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By Guri Skuggen

For the exhibition at the Vigeland Museum, Charlotte Thiis-Evensen has made a three-screen video installation titled Combing Hair. On three large paper frames we see young women with long hair sitting on the ground with their legs outstretched. They are seen from the front, with their faces hidden by their long hair, which they are combing with slow, repetitive movements. The women are sitting with their backs and heads bent forward, which causes their hair to cover their naked bodies. The work is at the same time beautiful and discomforting. The slow movements, subtle colors and almost sculptural bodies lure us in, while the unnatural sitting positions, white background and the women’s hidden faces, gives us a feeling of unease.

In Combing Hair, Thiis-Evensen has been inspired by a work by Edgar Degas titled Scene of War in the Middle Ages, painted in c. 1865, and exhibited at the Paris Salon that same year. Degas started his career as a history painter, and this is the last picture he painted in this genre before moving on to more realistic motifs. This content is dramatic. We are witnessing the moment after a mass rape, where three warriors on horseback are about to leave eight naked women, some of whom are standing, while others are lying on the ground. The women are bending their heads, or turning away in shame and despair. Their naked bodies are partially covered by their long hair. It is this shame and vulnerability, as well as the way in which the hair functions as a form of protection, which is the conceptual starting point for both Combing Hair and the exhibition at the Vigeland Museum. Interestingly, Degas repeated several of the poses from this painting in later works, but with a completely different content: Towards the end of the 1870s and in the 1880s, he painted a series of images of women bathing and combing their hair. These were popular motifs in French art at the time, and are also found among artists such as (1841–1919), Georges Seurat (1859–1891) and Berthe Morisot (1841–1895). While it was common practice in earlier times to depict the nude as a nymph or goddess, Realism demanded more contemporary subject matters. By placing the woman at her toilette, it was possible to depict her semi-dressed or naked in a contemporary setting. Typical for Degas’ nudes is how they are almost always portrayed from behind, often with bowed heads. This way of depicting women was conventional. The non-confrontational character of the image was supposed to make it more pleasant to look at. In this series of motifs by Degas, Thiis-Evensen has found another, more direct source of inspiration: Combing Hair is a reconstruction of a pastel and charcoal drawing titled Naked Woman Seated on the Ground, Combing from 1886/1890. [1]

In this exhibition, Combing Hair is presented together with seven drawings and seven sculptures by Gustav Vigeland (1869–1943) selected by Thiis-Evensen. The works are from the period 1892–1900—before Vigeland adopted his monumental style. The content in his sculptures from this period is often introverted, focusing on pain and despair. The form is at times dissolved and sketch-like, something that gives the sculptures an unfinished appearance. Also the drawings have something raw and unfinished about them. It was the fragile and imperfect which attracted Thiis-Evensen’s attention.  Several of the works have never been exhibited, among them is the small sculpture Female Head from 1892—which is among Vigeland’s earliest pieces, and from his brief naturalistic phase. It is most likely that Young Man and Woman (late 1890s) and Ecstasy (1898) have not been exhibited either. Two of the sculptures have a mythological content: Leda and the Swan (1900) and Orpheus and Eurydice (1899). The use of myths, legends, and fairy tales in art was a legacy of Romanticism which flared up with renewed strength with Neo-Romanticism and Symbolism at the end of the 19th century. This can be seen as a reaction to the modern project—the rationalism and faith in science of the time. It was also a protest against Naturalism and its strict demand that art should be based on precise studies of nature and a true rendering of real life. The use of myths and symbols were considered an escape from this straight-jacket. Fantasy, dreams, and the inner life of human beings offered new inspiration to artists. In Vigeland’s art this focus on human emotion is particularly evident in his "man and woman" groups from the 1890s, among them The Prostrated. The sculpture was made in Berlin in 1895 when Vigeland spent three months in the German capital on his way south towards Florence. During these months he frequented the circle of Neo-Romanticists and Symbolists consisting of among others the Swedish author and playwright August Strindberg, the Polish writer Stanislav Przybyszewski, the Swedish poet Ola Hansson, Sigbjørn Obstfelder, and Edvard Munch. We find the same content in Vigeland’s drawings from this period, although with an even more fierce expression; man and woman in almost violent embraces, suffering, loving. Vigeland’s drawings were not finished artworks, but sketches and ideas for sculptures he might make in the future. Motifs were often repeated with slight variations, and numbered I, II, III, etc. On the drawings, he often wrote notes that would remind him of what he was thinking in the process, as well as references to previous drawings. This was, in other words, Vigeland’s think tank. It was never the intention that the drawings should be exhibited, and in working with them, he could therefore unleash his imagination.

Hair can be a charged and multifaceted symbol. First and foremost it expresses femininity, but it also symbolizes strength, virility, sexuality, and youthfulness. Hair is also something that hides and covers up. Without it, we are exposed. Losing it, or having it cut off, is associated with shame and sometimes loss of potency. Furthermore, hair is closely associated with our identity. We use it to express who we are and how we feel. Loose hair is often associated with freedom, and from a historical perspective, also with promiscuity. By virtue of being something that lasts, hair is attached to memories, and a lock of hair from someone we love is considered a treasure. Hair detached from the body can also be seen as unclean and therefore invoke feelings of disgust.

