Dream Machines

Soft architecture and woven columns which bear no loads. Viewing Ragna Braase at the National Gallery of Denmark is seeing art history being written.

Ragna Braase, Africana’s House, 1981. Installation view, Statens Museum for Kunst, 2020. Photo: SMK

Making exhibitions, and all that this entails, is one of the activist tools available to art historians. For example, the current exhibition featuring Ragna Braase at the National Gallery of Denmark was originally prompted by a donation from the artist’s son. Having perused the material offered in the summer of 2019, the museum decided that it would accept the donation and stage an exhibition immediately. Had the works simply gone into storage, it could have been years before anyone came across them again and saw the point in exhibiting them.

Braase was born in Copenhagen in 1929, graduated from the art academies in Copenhagen and Paris, and moved to France in 1968, where she remained until her death in 2013. These were the external coordinates for the unfolding of an oeuvre that comprises graphics, painting, and textile work – an oeuvre that has attracted little attention thus far.

We can presumably thank the new materialism currents swirling across the 2010s for the serendipitous fact that the spotlight has fallen on her at all. Recently, Braase’s work has been presented at the artist-curated group shows Criss-Crossing Connections at Sorø Art Museum in 2015 by Mette Winckelman, as well as Villa for Ragna and Franka by Torgny Wilcke and Charlotte Thrane at Esbjerg Art Museum and Kastrupgårdsamlingen in 2017–18.

The National Gallery’s history writing takes its starting point in a mini-retrospective featuring twenty-eight works arranged in the gallery space known for decades as “X-rummet,” a space dedicated to experimental contemporary art. Braase is an excellent fit here; in many ways, “Experiment” is her middle name.

Faced with such brittle, freshly minted art history, viewers must proceed with due caution. We must observe and try to weave our way ahead by speaking to the museum staff, listening to the artist’s own words in a 1985 interviewfor Danish television also screened in the exhibition, and consulting one of the few texts available, ‘Ragna Dreams of the Nomads’ by artist and art historian Hannah Heilmanns for the catalogue for Villa for Ragna and Franka. The latter is a very well-hewn touchstone on which to build the research being undertaken right now.

Apart from a number of small, vibrant, black-and-white etchings from the early 1960s – all hatchings and intuitive drawing studies – the majority of Braase’s graphic art is dominated by a bold and saturated palette. This is especially evident in her large paper works from the late 1970s, where a single work consists of several prints put together to form larger planes or sequences.

One example is the intaglio print Colonne I–III (1978), which depicts three separate columns whose modular repetitive forms evoke Brancusci’s Colonne sans fin (Endless Column). Although Braase’s columns are confined to their paper surface, they still engage with the space by virtue of their sheer scale (440 x 60 cm each). Each column consists of sixteen prints which produce a gradient of colour, ranging from dark umber over luminous ochre to deep eggplant purple. The densely saturated pigments contribute to making the columns something more than simply Concretist displays of form. They are also colour experiments. “How might a rhomboid respond to a ripe ochre?” Braase seems to ask.

Ragna Braase, Colonne I-III, 1978, akvatinte. Installation view, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen 2020. Photo: SMK.

The large-scale papers were produced around the same time as the woven textile works. Indeed, they are connected in several ways. Both engage with architectural space and are based on modular shapes or patterns which serve to explore the osmotic relationships between colour, shape, and sign which seem to interest Braase.

The textile works have the strongest presence in the room. Some are reminiscent of reliefs or tapestries, such as a delicate and airy woven work from 1979–84, done in a classic 1970s palette with shades of brown and purple. Hung relatively high, it immediately reads as a kind of arched window, perhaps in some dark Romanesque church.

The exhibition also includes more spatial three-dimensional constructions, such as the peculiar Columns of Uruk (1979–80) which comprises three textile tubes arranged in a triangular relationship with each other. Uruk was an important city in ancient Mesopotamia and is renowned as one of the first places to attempt to erect larger architectural structures in stone. Braase’s columns are not solid, however. Their circular, woven shapes are maintained only by means of iron hoops, one at either end, making them impossible columns which bear no loads, there only for us to move between. They are fixed in the ceiling by “invisible” cords, which need to be very long in the high-ceilinged room and also make the work a little weirder than it needed to be.

One finds a far more defined sculptural quality in the tents, huts, or whatever one wishes to call the two square structures placed opposite each other and sharing the title Africana’s House (1981). The woven tent walls are stretched out on iron frames and positioned so that the entrances face each other. Standing between them, I find myself in a sequence of spaces which impart a vibrating impression of many different patterns and strong colour contrasts. The effect is akin to Daniel Buren’s open structures with changing stripes and colours, as seen in his Cabanne series from the 1980s.

In the past, Braase’s work would probably have been called “painting in the extended field,” or early installation art. In fact, she probably hovers somewhere between categories and various modes of expression which have been barred from the realm of art for a long time – crafts, applied art, folk art – but have regained ground in recent decades, taking on newfound value in art institutions.

Braase supposedly learned to build her own looms and to master the techniques by studying books on weaving and visiting open-air museums. Africana’s House is done in plain weave using a shuttle – a universal technique so old that it can hardly be dated, but which can be traced in textiles from around the world; from Finland to the Middle East.

Braase left her homeland in a pre-globalised era where immigrating to France was an exotic and radical feat for a non-wealthy family where both parents were artists. In addition, France was already an international melting pot of various cultures from all over the world. These traits presumably had an impact on the relationship between home and away that is so central to her art.

In the aforementioned documentary – shot on the occasion of her solo exhibition Nomad at the Kastrupgårdsamlingen in 1985 – Braase speaks about her strong desire to travel and the desire to build spaces. She never got to Asia, Africa, nor any of the other places she dreamed of – only in books, in her imagination, and in the National Museum of Denmark’s ethnographic collection, which she visited countless times during her youth in Copenhagen. In a sense, the tents appear to be results of this yearning.

Inside her home in Marcoussis, the Paris suburb where Braase lived with her family, she erected a rather large nomad-inspired tent. It contained a large loom which she built using materials left over from the construction of the house itself – which the family also built themselves. Thus, Braase not only had “a room of her own,” but also a kind of dream machine that she could step inside to sit by her loom and dream herself away: to the ethnographic collection of 1950s Copenhagen; to the ur-architecture of ancient Mesopotamia; or out travelling with North African nomads, setting up tents in an imaginary landscape that no one has ever visited.

Perhaps this box-inside-a-box, dream-machine existence is part of what one senses in Braase’s idiosyncratic work, making her something of an atypical figure who does not immediately appear to engage in a dialogue with the movements of her time. On the other hand, the same work would be unlikely to have come out of a house in suburban Denmark. Her life in exile and her entire international context simmer at the edge of it all, making Ragna Braase’s work an indisputably interesting appendix that opens up new vistas in Danish art history. 

Ragna Braase, Africana’s House (detail), 1981. Photo: SMK.

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