The Strange Becomings of
Curated by Kamini Vellodi
We also live in our dreams, we do not live only by day. ~ Carl Jung, The Red Book
In the darkly wondrous worlds of Marcelle Hanselaar, the drama of human existence - with its pathos and absurdity, its terrors and passions - is staged with an intensity and fringed with a mystery that propels it towards the sphere of the mythic. Primal dimensions of the human condition - desire, mourning, fear, solitude, belief - are refracted through the dynamics between self and other, individual and socius, dream and the waking state. Beyond definite time or place, these suspended image realms conjure states of being that transcend cultures and epochs. The archaic – with its elements of the cultic, the prophetic, and the ritualistic – meets the theatre of the contemporary psyche. And throughout this fertile universe of symbols and archetypes, we are made aware of a pervasive and insistent exploration of the liminal states of the human subject, the thresholds at which man becomes other, the ever-shifting borderlines of the self.
This exhibition brings together a group of works made between 2006 – 2021 that reveal Hanselaar’s journey as a penetrating investigator of the symbolic realm. Within this rich and expansive cosmos, a cluster of motifs - the colander, the canopy/palanquin, the jester, dogs, a woman with red hair – recur in ever renewed configurations, in ever-stranger kinships. There are no cosy interiors or pictorial landscapes here, and the signifiers by which we would firmly locate ourselves in the West are denied. That these indeterminate spaces and expanses of sea and desert could be anywhere in the world, and at different moments of history, testify to the nomadic lived experiences of the artist – who has spent much of her life in India, Japan and China. Hanselaar is truly a citizen of the world and her interrogation of human experience in infused with this expansive vision.
Becoming-animal and archetypes
What is real is the becoming itself, the block of becoming, not the supposedly fixed terms through which that which becomes passes.
The earliest works on show are two paintings from the Under My Skin series. In Under My Skin 3, a naked adolescent woman sits facing a large standing wolf-like dog clothed in a diaphanous apron. Slightly reclined, her gaze absent, her palms curled inwards, she appears almost defensively exposed to this oddly statuesque creature, who stares at her hungrily, openmouthed, pink tongue agape. In Under My Skin 5, a more mature naked woman emerges, with an expression of curious impassivity, from what looks like the flayed skin of the same wolf-dog. This woman is the object of intent observation by a dwarfish man in a diaphanous garment whose indirect gaze seems to bore through her, as though attempting to seek, precisely, what may lie under her skin. Receding in the distance is a small naked woman with red hair, and a burning pyre. Other works in the series show a woman in various stages of late childhood/early adolescence, communing with the dog creature. Is this a dramatisation of female sexual development? Is the Wolf-dog a prefiguration of the dwarf man?
A deeply ambivalent relationship between woman, dog and man bears perverse overtones in the implication of sexual relations between woman and dog. One can’t help thinking here of Sigmund Freud’s famous 1918 analysis of the ‘wolf-man’, a Russian aristocrat with an intense phobia of wolves. Freud had traced this phobia to a castration anxiety that had been expressed in the patient’s childhood dream of a group of wolves sitting in a tree. Understanding dreams as the disguised fulfilment of repressed infantile wishes, Freud interprets the wolf as an Oedipalized figure, the figure of the castrated father.
The Under My Skin paintings might offer themselves to such a Freudian reading. But I would argue that in Hanselaar’s world, desire is not, as it was for Freud, expressed through mechanisms of represion or the terms of lack. Instead, it manifests as a force that transfigures and multiplies the forms through which we think we know and identify ourselves. As the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari argue, what is key about the Wolf-man’s dream, and which Freud misses, is that there are several wolves – that the Wolf-man’s own ‘becoming-animal’ involves the apprehension of multiplicity’. Or as Hanselaar herself says, the fact that we are each ‘several parts at the same time’.
These paintings are not so much investigations of the ‘I’ and its neuroses, but explorations of the fluxes that traverse and splinter identity. It is in this sense that the fascinating relation between human and animal running through her work can be grasped. Wolf-dog, woman and man are less separate and distinct beings, and more interchangeable personages stemming ‘from the same source’, and which reveal the continuum of the primal and the ‘civilised’ within the human condition. The movement that makes human become animal (the dwarf man taking the place of the wolf) at the same time as making the animal become human (the wolf-dog that dons an apron and stands on two legs). What is so disturbing in her works is not simply the transgressive intimacy between human and animal, but that the relation of intimacy itself reveals the proximity, the affinity, the alliance, and even the indiscernibility of human and animal.
