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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.

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[1]
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.

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[2]
Andrea Mantegna, "Madonna of Victory" (1496)

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Westergren’s oeuvre contains other surprises, like her faithfully re-imagined medieval allegories [3] 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.

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[4]
Charlotta Westergren, "Rake" (2005)

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On her website, Westergren calls her series [5] 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.

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