To Rend and To Sew

This essay was published in a catalogue accompanying Beata Ewa Białecka’s 2018 Ave Kobieta exhibition at the National Gallery in Gdansk.

 

 

Who are we looking at when we look on Beata Ewa Białecka’s portraits of children in death and those who grieve them? With very few points of reference provided by dress or setting, these women and their daughters appear outside time and place. We are used to reading faces for signs of history and experience, but in their cool, dispassionate demeanour, these women and girls reveal little. In Białecka’s art we don’t know who they are, what has happened or when. (Though perhaps we sense that all these women are Białecka and we know that even when the child appears at different ages in a single canvas, she is simply too young). And unlike so many representations of death, we lack the cues which afford its understanding. In movies or novels, for instance, death is connected to the fate that has been given to the individual by the narrative, and it is understood by the way it is witnessed and interpreted by others. Religion, perhaps more than any other form of human expression, is deeply invested in what Vivian Sobchak once called ‘narrative death’, seeking to render the end of life legible or meaningful.[1] What is the Christian church but a device created to suggest that one’s own death is part of some great design? But when it comes to the death of children, religion confronts perhaps the most formidable limit of comprehension. What meaning can be attached to a life which ends before it even has begun? It is hardly surprising then that it is a subject which is taboo. 

This has not always been the case. Early photographers were often commissioned to take post-mortem photographs of children. In the nineteenth century, juvenile death was so frequent that it touched all. Embracing the commemorative potential of the camera, parents of the dead dressed and carefully arranged their unlucky offspring in poses which suggested peaceful passage into the afterlife. Thereafter, photography – in the intimate form of the carte-de-visite – acted as consolation. According to Nicola Brown, ‘The photographs themselves, as objects, invite touch, and became miniature substitutes for the dead child whose image they recorded. As such, they filled the empty hands of the bereaved parents who mourned their dead children. They helped them to feel that their children were not lost to them, for they were, in a significant way, still there among the living’.[2] Photography’s much-celebrated capacity to continualise the present added greatly to this sense of being ‘still there’.

The biographies of the women and girls in Białecka’s art may be unavailable to us. But that does not mean that they are without histories. Białecka threads fabrics and other materials into her canvases: tulle veils act as diaphanous garments for her subjects; sometimes she embroiders her paintings with a dense lattice of needlework; and, occasionally, the surface is augmented by careful appliqué or beadwork. These threads lend Białecka’s art another kind of history, namely one made with stitches. The girls in the ‘Hodegetria’ paintings of 2009 are given, for instance, bodices featuring a rich and regular pattern of metal threads and glittering beads in the Renaissance manner. To be bejewelled in this way was once to be accorded status and, often, power. Here, in Białecka’s canvases the as yet unfolded tags which accompany these bodices suggest the pleasure of childish play and fantasy.

Other elements in her paintings have their histories too, not least the gestures of hands. ‘Priestess’ is a portrait of a woman with hands raised in supplication, a gesture adopted for the ritual of the Early Christian mass from Greco-Roman paganism and suggesting, perhaps, the outstretched arms of Christ crucified. She wears a triangular collar reminiscent of a liturgical vestment or perhaps even an iconostasis in the Orthodox tradition. Naked female figures occupy four niches in the semi-architectural structure embroidered in golden threads. Organised with careful symmetry, two identical women guard their nakedness – perhaps Eves in Eden – occupy the flanking panels; two more feature women who seem to be undergoing martyrdom in a hail of arrows; while the central tondo is filled by a two faces – one radiating brilliant golden light and holding her hands in the same gesture of supplication. In the Roman Catholic mass, this gesture – known as the Orans Posture – is reserved for the priest alone, and, as such, is the property of a man. In the way in which Białecka’s embroidered vestment reveals the gender of its wearer, one senses a feminism which the art historian Rozsika Parker once called ‘the subversive stitch.’[3]

In the eighteenth century, the handwork of stitching was swept up by a fashion for mourning embroidery. Young, middle class women in Europe and North America were encouraged to mark a death in the family with the production of a sampler or embroidered picture. In societies which laid down strict conventions about ‘appropriate’ behaviour, it is unsurprising that these acts of mourning took on conventional forms too. Typically, a death was marked with a embroidery of a tomb under a weeping willow tree or an urn with rose petals strewn nearby. In the Victorian period, the hair of the dead was threaded along with the coloured silks to keep a connection between the living and the lost. While grief was structured by a strong set of rituals, there is no reason to believe that it was not sincerely felt. To stitch was, in itself, a way of mourning.

In the two canvases which make up ‘Must Have’ (2015), Białecka stitches two red roses into the open palms of a pair of grey hands. Referring to the  tradition of commemorating the dead with flowers that can be traced back to the Roman festival of Rosalia, they too materialise grief. A sharp contrast is drawn between the sanguineous red of the flowers and the hands drained of life; and between the flatness of the paint and the veiny threads of the crewelwork. To embroider a canvas is to pierce its surface with a needle, to pull threads through a flat skin. Subtle differences in the colour of the threads allow textured blocks of colour to be built up and form to be modelled. The technique demands considerable attention, each of the many thousands of punctures being a point of precision. Nevertheless, Białecka allows odd threads hang loosely, like uncooperative hairs.

