Stine Berg Evensen
There was drizzle in the air in what resembles an ordinary forestland area, a hillside which, despite the fact that it is neither deep nor round, is called the Gardnos Crater. Geologists have known for a long time that there were special types of rock there, including something which is called breccia, but it was not until the 1990s that they discovered that these speckled stones can be explained by the fact that a meteorite hit the Earth there 500 million years ago. The collision by the huge heavenly body led to the hill being blasted, and as the minerals fell down again, they mixed in new ways. Where they landed this composite rocky ground now lies.
In actual fact, this did not take place ‘there’. Back then, this place did not lie where it now does but somewhere beneath the sea, south of the equator. Later, as the tectonic plates shifted, the crater probably lay in a high massif. And now the place is a kind of steep side valley in the Norwegian forests. While I stood there, in the middle of a dried-up river bed, listening to the young guide describing all this, it struck me that every single drop of rain also made a crater when it struck the small puddles in the hill. Admittedly, extremely small craters – and only for a brief instant.
I thought of this again when, a couple of weeks later, I was standing in Marianne Mannsåker’s studio in Borg. On the one hand, there is nearly always something in her pictures that draws me out towards the boundaries of what I can comprehend, far outside my own range. At the same time, my attention is drawn towards a line or a stitch. I try to absorb signs and geometrical shapes that I cannot fully decipher, and while doing so I find something completely recognisable. In this text I will attempt to show how both the concrete and abstract in Mannsåker’s work challenge our everyday perspective; in a line, a point, a leaf, a word – or something that just looks like a word.
Constellations: Pentagram and Corona
In the small, square picture Pentagram from 2019, a yellow, a green, a blue and a red circle have been embroidered in four respective corners. In the middle there is a similar round shape in violet. The fields have been embroidered in such a way that they almost resemble watercolour. The fabric in which they have been embroidered is a piece of old silk brocade, and between the circles run thin, white-embroidered lines. Each line consists in turn of ten rows, like rays. Mannsåker says that the number five here refers, among other things, to the five fingers of the hand that has made the picture. That fits with the small size of the picture, and it is almost tempting to touch it, so that one’s own fingers can follow the lines and touch the circles, like a meeting on either side of a window pane. The title Pentagram would indicate that the form was a five-pointed star, a visual symbol with a rich history. But what we are looking at is clearly a square with a cross at the centre. The absence of a star form causes me to think that the picture seems more to show points of light floating in some kind of space. Viewed in this way, the picture resembles a star sign, and I start to imagine how the form would look in three dimensions.
There are two textiles involved in Pentagram (as in every embroidery): one woven and one embroidered. Since embroidered stitches bore through the fabric, there are two layers here in the same surface. This is not the case in, for example, a drawing, where the paper functions as a background. In Pentagram, it is as if the woven material forms an outer space. It gives the white brocade an expression which is far removed from my immediate associations with the highly formal parties of my childhood, with salmon and cucumber salad on oval dishes, or Renaissance portraits of clergymen and wealthy personages. But even on a dining table or in luxury attire brocade does not only have a decorative function but also a symbolic assignment, since it elevates the situation to something ‘finer’, something solemn. We sense a certain grandeur when we face the small picture.
Until 2007, tapestries were Mannsåker’s most important medium, although she describes herself as being first and foremost a painter. The freedom to work with a stronger pulse and with various formats were important reasons why she moved on from the warp-weighted loom. More important than this dividing line is basically that she never seems to have used materials with measurements to find the distinctive nature of a medium. Where, for example, the Bauhaus artists of the 20th century, regarded it as the primary assignment of the textile artist to develop a ‘tactile vocabulary’, as opposed to the significance of colour for the painting and that of space for architecture,(1) it is impossible to find such clear dividing lines between Mannsåker’s various works, even though different media can be linked to various periods in her career as an artist. Despite studying art in Poland, it can be quite interesting to see Mannsåker’s early tapestries in relation to French tradition, where mid-20th century artists, inspired by the role of tapestries in medieval architecture, started to design their own motifs for tapestries. In this early upturn for tapestry in France, collaboration and the division of labour between designer and various artisans were valuable, as was also the understanding of the distinctive visual language of the wall-hung tapestries.(2) It is in this last aspect that we can find connections to the use of the painting aspect of Mannsåker’s tapestries. Unlike how, for example, many fibre artists after 1960 increasingly emphasised the own three dimensions of the textiles, it is in the flat surface that Mannsåker’s textile works evoke the spatial dimension.