With such a wide range of possibilities for interpretations and associations it is no wonder that hair has been such a widely used symbol in art. By Vigeland’s contemporaries—specifically among the fin de siècle artists in the circle around Strindberg and Przybyszewski, the woman was perceived as a threat. The passion she aroused could devour the man—and representations of women as whores and vampires abounded. In these representations, women are often depicted with long, red hair. We also find examples where the hair itself is threatening, such as in representations of the woman as Medusa. In Vigeland’s drawings from this period, we find traces of these ideas: On a drawing from Paris 1893, where a seated woman pulls a man down towards her, Vigeland has written "Vampire"[2], and in one of the drawings in the exhibition, a woman winds around a man from behind and bites him in the neck. In a sketch from 1897, Medusa is suggested as the motif on a platter or bowl. [3] Generally speaking, there is often a struggle between the sexes in Vigeland’s groups, and in his drawings this struggle is particularly fierce. Nevertheless, his relationship towards women and sexuality seems to have been more natural and less neurotic than among his contemporary symbolists. On a drawing from 2 September 1905 he has written "The Devil and the Whore, or more precisely Man and Woman”. [4]  He believed, in other words that, "Man and Woman" was a more appropriate title. In Vigeland’s drawings women are often portrayed as strong, active and with control of their own sexuality. We also find examples of this in Vigeland’s sculptures, for example in Ecstasy, where the flowing hair expresses vitality and freedom.

In contemporary art it is especially female artists who have been concerned with hair as a symbol—probably because hair is so closely associated with the feminine, and thus a good starting point to problematize women's identity and gender roles. In Marina Abramovic’s (b. 1946) video performance Art must be beautiful, Artists must be beautiful. from 1975, the artist is combing her hair forcefully while repeating the sentence “art must be beautiful, artist must be beautiful” like a mantra. It is obvious that she inflicts pain to herself, but at the same time her voice and the way she poses also has sexual undertones. The Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum’s (b. 1952) installation Recollection from 1995 is about memories and separation. For this installation, Hatoum collected hair from the bathtub drain, as well as her combs and brushes over a six-year period. Her hair was rolled into small balls and scattered across the floor in the showroom like small cobwebs. In addition, she knotted single hairs into long strands which were hung from the ceiling. As the viewer was moving through the exhibition space, she or he was confronted with these nearly invisible hairs, brushing against the face, while the movement in the room caused the “dust” balls to dance on the floor.

In Thiis-Evensen’s work, hair has been a recurrent theme. In earlier pieces, like the short film The Moment of Truth (2004), and the video works Mother and Daughter (2013) and Untitled (2013), hair is used as the means to problematize the concept of freedom in relation to women. The Moment of Truth is about Astrid who was not allowed to cut her hair by her mother when she was a child, and now, as an adult, she is going to the hairdresser for the first time. In Mother and Daughter traditional roles are reversed, and it is the daughter who combs her mother's hair. The work is displayed in slow motion, thus making an act usually associated with care and tenderness, appear almost violent. This violence reminds us of Abramovic’s Art must be beautiful, Artists must be beautiful. In Untitled we see three Somali girls taking off and on their hijabs. This work is also displayed in slow motion, giving it a poetic dimension, at the same time as it disrupts the chronology: Are they taking the hijab on or off?  The girls are at the stage in their life when they are about to choose whether or not to wear a hijab, and the work discusses identity and personal freedom.

In her work, Thiis-Evensen is concerned with revealing power structures. What is it that prevents us from acting freely? And what does it mean to act freely? Is it possible for us to free us from our history, from society, and from the expectations of others? Especially in the work Untitled, the viewer is drawn into this power game. In a sequence in the video, the girls look at the viewer in a direct, almost confrontational way, and the viewer becomes aware of his or her role not only as a spectator, but also as a force of power in itself. Who determines whether the girls should wear the hijab? Their choice is governed both by our western prejudices and the tradition in the culture they come from. What room is left for individual freedom? The viewer also plays a significant role in Combing Hair. The women hide from us, ashamed of their naked bodies. We look anyway. The work is about young women's  relationship to their own bodies and their awareness of being seen. To constantly be available for other people’s gaze, ratings, and comments. The bowed head is an expression of vulnerability, and this vulnerability is related to young women's identities. By exhibiting Combing Hair in a large format together with relatively small works by Gustav Vigeland, the Vigeland sculptures and drawings function almost as footnotes commenting on the video work. And by selecting works by Vigeland which also have female protagonists, the focus on how the woman is depicted and how we look at her, is reinforced. In this way, the presentation of the two artists together helps to enrich their works.

[1] Edgar Degas, «Femme nue, assise par terre, se peignant», 1886 and 1890. Musée d’Orsay.
[2] Gustav Vigeland, Vampire, 1893. Ink. OKK.VM.T.CMK0.0003. Vigeland Museum.
[3] Gustav Vigeland, Medusa, 1897. Pencil. OKK.VM.T.OC00.0003. Vigeland Museum.
[4] Gustav Vigeland, The Devil and the Whore, 1905. Ink. OKK.VM.T.CMK0.0891. Vigeland Museum.


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