#LoveIrishResearch BLOG: 'Into the void: Translating text and image in Nordic art 1890-1910'

During the month of July, #LoveIrishResearch has been marking 'The Art of Research'. To celebrate this theme, we have asked Postgraduate Scholar Kerstina Mortensen, based in the Department of History of Art and Architecture, Trinity College, Dublin, to tell us about her research on Nordic Art. 

Into the Void: Translating Text and Image in Nordic Art 1890-1910

At the turn of the 20th Century, Nordic Symbolist artists were absorbed by the themes of Illness, Death and the Psychological Self. My PhD examines the translation of these themes between text and image, the linguistic and the visual. Fuelled by fin de siècle pessimism and a perceived degeneration of society, artists such as Edvard Munch (1863-1944), Niels Hansen Jacobsen (1861-1941) and Ejnar Nielsen (1872-1956) explored these darker themes of modernity in both visual and literary terms. Many of their works are enriched with multiple layers of meaning pertaining to both the artwork itself as a visual object, and to associated linguistic texts. The purpose of my thesis is to establish a comprehensive understanding of the spectrum of word and image relationships in works of Nordic Symbolism during the period 1890-1910.

Some works are accompanied by a literary sketch written by the artist, as in Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893, tempera and crayon on cardboard, 91 x 73.5cm, Nasjonalmuseet for Kunst, Arkitektur og Design, Oslo), while the sculptor Niels Hansen Jacobsen based Death and the Mother (1892, plaster, 152 x 183 x 108 cm Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen) on the writings of Hans Christian Andersen. Ejnar Nielsen instigates direct interaction between the painting surface and text by inscribing the title of And in His Eyes I saw Death (‘Og i Hans Øjne så Jeg Døden’, 1897, oil on canvas, 137 x 188cm, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen) on the picture plane.

My approach is rooted in a number of diverse sources – architectural theory, aesthetics, semiotics and morphology. Combined, these form a multi-faceted framework for the analysis of word and image. Other issues addressed in my research are theories of surface, atmosphere, and narrative and their role in the representation of the themes of Illness, Death and the Psychological Self.

My central research questions include the following: is there a correlation between the way an artist writes and the way that they paint? Does language convey what the visual cannot? Is our interpretation of an artwork influenced by its (textual) title? What is the relation between the visual message and the linguistic message that are linked by a single theme? Do words serve to confirm what the eye sees, or do artwork titles take the viewer in a different direction from the visual representation?

The artworks produced between 1890 and 1910 provide a fascinating resource for my research. Exploring these works through varied theoretical filters enables the discovery of new perspectives on the past, generating art historical research that is both original and relevant to a contemporary audience. Examining the translation of ideas between text and image in Nordic Symbolism encourages interdisciplinary research of art and language, not as separate fields, but as constantly interacting surfaces.