It is what they wear on their heads that receives the viewer, elaborately embroidered caps that bring to mind the 17th and 18th centuries, though they are a Danish style from the nineteenth. The shape of these caps will inevitably retain associations with childhood bonnets, demure femininity and hair-covering (to protect as well as to hide). For those not familiar with traditional Danish clothing, the photographs may conjure Vermeer’s young women and other famous Dutch portraits.
Trine Søndergaard’s new book, Stasis, is a compilation of three of her photographic series, Strude, Guldnakke, and Interiors. Sparse hallways and luminously grey windows of abandoned Danish mansions are interspersed with her portraits of young women in traditional Danish headwear and clothing. The two portrait series seem as though they could have been done simultaneously, with similar poses and composition, and they are both inquiries into the meanings of national and personal identity. But they have individual power that is only reinforced in a collection like this. It seems possible that the bonneted women could walk those halls, throw open those windows.
Immediate and still, the portraits require your attention despite the negative body language. I was so drawn to the intricate embroidery and construction of the caps in Guldnakke that I didn’t notice the young women’s clothing until the cultural and temporal contrasts made one jump out: in Guldnakke #9, a thick silver embroidered crown accented with white lace and bound with thick black ribbon of an intricate jacquard rose pattern is paired with a white lace top with black gothic lettering, underlined by a black spaghetti-strap tank and visible white bra straps.
I paged back through and realized I had missed a faded t-shirt with an American flag motif, chain-store “jersey” t-shirts. The intention and intricacy of the headpieces, and possibly the repetitive-seeming nature of the poses, had encouraged me to flip through, noting the differences between each photograph but not those contained therein.
Originally, bonnets such as these were “traditional piece[s] of headwear for well-to-do women in the mid-nineteenth-century Danish countryside. This tradition has a fine touch to it, as the golden fabrics from which most of the caps were made were until then the privilege of royalty and nobility.” (12) Are these historic pieces, reconstructions? Does it matter?
As Mieke Bal notes in her accompanying text, “Different from the bonnets in the Strude series, which were characterized by a functional conception (protecting the women from the elements), those appear in the Guldnakke series share an ambition: they signify the ostentation of wealth.” (12) How does their pairing with modern, mass-market clothing coax meaning from the portraits, affect the choice to use each specific bonnet?
The portraits are faceless and nameless, although not uninviting; the wearers are all turned away from us but seem as though they could turn to face us at any moment. But they will not, and the bonnets, then, become the subjects, obscuring almost all natural identifying characteristics with their flat, teardrop faces. The women are “scaffolding for [the artist’s] investigation.” Disregarding any socio-emotional reasons for posing the women this way, seeing the back of a garment or hat in art is special, although perhaps less so today. Bal compares Søndergaard’s work with that of Vilhelm Hammershøi, who was also interested in representing the back.
Interspersed within the portraits, as well as between them, are the Interior shots. These are spaces, entrances and exitways, transitory but not in motion; a photograph from this series graces the cover [at top]. Bal ties the three together: “Both of her series of women wearing elaborate headresses–Strude and Guldnakke–and the series Interior, taken inside empty, abandoned buildings, refuse the exchange of gazes.” (8)
In Strude, women are wrapped in fabric covering the hair and face instead of a structured and pleated cap. We may see faces in this series, although many are covered. There is a whiff of protest fashion in the visuals, with eyes the only visible feature on a darkly wrapped head, a two-piece balaclava. These scarves and face coverings are direct descendants of Danish folk dress from the island of Fanø. In archival photographs, the women never seem to be without one scarf wrapped around the neck and another tied securely around the head, covering her hair. Søndergaard travelled to this small island off the west coast of Denmark to shoot Strude, although with the exception of the photo quality, the portraits do not betray a specific time or place. As part of a folk dress tradition, the head wraps are both very dated and “old fashioned” as well as being somewhat timeless, or at least suspended in time; they will never be fashionable, so they never will go out of style.
A strude, strictly defined, is a face covering. Composed of one over- and one under-piece with holes cut for the eyes, this garment protected the wearer from strong wind and sun while working in the countryside:
Søndegaard suggests that this series was inspired not only by an interest in an extant strude in a museum on Fanø, but also by a critical debate in Denmark at the time surrounding the wearing of veils by Muslim residents. What is provocative about covering a woman’s face and hair, and who may choose to do so?
Although they are portraits in the sense that both Strude and Guldnakke are series of women’s necks, heads, and occasionally faces, these are unnamed personages. Folk dress is so tied to local identity (as well as national pride) that it has become iconic, and is rarely truly personalized in recreations today. The wearer becomes a vehicle for tradition, especially as very few (if any) wear these outfits other than on holidays. “Søndergaard deploys the medium of portraiture to make images of faces in which individuality is overshadowed by similarity. … Danish faces are hidden, turning away, or otherwise obscured.” (7)
She has chosen similar posing in earlier series, including Monochrome , but the use of specific clothing in the series collected in Stasis adds another layer to the similarities and obscuration.
Published by German firm Hatje Cantz, the aesthetics of the book are as serene as the photographs, with large white spaces and a greyscale color scheme.
