The Woman in a Photograph: Lived Corporeality of the Finnish painter Ellen Thesleff
In my presentation at the NORDIK Art Historical Conference Saturday 27.10.2018 in Copenhagen I’m focusing in the photographs of the Finnish painter Ellen Thesleff (1869-1954). In these photographs I’m interested in the corporeality of the past, the human body and its existence: its movements and flesh.
My hypothesis is that in the period of the fin de siècle art was not only picturing the big social processes and changes, where also the modern corporeality was born. Art also was one places where this process took action in. And photographs as well. Ellen Thesleff’s art and photographs were places where the modern corporeality was and is “happening”.
During 19th century photographs served as an important medium for remembering. The portraits are often serious and festive, mainly because of the long exposure time needed in photography at that time. Most of the photographs of Ellen Thesleff and her family members and friends are very unconventional in this context. Most of the pictures with Ellen and her close ones portrait a relaxed and bohemian social network.
A photograph always represents the past. We can see tiny details, people, life, surroundings, things, objects, etc. Time is a central aspect in the photographical experience. Photographs always present the question between the past and present. Roland Barthes has said: “I’m always the frame of reference in each and every photo”. It is a paradoxical source for historical and art historical research.
In Camera Lucida Roland Barthes tries to understand photography from the phenomenological perspective. Trough the emotions and feelings photographs evoke in us. Barthes thinks that the body in a photograph radiates light and this ray of light is something that touches us. Light is something that drains out from the photographed body towards us. Barthes thinks that the body in a photograph radiates light and this ray of light is something that touches us. Light is something that drains out from the photographed body towards us. That is why our relationship with a photograph is so intensive.
It this context I’m thinking also of Jaques Lacans idea of the body holes as leaking places, where our inner invisible self is leaking to the world outside us weaving and reaching a connection to and towards the others. That is why our relationship with a photograph is so intensive. Photograph is a very complex and ambiguous element.
Thesleff’s photographs are full of gestures and poses of the body, untypical for women of her time: A young woman with a short boy like haircut, self-confident, noncompliant and malcontent in her attitude. Through Thesleff’s photographs I believe we have an interesting possibility to study and even to understand Thesleff’s corporeality – lived and painted.
Photo: Ellen Thesleff in early 1890’s.