This matrix of relations exposes the transience of supposedly fixed subject positions. In this sense, Hanselaar’s motifs might be called archetypes, in the sense to which Carl Jung gave this term - unconscious universal forms, primal symbols and images that derive from the collective unconscious. It is upon this basis of an elementary symbolism, a collective imagism that traverses the personal, that we can approach the important dynamic between individual and crowd in Hanselaar’s work.
Crowds and rituals
Symbols are rooted in reality, and even the most barbarous rites and strange rituals translate some human need.
This examination of the nature of the crowd is core to a triptych of paintings made between 2013-14. Whilst all marked by a sense of menace, the identity of these motley groups of figures from different times and places, is hard to determine. They are defined less by shared attributes than by the event in which they participate. In Procession, a hooded character that would not be out of place in a painting by Pieter Brueghel stands next to a boy with a baseball bat and sweatshirt. Both are members of a crowd that is hoisting a naked woman crouched within a transparent box. Is she being venerated or is she an object of sacrifice? In Ritual, a bride, bathed in a supernatural light, lifts her skirt to offer her sex for worship by the crowd gathered tightly around her. At once idol and captive, her condition expresses the fine line between sacrifice and cultic veneration. In Who’s a Pretty Boy Then?, procession takes on an even darker tone. A shrouded corpse is being carried by a group of naked pall-bearers. But this action is no longer the centre of the composition - retreated to the background, it is disconnected from the crowd.
Indeed, it is fascinating to realise that this crowd no longer has a clear function. They are not witnesses, they are not going anywhere, and their actions are disconnected from each other. Here, it is the indifference of the crowd to the scene of death that perturbs us. Barbarity has shifted from the hysteric veneration of a cultic figure to a disturbing degree of self-absorption.
Is this an allegory of our contemporary condition? Hanselaar touches on a quality of the crowd that unsettles in its familiarity – the narcissistic subjugation of what does not belong or is no longer useful. In her attention to aspects of group behaviour that are as relevant today as they were in archaic societies, she prompts us to reflect on how collective beliefs emerge, and on the cyclical replaying of the follies and violences of human existence. Idol worship, the figures of the scapegoat and the ritual of sacrifice prefigure the modern cult of celebrity and its defilement of privacy, its dehumanisation, its spectacle and its tragic transience. This is a timely interrogation in the current age of tribalism, when group identification threatens to undermine our shared sense of humanity.
Such elemental themes of ritual, the crowd, myth and belief return in the four magisterial paintings of Hanselaar’s series, At The Oracle of Limbo (2020 – 2021). Whilst the interrogation of power dynamics between individuals and groups remains, the carnal bestiality of earlier paintings has been replaced by a more esoteric, mysterious and sacred atmosphere. All four works centre on a veiled Sibyl - a divinely inspired seeress who pronounced oracles – who is surrounded by groups and supplicants within barren, lunar desert landscapes. In the first work, under a starry black sky, the supplicant sets down a flask before the Oracle and averts her face. In the second, a young girl dances before the Oracle, watched by a red-haired figure with a Noh mask. In the third, a dreadlocked supplicant drinks from a bowl, squatting alongside a monkey companion. In the last painting, a supplicant, ignoring warnings, sacrilegiously touches the veil of the oracle and attempts to lift it. Across the 4 works, the supplicant is never the same, suggesting, perhaps, the cycle of truth-seeking that eternally returns. Again, we are invited to reflect on the topicality of such desire in our ‘post-truth’ age, where the critique of expertise and the entitlement to opinion masks the inaccessibility of truth under the illusion of attainment.
Painted after the death of her sister in February 2019, and during an intense period of solitude and experience of ‘limbo’ during lockdown, these works – part of an extended series called The North Sea series – are profound acts of query. Painting becomes the field through which questions of the absolute – here, the questioning of death - can be attended to in the human imagination, where the unconscious can pose questions that exceed words, and which, indeed, exceed the plane of the personal. As Hanselaar says, ‘it is my question, but not me’, that these paintings express.
These works are extraordinary feats of draughtsmanship. Hanselaar’s mastery of the human form expresses the power and command of great predecessors from Velasquez to Millet to Picasso. They occupy the terrain of the erotic with the combination of mystery and directness reminiscent of Balthus (except that here, woman is not only objectified). They bear the psychological intensity of Dorothea Tanning or even Schiele, and capture something of the satirical power of interwar artists such as Otto Dix, and perhaps especially Max Beckman, an artist of particular importance for Hanselaar, in his ‘confrontation with the hidden side of human nature.’ Hanselaar’s works have often been compared to another great master of the human form, Paula Rego. But whereas Rego’s works firmly occupy the space of storytelling, often based on preexisting stories, Hanselaar’s relation to narrative is less overt. Yes, there are tales here, but they are not based on preexisting stories – there is no ‘translation’, and Hanselaar explains that her works grow organically, through the act of painting itself. Painting itself is the scene of mythopoesis. These scenes furthermore lack the domesticity and interiority of Rego’s. Even when painted in memory of a familial relationship, we never feel they are stories ‘about’ the family; even when they pivot on ‘woman’ they are not ‘about’ woman.