The photographs are printed in large format, featured on the right-hand page while facing a blank, white page. These many pages are bound on the right-hand side of the cover, which opens flat as a self-contained for viewing the works.
There is an accompanying text mounted on the left. Its physical remove from the photographs themselves allow the reader to consult it–or not, read the academic critical essays first or last, focus on the artistic works or flip back and forth. I found that the side-by-side placement has another great function: one can open to the photograph referenced and keep the text open as well. Works best when the text is on the left.
I really liked Bal’s challenge to those seeking meaning in painting and portraiture, or a “why?”. Here she writes of Vermeer’s The Girl With the Pearl Earring :
Why would she have a pearl earring became a key question [sic]. The answer? She had to be a servant girl with whom the master is enamored, and so on. Let the romance begin. This romantic thinking endeavors to overwrite the one impossible explanation: that she, a simple girl, just possesses a pearl earring. (8)
Mostly because it questioned my own reading of the work, my desire to understand why these women were wrapped with calico and lace, why these traditional garments were being recreated or mimicked, and subsequently photographed. There must be a reason; these photographs are heavy with intention! The framing of the head, the repetition, the juxtaposition: I dutifully did the costume history research to figure it out. And this is probably how I prefer to interact with art, pleased with my knowingness and totally subscribing to the traditional hierarchies of knowledge, but I hardly think it’s the best way. How important it is it to be an informed audience? What will these photographs communicate without a previous familiarity with Danish folk dress?
Bal wonders, “[w]hat kind of discourse is this? Uninvited, I am detailing, and worse, judging, by calling the face beautiful, the face of another person who refrains from engaging in eye contact with me.” But as “[w]rong-headed as it was, the outcome of my compulsion to judge was neither wrong nor arbitrary. The image pushed me to do it.” (11) I too felt the need to give my own analysis and experience of viewing the photographs here, drawn to use the works as documentation of material culture. What is it about her work that encourages these responses?
Bal’s essay goes so enthusiastically into art theoretical readings of the collected works that I felt it began to disconnect me from the photographs themselves. When is a ribbon just a ribbon, and when is it a commentary on balance and color theory? From thoughtful challenges and self-criticism she jumps into long, sometimes “wrong” descriptions of the clothing (as much as one can call another’s observation wrong): in an overwrought paragraph about intersecting lines and abstraction of colors, Bal suggests that the stripes of a printed jersey top are not printed but instead “bands of braided fabric” (I maintain that they are printed; bygones). This may be some conceptual, irrealistic observation of the fabric that I didn’t pick up on, similar to her allusive description of the same girl’s earring as a “perhaps blue, perhaps green pearl,” referencing her commentary on Vermeer earlier in the essay. The book benefits greatly from Bal’s essay, but some intermediary information might have been nice for newcomers like me. I imagine it was a very intentional choice on the part of the editors and publisher not to include descriptions and information from the artist; I admire the format and the primacy of the image. In any case, it’s plenty easy to look up interviews with the author, read her own artist’s statement on her website.
What does Stasis contribute to the discussion around the use and relevancy of historic dress and its role in identity production? With my background interest in Scandinavian folk dress, I was immediately drawn to the objects depicted, and the posing, the light, etc all came afterward. That Søndergaard named each series and each photograph with the name of the dress object is significant. With the exception of fashion photographs (which is hardly always about the garments), clothing can be incidental in art photography; here it nearly obfuscates the wearers. Stasis would be an excellent jumping-off point for a review of clothing used in art photography; there are dozens of books on fashion photography, and a range of books on fashion and art (is it?), but not enough that examine the use of dress as a function of art. (Leave tips about your favorite works on the subject in the comments section!)
Trine Søndergaard’s use of headwear from Danish folk dress and clothing history has produced simply beautiful, still photographs, with deep currents underneath. The thoughtful fashion historian will regard this work as a chance to challenge and revisit the fabrics and composition of our dress and textile histories, how certain garments or styles evolve over time–or not–and what their changing use means to us socially. Their meanings are never static–even if they can feel staid or stuffy. Portraits will always reflect the time in which the are produced, although they may express ideas and ideals instead of an “accurate” mirror image of popular style. This may include nineteenth-century painters dressing models in classical clothing to encourage a “timeless” and unbound reading of their genius, teenagers in the faddiest formal fashions for a prom photo, or using very specifically dated dress objects from a country’s history to examine our relationships with nationality, identity, and the self.
Lead Photo Credit: Cover of Stasis, by Trine Søndergaard. Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2014.
Find more Book Reviews on Worn Through here!
Watch a video interview with Søndergaard on the Louisiana Channel here. [English subtitles]
Andersen, Ellen. Folkedragter i Danmark. Copenhagen, 1952.
Bright, Susan, ed. Face of Fashion. London: National Portrait Gallery, 2007.
Brilliant, Richard. Portraiture. London: Reaktion, 1991.
Ditner, Judy, ed. Dress Codes: The Third ICP Triennial of Photo and Video.
Guggenheim Museum Soho. Art/Fashion. New York: 1996.
Kunstmuseum Wolfsberg. Art and Textile: Fabric as Material and Concept in Modern Art from Klimt to the Present. Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2014.