainly be daunting, but never, except in her “Duras painting,” isolated or cut-off. Maybe it’s because the memory of painting together with others as a child has remained the foundational experience for her as an artist.
This feeling of isolation stands out in yet another way by embodying a passivity that can only be understood as the opposite of activity, by being an image of non-activity or withdrawal from active life. For if there is something old in Clara’s work (old as the couple in Ishiguro’s novel), it is precisely because she refuses to adapt to the production-and-labor paradigm of the present. That is, if contemporary artists tend to be caught up in the passivity–activity dichotomy of late capitalism, Clara insists on the antediluvian notion of art as contemplative work. Such work is in a strict sense neither active nor passive, but a lingering and pensive preoccupation of the senses.
Of course, in The Human Condition (1958), Hannah Arendt famously criticized the place of contemplative life in the Greco-Christian tradition. Contemplation had, according to the German philosopher, been prioritized at the expense of active life, compounding the latter with labour and denigrating the human as a working animal. But, as Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han has noted, Arendt herself denigrates contemplative life by reducing it to non-activity, thus acting as hand-maiden for a capitalist system obsessed with work, efficiency, and production. Contemplation, by contrast, cultivates hesitancy, restraint, and uncertainty of life resting in itself.
Today, the totalization of labour has gone so far as to enter the innermost workings of the mind, creating a soulless worker for whom death above all else entails an unacceptable break with productivity. This is precisely why the future has become an impossible time horizon for the hard-working contemporary artist. When he or she invokes another time, it is almost always on the terms of the present. This is exactly what Clara wants to resist. In her paintings, different times are allowed to interact, relieving each other, anticipating and dissolving into each other, as in a dance. Such work by definition is not labour, but reverie in collaboration with nature.