In February, the National Gallery of Denmark opened the first-ever major exhibition to feature the Danish modernist Sonja Ferlov Mancoba (1911–84). Ever since, artist Yvette Brackman, curator Johanne Løgstrup and artist Pia Rönicke have engaged in an ongoing correspondence on some of the issues associated with this kind of exhibition, showcasing a long-dead artist who did not get the recognition she deserved while alive.
How does one re-inscribe such an artist in the grand narrative of art history? What does it mean to look at a practice, a life, and a body of work from a place where the very omission of this story may not even be visible?
These are questions that have interested all three letter writers, each in their own way: Rönicke in her artistic project “Notes on MB (2014)”, about the Bauhaus artist and designer Marianne Brandt; Brackman in her research for “Ralph Benrocha”, an ongoing work about a Jewish African American artist who travelled to Russia just after the Revolution; and Løgstrup in her PhD fellowship at Aarhus University, where she examines the potentials of curating in relation to decolonial issues associated with art museums.
The exhibition is still on, and the conversation continues. Meanwhile, Kunstkritikk offers a selection from this exchange and communal effort to answer some of these important questions.
Dear Yvette and Pia,
The Danish National Gallery has finally made the monographic exhibition with Sonja Ferlov Mancoba that I think many of us have been waiting for.
It feels like a historical moment, as if we can now see an outline taking form where a rewriting of women artists is finally taking place in the field of art history. There now seems to be a general investment taking place in academia and art museums, as well as among collectors in the art world at large, in the role of women in art history.
Visiting the exhibition here in Copenhagen, and reading the catalogue for the exhibition, I wonder what it must have felt like for the two curators, Dorte Aagesen and Mikkel Bogh, to unpack those seven boxes from the Mancoba family home in Paris, and which the Estate of Ferlov Mancoba has kept for years.
I’m trying to imagine not only how this material – including family photos, a handwritten translation of Antonin Artaud’s text on Vincent van Gogh, postcards and posters that hung in her studio, a lock of her son’s hair, and personal letters to her close friend Clarisse Penso, etc. – gave them new approaches to the oeuvre, but also their discussions on how to include her life in the exhibition. How to walk the thin line of not being too biographical, but at the same time show what matters for a work to come into shape?
I felt like writing to you because over the years we have had conversations not only about Ferlov Mancoba, but also history writing on other female artists, intellectuals, and other key figures who today we see in a different light than during the times in which they lived. The Sonja Ferlov Mancoba exhibition seems like a perfect occasion to continue this conversation in writing.
You have both worked with some of these historical figures – designers, artists, thinkers, and political activists – and approached them through their archives in your practice. What were your thoughts while standing in front of a kind of unknown space? What does it mean to look at a practice, a life and a work, from a point where the obliteration of this history might not be visible at all?
All the best,
Dear Johanne and Pia,
Thank you for your letter Johanne. I remember, during our lovely walk in the Botanical Garden in Copenhagen a few years ago – while we were discussing the reception of African art in Paris in the early 20th century and the role figures like Michel Leiris, Carl Einstein, and the gallerist Daniel Kahnweiler played in this regard – Sonja Ferlov Mancoba’s sculpture, standing steadfastly and gazing up at us in the tropical greenhouse, taking us by surprise, evoking what was to come.
These personal relationships are expressed through conversation, correspondence,and storytelling, and are so easily lost unless they are somehow preserved for posterity. Without them, a gap forms in our understanding, an unknown space.
The unknown space between people is what fascinates me in Sonja’s relationship with her husband, the South African painter, Ernest Mancoba, born in Johannesburg (1904–2002). My path to Sonja Ferlov Mancoba was through him.
I was familiar with her work, but it was only through reading about her marriage and their close artistic relationship that I was drawn in and wanted to better understand the cross-pollination in their work, how they influenced one another.
The condition of exile is one that they both shared. Ernest studied art in the European tradition in South Africa, and Sonja was drawn to traditional African art, which she first encountered at the home of family friends. They met in Paris in 1939, creating yet another layer of exile experience, where they both moved to continue their studies in art. Their mutual minority status (as female and African, respectively) within the European art world is interwoven and complex.
Ernest knew bronze casting techniques, and produced many of Sonja’s sculptures. She, on the other hand, developeda devotion to the African art that is also channeled through their relationship.
This is a delicate subject, but I think her work contains a formal completeness that seems different than her contemporaries who were inspired by African art.
Sonja and Ernest worked very closely together, and one can sense a deep symbiosis in their perspectives, artistic and otherwise. Their time after World War II in Denmark was marked by disappointment and frustration. Although they were founders and active participants in CoBrA, Ernest was not accepted as an equal; the other group members denied him recognition as an important artist and theorist because he was African.
