La fabrique du jardin – ou de l’amitié entre Mot et Image. The role of text and its correspondence to image in the gardens of Caroline Bittermann
The question of origin is a theme that also concerns Caroline Bittermann, one that can be elucidated by her personal biography and her preoccupation with the ideas of German Romanticism. Bittermann is a painter, hence she is drawn towards the image. But written word also occupies an important status in her work and is treated according to the dictates of an aesthetic pictorial regime. When she transforms letters into sculptures or architectural forms they cast off the chains of purely rational or linguistic connotation: instead they assert their autonomy and assume an iconic quality. In a free interpretation of Victor Hugo’s observation “Les mots ont une figure” , Bittermann not only portrays people and places but also lends a face to words or whole sentences.
In her Friendship Portraits, Bittermann has portrayed people with whom she is either directly related or connected as friends or professional contacts. These stand alongside the “Elective Affinities” – (historical) figures whose ideals and aims have influenced Bittermann’s own. But she also portrayed artists concerned with similar themes or whose work, she feels, bears a “family likeness” or spiritual kinship. If only indirectly, the portraits make reference to Bittermann’s (artistic) roots, resulting in a fictitious family tree or “ancestral coral”. For many years now, Bittermann has maintained a dialogue – inner or outer, fictitious or real – with all these individuals, on the basis of which she has executed her portraits. Friends are asked to name their ideal place and to provide a photograph of themselves in profile. She receives replies as text or in the form of photographs, sound recordings, drawings, etc. Her gouaches are thus interpretations of these textual and pictorial confessions, from which she constructs the ideal places described by her friends and paints them inside the contours of their heads.
It is striking that a number of the historical figures in Bittermann’s Gardens of Friendship were executed by guillotine in the course of the French Revolution. She leads us to a crossroads in the history of ideas, a confrontation between two intellectual worldviews with far-reaching political consequences, between Romanticism and Enlightenment. So it is hardly surprising that Bittermann’s cycle includes a portrait of Marie Antoinette, an admirer of Rousseau and a dreamer with exquisite tastes, whose head ultimately had to roll as a consequence of her irrational and wasteful lifestyle as well as her ignorance of her political responsibility. There are several other examples of famous heads that had to roll for their ideas – maybe because it is impossible to turn a genuine utopia into reality? Through painting it is at least possible to invest utopias with the power to produce an effect, even if this is not enough to make them reality. While we lend our heads to the artist as projection surfaces for her ideas, we nonetheless retain the real thing. In these terms it is telling that the artist chooses a severed head as the location of her ideal “gardens”. These remarkable portrait silhouettes resemble utopian islands that have been cut off from the mainland – solipsistic places of retreat and sites suited par excellence for utopias.
This artist’s book has indeed sprung from her many years of research into the broadly defined concept of the garden, both as a real and an abstract place. It is dedicated to both her parents – the artist’s own origin, as it were – and to the complementary couple of image and text.
To this end, the book’s structure plays a particular role in the way it congenially combines both phenomena. The explanatory section comprising texts, documentations of exhibitions and graphics, as well as the title and the colophon, is located at the heart of the book. This “theoretical hub” is embedded in documentary photographs of the “Gardens” that unfurl outwards from the centre in rampant cellular fashion. Facing these are the uncommented portrait paintings. Analogous to Romanticist thinking, which postulates the existence of a language before language – one that is contained diffusely in nature – Bittermann’s language-based sculptures and architectures also incorporate codes that call for decipherment. In the Romantic worldview, everything in nature speaks. The universe and all phenomena therein constitute an immense book.
Caves on the way to the book
The geological and topographical exploration of caves began in the eighteenth century. At the time, the earth’s interior was thought of as a living organism and deemed highly instructive for scientists and artists alike to investigate. Hence the ideal places in Bittermann’s heads are also caves. They are places of refuge and a Romantic metaphor for the dialogue with one’s inner self, the encounter with one’s own self; they are islands of utopian vision and dreams. Whether it is the cabin that served as a love nest for Hannah Arendt and her secret lover Martin Heidegger, or the theatrical world of Marie Antoinette symbolised by the hameau: these are all caves of various kinds that offer shelter from the outside (political) world one seeks to escape. In Heinrich von Ofterdingen, of Novalis, the cave motif also plays a prominent role. In the key scene – the descent into the underworld – Heinrich, accompanied by a “treasure seeker”, makes his way down into a cavern where they encounter a hermit surrounded by ancient books. Driven by an obscure yet ardent urge, Heinrich finds his inner treasure in the womb of the earth. On reading the book Heinrich realises he is part of a mythical world and enters into a dialogue with himself. Miners are “almost inverted astrologers” claims the hermit in the cavern. “Astrologers consult the heavens about the future, miners consult the earth about the past and the primeval world […].” Likewise, the riddles Bittermann has embedded in her work also lead inwards, as it were, towards ourselves, towards our own inner cavern. She is, like Novalis an aesthetic treasure seeker or blind mole, but at any rate a servant of the underworld. In this sense Bittermann’s portraits can also be considered secret window vistas onto the manifold imaginary landscapes and utopian islands of her portrayed subjects. Seen in these terms, painting assumes the role of the “intermediary”; it acts as the “lens” through which we are looking. In one portrait in her series, this idea itself is epitomised by the view – “implanted” inside Baudelaire’s head – of a motif that can be glimpsed through the hole in the door in Duchamp’s work Étant donnés. For all its obscenity, the scene also offers a view of the world’s origins, bringing to mind Courbet’s similarly frontal depiction in The Origin of the World – hinted at in a further reference: the profile silhouette copied from Courbet’s portrait of Baudelaire.
Caroline Bittermann is in some respects a female Heinrich. She, too, has made her way down into the primordial underworld; she too is an excavator. This publication has grown from years of labour performed in the shadows (the cave). It has now emerged into the full light of day and bundles different strands of time. It refers to the past, traces origins, establishes itself in the present and weaves a projection of the future. In his Essai Le Livre, Instrument spirituel, Mallarmé declares that “everything in the world exists to end in a book”.
The publication of this book does not mean that the Jardins d’amis project has been completed. We find ourselves in the midst of a history of a friendship – between word and image. It is Caroline Bittermann’s Book of Life. As we leaf through the pages of her “endless novel” we also find ourselves leafing through nature – since nature, as Hugo said, is “the vast letter inscribed on the vast scale, the earth […] its versicles are woods, its stanzas peaks!”