An ambivalent matrix

Through birth a human being is plunged into time and history. Thus, Elisabeth Müller sees the light of day in 1946, when the word ‘German’ has become a term of abuse throughout the world. And although her German grandfather had established himself in the early twentieth century and her father, a natural Dutch subject, did not collaborate with the occupying forces, the umlaut in the family name is in fact a stigma. Even in 1955, during a parade in Meppel marking the tenth anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands, the Müller girls are being called ‘moffen’, the derogatory Dutch term for Germans.

Obviously, such painful experiences leave deep marks. No wonder, Elisabeth’s descent makes her feel like an outsider. Hence, music becomes a necessity for her. A crucial means of survival. The piano does not dis-qualify or reject her. Playing a piece or listening to Brahms’ Piano Concert No. 1 after school provides a sense of belonging, at least the music makes her feel accepted.

Moreover, she complements the elusive sounds by developing a lasting interest in home-made tangible paper constructions at an early age. At any given moment she can be found painting, tinkering, cutting and folding away, always searching for proportions and balance. Another haven is provided by the abstract and guiltless domain of mathematics. Since she is so good at it, her teachers often suspect her of cribbing. She inherited this talent and love for the interplay of geometric lines from her father, who is trained in graphics and works in the publishing world. When she is about thirteen years old he gives her a book on Mondrian, which evokes both a pleasant sense of recognition and surprise: So… then this is also permitted, this can be art too?

Eventually, this results in Elisabeth entering the Academy for Visual Arts in Amersfoort in 1966, the birth town of Mondrian. She can always go to the academy of music later. Besides, her father laid down the condition that she would get an education degree, after all, she has to be able to support herself. The Amersfoort art institution provides secondary teacher training based on the Bauhaus philosophy, so it comprises a compre­hensive range of disciplines. Varying from wood- and metalworking to paper craft, bookbinding, construction drawing, goldsmithing, ceramics, weaving, sociology, psychology, philosophy and art history. In other words, Elisabeth not only learns to master many practical techniques, but also how to think conceptually. A fortunate side-effect of this is that she realizes a score is a construction too, so she starts to analyse piano pieces as well. In fact, she no longer needs to go to the academy of music.

Knowledge originates from the comparison of one observation with another. In mathematics you can only make observations about a point by virtue of another point. Thus, Elisabeth is fascinated by the difference in music between three-four and four-four time from an early age. Not only the rhythm differs, she probably also knows intuitively it is a vital element of existence. The difference between the unexpected, the unpredictable and the regular structure. Order and chaos. Apollo and Dionysus. Opposites that constitute the essential foundation of human thinking. And Elizabeth continually moves back and forth between these polarities. Especially because her discipline goes hand in hand with the need for a playful escape. Without an emergency exit, without a way out, each pattern and each structure eventually becomes a prison. For her, the three-four time is synonymous with a way out. ‘The number three consists of two opened circles,’ she says. One might add that the number three somewhat resembles an open handcuff.

In Elisabeth’s visual work the fascination for the difference between three-fourth and four-four time translated itself into a preoccupation with the circle and the square. The bent and the straight line. Among other things, the first one symbolizes dance, space, adventure, breeziness, playfulness, the feminine, softness and an understated sense of humour. Without the curve the rectilinear structure is intolerable and consequently unacceptable, which does not diminish the importance of the straight line. If there is one weapon culture wields in the battle against the tyranny of nature, this continuous mist of appearances blending into each other, it is the straight line. Hence Elisabeth’s longing for this line. In her early exercise books she plays a game with triangles, page after page. Isosceles ones, after all, it is the equilateral triangle that suffers from perfect equality. Only the uneven, the disharmonic is exciting and adventurous. And of course, as the ultimate medicine against the strength of the straight line, which also harbours a genetically determined, lethal tendency towards rigidity, the curved line, the circle emerges. Which in turn can be so oppressing it naturally gives rise to the need for a liberating straight line.     