Ernest Mancoba is finally getting the international recognition he deserves for his contribution to the Sonja Ferlov Mancoba exhibition that opens in June at CentrePompidou in Paris. It certainly would be amazing if the National Gallery made a recuperative turn and curated an exhibition that clarified the role Ernest Mancoba had within the Danish context.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
Dear Yvette and Pia,
I first got interested in Sonja Ferlov Mancoba through her sculptural works. I can’t say that I was totally drawn to them. In many ways, I found them difficult to access. There is something problematic for me around how they are static and close-formed; they have this lofty expression that strives after something unobtainable, almost like a religion, but without the spiritual.
Ferlov Mancoba is, of course, on the verge of spirituality, so what really struck me was to see a Danish artist being so clearly fascinated with the ethnographic tradition – and that this fascination stayed with her through her whole practice. This is how I got interested in the background for this production, the context, which leads to some of the same fixing points that you wrote about, Yvette.
I’m fascinated by the many appropriations taking place in Ferlov Mancoba’s work, especially in relation to Carl and Amalie Kjersmeier’s African art collection, which she visited in her childhood, and her personal and professional relationship with her partner, how transnational, global circulation influenced them and their works. What is she is looking for in ‘the other’, so to speak? I’m interested in how to approach some of these thoughts and expressions that are not only about this unobtainable and universal idea of art that you find in modernism.
Not so long ago, I was reading the many letters that Ferlov Mancoba wrote between 1960 and 1984 to the Danish art historian and museum director Troels Andersen, which were published in 2003 under the title Ingen skaber alene. Breve 1960-84 (No-one creates alone. Letters 1960-1984).
A lot of them are written in the same manner as how I perceive her works. The language is very abstract, and speaks of art as a kind of salvation. Of course, you have to keep in mind that she is not writing to her sincerest friend, but to a kind of colleague. However, in a particular letter written in Paris on 14 June 1966 she suddenly reveals more. Here,you find such an anger and indignation that must have taken up a lot of space for them as a mixed-race couple in a very difficult time in Europe. She describes, in very few words, the world order and heranger towardsit.
At the moment, rewriting her into the history of modern art seems not to be the problem, with the exhibition at the National Gallery and later, at Centre Pompidou in Paris. Not to mention how her work and life story are being extensively promoted in everything from interior magazines to art historical conferences. But I hope that there will also be time to see her more complex position: torn between worlds, but also swallowed up by the differences. Today, we can take different positions in order to see her context and include that in readings of her work. We need to recognise, with all its problematic positions for the West, how she was already at that time part of a global age.
Pia, you have often, in your own work on female artists and other historical figures, gone beyond existing works in order to find alternative ways to look at a practice and understand the motivations behind the production. Could you say what it was that triggered you to work with the remains from the studio of the Bauhaus artist and designer Marianne Brandt (1893-1983)? As I recall, your work came about through visiting her archive in Dessau.
And Yvette, I’m curious to hear how you continued your research into Ernest and Sonja’s relationship. What do you mean by ‘the unknown space between people’? Do you mean their intimate space, or what kind of exchange are you referring to?
All the best,
Dear Johanne and Yvette,
Thank you for your emails.
Johanne, I was also struck by Ferlov Mancoba’s handwritten transcript of the introduction to Antonin Artaud’s Van Gogh, The man suicided by society (1947). Placed as it is in the archive and catalogue for the exhibition at the Danish National Gallery, and as an excerpt quoted on her studio wall:
Thus it wormed its way into his body,
erased in him the supernatural
consciousness he had just achieved, and, like
an inundation of black crows in the fibres of
his internal tree,
overwhelmed him with one final surge,
and, taking his place,
For it is the anatomical logic of modern
man that he has never been able to live, has
never thought of living, except as one
Can you say that Ferlov Mancoba, by transcribing Artaud’s text, was not trying to make it her own, but making it a channel and a defence through which she could work, as she might herself have felt possessed? That the body of an artist also becomes a medium through which to exorcise the overpowering effects of a society?
The body of work, as it comes through this channel, is then not merely a product of the possession, but something within its own clarity of expression. So, in Artaud’s logic, the one he prescribes to Van Gogh, Ferlov Mancoba’s work stands out as lucid, against and on the verge of being infiltrated. I think of her sculptures as having exoskeletal qualities. Like insects, they contain a softer interior. Whereas her other objects are like firm vehicles about to take off into space.
Can we understand the Artaud quote, in the case of Ferlov Mancoba, to be read within a frame of an archaeology of the studio that speaks of the practice of an artist? This brings me to your question, Johanne: how I got acquainted with the artist and designer Marianne Brandt.