A woven picture always has a clear structure of vertical and horizontal lines, but we find repetitions of geometrical forms just as frequently in Mannsåker’s paintings. And we find elements from painting, such as shadings and gradings in many of her early woven works, such as Himling (Ceiling) from 2004. Here light and shadow vibrate against each other in a high-raised perspective, as if it was made up of brushstrokes and glazings. Despite this, the fields of colour can easily be distinguished if the observer moves in close enough. Like an insistence not to be bound by the material framework of the loom, diagonal lines are predominant in Himling. The tapestries and paintings by Mannsåker borrow elements from each other, and within a picture such as Pentagram it is between the media that tension arises, as between the tactile wish to touch the surface and the spatial play between form and title.
If we view the embroidered form in Pentagram as a star sign and the brocade as space, the relationship between the points shifts. Some stars are hundreds of thousands of light years away, others only a few decades, or, if we are looking at the planet Venus, only a few minutes away. But when we draw lines between stars and make simple pictures of bears, chariots or archers, we transform outer space into a flat image. In our imagination they then acquire a new three-dimensional form, a form independent of the actual spatial relation of the stars to each other. The bear dances across the sky, the chariot sets off, and here assumes perhaps the form of a pyramid or pentagon. Suddenly the images floats backwards in time, perhaps to cultures that can only be understood via vague traces or signs that can be difficult even for an expert to decipher. Pentagram is a small, almost unassuming picture – and at the same time it is as if it is constantly being formed and re-formed. Every stitch is a trace of a creating hand, while the observer at the same time meets the picture with his hand and his horizon. The picture, midway in-between, invites us over to the other side and back again.
Mannsåker has done several works that are reminiscent of self-composed star signs. For the Chroma exhibitions in 2014 and 2016 one could, for example, see Suhail, a painting in watercolour and gouache, which has certain common features with Pentagram in that we see round points with lines between them. Here the fields of colour are more in number, and the lines freer, and the observer in his imagination can introduce his own lines into the picture. These works make me think of another artist who has worked with fictive star formations, the Italian artist Alighiero Boetti.(3) In I sei sensi (The six senses) from 1974, we see a blue sky where a small collection of white stars are shining. If you move in close enough, you can see that all of the blue is made up of ballpoint pen strokes, and the stars are commas. The atmospheric feel comes from the variation between the quality of the cheap ballpoint pens and the manual skill of various drawers. On the far left is the alphabet, and if you link the stars/commas up with the letters, you can arrive at the Italian words for the five senses, a rebus like a visual satire on heavily symbolic interpretations. But large sections of the picture surface have no white points, and are open to a sixth sense. What this sense consists of we can only imagine, but in an interview in which Boetti was asked about precisely this, he told the following story: The philosopher Diderot asked a blind man it he would like to see the moon. No, the man replied, but I wouldn’t mind having very long arms, to be able to touch it.(4) Perhaps we find a similar sixth sense in Mannsåker’s stitches in Pentagram. By sewing the thread like an unknown star sign, the hand stretches into an abstract space to which it otherwise would have no access. And with a title that opposes the visual form, the written word is also intertwined with the visual.
