By Nana Bernhardt, 2006
Compelling Ornamentation – Pia Fonnesbech and Still-life
Through the past four years, Danish painter Pia Fonnesbech has primarily worked with one of art history’s best-known genres, namely still-life, a.k.a. nature morte. The genre originated with a number of Chinese kitchen items, among these a white teapot decorated with a flapping red dragon, which according to Fonnesbech kept on showing up in her consciousness when she stood in front of an empty canvas.
Over time, the Chinese kitchen items have been joined by handicrafts and other everyday items such as a turquoise Thermos, red coffee cups, green bowls, a blue Primus stove, and a small red Swedish Dalar horse, all of which show up repeatedly in various combinations. In each painting, the objects are placed on a table often including a corner perspective
As a Colorist Fonnesbech uses these objects in order to simply exploit their color. A central theme in her work, be it portraiture or still-life, is the interplay of color with objects and the effect it brings to her audience. Yet a true investigation of color’s contrast and harmony comes to light in her present fascination with decorative patterns; flowered, striped and checkered patterns. It is this compelling use of ornamentation and color that affects the viewer in a fascinating and convincing manner. One feels a spontaneous compulsion to let the eye wander from object to object, color to color, ornament to ornament; one is never in doubt that Fonnesbech is a Colorist in body and soul. She masters her colors be it in those paintings with a lighter palette where the patterned wallpapers become shimmering impressionistic backgrounds or those works where bolder colors transform the ornamentation into demarcated surfaces of circles, checks and stripes.
In her latest works the background ornamentation has a more stylized feel referencing century-old design traditions of interior decoration such as Roccocos rocaille, art nouveau anno1900 as well as the present day fascination with flora spreading over lampshades and wallpapers. Obvious inspirations for Fonnesbech are drawn from both William Morris’ Arts and Crafts movement and modern-day Habitat catalogues.
With Fonnesbechs use of color and ornamentation, she places herself solidly alongside such Modernist painters as Gaugin, Bonnard and especially Fauvisms master, Henri Matisse who throughout his life used patterned textiles and decorative ceramics in his arrangements.
As with all Modernists, Fonnesbechs goal is to explore paintings’ formal qualities and not its possibilities as an exact representational science. This is why the rules for representation of correct perspectives are not followed-in certain works the table seems to lie correctly in the field of vision while in others the table lies seemingly parallel to the pictures’ surface. Likewise, some of the objects seem spatial, formed by light and shadow while others are devoid of highlights or shading. In a manner these paintings move back and forth between figuration and abstraction. Remove the objects and only the background ornamentation remains. These works span from the organic and arabesque-like over to compact geometric forms with roots in early abstract painting and the Sixties bold colorplay expressed, amongst others, by the Danish painter Paul Gernes. Quite simply, ornamentation is the deciding factor, the mortar that cements the differing compositional elements and enables them to function as a whole.
Though in choosing the specific genre of still-life Fonnesbechs paintings refer farther back than early Modernism. Arrangements of objects date back to the wall paintings of Antiquity and were a part of larger visual agendas. It was in the beginning of the 1500’s that these arrangements gained autonomy and hereafter are defined as the independent genre known as nature morte or still-
life. In Academia’s hierarchal genre divisions the still-life ranks lowest concordant with the term; still or dead life in stark contrast to potrayals of the heroic achievements of Man. Yet the human is not entirely absent. If one views works from the grand era of still life, namely Dutch works of the 1600s, one finds evidence of Europe’s conquest of unknown continents and Mans’ creativity in its depictions of exotic flora and fauna, shells, conchs, and exquisite crafts. These paintings could also act as evidence of human vanity and an appeal to humility. Vanity in contrast to the greatness of God in so-called vanitas still-lifes whereby flowers wilt, fruits rot, and soap bubbles burst. Modernism gave nature morte a new life, though this time attributing the objects’ form and color traits rather than for their symbolism.
Certain of Fonnesbechs arrangements mirror traditional still-life iconography with the use of pomegranates, Chinese porcelain, and the skull – a classic vanitas symbol although Fonnesbech uses animal, not human skulls. That she includes these objects should be seen as a conscious expression of her interest in those formal aspects of painting such as form and color. If we consider, for example, the Chinese porcelain, we are far removed from the 1600s fascination with expensive objects. Back then the unique and unobtainable were the desired subject whereby Fonnesbechs everyday objects are just one more ware in the global market flow and can be purchased inexpensively in the nearest Chinese souvenir shop. Yet this not to say that these objects do not contain an essential beauty and fascination. One of her strengths as an artist is precisely this; to bring our attention to the beauty and magic inherent in our everyday surroundings.
Fonnesbech juggles these everyday objects with a playful lightness so that the paintings appear as marvelous meetings of color and form, nature and culture, here and there. Natures’ organic forms constantly impose themselves upon the created surface albeit stylized and transformed. Cups, teapots and bowls appear in full regalia. Patterns and objects grow together and apart. That which according to the genre definition ought to be dead instead appear as a dynamically alive swarming microcosmos where Swedish Rustic meets a flapping Chinese dragon; a meeting nearly as absurd as the French poet Lautremonts’ “accidental meeting between an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissection table”- a motto of Surrealism. However Fonnesbech is not a Surrealist and a more down-to-earth comparison can be found in Hans Christian Andersens’ story “Lovers” whereby the spinning top courts the ball in the toy chest of a nursery. Some of these same mechanisms come into play as Fonnesbechs objects speak and play up to one another, serving as catalysts for associations that stretch well beyond the concrete universe of the actual canvas.
Perhaps Fonnesbech is not consciously involved in the storytelling element of her paintings, yet we must remember this is not classic storytelling where we are presented with clear story lines on canvas. As we view the Dalar horse, we cannot help but take a mental trip over the Sound. The Dalar horse is considered a Swedish national icon-a typical souvenir that with its blend of peasant craftsmanship and kitsch can satisfy the tourist’s perpetual search for authenticity. The wooden red horse triggers associations to everything reminiscent of that which is intrinsically Swedish – IKEA, Astrid Lindgen, wooden red houses, and ABBA. In a number of paintings the horse is placed on the veritable edge of the table, about to tip over becoming a symbol of vanity and vulnerability. In other depictions the horse represents arrogance with its back turned toward us in rejection. Although we very well know that the horse in no way represents actual sylvan fields it nonetheless contributes to our associations to the countryside depending on its particular appearance and placement. The horse can seem both brave and lost, rejecting and vulnerable.
The human is full of curiosity with a flair for narratives. Fonnesbechs arrangements offer stories both great and small, near and exotic, of hidden dragons and crouching flowers.