When I, for the first time, saw a photograph done by Brandt of her studio at the Bauhaus, it turned around the perception of space: an image of the reflection in a mirror ball, turning the space inside out, partially capturing the photographer, herself within the fabric of her studio, covering the ball.
I knew little of Brandt in the beginning, but got a chance to go to Bauhaus and look into the archives. Slowly, I prowled my way through hundreds of documents, letters, notes, photographs, drawings and sketches, totally overwhelmed by the amount of information. Nevertheless, I stayed with it, while trying to comprehend how I, by any means, could handle this material, some of it private in nature, placed in archives with public access.
I went back to my first fascination, the studio space. Looking closely at Brandt’s photographs of her studio and living space gave me a clue. It is a space where work and life are completely entangled. A narrative transpires and seeps out of the photographs. These images allow you to think with the material. By using the sphere to capture the space, Brandt also showed us a way in which she circumscribed a world.
But I also think about my own attempt to reconstruct a practice and a life, maybe as an attempt to see more, as the entanglement also becomes an objective for another narrative.
You ask how to do this. Is it merely collecting the puzzle, adding the pieces that were previously lost on the floor? Uncovering the forgotten and unrecognised? Is that what we try to do when we salvage artists from the past? To me, it seems like the forgetting is ongoing.
Hi Johanne and Pia,
Johanne, thank you for bringing in the letters between Troels Andersen and Sonja Ferlov Mancoba. You sense her anger and frustration and the feeling that there is so little space in which to manoeuvre.
With ‘the unknown space between people’, I was thinking of how much we don’t know and my wish to somehow come to know. The geopolitical influences – both postcolonial and Communist – weave a complex set political relations during the Cold War period that affected people of colour in particular ways. I am curious as to how these conditions informed Ernest and Sonja’s personal perspectives and politics.
Before coming to France in 1935, Ernest moved to Cape Town, where he became involved with group of Trotskyite artists that had a strong influence on his artwork. When the Germans occupied Paris during the Second World War, Mancoba was arrested and sent to a camp as a British subject. When the war broke out, Sonja went to Denmark, but returned to Ernest and they were married in the camp in France where Ernest was interred.
I imagine that there was a great love and respect between Sonja and Ernest. Perhaps there was also a silent pain that they both had to endure regarding the injustice and ignorance they were met with from a surrounding art world whose sense of superiority was founded in a false master narrative infamous for its exclusion of other cultures and genders. The eight years in Paris (1952–1960) when they cut themselves off from the Danish art world, was a period where Sonja and Ernest only had each other, their son, and their work; this is another layer of their insulated and fragmented émigré experience.
I am not sure I see Sonja’s work as an appropriation of African art. I see her as having transitioned culturally both through her marriage to Ernest and her perspective as a woman. She is not a tourist in her relation to non-Western art. This is also the unknown, or as yet little-explored space inbetween.
Also, I wonder if it is even really possible to see her work properly yet. It may not yet be fully visible since she is in dialogue with a tradition that is non-Western. Both she and Mancoba made work with a kind of double consciousness. Her work may be in the tradition of African art for which there is no discourse within the narrative of sculptural production developed in Europe.
I am curious to hear your thoughts regarding this idea, as I haven’t really articulated it for myself until after hearing her talk about her work in the film in the National Gallery exhibition.
Pia, what do you exactly mean with your phrase ‘the forgetting is ongoing’?
It is interesting, Yvette, that you mention Sonja and Ernest’s exile. It makes me think about the historical context they where a part of, one which also was inflicted upon them. I think of Sonja’s sculptures as simultaneously situated: moulded out of a certain ethical position, while alsobeing out of time. Maybe there is a reason why they are being brought forward now. We want what they possess, without having to live it, or as it is, having this life at a distance.
Hannah Arendt writes in her work, Between Past and Future from 1961, that the past is a force pushing us forward, whereas the future is actually driving us back. In between this we stand, as in a gap of time, but still creating a condition for the tenses, a time that would otherwise flow on indifferently. Arendt posits that it might be possible, in a metaphorical sense, to be propelled by the forces of past and future into a diagonal line, and to think with lived experience rather than being meshed up in it.
When I was working with the archive of Marianne Brandt, I thought about how to avoid being locked into a historical time period, being more interested in a re-actualisation of this. I installed selected images from Brandt’s archive in her studio apartment at the Bauhaus. In this space, a rehearsal took place with a reading of her letters and 360-degree filming. The historic space is reflected through Brandt’s gaze and writing. Her personal crisis coincided with the Great Depression at the end of the 20s, the Nazi takeover, World War II, and the time thereafter in the GDR. I incorporate a body and voice in the story, which dissolves the timeline, and points to the shock we are in.