Białecka has exhibited ‘Must Have’ in intimate proximity to ‘Dolorosa’ (2015), a remarkable portrait of a woman with a prone child on her lap. Dressed in black and with an ashen pallor, mother and daughter mirror each other. But only the mother lives: her eyes are open and a vivid red heart is tacked to her chest with sewing pins. Vein-like threads hang towards, but fail to reach, the child. Unlike paint which can be worked to create illusions of size and distance, the thread always keeps its original scale. Drawing the eye, it pulls the viewer in and invites close looking. In fact, in Białecka’s threads and beads stimulate the memory of touch in the viewer. We know what these materials feel like: imagination can stroke the soft fibres of the flower and the desiccated surface of the painted hand. This envisioning allows the haptic associations of the word ‘touched’ to be connected to its emotional ones. As Susan Stewart writes, ‘to be “touched” or “moved” by words or things implies the process of identification and separation by which we apprehend the world aesthetically … we do not see our eyes when we see or hear our ears when we hear, but tactile perception involves perfection of our own bodily state we take in what is outside that state. The pressure involved in touch is a pressure on ourselves as well as upon objects’.[4] In other words, touch can know both connection and separation. Białecka’s art seems to want to hold on to the felt sensations of warmth of another’s body and, also, its coldness after death.

Alluding to the Sacred Heart and the meditative practices associated with the Rosary, hearts and the roses have special places in Catholic mysticism. They feature in Białecka’s art alongside other Christian devices and symbols including the lamb and the dove and, of course, titles like ‘Dolorosa’. They have been chosen by the artist for their revelatory associations, no doubt. But they are what we might call heterotopic tissues too – an effect suggested by the stitch. Heterotopic – a term employed in medical science – describes a displaced growth. Stitched into the canvas, a rose on the hand is both a bloom and a blooming. Similarly, outside the body, the heart seems to be an organ of growth rather than regulation. As such, both symbols express a hopeful but surely impossible desire for élan vital to yet overcome the stilling effects of death, to bring life to motionless. And yet, Białecka knows the limits of this desperate hope. Nothing is more marked by dark experience than the troublingly beautiful portrait of the girl entitled ‘Coffin Portrait of Klara’ (2015). Dressed in black shift and cap, she lies with her eyes closed, floating in an inky sea. Her garment bears an oversized heart embroidered in silver thread. Each ventricle and vein seems to have detached and withered. The silver of the thread is mirrored by the cold hues of the girl’s skin.

Is ‘Coffin Portrait of Klara’ the end? Or the beginning? It is tempting to put Białecka’s works in some kind of order; to produce the ‘narrative death’ which our culture seems to require and which religion promises. Placing it on a timeline with Białecka’s other works would be to claim it as a frame in a film or an episode in a tale. More than that, mourning itself in classical psychoanalytical theory is described as something like a story in which the mourner passes through different states of grief in order to come to terms with their loss. Freud distinguished mourning with melancholia; to his mind an unhealthy state in which the grieving person, compelled to revisit the trauma over and over, lives in death (eschewing ‘the instinct which compels every living thing to cling onto life’[5]). Death has to be made to die. Białecka’s ‘Narcissus’ (2015) shows a woman on all fours, collapsed in grief and staring into a platter. Her gaze is returned by the image of a skull framed by a floral border (enduring skulls and fugitive flowers forming symbolic axis of the Vanitas tradition in the history of art). The border is thickly embroidered in a silver silk, and the skull has a moire effect which is known as ‘watered-silk’. The woman, it seems, is finding herself as death in a watery mirror. In this way, ‘Narcissus’ might be taken as a portrait of melancholia.

In the Freudian tradition, all-encompassing grief is something which needs to be overcome, a condition which needs correcting. But is it? AS Byatt, the art historian and novelist, has often addressed her son’s death at the age of eleven in her poems and short stories. She describes mourning as a matter that ‘will go on and on till the end of time, it’s a continuous present tense’.[6] After death, a child is perpetually present, to his or her mother, whether she crafts momento mori like poems or paintings or not. Viewed in these terms, the ‘abnormal’ melancholic refusal to end the process of grieving is in fact a way of not killing the dead again. It is what one writer has called a ‘protest against the amnesia of mourning’.[7] Eschewing narrative cues and embracing affect, Białecka’s art is surely a touching act of not-forgetting.

 

[1] Vivian Sobchak, ‘Inscribing ethical space: ten propositions on death, representation, and documentary’ Quarterly Review of Film Studies, 9 (1984) cited in Jonathan Kahana, ed., The Documentary Film Reader: History, Theory, Criticism (Oxford: OUP, 2016) 880.

[2] Nicola Brown, ‘Empty Hands and Precious Pictures: Post-mortem Portrait Photographs of Children’ in Australasian Journal of Victorian Studies, vol. 14, no. 2 (2009).

[3] Rozsika Parker, The Subversive Stitch. Embroidery and the making of the Feminine (London: Women’s Press, 1984).

[4] Susan Stewart, Poetry and the Fate of the Senses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002) 162.

[5] Sigmund Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. XIV., ed. James Strachey (London: The Hogarth Press) 246.

[6] A.S. Byatt, ’The July Ghost’ in Sugar & Other Stories (London: Vintage, 1995) 39-56.

[7] Colin Davis, Haunted subjects: Deconstruction, Psychoanalysis, and the Return of the Dead (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2007) 148.

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