Grandfather sang Schubert Lieder while Elisabeth sat on his lap. How could it be possible, this beauty, this great language, she often asks herself in genuine bewilderment when she gets older. There is always this ambivalence, for years she finds it hard to be in Germany. Within two days she begins to feel so anxious that she needs to leave. This changes because, unlike any other country, Germany dares to look its own evil history in the eye. Finally, she is able to reconcile herself with her grandfather’s country and its rich cultural heritage, horribly stained by the Nazis. Like the literary works by Stefan Zweig and Thomas Mann, in whose oeuvre music is an important ingredient. Especially in Doctor Faustus (1947), a music novel with a protagonist who sells his soul to the devil in return for a career as a brilliant avant-garde composer. In fact, Mann’s version of the old Faust story is an allegory on the catastrophic pact with the devil the German people concluded with Hitler.

Doctor Faustus strikes so many chords with Elisabeth it causes a creative chain reaction. She gets so inspired by a passage in which one of the characters gives a lecture on Beethoven’s piano sonatas opus 110 and 111 that she starts to study both pieces. The first one mainly because of its counterpoint and the fugue technique, which subsequently reminds her of ‘the master of the fugue’: J.S. Bach. Which is why she ventures playing his Wohltemperiertes Klavier and the Goldberg Variations again: thirty variations on the theme of the sarabande, an old, slow Spanish dance in three-four time. Then it happens. Suddenly Elisabeth realizes that the principles she applies in her own visual work – mirroring, turning, reversing, splitting, fragmenting and interweaving basic motifs – are reminiscent of the varied repetition of themes Bach uses. Discovering that her pictures, photographs, objects and drawings share a similar basis with Bach’s counterpoint inversions and retrogrades is a blissful eureka moment. Never before did she notice a similar relation. Apparently, the musician and the artist within are mirroring each other, like a melody and a counter melody. Musical structures she adopted since she was a girl have manifested themselves – subconsciously – in her art as well, visually abstracted. Everything is linked together. ‘It is a piece of good fortune, a holiday to Bali or the Bahamas cannot touch it,’ she later maintains.

Eventually, she conceives a plan of making as many small paintings as there are Goldberg Variations: thirty small canvases measuring 15.7 x 15.7 inches, with thirty variations on six basic figures. However, they cannot be considered as some kind of ultrasonographic transformations of sound waves, or visual one-on-one inter­pretations of the music. She rather plays a game with plain basic shapes from which ever changing complex patterns emerge, the same game nature played during the evolution. This results in an all-in-one tableau comprising thirty small canvasses closely linked together: 78.7 x 94.5 inches, or five paintings wide by six paintings high. The colourless grid immediately catches the eye. Since the only two colours used to compose the canvases – white and a shade of grey obtained from mixing Van Dyke brown and Prussian blue – are not, strictly speaking, colours. This means there are only different tone values, differences between dark and light parts, so the main focus is on variations in shape.

There is an undeniable suggestion of endless movement. None of the shapes make an independent or sustainable impression. As if we cast a glance into the engine room of Being. Actually we are not seeing forms but processes. Forces. It rotates and revolves, fragments, interlocks again, disintegrates once more, although it never happens in exactly the same way. Impalpable light goes its incomprehensible way. Aimless and meaningless, eluding language. Amoral, wilfully ignorant of us. Our fundament is inhumane, random quantum mechanics. Structures mocking our desire for something to hold on to. The future will never soothe us. Even if we put a modern matrix over the Dionysian nature, its metamorphosis cannot be restrained. No risk management can rule out fate. From the bottom of our Apollonian systems mother Night will always rise again, corroding them from within, causing them to run wild. A culture producing Bach also harbours the diabolical and may lead to the worst atrocities. Even art can never be absolute. Purity is just as well pregnant with a horrible monster. ‘For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror,’ Rainer Maria Rilke warned. Nevertheless this does not mean we should deprive ourselves of delighting in the beauty of light and sounds.

Rogier Ormeling