While Pentagram is an imaginary pentagram in the form of an unexpectedly complex square, another of Mannsåker’s smaller pictures forms a hexagon under a title that indicates a different form: a round crown. This picture from 2014 is called Corona, i.e. the Latin word for precisely crown. The inspiration for the title comes from the poem of the same name by Paul Celan and the way the world is used in meteorology, for the circle that occasionally forms around the sun and the moon when light shines through drops of water or ice crystals. Another meaning of the word is for the Italian word fermata, a pause sign in music: a semicircle with a dot in the middle which indicates that a note or a pause has an unspecified length. As in many of Mannsåker’s works, the title suggests poetry, science and music at one and the same time. The hexagon in Mannsåker’s Corona tends towards an aubergine colour that is not dominated by any reddish, brownish or bluish tint. From each of the straight sides of the indistinctly coloured form we see a triangular field of colour, like light shining through a prism, or like an illustration in a book on chromatology. But the colours do not seem to be showing a system. Two turquoise fields, followed by a blue, an ochre-coloured and a blue once more, and then a golden-red. None of the layers are superimposed on each other, but the reactions of the watercolour painting create a tactile interaction in each field. It is unclear whether the fields of colour are pushed to one side or build up the deep central colour. Around the form the sheet of paper is light, like light cloud cover. Are we looking at a heavenly body sailing through space like a cluster of minerals?
The first line of Celan’s poem is: ‘Aus der Hand frißt der Herbst mir sein Blatt: wir sind Freunde.’(Autumn eats from my hand its own leaf: we are friends.). The word ‘Blatt’ in German can mean both ‘leaf’ and the sheet of paper on which the poem has been written (cf. the English expression ‘to take a leaf out of someone’s book’).(5) Celan’s poem is full of such double meanings, with individual words opening up meanings in completely different directions from those the reader perhaps first thought of. If autumn is regarded as what is past (the poem was probably written in spring 1948), then it is perhaps all that has taken place in recent history that devours the poem from the hand writing it. Corona, if it refers to music notation, indicates that the conductor and the musicians themselves must work out when to conclude a note or a pause. Can Corona be understood then as a chance for change? In Mannsåker’s picture, the centre has a dark, heavy feel to it, but, as in the poem, it opens out around it – in the poem via the meeting with a lover, in the picture via the relative brightness of the surrounding colours and the link between the crown and (social) advancement. Celan’s poem has the famous ending: ‘Es ist Zeit, daß es Zeit wird.//Es ist Zeit.’ (It is time for it to be time.//It is time.). Like the poem, the painting does not give us any clear idea of what is being crowned, or what the time is ripe for – we are not given any answer. Although it is not actually possible, we see a form that both stands still and is in motion, not unlike the experiencing of our own planet.
Cross-section: Amaro, Hesje and Granpels
When meeting many of Mannsåker’s works, one keenly senses the underlying physical process. At times, one sees traces of quickly and intuitively executed work, but more frequently traces of activity that have clearly taken place over a long time and involved deep concentration. In the work Amaro from 2019, the artist has drawn fields with charcoal in repetitive forms on the basis of a tentative beginning. The final picture is not just the result of sketches and planning, for the hours invested have clearly had one clear rule – to move the octagon outwards. Here too, Alighiero Boetti’s work can function as a sparring partner. The work is a material picture to a very high degree, but it there is also the trace of a visual game.
The octagon in Amaro resembles an extremely deep brick well, or a solidly built stone vault. This corresponds to the similar form in the work Himling. But the title Amaro pulls us in a different direction – towards the world of plants. Mannsåker tells us that the word means ‘bitter’ in Italian and is the name of a type of herbal liqueur. It is made using, among other things, wormwood, a herb known for its bitter taste. Especially earlier, people were afraid that the herb could have harmful effects, but it is also known to have healing properties. Wormwood is not a conventionally ‘respectable’ flower, but like every composite, it is made up of an insanely complex system of circular and outstretched forms. Plants can be easily recognised, with the symmetrical petals and clear patterns, but the work Amaro seems to take us into the world of plants via the execution of a potentially infinite pattern on a flat surface that can be interpreted as both high and deep. It is more an attempt to understand nature as an ordered system we are witnessing, as if we saw it in an abstracting microscope. Not as in Carl von Linné’s scientific botany, but as a visual reality that it can be impossible to grasp, and, like the bitter drink, is felt to be slightly painful and quite comforting.
