Peepholes into a dissolving life
It's paradoxical that the idea of living a long life appeals to everyone, but the idea of getting old doesn't appeal to anyone.
We often think that everything improves with age. We like to believe that our elders are wiser through their years of experience. But at the same time we also fear aging, as it puts us closer to death. For the same reason we also fear aging in those we love. Like all living organisms, death is the final result of life. Perhaps we are uneasy when looking at older people because we fear the end of life in ourselves.
The human body is a degenerating biological machine. It has a general expiration date that makes itself known more intensely as we get older. We feel our bodies fail slowly. Where once we were comfortable seeing our bodies in the mirror, age can make us wonder who it is in the mirror we are looking at.
It is a trick of nature that our minds can stay young forever, while our bodies fail. The rage, maybe, comes from a youthful mind trying to control an aging process that can’t really be controlled.
It wasn’t for nothing the poet Dylan Thomas wrote in 1952 his famous words: ‘Do not go gentle into that good night but rage, rage against the dying of the light.’
Dutch painter Francine Krieg paints older women who have moved out from the pressures of beauty to a place where spirit becomes the means of physical attraction. Her women are struggling with aged bodies that severely limit quality of life. Krieg exaggerates the dilemma by choosing the most unflattering angles and points of view for her compositions. She pushes the female body to an aging extreme that challenges the viewer to stay interested. She is obsessed with the effects of skin in aging and how lines and wrinkles are clues to how this individual had lived.
It is somewhat predictable that Krieg has suffered negative reactions to her work, as on the surface one might think she was portraying elderly women without respect. But Krieg is really commenting on ‘beauty’ in much the same way as film director Sam Peckinpah was commenting on violence. By throwing aging in our face like a violent western, we have to respond. The response is what Krieg is after. She feels her point is made by the extreme response.
Having said that, her work is very interesting for it’s focused attention. Krieg paints the older woman’s declining body with compassion, but also with a critical ey. She might take us further than we want to go into observing the decline of the female body, but we feel the horror of it. She often chooses angles that exaggerate the body as a profound burden for the spirit that lives inside it. That might not have been her intent, but it is the core success of her work.
Yes, man’s and woman’s ideal view of young beauty does get shattered with age, but something else takes place of more importance. The realization that once idealized beauty is gone, the innate inner beauty of spirit has the potential to create an outer beauty with a greater depth. Krieg seems to prefer that road but, occasionally, takes us to the grotesque side where it can seem like an anti-beauty statement. Here she serves women their ultimate nightmare.
As a child, Krieg was exposed to her father’s obsession with death. He would record voices from beyond life and searched for answers about life after death. In art school Krieg was interested in the mystery of the human body and created sculptural installations from meat that included skin as clothing. She collected preserved, dead animals and skeletons of birds etc. After graduating she saw her own body as something she knew so well and yet felt disconnected to, because she had no idea what was going on inside. Eventually through her paintings of an older woman she met, she found her subject matter in the aging process of life’s physical degeneration and how it is something that finds spiritual beauty from it’s acceptance. Krieg found that by getting to know older women with failing bodies, her fears and prejudices of aging changed into something more life affirming.
Krieg also paints miniature portraits of aging women that seem like peepholes into a dissolving life. By making these portraits small, the viewer is attracted to look more closely at every wrinkle and line, as though looking into a mirror. She provides these pictures with ornate big frames that accentuate their small size.
She also paints mothers and fathers with children and children themselves in a sincere and compassionate way that carries much feeling. Her love for her own children and motherhood in general has been a great inspiration in her work. She recently had her second child. She seems pulled between the obsession with aging and life’s decline, and the opposite of life’s beginning, the newness that defines innocence. That the outward physical birth eventually leads to the inward spiritual awakening, as two of life’s defining transformations.
Krieg's personal vision is consistent and committed. She is expressing herself through her art in ways that give her a unique point of view toward the human condition.