The etching Søstre, Sisters, by Norwegian artist Giske Sigmundstad shows us two women walking towards an ominous horizon filled with both darkness and clouds lined with red. The sisters walk towards the source of light, a light colouring the land with fiery hues of orange and yellow. One looks towards the horizon, perhaps towards the end of the road. Her hair is let out and her coat has tints of green. The other one, hair tied back, looks downwards. She seems to survey the ground immediately on front of them. Or is she more regretful and hesitant in her steps than her sister? One looks towards a goal, the other contemplates the road. Two different attitudes arrested in time, because even if their feet and bodies suggest movement there is a stillness in the picture that invites the viewer to join as if through a sudden opening..
Between them the sisters carry a large suitcase of the classic kind, from the time before all luggage got wheels. It is not only an emblematic suitcase, it emphasises the weight of luggage, the weight of the past. Suitcases often occur in Sigmundstad's works, sometimes heavy, sometimes lighter, suggesting different stories. Sometimes, as in Husvegg I, House Wall I, or Forbi skogen, Past the Forrest, the suitcase is supplanted by the archetypal Norwegian rucksack, a national symbol as well as a symbol of global back-packers travelling light. Whether the two sisters are returning or leaving is open to interpretation, and so are the contents of their load. Are they taking something with them – the past – or are they bringing something back home? Are they bringing the past into the future? The future is a frail thing; still it is the main investment of Modernity. The past has an imaginary solidity. Sigmundstad seems to capture both.
A departure usually has an arrival as its goal. The goal may be far, it may be close. The space between departure and arrival may be a slice of time rather than a spatial experience. Travelling by airlines, or by underground trains, represents such slices. Other forms of travel – by railway, by car, or simply walking – put us in closer touch with our environment. Many of Giske Sigmundstad's works are focussed on the ongoing process of leaving and arriving, stopping in between, resting and moving on, sometimes returning. Migration is constitutional to the modern condition, to Modernity. Be it represented by early Romantics like Lord Byron and the Shelleys, or refugees and charter tourists of the present. This mobility has its premodern roots in the medieval phenomena of vagrant artists and pilgrims.
Travelling to learn is deeply embedded within the formation and activities of artists. Contemporary art academies continue to encourage and organize travel. International exhibitions are at the core of the art world, as spaces for many kinds of exchange and experience. Giske Sigmundstad exhibits internationally and has studied abroad, in Italy. Several critics, as well as the artist herself, have pointed to influences from predecessors like Giotto, or Giorgio de Chiricho.i There are certainly similarities in the treatment of colours and space. But there is also – in the works all three – a pervading feeling of both silent movement within the figures and a kind of silent movement within the imagined space, akin to the stillness mentioned above.
Sigmundstad's etchings – the result of a careful blend of intention and chance – possess a spatial silence similar to that in the pictures by French painter Balthus, but on a small, unpretentious scale and without the apparent eroticism. Something is happening in the pictures, but the movements often signal moments of hesitance, as in Vinter, Winter, where the man on skis has just stopped and looks back, or so it seems. Sigmundstad makes us wonder what is happening in his head. Is he worried about how to get home through the snow that seems to have just started? Or is he resting? In Reisen I, The Journey I, one of the two women, or girls, bends her head slightly as if regretting something. Or is she just submissive in relation to the other girl's – the one carrying the suitcase – determined walk?
Reisen I and its sequel, Reisen/Huset, The Journey/The House, differ from many of Sigmundstad's other works. There is less volume and colour. The cool pink and blue barely cover the paper, and the girls are more schematic, extremely flat, like linocuts, and transparent. The architectural skeleton of the house in the background is a more familiar feature from other prints. Then, in Reisen/Huset the house stands alone. This is clearly an image of departure, but it remains open to interpretations. In their faintly outlined narratives Sigmundstad's works resemble poems rather than novels.
Finnish critic Marja-Terttu Kivirinta – and others – has noted influences from the 1950's in Sigmundstad's imagery.ii The style of clothes, hairstyles and objects remind us of something highly modern, of Modernity's own restrained classicism, where the men bear the insignia of masculinity and the women those of femininity. Other artists of Sigmundstad's generation, like Swedish Jockum Nordström and Karin Mamma Andersson, also make references to that era in their works. One reason may be the iconic appeal of the style. Persons and objects become easily read signs that facilitate the narrative. They represent a certain timelessness. But another fact may be just as important. These artists did not experience the decade directly. But they have done so indirectly, through their parents. Those were the years when their parents formed their identities and ideals. Quiet, non-revolutionary ideals that their children grew up with. Stories that they need to recast and revise.
The persons in Sigmundstad's etchings are not always quietly leaving or moving. Sometimes they make a halt, as in Vinter. In Husvegg II, House Wall II we see two men at a bonfire. The fire is the only thing colouring the greyish scene. One of the men looks back at us with something accusing in his eyes, or maybe he is just wondering who we are. The women in Husvegg I seemed to have a goal; the men just stand there, immobile. In Dam, Pond, a woman has put her suitcase down and peacefully contemplates her mirror image on the water surface. The allusion to Narcissus is there, but the woman seems more capable of keeping the distance. She does not seem totally absorbed by herself. She will not drown in her own image like her predecessor. She may just be pausing on her route, enjoying the silence, the stillness of the water. Then she will pick up her suitcase again and continue her journey.
Malmö in August 2008 Måns Holst-Ekström
, b. 1963, is an art critic and a writer. He teaches at Malmö Art Academy and the Department of Art History and Musicology, Lund University. He was senior lecturer at the Royal University College of Fine Arts in Stockholm 2001-2006.