Denise Grünstein – En face
It is exciting that the Nationalmuseum has allowed a new art project and exhibition by Denise Grünstein to develop organically. Since the Swedish National Portrait Gallery at Gripsholm files under the Nationalmuseum, Grünstein’s portraits there formed a natural starting point. But the concept soon took off in a completely different direction. All that remained was a portrait of Queen Silvia, and then only as a comment on the artist’s new pictures. The result is shown in the exhibition En face, focusing on Grünstein’s art photography. This also includes examples from the artist’s earlier projects, as parts of a larger totality that is not shown in full here. Instead, only a selection is displayed, to enhance and explain the experience of the new work. Grünstein’s serial photographs do not convey stories with a beginning and an end. Instead, they are characterised by an emotional structure, where image is added to image, in complex interplay. This is why Grünstein’s oeuvre does not generate distinct meanings, but can be seen as part of a larger puzzle, or as clues in a detective story that invites the spectator to a dialogue. Her aesthetics is fundamentally open, with roots in the 1960s art situation that continues to dominate contemporary art.
The title of the exhibition, En face, refers to portraits in a broad sense. Denise Grünstein is a natural link in the long history of the art of portraiture. She began her artistic career as a portrait photographer for Swedish magazines such as Månadsjournalen and Elle. When carrying out these assignments she adhered to tradition, but also added a new dimension by combining fashion photography with a purely artistic approach. By styling her models with make-up, accessories and clothes, as though for a fashion shoot, she enhanced their visual impact. Instead of focusing on facial features to bring out the essential personality of the portrayed persons, Grünstein introduced elements to indicate their lifestyle and the aesthetics they surrounded themselves with. In other words, not only the most distinct personality traits, but also more marginal aspects that may even contradict the given identity. Naturally, these enigmatic and exciting qualities form a part of the photographic interpretation that is so characteristic of Grünstein.
It was the encounter between photographic assignments and art photography that inspired Denise Grünstein to let the various aspects enrich one another. In this way, her work came to oscillate between commercial approaches and the more humanistic values of art photography. This interaction was driven not only by the contradictions between different image conventions, but also depended on how she defined her artistic mission. In the beginning, she would set herself a task. Consequently, it is hard to establish exactly when Denise Grünstein took the step from one genre to the other, but there is reason to suspect that it took place in connection with the exhibition Bländande bilder (Dazzling Pictures) at Fotografiska Museet in Stockholm in 1981–82, which was her breakthrough as an art photographer.
When Stockholm was Cultural Capital of Europe in 1998, David Neuman launched a project called Arkipelag, for contemporary art that sought new forums outside the usual art institutions. Denise Grünstein was invited to create an exhibition at the National Museum of Science and Technology. She chose to show a series of photographs taken in 1996–97 on a trip that started in Berlin and went through the former GDR, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. 1996 Grünstein’s journey went to St. Petersburg. Her interest in former East Europe and parts of the central European cultural sphere originated in a travel feature where she had assigned herself the task of documenting the cultural conditions in eastern Europe after the Wall. Her incentive was to portray a world that was being obliterated by the influx of market forces and the transformation of communist planned economies into modern capitalist nations. The exhibition initially consisted of 17 images with the collective name Zone V. The title comes from the American photographer Ansel Adams and his way of seeing photography as a state between light and dark. This did not merely refer to the photographic starting point, but can also relate to an emotional state on a scale ranging from a form of optimism to deepest gloom when encountering the accounts from the concentration camps.
Denise Grünstein’s interest in history has also resulted in a collection of old photographic objects, including a formidable number of glass plates, the predecessor of the film negative. Since the large-format camera is also a historic relic, and the glass plates bear traces of past use, this prompted in Grünstein the idea of going back in time to the early days of photography. In Jaisana, on the Indian-Pakistani border, she found a place where time seemed to stand still. With camels and people, Grünstein staged a voyage to the landscape of the past, which eventually came together in an exhibition at Galleri Charlotte Lund in Stockholm. Here, the technically flawed photograph became an expression for another era.