When I write the forgetting is ongoing, I wonder if our perspective gets fixed in a position of looking back. What if we look at space rather than time?
Yvette, I might be wrongly using appropriation, which makes it sound more shallow. I think you are right when you describe Sonja’s relation to African art as transition of cultures. For sure, Sonja was not a tourist into non-Western art, although I don’t think she ever went outside of Europe. So, in a sense, her work is much more a product of global circulations – not least as she was in an emigrant situation. Pia, it is interesting to read your interpretation of Hannah Arendt, trying to understand her relation to time. It makes me think of how we understand our historical present, but also how we understand the past and how we wish to ‘relate’ to it. I imagine Hannah Arendt, Marianne Brandt, and Sonja Ferlov Mancoba all had different notions of time than we do, surrounded by much more clear crises.
Today, in a privileged part of the world, I sense a much more abstract understanding of time. We can choose what we want to relate to and how we relate to it. The historical present can, in a way, be experienced as an imploding of times, as opposed to Walter Benjamin’s understanding of historical present, where the ‘jetzt-zeit’ seemed to explode because of the crises in his present.
However, I also think that we have a responsibility to the past, to try and understand how things were,andthe circumstances under which people lived their lives. Here, I find that the term ‘repair’ can be useful. Repair means ‘to fix’ or ‘restore’, but it can also mean ‘to return to’. The idea of repair relates not only to recapturing a previous state of a condition, but also means the process of making new again, and thereby acknowledging the historical events. It brings a certain agency with it.
But how do you think we can relate to the past? Should it be through sympathy or empathy?
All the best,
Dear Pia and Johanne,
Returning as a way of repairing history is a method I find useful. Retrieving meaning from the debris and highlighting its significance in the present is a way to change the future. That is the hope. Sonja Ferlov Mancoba’s work is in dialogue with a sculptural language in which the viewer could be described as participant or devotee.
I keep thinking of the chance circumstances that led to her work being available to us today. Troels Andersen, when doing research for an article on the artist group Linien, noticed that her name kept coming up. Had artist colleagues Ejler Bille and Elise Johansen not mentioned her, and had Andersen not contacted her, we may not even have the work that she produced in the last twenty years of her life.
Thank you, Johanne, for sending the image of the exterior of their atelier from your visit to Paris. It looks like a discrete and exclusive office now,with clean frosted windows and smart Letraset lettering on the glass.
Does this practice of looking back also give us a chance to detect what is being rendered invisible in the present: something else that we have not yet been able to recognise or value? The very act of giving value might in itself be tricky; our perspective easily becomes skewed, affected by what is already visible and celebrated.
I am thinking about Sonja Ferlov Mancoba and Marianne Brandt and why their works spent all those years in darkness. I am thinking about a certain kind of uncompromising approach to a way of life. I think their work carries these choices. Maybe not being visible is, to a certain extent, also a choice – or perhaps a consequence – that influenced the work we are now celebrating?
Hi Pia and Johanne,
It is clear that Marianne Brandt had a very difficult and isolated life, both economically and professionally, after 1933. Each member of the European avant-garde’s fate played out with atwist that led to the US and close relationships with powerful art institutions, repression on the other side of the Iron Curtain, or much worse.
I think about the fate of Carl Einstein,who wrote groundbreaking theory about the influence of African art on Cubism and the avant-garde. Trapped in Southern France,he ended his life at the age of fifty-five by throwing himself off a bridge after the Nazis defeated the French in 1940.
I wonder if he had lived longer how he could have influenced the reception of African art in the West to be appreciated as art and not artefact. I remember reading about how isolated Marianne Brandt was, and how unrecognised, because her designs were based on functionalist principles that were considered undesirable.
Both she and Ferlov Mancoba were extremely strong and resilient, but I do not think that they chose their fates. Such were their fates and the time. There was no room in Denmark for Sonja and Ernest to thrive,so they left for France. If Sonja did not respond to Andersen’s letter, then who knows how history would have evolved? Maybe they would have been rediscovered by conscientious art historians,but possibly with much less work preserved for us to appreciate today. Luckily, we have their work for us to study and treasure.
Just a quick note to clarify my last letter. I don’t think anyone chooses to be ostracised and discriminated against! What I was trying to say is that both Marianne Brandt and Sonja Ferlov Mancoba approached life with certain sensibilities that have also affected their work in ways I am interested in. I am concerned with a different kind of historicity than the master narrative. So, without the voices of those less visible, we would not be able connect with lesser-known histories.
With that said, I simultaneously believe that the work of an artist also exists apart from what is visible to the outside, outside the inscription of art history, in a specific time.