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Juul Kraijer combines culture and nature
A structure of gossamer-thin ramifications
by Wilma Sütö
Juul Kraijer is an artist with golden hands, known for her large and yet extremely intricate drawings of mysterious women fused with aspects of nature. These figures, who have dominated her oeuvre for the past fifteen years, blend two worlds. Often part-human, part-animal, they may also embrace a shrub, the root system of a tree or an entire volcanic landscape. It is this miraculous state of being that provides their raison d’être. They emerge from the paper on which Kraijer has elaborated them in charcoal or chalk and are entirely self-contained. Their world does not include anything else; the paper around them remains blank. Just as in marshland the water saturates the earth and the earth weighs the water down, these creatures are drenched in ambiguity, eyes closed and face averted. They have something that we do not, and since they present it to us with an oracular majesty, they are not only seductive and enviable but also rather unsettling.
Take the shimmer of greyish cloud that constantly hovers in the corner of my eye while Juul and I are chatting in her studio. The cloud is composed of a swarm of moths, into which a young woman is dissolving or from which she has just emerged. She has a classical profile, as serene as a cameo portrait, and there is no suggestion that the moths are annoying her. On the contrary, she is engrossed in the rustling and whispering of her wings, as if they have something to teach her. At least, that is what I thought at first. When I came up close to the drawing, I was startled to discover that her submission to the moths arose perhaps from their inexorable presence; they were simply impossible to beat off. Her more than stoic facial expression was not yet familiar to me from Kraijer’s work. I certainly recognised the unfathomable concentration, but not this fatalism. Before my eyes the cloud changed into a plague, a harbinger of doom and a widow’s veil for the nude woman. Although the drawing was still unfinished, in white chalk on black paper, it was already so suggestive. Like a nightmare that will not be banished.
Kraijer’s work automatically elicits personal interpretations. Her visionary images easily engender thoughts and emotions in those who see them. Kraijer herself is reluctant to pronounce on specific images or their iconography. ‘Artists do not have everything under control, you know,’ she says. ‘I frequently have the feeling that I am no more than a conduit.’ The fabulous beasts, phantom beings, gods and demigods that are brought into being by her hands are a wayward company. They are natural creatures that have escaped from mythology. Unlike the nymph Daphne, who changes into a laurel tree to avoid the advances of the besotted god Apollo, Kraijer’s women do not undergo any metamorphosis. They are by nature part tree, part woman, or some other form that is one with the animal and plant kingdoms. Their origins are not only in art history (‘How could Daphne not be an example, once you have seen how convincingly Bernini fashions her fine bones in marble growing into twigs?’), but also in the surrounding world.
The jungles of India, her husband’s native country, is just as fertile a source of inspiration for Kraijer as the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, where she discovered the beauty of Indian miniatures as a teenager on a trip with her father. ‘At first sight, the gods that appear in them surrender little of their omnipotence, which is a creative force but frequently cataclysmic as well. They are subdued, with deceptively simple, beautifully stylised contours. For all their outlandish circumstances, they remain paragons of elegance.’ And the fabulous images that Kraijer studies in the realm of the gods have constant parallels in the beauty of nature – a beauty that may prove treacherous [ok??]. The body of a giant turtle that she came across on the beach of one of the Galapagos islands and that concealed within its battered shell a cavern of rotting flesh, crawling with maggots, galvanises the imagination as potently as her collection of antiquarian acquisitions at home in the bookcase she built herself.
A recent addition to the numerous art catalogues arrayed there is Das Ewige Antlitz (translated into English as ‘Undying faces’) first published in 1926, with death masks of renowned figures. Kraijer had searched for this book for many years, and leafing through it, I began to understand why. These faces – whether serene, sagging or tautened – showed a state in which life has only just slipped away. The figures in Kraijer’s own world open up a twilight area akin to the transition that becomes visible here: at the interface between self-awareness and loss of self. The woman with the moths, who looms up on the wall in Kraijer’s studio, is likewise absorbed in a transitional zone, mid-way between the ephemeral and the eternal. Sunk in a half-sleep suggestive of sorrow, she dissolves into a cloud of moths.
