Anija Seedler hinterfragt in ihren Zeichnungen das Selbstverständnis des Menschen in der strengen Abgrenzung zum Tier, zur Pflanze und der mineralischen Welt. In ihrer künstlerischen Interpretation werden die Übergänge zum Animalischen oder Vegetabilen deutlich, dar- und vorstellbar. Die Betrachterin oder der Betrachter erblickt in den modernen Metamorphosen und Grotesken auch ein fiktives, aber dennoch verunsicherndes Menschen- und Naturbild. Wenn das gezeichnete Insekt mit Reptilienschwanz seinen unheimlichen nicht-menschlichen Blick auf uns richtet, fühlt sich auch die Betrachterin oder der Betrachter beobachtet. […]
In her drawings Anija Seedler calls into question human beings’ understanding of themselves as set strictly apart from the world of animals, plants and minerals. In her artistic interpretation transitions to the animal or vegetable become clearly imaginable and representable.The observer glimpses in these modern metamorphoses and grotesques also a fictitious but nonetheless un-settling vision of human beings and of nature. When the insect in the drawing with its reptilian tale rests its uncanny non-human gaze on us, the viewer also feels as if under observation.[…]
On the Pictorial History of Metamorphoses
Bird-like creatures with two heads, four-legged shapes that belong to a humanoid animal or to a beastly human and gaze out at the observer from a tangle of lines, huge insects with fishes‘ tails and human beings with the necks of birds — in her drawings Anija Seedler fashions many hybrid figures by combining traits from creatures that are usually distinct. The subjects of the drawings are not easy to categorize, and this creates a certain unease. Thus the portrait of a young woman with her hair decently parted in the middle and her gaze lowered proves elusive. There is the merest suggestion of a mouth sketched in black; cheeks, forehead and nose are overlaid with a bright semi-transparent layer of colour that could be seen as make-up, as a mask, a veil, perhaps as white fur or a beard? With her deliberate lack of definition and her concentration on hybridity, metamorphosis and transitional states, Anija Seedler is tackling a topic with a diverse and extensive iconography. In what follows I would like briefly to explore this historical dimension, focusing on two aspects in particular.
Mythical Creatures and Border Dwellers
The motif of metamorphosis or transformation has been omnipresent in literature and art since the ancient Greeks. It is usually gods or demigods who either themselves appear as composite beings or initiate transmutations between human, animal, vegetable or mineral forms. In Greek myth we already find reports of the Chimaera, which is part goat and part lion, of the four-headed hydra or of the sphinx. In the Metamorphoses of the Roman author Ovid the transformation of bodies even becomes the dominant theme: thus the nymph Daphne, while fleeing the God Apollo, is saved by being changed into a laurel bush. Gods can turn into animals, plants or even mountains, as in the case of the Titan whose punishment was to be turned into the eponymous Atlas range. In the visual arts it is often the moment of transformation that has fascinated artists and that they have rendered in their pictures: the moment when the animate and the inanimate, the animal and the human coexist in time and melt into each other. But composite and hybrid beings occur not only in myths, but also in accounts of ancient geography. For instance, the Roman author Pliny the Elder repeats reports, known to him from the Greek, of remarkable and monstrous races who were said to live beyond the borders of the Roman world. This is not just about hybrid creatures, but also entails notions of cultures seen as uncivilized and barely human, whereby for example cannibals and magicians were said to live ‘north of the Alps’ — in the area that today is Central Europe. But Pliny also gives accounts of races with bizarre and fantastic body formations. He cites the alleged existence of ‘men, who are known as Monocoli, who have only one leg, but are able to leap with surprising agility. The same people are also called Sciapodæ, because they are in the habit of lying on their backs, during the time of the extreme heat, and protect themselves from the sun by the shade of their feet. […] Among the mountainous districts of the eastern parts of India, in what is called the country of the Catharcludi, we find the Satyr, an animal of extra- ordinary swiftness. These go sometimes on four feet, and sometimes walk erect as human beings do.’ Throughout the Middle Ages these myths continue to feature in art too, in book illumination, say, or in the form of gargoyles on churches. Even one and a half thousand years later, the Nuremberg author Hartmann Schedel again included depictions of these legendary creatures in his Liber Chronicarum of 1493. In the margins of a map of the world showing all the countries known at the time, there are careful representations of those legendary races already mentioned by Pliny: a sciapod, a centaur, a wild man of the woods with his hairy body or grotesque composites of birds and humans. These ancient mythological iconographies also inform the historical source which has special importance for the works of Anija Seedler. The work in question is one of the great collections of natural history pictures from the early modern period. The collection contains more than a thousand coloured pictures of birds, fish, mammals, corals, insects, shellfish, snail shells and plants. It also includes numerous representations of people with physical anomalies and deformities, and of people from distant countries, from America, Asia and Africa. Mo- tifs from mythology, from documentary, propagandistic, sometimes even artistic sources are brought together in this collection in the context of the then new discipline of natural history. In early modern texts, sources of knowledge that today are strictly kept apart, such as images from mythology and studies from nature, overlap. This is something modern observers find disturbing, but to a certain extent it can be seen as characteristic of the view of nature that prevailed in the period. Moreover, as this collection makes impressively clear, the interest in unusual bodily formations, monsters, metamorphoses and transformations was especially strong at that time. Ulisse