Natasja Kensmil – Post Mortem

By Wieteke van Zeil

‘Children, what kind of game is that? Have you forgotten that you are dead?…Maybe the Tsar’s visit has made you far too proud, and do you think you are no longer subjected to the old law of nature anymore?’
Giacomo Leopardi, Operette Morali, 1835

When tsar Peter the Great visited Frederik Ruysch’s theatre in Amsterdam in 1698, he came across a collection of children’s preparations so beautiful that the children seemed to sleep. Anatomist and botanist Ruysch was described by his biographer as an artist of death, who not only enabled corpses to be prepared in such a way that they were preserved long enough to be studied by science, but who also seemed to interrupt death for a moment with his new method of preparation. He could stop the process of disintegration, past the point of life and soul leaving the body. In art, corpses in anatomical lessons turned as beautiful as young adonises overnight – see The anatomy lesson by Dr. F. Ruysch by Adriaen Backer (1670). Smooth and muscular, with one leg carelessly drawn up to show: so far has science advanced that death appears to be alive.

A hundred years later the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi reconstructs a conversation between Frederik Ruysch and his dead children in his Operette Morali (1835). Ruysch awakes at midnight by the singing of the corpses. He hears them singing about death, and life as a memory. They have a quarter of an hour to speak. Ruysch uses this time to question them and takes courage to ask the one urgent question: what is it like to be dead?

Searching for beauty throughout death. Parents have been trying this for ages –with death portrait paintings in the 16th and 17th century, in which the children were beautifully made-up, lying in a coffin, or hovering like angels around a family portrait. In the 19th century, the tradition briefly took a remarkable turn in Victorian England: photographs of portraits of deceased children. Surrounded by lace, flowers, made-up as if they were actors ready to go on stage, peacefully lying in a coffin, or lifted on a lap for one last time. Even more than examining life after death, here Ruysch’s curiosity made way for desire: a desperate attempt to turn back the irreversible. Retracting the soul from Hades. With beauty and art as instrument, trying to draw back the children in vain. It can’t be, it isn’t to be, we keep it. Just for a moment. To cherish life forever in the picture.

Natasja Kensmil (Amsterdam, 1973) takes up the tradition of homage, curiosity, desire and fearful efforts, that goes back a long time, whereby art itself is the ritual to ward off the finality of death. To avert death as a fact.

In Kensmil’s paintings, however, nothing is reconstructed. In contradiction to death portraits in previous centuries, Kensmil’s children have no identity. Recently deceased children are not portrayed – her basis material consists of old death photographs. Tradition itself is the subject, the tragedy of loss and human incapacity. Her paintings are still lifes of people rather than death portraits. Beauty is not sought – the beauty which arises from the paint is merely a by-product. The paintings are the practice of a thorough search in which not perished life, but the mourning ritual itself, the loss, the not-knowing where the soul dwells, is the main subject. Not death itself, but coping with death.
That has changed fundamentally since the Victorian Age. There is barely any room for dealing with death in society. Anyone who lives in the Western world without an acute presence of death can maintain for a long time that death is not a concern associated with one’s own personal life. But it ís there – to a large extent even. In the most peculiar places you are confronted with death.

In the supermarket, three front pages displayed in a newspaper stand. A crying man in a war zone holding a dead child. A widow with a dead son on her lap. So carefully photographed, with award-winning potential, that it inevitably reminds you of old paintings. A Pietà, a mourning of Christ, a descent from the Cross. Disturbing but distant as well, especially because death is moulded into a well-known shape. People from far away in a familiar format. A grid that keeps the fear, the identification, the personal grief away, like a diver who pokes away the sharks with a stick.

Kensmil paints right into the face of fear. She directs her gaze upon death – she gives children a face, sometimes faces upon faces, layer on layer. They have the light green – grey colour of the classical incarnadine. The paint which was used as a basis to add – on top of this – the liveliness of flesh colours, eyes and emotions in the face. Kensmil’s children are devoid of that lively top layer: it is as if the artist tears open the dead skin and looks for what is hidden underneath. The paint like an open wound. But the children remain below a surface that can’t be reached. An impenetrable veil is hanging between them and us. They seem to scream, and at the same time it is painfully evident that we can’t hear those screams.

It makes you think of Ophelia, Hamlet’s fiancée, drowned in the brook between garlands of nettles, white daisies and buttercups. Her clothes make her float upwards briefly, suggest for a moment that there is movement and life in that pale body, but she remains under the glassy water surface, and will soon sink into muddy death.

The paintings aren’t Momento Moris – ‘remember that you will die’, the Latin message that painters of old hid in their portraits and still lifes, to keep Christian man conscious of his temporality, to guard against vanity. A memento mori is a piece to commemorate, but Kensmil’s children are an investigation. Whereas in a memento mori death is accepted and embraced, these paintings are the opposite. Non-acceptance is central, based on that question that occupied Frederik Ruysch, and Dante, and Hamlet, and numerous others who were rawly confronted with death: how is it to die? How is it to be dead? Are you still there, anywhere? Is your soul at rest?

Ruysch was reassured, in Giacomo Leopardi’s poems. The minutes that the children can speak to him they assure him: dying is like falling asleep, it isn’t painful. They are freed from unrest and grief. The artist of death can continue.

Kensmil’s paintings, however, don’t reassure. They conform to Virgil’s mood when he enters hell in the Divine Comedy (1308-1321); that part of hell where the unblessed live. The deep tragedy of the unbaptized and those who lived for Christ, and therefore lacked the precondition to enter heaven. The children who died too early. It made Virgil’s face deathly pale. Not from fear but from compassion on their fate, which he also shares: ‘For this defect, and for no other fault, we are lost, and we are punished solely, in that without hope we are filled with eternal desire’. Natasja Kensmil’s paintings chase your eyes. Nowhere is emptiness, nowhere is quiet. Like the unrest of fate and having to desire eternally, incessantly. The reluctant desire of those who can’t be with us, but also that of us who can’t be with them.