Culture and nature are inextricably entwined in Kraijer’s work, but her images are also a combination of outer and inner worlds, appearance and interior. They encompass a dream of liberation, a desire to transcend one’s own human limitations. ‘The world is miraculous without our filter of rationalism,’ observes Kraijer. ‘But as soon as you try to express that in words, it immediately turns into mysticism.’ She waves a newspaper she had picked up in a train when a book review caught her eye. It contains a quotation from Het geniale dier: een andere antropologie (‘The gifted animal: an alternative anthropology’) by the philosopher René ten Bosch: ‘Human beings are the only animals that do not know whether they are human or animals’. She explains: ‘From his perspective, the notion that all living creatures share one and the same reality is a fiction. Every species inhabits its own world, limited by its senses and instincts, each of which are adjusted in quite different ways.’ Kraijer is acutely conscious of these differences. She can dispel them in her artworks, but sleeping in the Indian jungle she was alive to the slightest sign of an approaching bear or snake. ‘As a human being with a useless sense of hearing and smell, you are at a serious disadvantage.’
Through mutual acquaintances, Kraijer and her husband, the artist Aji V.N., were able to stay in a tribal settlement. They slept under a shelter beside an apparatus used in the daylight hours to distil oil from lemongrass, on a fragrant bed of boiled-out lemongrass. In the morning they would set off down a rocky riverbed into the jungle. ‘Guides go too fast, it breaks the enchantment.’ But they were vigilant, and sometimes found themselves quaking. ‘Still, my curiosity is even stronger than my arachnophobia,’ Kraijer confesses. ‘As for the elephants, we knew that they were two days’ journey away from us. We had to watch out for wild cattle – colossal, aggressive bulls, like tanks. But in the jungle although you often hear sounds that might be interpreted in many different ways, you don’t actually see much of the animals. All you find are tracks, and animal tunnels – which are best avoided – through the otherwise impenetrable undergrowth. The ghastliest thing I ever encountered was an abandoned hut. Poking my head around the door, I saw that all the walls and the entire ceiling were covered in thick layers of thin-legged spiders, all of them pulsating up and down in the same rhythm. I felt I was looking into the innards of a living organism that had been opened up. It was so disgusting that Aji had to pull me away; I was hypnotised.’
If Kraijer had been carrying her camera, she would have photographed the heaving spider colony in spite of her revulsion. Then she could have included the images in the video work Inner Eye from 2007, in which the public looks through a perfect almond-shaped eye, which fills the screen in an extreme close-up, like a magical eye in which the entire world is reflected. The eye alternates with images from nature. Trees in an ancient forest, tall and erect, ranged behind one another, a glittering array of trunks. Birds in full flight. A water surface with a single water lily floating on it. Two fish, their round synchronous mouths gasping for air. And always that eye, which is constantly, subtly, moved by all those rhythms in the natural world: the wrinkled crown of a tree, the sparkling water, the vibrations of insect wings. The eye drinks in these images or projects them for us, some of them peaceful and others disturbing, until we see ants flying in the dark, swooping around a flame and ending up scorched in the candle grease. Then the film starts again, in a loop of ever-recurring images.
The eye in Inner Eye is as concentrated as the figures in all Kraijer’s work: engrossed in creation’s mysteries. ‘Even the unsightly is spectacular when seen properly. And a good work of art helps you to look,’ adds Kraijer. ‘Just to look. Without any of the concepts that usually obscure your gaze.’ She sees herself as emulating Aldous Huxley, whose ‘The Doors of Perception’ (1954) describes his experiment with synthetic mescaline. His book is not so much an exciting account of drug-enhanced experience as an exploration of the scope of consciousness. ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.’ It is this quotation from the poet and artist William Blake that inspired the book’s title. But Huxley describes the threat as well as the wealth of that infinite world, in which we would lose ourselves if observation were completely uninhibited. ‘This, I suddenly felt, was going too far. Too far, even though the going was into intenser beauty, deeper significance. The fear, as I analyse it in retrospect, was of being overwhelmed, of disintegrating under a pressure of reality greater than a mind, accustomed to living most of the time in a cosy world of symbols, could possibly bear.’