Charcoal is a material that goes well with a number of earlier works by Mannsåker, who has words like coal and ashes in several titles. The tapestry Kimrøk Mannsåker describes as painting with smoke. Various burnt materials have been important sources of pigment for as long as paintings have been made, and while charcoal is often associated with quick sketches, soot is known as being an extremely durable and bright pigment. Mannsåker is making use of both material and poetic potential here. Ash has been described as a border between existence and nothingness.(6) When this natural material is brought forward, both pictorially in tapestries and more practically in careful drawing, we see the cut between what is and what is not as a picture caught as one instant is taken over by the next one.
Nature has also earlier been an obvious reference for the observer when encountering Mannsåker’s works. More concretely than in most instances, this takes place in an early work such as Hesje, a painting on paper from 1986, where long ‘walls’ of drying hay on wires at various levels between long wooden poles are seen from one end. The grass that has been hung up to dry fills up almost the entire picture surface. So it is not as seen in a landscape but its inner structure that we observe. The poles and grass form a pattern, like building elements in an architectural cross-section.(7)
The range of colours in Hesje is straw-yellow grass surrounded by a mauvish-pink sheen with blue undertones and these are colours that remind one strongly of a famous painting in Norwegian art history – Halfdan Egedius’ Saturday Evening, Telemark, from 1893. In this picture we see two young men walking across a soft field at twilight. A light mist has settled, and the grass is in flower, so it forms billowing waves with a powdery veil. This too is a study in grass, but Egedius seems more taken up by the softness, in order to make night courtship appear as a Romantic tradition. In Mannsåker, it is the repetitive pattern the dry straws of grass form separately, inside the wall of hay that we see. Despite these differences, the fleeting nature of things is a common denominator. Saturday Evening, because it depicts a time of day (twilight), the year (the Nordic summer), and a period in life (youth), all of which are experienced as being endlessly long then and there, but that we know actually last a very short time. Hesje, because the grass is no longer growing in the field, but is in a process during which it is turned into dry hay, a practice which as far back as 1986 was a rare sight in the landscape, something which bears witness to changing times. In both works, then, grass can function as a sign of change and transience. In Mannsåker, however, we find no romanticising but an analytical observation of nature and structure. This points clearly forward towards the works we see today.
More frequently, the references to nature and human relations towards it are more indirect, as in the tapestry Granpels (Spruce fur) from 2007, where the motif does not directly indicate a natural phenomenon, and where the title does not indicate an actual concept. Even so, one’s thoughts are of dense, dark forests, via colours and title. The forest here has the role of the sinister place: in the picture, because we see a kind of labyrinth of illegible signs, and in the title because it describes spruce needles tactilely, as something we cannot help wanting to touch. But spruce sprigs are only soft if you stroke them in the right direction, and even then you might still manage to prick yourself. Mannsåker herself describes the rhythmical signs, woven in white, as letters or epitaphs made up of shapes like letters or musical notes.(8) But these signs do not seem to have any meaning asking to be interpreted. They look like signs but do not form any picture puzzle. While the title almost entices you into something soft, dark and unpleasant, the lines remain standing as opposition in the picture. What I cannot reach, decipher or really comprehend, that is what we as observers can accept and understand: to grasp that we cannot understand.
Book leaf: Herbarium. Mille Fleurs and Rygg
Millefleur (‘a thousand flowers’) is a key concept in Mannsåker’s works in the Licorne exhibition, and we find it used in Herbarium. Mille Fleurs. The concept refers to tapestries from the late-medieval period and the early Renaissance in Central Europe, tapestries that either only showed flowers, or a motif against a flowers on a monochrome background. An example of millefleur is the Cluny tapestries that give the Mannsåker exhibition its name.(9) Among the flowers seen in precisely this tapestry are well-known plants such as carnations, violets, hollyhocks and narcissi,(10) like a garden released from the reality of the seasons. In some cases a millefleur tapestry includes a family coat of arms which can be simply located, but particularly in the Cluny tapestries both the origin and meaning cannot all that simply be confirmed, and since the 19th century precisely these tapestries have been portrayed as something shrouded in mystery. In paintings contemporary to those of the tapestries, on the other hand, one can see similar tapestries as both practical and decorative elements,(11) as if the room itself was a warm landscape. The flowers in the millefleur tapestries are always spread out as in a flower meadow, but since they often have a graphic, almost diagrammatic expression, they also remind one of a collection, an extensive herbarium.