Figure in Landscape
For those who had a preconceived notion of Denise Grünstein as a black-and-white photographer, her exhibition Figure in Landscape at Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 2001 may have come as a surprise. Grünstein continued to work with her large-format camera, but replaced b/w photography with an intensified colour scale. The exhibition featured ten photographs, where the technical quality had attained what amounted to hyperrealist perfection. An omniscient eye appears to have full control of every detail, in the hope of discovering something therein that would supply the answer to the mystery of these images. The pictorial suite shows a solitary woman in a beautiful natural setting, but her body language expresses a neurotic relationship to nature. Here, there is no trace of the communion with nature that is habitually seen as a male territory.
At the Hasselblad Center in Gothenburg Denise Grünstein showed the photographic series Malplacé in 2005. In these photos, Grünstein revisits a place that is very familiar to her. This is Hangö in the Finnish archipelago, where Grünstein spent many summers in her childhood. Despite her return to black-and-white photography, we should not mistake this for a nostalgic project about her private experiences from those days. At the centre is a middle-aged woman who appears to have come back to recall the happy summers of her youth. However, she gives the impression of feeling out of place both in her childhood landscape and in the current situation. It is this emotional state that can be characterised by the word malplacé, which means to feel out of place, not only geographically but also in one’s own body.
The First Voyage
In art history, we find the term voyage pittoresque, denoting the phenomenon of artists travelling to places that were deemed to possess particular beauty and visual (picturesque) qualities that were suitable for depiction. Skagen was one such place that attracted many painters in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was thus with great curiosity that Denise Grünstein set off for Skagen to take in the vast landscape there. One result was The First Voyage (2006), featured in the exhibition Eight Contemporary Commentaries, which accompanied the major Caspar David Friedrich exhibition at the Nationalmuseum in 2009. There are obvious formal similarities between Grünstein’s photography and Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings. Like him, she has extracted a part from what appears to be an infinite totality. In this eternity, Grünstein has placed a small, solitary figure, a woman. Just as in several of her other portrayals of women, the body of the female figure is in a strangely contorted posture. It transpires that one of her high heels has got stuck in the beach sand. This is an occurrence verging on the tragicomical, giving some indication of the difference between a male and a female relationship to nature.
The Figure Out series, shown at Galleri Charlotte Lund in Stockholm in 2009, is imbued with all the interpretational complexity indicated by the exhibition title. Figure Out, which has the dual meaning of outdoor figure and guessing, has similarities with the world of dreams and displays a surrealistic fascination for conscious and subconscious levels of the human mind. Here, the play between gender identities presents an exciting and uncharted territory.
The location in Figure Out is once more the beach in Skagen, where Denise Grünstein set up her studio, like a plein-air painter. Here she instructed a woman to perform more or less intelligible actions. Grünstein has removed the woman from a domestic environment and put her in a landscape together with elements from the interiors associated with women’s lives. The table with the white cloth appears in several of the pictures, as a sign of a bourgeois lifestyle, with its traditionally female responsibility for the social events that take place around the table. In the open landscape, the middle-class idyll is challenged by the forces of nature that the women are occupied with keeping at bay. This is an old-fashioned female role, accentuated by Grünstein with clothing that is reminiscent of the fashion worn by the women in the works of the Skagen painters.
The still life is one of the most common themes in art history and continues to be relevant today. In a suite of photos with the somewhat quirky title AcuteStillLife, or Stillebenakuten, Denise Grünstein has portrayed a still life that does not comply entirely with the established iconography, with its allusions to a still life, death. The exception is an eraser in the form of a skull, toying with a dangerous symbol that has become emblematic of the commodity fetishism of mass culture. The other objects include an exotic bird in the form of a parrot sculpted in wood, a cultural artefact representing nature, a miniature ceramic vase and a bowl of pigment. The latter has been used by Grünstein to paint a few exotic fruits that appear to be in a state of putrefaction. In Grünstein’s still life, they have been transplanted from nature to the cultural domain. This is one aspect of the duality that characterises the still life tradition, where death, paradoxically, does not entail entropy but life eternal.