Woman and the sea
The sea has no interior frontiers and is not divided into peoples and territories. It has one language, which is the same everywhere…. It is an image of stilled humanity; all life flows into it and it contains all life.
The latter group of North Sea paintings conjure Hanselaar’s memories of her childhood with her sister on the seashore at Scheveningen in the Netherlands. Evocative of the intense inwardness and sobriety of certain works by Odilon Redon, Cumulus is perhaps the most clearly expressive of this loss. A red-haired girl, half submerged in a dreamlike watery expanse, her hands reminiscent of a Buddhist mudra, gazes pensively beyond us whilst behind her, figures (on stilts, in a boat) move away from her.
The majority of the North Sea paintings depict a lone female figure – whose face we are never shown - near the edge of the sea, under a night sky, her silhouette made spectral by the intense light of the moon. Sometimes she is approaching the sea along a path (a path that Hanselaar and her sister would wander along as children), other times she stands at the sea’s edge, or in its shallows, or near to a little tower (close to where Hanselaar scattered her sister’s ashes). These are perhaps her most intense depictions of solitude, and bring to mind aspects of Northern European romanticism - the lone figure turned away from us, looking out at sublime limitlessness of nature (C.D Friedrich, Böcklin) – except that nature here is not a reminder of what is civilised in man, but the reservoir of the darker, primal forces in which man participates (and in this sense, they are perhaps closer to Norwegian painters such as Nikolai Astrup and Peder Balke). In their exquisite chiaroscuro and mystical atmosphere, these nocturnes could also be seen in a tradition extending from the 16th - 17th century Baroque (painters such as Jacopo Tintoretto, Salvatore Rosa, Adam Elsheimer or Guido Reni, who used dark backgrounds to heighten spiritual intensity), to 19th century works by Whistler and Léon Spilliaert.
Whilst marking a deeply personal journey of grief and mourning, these elegiac works are infused by a quality of the cosmic. Ghostly, ethereal, almost liquid, these women merge with their ever-shifting environment, conjuring the sense of cosmic immanence and interconnectivity, and of the sea as essential to this. Hanselaar has spoken of her apprehension, during this period, ‘of the sea as a beginning and end of some part of my life’10 and indeed, these works remind us of the sea as the archetype, across so many of the world religions, of the cycle of life and death, the source of all creation that is both the beginning and end of the cosmic cycle.
This move from the examination of the human crowd to the sea has a poetic logic – one which Elias Canetti captures in his magisterial 1960 book, Crowds and Power. He writes of the qualities of the sea to which the crowd aspires but can never attain:
In its impetus and its rage it brings to mind the one entity which shares these attributes in the same degree; that is, the crowd. But the sea has, in addition, the constancy which the crowd lacks. It is always there; it does not ooze away from time to time and disappear. To remain in existence is the greatest, though as yet fruitless, desire of the crowd; and this desire is seen fulfilled in the sea.
The life with which it teems is as much part of it as its enduring openness. Its sublimity is enhanced by the thought of what it contains, the multitude of plants and animals hidden within it. The sea has no interior frontiers and is not divided into peoples and territories. It has one language, which is the same everywhere. There is thus no single human being who can be, as it were, excluded from it. It is too comprehensive to correspond exactly to any of the crowds we know, but it is an image of stilled humanity; all life flows into it and it contains all life.11
In Hanselaar’s largest nocturne, Moonlight Dancer, inspired by a postcard of Winslow Homer’s Summer Night (1890), the female figure is no longer searching or querying, no longer isolated, but is liberated, dancing as though possessed in an ecstatic trance. A transfigured archetype of a pagan nymph or primordial sea goddess, she elevates from the earth, from the past, fusing with the eternal night. Illumined both by the pervasive light of the moon and by a crimson halo that emanates from within, she moves wildly, as the spectral figures of her deceased family look out over the horizon. The final work in the series, Moonlight Dancer marks the end of the quest, the turning away from memory and loss, and embrace of the living present as a borderless realm.
In their profound imaginative lucidity, their humility and reverence in the face of the most primal forces of human nature, and their clarity of a vision which nevertheless remains always partly mysterious to us, Hanselaar’s paintings invite us to reflect on the liminal edges, intensive zones and turning points of human experience at which what is most intensely personal attains a quality of the universal.
~ Kamini Vellodi