The title of Mannsåker’s work also very much refers to collections of pressed flowers, such as the herbariums we know from Linné’s work and traditional teaching of natural science. The title Herbarium. Mille Fleurs thus juxtaposes traditions from both the modern history of science and decorative medieval tapestries. But, as in other works by Mannsåker, the title cannot be read as a simple description. The work is of course neither a collection of pressed flowers nor a tapestry. The flower pictures comprise just as much a flora, a collection of flower pictures in book form.
While herbariums are always linked to the place and point in time when the various plants were gathered, a flora can claim to have a more general meaning. At the same time, every flora has distinctive features. The very first floras we know of were short descriptions of various plants and the effect they could have on the human body. The flora with the longest continuous history in both the European and Arabian context, De Materia Medica, was written c.65 AD. The first illustrated version which still exists is from the Byzantine Empire and dates from slightly after 500 AD, and there are stories that these texts were still in active use in the early 20th century.(12) But throughout the Middle Ages the writings were copied in so many contexts that they gradually acquired their own life, full of errors and new interpretations, and many of them now only exist as loose fragments. The various versions can therefore be felt by modern readers to be far removed from reality, as they are used to today’s concise floras. Most famous in De Materia Medica are the various representations of mandrakes, where the root is sometimes shown as a shrieking human form with leaves as hair. In other versions, one can find plants represented as patterns that infiltrate the text and spread out over the pages of the book. In Mannsåker’s Herbarium. Mille Fleurs, on the other hand, the plants have been carefully and closely observed. We see heath violet drawn from the side, the rear and directly from the front; we see the composite yarrow from a distance, and blown up to a size where we can make out the form of each individual tiny flower; and we see Siberian iris both as a flower and as a seed capsule. So, in spite of everything, the collection is felt to be related to a pre-modern flora – eclectic and unique. This also corresponds to the dictionary definition of ‘flora’: ‘plant life at a certain time or in a certain place’. Flora is life and environment, no matter whether it is in a flowerbed along a house wall, represented in a decorative tapestry or an extremely personal collection of watercolours in a handmade book.
Watercolour is a classical method in botanical art. It is a technique which is simple to carry out outdoors, and the transparent, fresh, light layers of the colours are well suited to represent the plants’ own colours. Since flowers change quickly, it is also practical that watercolours can be painted swiftly. But it is a different aspect of this material that Mannsåker emphasises: watercolour uses water. We can see how various quantitative ratios of water, pigment and gum Arabic dance across the pages of the book. The elements are also influenced by dust particles in the air, even by wind and weather. Mannsåker has also preserved the natural reaction of the paper to the water rather than stretch it out completely flat. So we are not only witnessing distinct representations but also physical traces of a chemical process in a particular situation, one that is completely unique to each individual picture. In this, we recognise a very old peculiarity of a flora, the fleeting existence of a garden and the vulnerability of nature. No garden will be exact like another one. A specific garden is not even the same from year to year. Herbarium. Mille Fleurs is a portrait of a garden in an extended moment. And when, with cautious hands, we leaf through it, it is perhaps just as much transience itself we see.