Aldrovandi, the owner of the collection, lived from 1522 to 1605 in Bologna and taught medicine and botany at the university there. There he laid out the first botanic garden and amassed a collection of books, natural objects, specimens, herbariums with both dried plants and drawings of plants, letters and drawings of animals that was famous throughout Europe. He exchanged letters with innumerable learned con- temporaries from all over the world and was a respected authority in his time. From today’s perspective, however, Aldrovandi’s work is itself a phenomenon of transition: on the one hand he sought to extract knowledge about nature from texts and books, for him reading and the text were keys to the truth. On the other hand he insisted that empiricism and personal observation were indispensable for an understanding of nature. Thus the traditional understanding of knowledge met with what at the time was the new and modern conception of science. The result is a hybrid order of knowledge which is beyond the scope of today’s modern understanding of science, but which evinces an aesthetic quality that is poetic and remains special. It is characterized by a ‘disorderly’ juxtaposition of the probable and the improbable, the mythological and the carefully observed, the exotic, the deformed and the legendary, while striving on a formal level for relative homogeneity and objectivity. The world depicted in the collection is dominated by metamorphoses and trans- mutations, reproducing a view of nature as random, incalculable, and full of terrors and marvels. Comparable constellations are also characteristic of the drawings of Anija Seedler, in that she takes certain elements from the natural historical model described here and recreates them in an artistic context. The impact of her work derives moreover from the actual process of drawing: from the layering of lines and the tilting of planes. From the accumulation of lines on the page there emerge contemporary monsters without myths but with a character of their own. Creatures at the limits
Another context links Anija Seedler’s drawings with the art of ornamentation and the grotesque. ‘Grotesques’ in the visual arts are ornaments in which vegetable, animal and architectural elements are freely combined. They were named for the place where ancient wall decorations were discovered, in subterranean antique ruins known as ‘grottos’. These flat ornaments often featured mythological motifs, later also motifs taken from nature: exotic birds, plants and representations of human beings from distant regions. They often have a humorous, carnevalesque or crude dimension to them. Even in the ancient world the disorderly juxtaposition of the most disparate elements attracted criticism. Horace, in his poetological Ars Poetica, makes fun of artists who work apparently without rules, as the spirit takes them: ‘If a painter should wish to unite a horse’s neck to a human head, and spread a variety of plumage over limbs of different animals taken from every part of nature, so that what is a beautiful woman in the upper part terminates in an ugly fish below; could you, my friends, refrain from laughter, were you admitted to such a sight?’
This criticism though did not have much effect: since the rediscovery of these ancient wall decorations in the 15th century, so-called grotesques have been a regular feature of artistic creation in architecture, in interior design, and in painting. They have a decorative function, are often to be found on walls and cornices and emphasize the luxury lavished on decorating aristocratic homes. These frescos, stucco work, fine wall- papers or costly silk fabrics — as in Schloss Wildenfels — are luxury objects, which show the wealth of their owners and the artistic skills of their creators. Their light-hearted and playful motifs, costly materials and elaborate designs show off the culture and the power of their owners, which extended over all the continents and included the so-called marvels of Africa, America and Asia.
Even today baroque appropriations of nature as a place of marvels and metamorphoses still have undertones of the secondary meaning of the word ‘grotesque’ as something distorted, exaggerated, or disorderly that is also frequently represented in ornamental grotesques. This aspect constitutes an important element in Anija Seedler’s graphic works: the way her drawings play with the dissolution and mutation of bodily forms and their boundaries brings with it substantial potential for nightmare as well as for comedy. The seemingly solid limits of the normal become permeable and a cosmos is created in which the usual distinctions between human beings, animals and plants are blurred. This happens for instance when one looks at the twisting body of the bird man, which was formed from the superimposition of two drawings, or at the indefinable four-legged creature which, half human and half animal, stares out from a tangle of lines.
Composite creatures and monsters are border dwellers, they live in a world and in cultures beyond what is familiar, at the geographical and cultural margins, in forests and wildernesses, apart from civilization, beyond the norm and the known. Often these figures live at the limits of consciousness too: in dream, in poetry or in the imagination. In their function as liminal beings they also serve to define what the norm is and what normal, and what lies within or beyond certain boundaries. At the same time they make us confront the idea of the possible fragility and permeability of these borders that seem so firmly fixed.
In her drawings Anija Seedler calls into question human beings’ understanding of themselves as set strictly apart from the world of animals, plants and minerals. In her artistic interpretation transitions to the animal or vegetable become clearly imaginable and representable. The observer glimpses in these modern metamorphoses and grotesques also a fictitious but nonetheless unsettling vision of human beings and of nature. When the insect in the drawing with its reptilian tail rests its uncanny non-human gaze on us, the viewer also feels as if under observation. Or, as has been said in connection with the philosopher and art historian Georges Didi-Hubermann: what we see looks at us — In every garden gnome resides a prying faun.
Dr. Angela Fischel, Berlin
Translation Robert Gillett