Kraijer is convinced that art provides an escape route: it is here that we can celebrate our powers of observation and expand our reflections on reality without the risk of losing control or suffering a bad trip. She recalls the passages in which Huxley dwells on the intensity of painting. He finds that entire worlds are concealed even within painted drapery: they make up a labyrinth of endless suggestive complexity and envelop countless human figures. Figures are actually made up largely of the abstraction of folds in fabric, Huxley discovers, and he ends up comparing draperies to ‘living hieroglyphs’. ‘What the rest of us see only under the influence of mescaline, the artist is congenitally equipped to see all the time,’ he writes. And Kraijer adds in a down-to-earth way: ‘Of course, since looking is my profession I am always looking, and what I see, or want to see, becomes visible to others through my artworks.’
Still, there is a difference between the eye in Inner Eye that feeds on the peerless creation and the perception of nature in Kraijer’s drawings. While the film, partly as a recording medium, explores the outside world and expresses an ode to nature, Kraijers’ figures on paper embody a state of mind. They blend with their surroundings in an amalgamation that is filled with melancholy. The female protagonist in Kraijers’ oeuvre, the nymph that constantly recurs in her drawings, is not opposed to nature but subsumed into it. She is not an individual but an abstraction, a conceptualised apparition [??]. Her profile can reflect light like the moon and is kissed by moths. The drawings convey a blistering desire for union with the universe [??] while at the same time recalling the discord that must be conquered if this union is to be achieved. This tragic realisation is inescapable. It is the loneliness of ‘the only animals that do not know whether they are human or animals’, the animals that, filled as they are with admiration for the cycle of the seasons and that of existence, cannot deny their own mortality.
In one of Kraijers’ latest drawings, a nude woman branches into a flamboyant piece of shrubbery. It is a detailed vision, composed in white chalk that seems to emit light on the black paper. The crown flares all around, and with its tangle of slender twigs and leaves it is reminiscent of precious lace. An expertise built up over many years becomes visible here: Kraijers’ own fabulous drawing technique as well as the resonance of her studies of other arts. The latter becomes particularly clear in her reaction when I express my fascination with the intricate shrubbery. She produces a special ‘file for lace and cut-out art’, in which she keeps images of seventeenth-century Italian lace, especially the gossamer-thin Venetian point de neige. She also brings out a little fake lace cloth made of paper, on which pies are served – a souvenir from a restaurant. But the most important example is an image of cut-out work made by the seventeenth-century scholar and theologian Anna Maria van Schurman, who also became known as an artist. She incorporated a six-pointed star and her initials into a paper pattern of foliage. The artwork measures scarcely more than ten centimetres across, and yet an elegantly stylised garden of paradise unfolds even on this tiny scale. Kraijer is impressed by the way in which the figuration dissolves in the pattern and points to the ingenuity with which it was constructed. ‘Each fragment is at one with the whole, all parts must remain literally connected with the rest; otherwise a piece could suddenly fall out.’
It is not the first time, in the summer of 2008, that Kraijer has drawn inspiration from this ingenious miniature. She enriches her sources of inspiration and transforms them over the years. Eight years earlier she combined charcoal drawings with ornaments cut out of paper. Stylised silhouettes of birds and plants glide across the cut-out face of a woman: decorative incisions that are half-way between dream images and tattoos. The girl with the cloud-breath comes from the same period. She too has been cut out of paper, and a lace bush, as fine as ice crystals, grows from her mouth. The virtuoso handicraft echoes not only Van Schurman’s cut-out but also an array of natural variants. Hanging on the wall in Kraijer’s studio is a piece of coral: lace from the sea. With the bare veins of its flaring leaf, coral also recalls a system of roots or blood vessels. This, Kraijer confirms, is the structure to which she is reaching out. The branches of culture and nature, of lace and cuttings, of ice crystals and the trees in the forest, the coral from the sea and the blood vessels in our own bodies: all repeating motifs of veins that sustain life.
Translated from the Dutch by Beverley Jackson, 2008