Charlotta Westergren: Rediscovering the Past

By Christopher S. Johnson

AS IT HAS DONE WITH SO MUCH ELSE, contemporary art has largely jettisoned the Christian themes and imagery that defined the Western tradition for centuries.  (Those much publicized maestros of toilet media excepted, to be sure.) It came as a mild shock then, on the cusp of Holy Week, to stumble upon Victory, a painting by Charlotta Westergren, an artist previously unknown to me, to my regret.


Charlotta Westergren, "Victory" (2010)

Immediate and obvious pictorial antecedents are the still lifes with game birds, the twisted broken bodies dripping blood, of Chardin and Meléndez. The title and the wings of the goose evoke classical associations: Nike of Samothrace and the fall of Icarus. The painting is also an inescapable and startling reference to the Crucifixion.

The elements are all there. The goose’s body is in the form of a cross. The slit throat recalls the wounds of Christ (the bird as a stand in for the Lamb of God) while the other hanging game—rabbits to the left and doves to the right—represent the thieves. The word victory refers, of course, to the specifically Christian triumph of the spirit over death.  At same time, the body of the goose is destined for the table to be consumed, an emblem of the Eucharist.

On first viewing, Victory left me puzzled and wrestling with an ingrained and reflexive skepticism: Was the painting asking to be seen as a work of Christian art, or was this just another round of ironic or ideological posturing (nature “crucified,” etc.)?  Or was I simply guilty of over-reading the work and grasping at phantoms?

There is an element in the painting—the  small red feathery thing tacked to the wall to the right of the goose—that I couldn’t make out at first (web images being what they are), although it seemed important. Little did I realize that therein lay the key to the whole. I did not catch, at first, the discreet yet meticulous quotation of the red coral suspended above the Virgin in Mantegna’s masterpiece, Madonna of Victory (1496), and thus missed the sacred heart at Victory’s core.


Andrea Mantegna, "Madonna of Victory" (1496)


Westergren’s oeuvre contains other surprises, like her faithfully re-imagined medieval allegories of the passion.  And beyond her fascination with the hunt, she displays an unusual sympathy for animals in their symbolic and particular manifestations: Rake is a wryly affectionate send-up of male pride and priapic vigor, rendered with a clear-eyed northern European, almost Dürer-like scrutiny.


Charlotta Westergren, "Rake" (2005)


On her website, Westergren calls her series of classic still lifes, painted over a number of years in homage to Dutch and other masters, La nature morte, or The end of progress.  The end of progress: it could be a quiet manifesto.  The shock of the new is old hat.  The past is an undiscovered county.

Christopher S. Johnson is a writer who lives and works in Portland, Oregon.



  1. Interesting take on Westergren’s Victory. But in context of her other stuff, I am not sure reference to the crucifixion can be taken in a sacred sense. Personally, I suspect it’s ironic. As in, “your goose is cooked.”

  2. Marlene, as I hoped I indicated, I also wrested with the sincerity, or lack thereof, in the painting. My scepticism was assuaged eventually by a number of things: the Mantegna reference; the recent Unicorn at Bay (linked in the article) which seemed devoid of irony and also dealt with related religious themes, though even more obliquely; and by a strange fairy tale-like self-portrait (you can find it on her website) of a tiny Ms. Westergren atop a gigantic goose, which seemed to indicate a special significance of the goose to the artist.

    While I might still be persuaded otherwise, I would tend to locate the meaning of the painting closer to “intimations of mortality,” than your wonderfully witty “your goose is cooked.”

  3. Interesting pieces. In reference to the post above, I’m not sure which stuff you have in mind. If she were not sympathetic to Christianity, why the interest in medievalism and allegorical still life? I mean, sure, you COULD read it ironically, but then you COULD read anything ironically. It’s always a possibility, but she seems sincerely interested in Christian themes rather than taking a mocking posture.

  4. That piece of coral has always fascinated me. Coral was considered to have protective powers. That makes sense in terms of the historical reason for the painting. But it is shaped like a mandrake root, an important herb at the time.

  5. Like Patrick, I think Westergren is sincere but maybe that’s just because I want to think so. There is nothing about appropriating medieval imagery that, by itself, indicates sincerity. There’s nothing inherently “sincere” about borrowing.

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