For some 20 years now, Ulla von Brandenburg has been developing a body of work that is centered on filmed and sung performance and scene-like installations in which the artistic and societal revolutions of the turn of the 20th century that she stages become the reflection of contemporary questions.
After a childhood stamped by the teachings of Rudolf Steiner and psychoanalysis, the artist initially studied theatre and new media at Karlsruhe’s Hochschule für Gestaltung, before being briefly involved in the world of theater. Not as well-known as her films, more discreet than her installations, von Brandenburg’s drawings nevertheless play a significant role in her approach. The themes and figures seen in the films appear in her graphic work as collages of monochrome silhouettes, and large drawings streaked with a rainbow of watercolors. In counterpoint to her black-and-white films, these watercolors are characterized by an absence of preliminary outlining or drawing. The elements of the composition emerge from the swaths of color alone, which the artist places side by side and mixes in a watery porosity. First, von Brandenburg fashions the support from recycled paper (old geographical maps, the blank pages of old books found in junk shops), which she assembles to form large yellowing patchworks. Sewn, folded, pasted, or tinted, the paper in this way takes on a strong material presence that, by itself, conveys a certain history. Von Brandenburg then works the paper with a brush dripping with water. She chooses the colors of her palette without any prior plan, incorporating the runs and imperfections as clear signs of both a deliberate loss of control and a spontaneous gesture.
To create her stock of visual materials, the artist collects found images. Newspaper clippings, postcards, artworks, and scientific imagery—von Brandenburg’s personal databank has taken shape around her favorite themes, including the carnival and the “Theatrum Mundi,” strong women, expressionist dance, spiritism and psychoanalysis, and popular culture. The artist transposes these black-andwhite images into watercolors, and imbues them with a second life as if beings rising up from the past were suddenly witnesses to our contemporary world.
The large composition inspired by the German dancer Mary Wigman (1886–1973), makes clear the artist’s interest in women whose lives took a special turn and left a mark on history. In this case, Wigman, who studied under Rudolf von Laban and created expressionist dance, embodies in the artist’s eyes a tutelary figure who conveyed a new approach to body movements, which the dancer’s greatly arched back can here attest. This free manner of experiencing artistic gesture echoes the approach championed by von Brandenburg, who, through her spontaneous drawing, is clearly working along the lines that Wigman pioneered in the first half of the 20th century. By appropriating this figure and breathing new life into her through the use of color, the artist turns the groundbreaking dancer into an unavoidable reference point in the genealogy of women artists, and finds a way of linking herself to her.
Julie Enckell Julliard