Wunder / Winter
At the Galleri Charlotte Lund in Stockholm, Denise Grünstein created an exhibition in two parts, Wunder / Winter, in 2013. One part consisted of colour photos of an interior built in a corner of her studio. Set against a backdrop of muted nuances demurely suggestive of the 1940s, is a female figure in a marble-coloured body stocking. The figure has relinquished the classical physical ideal for a biomorphous body that occasionally takes on grotesquely irregular proportions. These female creatures are related to works by modernist sculptors such as Arp, Brancusi and Henry Moore. This is a tradition that sought to combine the female body and the shapes of nature into an ideal synthesis, and is an expression of a male attitude to the female body.
Winter, which was the title of the other part of the exhibition, suggests a considerably chillier temperature. In these photographs Grünstein has staged a form of historic tableaux, resembling the battles with tin soldiers that were fought in many boys’ rooms. Grünstein’s link between childish games and the realities of war appears like an educational (didactic) dissection of the male mind.
During her relatively short career as an art photographer, Denise Grünstein’s exhibition activities have mainly focused on galleries and other commercial art spaces, with the exception of her exhibition at Moderna Museet in 2001. The commission from the Nationalmuseum, leading to her project in the vacated museum building on Blasieholmen, is equally prestigious. In a series she has named “1866” after the Museum’s opening year, she explores the architectonic environment. Some of the photographs depict the building in a denuded state, with ladders and scaffolding as the only props.
The Nationalmuseum building is far more complex, however, than these bare halls reveal. Grünstein’s photographs also feature some odd nooks that do not seem to comply with the grand architectonic scheme. In these mysterious spaces Grünstein evokes a secret world, where things happen that seem to hold reminiscences from another time beyond any given reality. Grünstein has tinted the architecture with a reddish filter that can give the impression of protective plastic or some kind of dust sheet. But her motif is not as trivial as that. Red light is used in the darkroom when developing the invisible image and making it accessible for a female mindset.
In one of the most spectacular parts of the “1866” project, she populates the Nationalmuseum with figures that would not be out of place in a Hollywood production titled Night at the Museum. These figures can be interpreted as relics from the Museum’s collection that have suddenly come to life and roam the halls. And although these ghostly apparitions can be said to be figments of Grünstein’s imagination, her choice of bourgeois crinolines, which were in fashion exactly when the Museum first opened, present an alternative interpretation. The crinoline was an expression of the social and economic power of the bourgeoisie, but it could also represent the female body, which allows itself to be subjugated by prevailing ideals and preferences. The crinoline restricted movement but enhanced the body’s sculptural dimension. In Grünstein’s staged photos, the women (and some of the men) also wear masks, accentuating their lack of identity. It may appear odd that one of these pictures has the title En face, which is an art historic term normally denoting a full-frontal portrait. But en face also means confronting a person directly, which is apparently something of a feminist artistic strategy that Denise Grünstein implements.
Some of the exhibitions produced by the Nationalmuseum during its “exile” in the premises of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and Kulturhuset, juxtapose contemporary artists with works from the Nationalmuseum collection, in search of keys to the past that could also open doors between history and the present day. In En face Grünstein has applied the same curatorial approach. Grünstein has selected some works from the Museum’s collections but consciously avoided integrating them with the exhibition. Instead, she has photographed the reverse side of the paintings, as if she was refusing the works themselves. But this should probably be seen as a way of transforming them into readymades in the spirit of Duchamp. With this conceptualisation, she creates a secret dimension that we rarely get to see in museums. It contains masses of information about the origins, provenance and exhibition history of the paintings, involving a journey from their moment of conception to the present. This somersault takes the viewer back to the artist’s studio and to the actual moment of creation. In some strange sense, the reverse side feels more authentic than the front. Is this because of its novelty?
The exhibition in the Royal Academy of Fine Arts has a complexity that is held together by Denise Grünstein’s ability to highlight a problem from multiple perspectives, both in her choice of photographic medium, and in how the works are interconnected in an exhibition. In this respect, Grünstein approaches her task not only as an artist but also as a curator. She defines her works in relation to her entire oeuvre and to the context in which they are shown. It becomes obvious that Grünstein, in her fascination for how meaning is generated by context, presents a complex picture of what a museum is, and what it could be.