Another new work in book form is Rygg (the back or spine of a book) from 2021. Here it is first and foremost the craft of bookbinding that forms the actual content. The thread that has bound the pages together is seen to be equally as important as the leaves of the pages. Thread or glue are of course found in every book, but the seam is normally concealed between pages and cover. But exaggerating the length to an almost unwieldy book of 2,000 very narrow pages, the repetitive pattern which the thread creates becomes more prominent, and the book seems like an embroidery or a tapestry. The book admittedly has a written content, for inside the book the names of various plants have been written, as in a flora, but there are no flowers depicted on the pages. It is more important that the book is not accessible for us to read in. And thus it is the actual material that makes the book resemble a nature book: the cotton plant or the pine trees as a basis for the paper, the flax fibres in the thread and the animal starch with which the paper has been coated. As in a herbarium, we see a strictly ordered collection of materials. And the collection in this case has the form of a spine or back. In a bookshelf, the books also have their backs to us, but then normally one of coloured paper or polished leather, printed with known and unknown names that invite us to open them and leaf through them. In Rygg the back of the book is naked and broad, carefully placed under glass on a white plinth. The thread and the pattern of the pages are like thin bones and tendons. The stitches are then not only traces of the hand’s work with the needle but themselves form a body, or at any rate a kind of skeleton, with a back hesitantly turned away.
In the Cluny tapestries that inspire the Licorne exhibition, the senses are symbolised by five pictures, while in the sixth we see one of the women stretching out desirously towards a casket of jewels and precious stones, as if she is about to choose what she wishes to use. It has been stated that this can symbolise how free will can guide the senses,(13) but in this instance I choose to see it as a parallel to Boetti’s I sei sensi and the man who wishes to touch the moon. Jewels are expensive materials, but they are also simply stones from deep mines and light that shines through them. The woman in the exclusive tapestry stretches out towards something that gleams and entices. We, on the other hand, do not stretch out towards the naked book in Rygg, but let it remain closed.
An exhibition is not just a collection of works but also a material archive of perceptions. People before us have seen, heard, felt and tasted. And now we meet this with our senses and experiences. Some feelings seem intuitively familiar, for example the memory of fingers that stroke a silky-soft brocade or that quickly leaf through dry book pages, others are unfamiliar, like a bitter plant we have only read about but never seen or tasted, or a starry sky that looks familiar, without our being able to name the constellations. Inside this collection of someone else’s traces, stitches and strokes, we stand as close as one hand against another, as far apart as a back against a back, perhaps sometimes so distant as we are from a meteorite, even when we are standing in the middle of the crater it once created. And in the midst of this space, opposite a carefully formed circle, line or page in a book – here our meeting takes place.
English version: John Irons
1) Among other readings, the work has been regarded as an allegory of love. See, for example, Michael Camille, The Medieval Art of Love – Objects and Subjects of Desire, Laurence King, London 1998.
2) For Norwegian textile artists with stays from Paris, see, for example, Bente Sætrang, Arnoldsche Art Publishers, 2020, p. 115. Here she also refers to Hannah Ryggen’s experience with the work, and reproduces her text written in Paris in1946, Luftvev i Paris.
3) Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (https://antilogicalism.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/malte-laurids-brigge.pdf . Accessed 22.02.2022.
4) Adolfo Salvatore Cavallo, The Unicorn Tapestries, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harry N. Abrams, New York 1998, pp. 21-24.
5) Helena Goscilo, “The Mirror in Art: Vanitas, Veritas, and Vision”, Studies in 20th and 21st Century Literature, Volume 34, The Ohio State University 2010.
6) Maurice Merlau-Ponty, http://www.biolinguagem.com/ling_cog_cult/merleauponty_1964_eyeandmind.pdf, p. 6. Accessed 13.02.2022.
7) Lena Lindgren, Echo – An essay on algorithms and desire, Gyldendal Norsk Forlag, Oslo 2021, p. 26. https://booksfromnorway.com/books/2194-echo.pdf
Karin Sidén, Carl Fredrik Hill, Nationalmuseum/Raster Förlag, 2003, p. 52.
9) Mannsåker took part in the Drawing Biennale 2016, which had the sketch as its theme.
10) Paul Klee, Malmö Konsthall exhibition catalogue, 1991, p. 19.
11) Olav Strømme, The Motif. Exhibition catalogue Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, 1975.
12) Merleau-Ponty, op. cit., pp. ??.
13) Rilke, op. cit., p. ?.