After Elisabet and I had selected 'Painted Figure' from among her works, she sent me the following email:
'The 'Painted Figure' sculpture is the first in a series of sculptures in which I worked out my thoughts on the archetype of the Virgin-Martyr. This painted female figure appears to be in a state of tension. It is composed of four loose parts that are connected to each other, yet seem to suggest the possibility of other positions. The apparent discomfort of the posture also strongly emphasises its temporary nature. I constructed the body as if it were language; a 'poetic simulator', as Bellmer called it. This gives me the freedom to explore the boundaries of the suffering body without succumbing to expressionism, so that the collective consciousness can be touched through this single figure, as is the case in the historical fact of a Virgin-Martyr. This point is important to me and I have explored it further in Girl with Sticks and Virgin of Swords.
Painting the figure was a new step for me. The 'La Bellezza del Sacro' exhibition, which I saw at the end of 2004 in Arezzo and which consisted of painted wooden sculptures from the early Renaissance period, was an important influence on me in this regard. I tried to paint the figure according to this tradition, but in an unashamedly direct way designed to emphasise the discomfort of the figure.' (Elisabet Stienstra 08-04-2014)
There are quite a few virgin-martyrs: Agnes, Apollonia, Catherine of Alexandria, Cecilia, Christina, Cunera of Rhenen, Dorothea, Lucia, Margaret of Antioch, Ursula. Elisabet Stienstra does not reveal which one she was inspired by; she talks about an archetype. Nevertheless, her choice of the English word 'Virgin-Martyr' points to a play from 1620 about the martyr Dorothea of Caesarea. According to legend, she was a noblewoman in the Roman Empire of the third century AD who converted to the Catholic faith and refused to marry a Roman magistrate, because she had already 'given herself to Jesus Christ'. The magistrate then punished her by placing her in a vat filled with boiling oil, a punishment she survived, and then imprisoning her in a dungeon for nine days without food or water. In the end, she was decapitated.
The story bears remarkable similarities to the torture that Saint George had to endure after saving the king's daughter from the dragon and then converting her to the Catholic faith. In all these stories, the martyrs are killed and resurrected multiple times to demonstrate the power Christ has over life and death. At the time, this was seen as the best way to convince doubters to convert to the true faith.
Dorothea was greatly revered in Germany and in 1464 a Carmelite brotherhood of St. Dorothea was founded in the bishopric of Cologne, to which Bredelar also belonged.
Hans Bellmer, the surrealist sculptor who is mentioned by Elisabet and who became well-known due to his sculptures of female dolls in contorted postures, often with missing limbs, translated his own text, Das Kugelgelenk, into French as 'Notes au sujet de la jointure à boule' ('thoughts regarding the ball and socket joint').
That ball and socket joint was related to his fascination with contorting the doll into all possible postures. Every posture evokes a different emotion in the viewer. Bellmer called his experiments 'playful' and regarded them as a game.
In his 'dolls', we can see that the game of a child attains an entirely different dimension when the child becomes an adult.
Elisabet goes along with Bellmer's study of the effects of the different postures, but deviates from Bellmer in her text by pointing out the suffering of the body, especially of the bodies of the Old Catholic martyrs. Where Bellmer is concerned with the erotic signals that the doll sends to the observer, Stienstra is concerned with the following questions: 'why suffering' and 'when does suffering have the most powerful effect'?
Her 'doll' does indeed lie uncomfortably on the ground, incapable of turning on her side or turning around due to the fact that she has no arms or hands. This is true torture.
The detail photograph again shows the helplessness of the figure lying on the ground. I would once again like to point out something I mentioned earlier: 'the sculpture pulls you in'. You can't escape from it. You already learned as a child, when you were introduced to your first dolls, that a doll is a body just like your own and that you can live inside it, just as it can live inside you. Man or woman, everyone feels as if they've been pulled inside this doll and are aware of its helplessness, while being unable to help it. The arms have been irrevocably removed from the torso and the neck has been grimly twisted, because the head wishes to observe who approaches. Everyone who meets this sculpture is helplessly unhelpful. This is what Elisabet calls touching the collective consciousness.
Madonna in trono con Cristo bambino, 1st half of the 15th century,
anonymous, photo: Sharon Mllerus
This Madonna with child was included in the exhibition 'La Bellezza del Sacro', which I also visited (a coincidence?) in Arezzo. It was certainly an impressive exhibition. It showed me how common it was, in what we refer to as the Middle Ages, to make polychrome sculptures, i.e. to paint sculptures in multiple colours. As with Elisabet Stienstra (but not Hans Bellmer), the colours clearly have an indicative function: Mary wears a sky-blue undergarment over her pale skin and a gold-coloured robe over that undergarment. An image in gold can be seen on the blue undershirt, which could be a tree of life – I'm not sure though. It doesn't really matter anyway. Neither does the fact that the Christ child is wearing a gold-coloured shirt, bearing a square cross motif, under his green robe. What is important is that the colours provide a relaxing harmony here, in contrast to Elisabet's own 'brazenly' unashamed treatment of the 'Painted Figure', which is precisely what Elisabet says she wants to achieve with her sculpture. The Madonna is spiritually present underneath her colours and in her posture. Due to her colours and posture the 'Painted Figure' is mainly present in a physical sense. Stienstra's sculpture tells us that suffering – undergoing torture – means physical pain. In contrast, the anonymous sculpture from the early Renaissance shows mental anguish, the anguish that results from knowing the future, that you will have to bury your own child. For now this can be experienced in a static, seated position.
The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, 1652, G. Bernini, marble and gilded bronze,
Rome, St. Maria della Vittoria
The theme of suffering seems to be connected to women, above all: both in terms of the depicted women and the women who create images. Just think of Bernini's sculpture depicting the suffering of St. Teresa, for example. There suffering turns into ecstasy, and ecstasy causes pleasure. In the visual arts ecstasy is something you look at. She is barely able to pull the viewer into the sculpture. No matter how penetrating they are, Hans Bellmer's dolls always remain outside of us, like Bernini's figures do. The 'Painted Figure', on the other hand, pulls us inside. We can distance ourselves from Die Puppe, Teresa and the Madonna in Trono, but not from Stienstra's hard nude. Die Puppe loses its power as soon as we realise that we are voyeurs, the Madonna in Trono plays second fiddle to the infant Christ, and Teresa is mainly exalted in a sensual way. We can't identify with the figures in these sculptures, quite simply because they are too pronounced. They have their own identity, so much so that there is no room for us. The Painted Figure, on the other hand, with her helpless, flaming mouth, innocent, colourful cheeks and fruitlessly sexualized nipples, worms her way into us, while at the same time we are inexorably pulled in. The sculpture has become us and we have become the sculpture. Now we can finally understand what suffering really is.