From the 1960s and following the establishment of the Graphic Workshop in 1973, Greenlandic art history began to be represented by female artists. If we look back to prior to World War II, women seem virtually absent. That is, in name. While they are in fact, through their hands, woven into handicrafts, beadwork, and costumes, women’s names are nowhere on record nor do they follow their works – so that for the time being, history is oblivious of them. Up until World War II, painting and drawing are somewhat of a black hole when it comes to women: swallowed up and forgotten, as only male artists got to be around and rightfully establish themselves.
There is however at least one woman whose name and work are both known to us. Although not a native Greenlander, many in Greenland know her drawings – from postcards, posters, illustrations, paintings and watercolours. Her name is Christine Deichmann and she lived in Greenland from 1901 to 1910, while her husband Henrik Deichmann was the district doctor.
Strictly speaking, Christine Deichmann belongs to the age of “expedition art”, that is when the Arctic and Greenland started to be depicted by foreign artists, outsiders either on expeditions or travelling with the specific aim of painting Greenland. Though, differently from, for example, Emanuel A. Petersen (1894–1948), Harald Moltke (1871–1960) or J.E.C. Rasmussen (1841–1893), Christine was neither travelling nor on an expedition, rather she lived in Greenland over a period of 9 years with her daughter and husband. In addition, she was a woman.
IN HER TIME
Christine Elisabeth Deichmann was born in 1869 in Øverød in Denmark and passed away in 1945 in the USA. She received her education from 1890 to ‘94 at the Art School for Women of the Academy of Arts in Copenhagen, where she studied under the guidance of Danish painter Viggo Johansen. Before the school was founded in 1888, women would not be admitted to the art academy. Christine exhibited her works in Charlottenborg’s spring exhibition as well as in the Artists’ Autumn Exhibition; along with many of the male artists who had portrayed Greenland, she also took part in a Colonial Exhibition in Rome in 1931.
Christine Deichmann is as interesting from the perspective of her own day as of ours. Unlike the travelling and expedition artists contemporary to her, she did not paint spectacular vistas or a “primordial” (i.e., according to the artist’s own understanding) Greenland; instead, she painted the close and intimate. The life around her – women and children occupied with daily chores. Play and work. Much closer to the romantic and idyllic depictions of folk life by Swedish painter and drawer Carl Larsson (1853– 919) than the large-scale cult of nature and its harshness which characterised the romantic landscape painters. She is guided by a woman’s gaze and a predilection for the blue colour, which permeates many of her watercolours. Deichmann paints at a time dominated by male artists, as did the Danish Anna Ancher (1859–1935), the Finnish Helene Schjerfbeck (1862–1945), and Danish Bertha Wegmann (1846–1926). All these women came to the fore as artists in this period by painting what they had access to, but in a new manner: they immersed themselves into what was close to them and amplified it.
The National Museum of Greenland owns a collection of Christine Deichmann’s sketches. Studies over studies of dead birds can be found there. Pencil sketches of people in different positions: most often children, but also women, either by themselves, with children, or busy with daily chores. The various subjects might have been glimpsed just outside her window. Occasionally, she seemingly got children and women to pose for her, as can be deduced from a particular woman posing repeatedly in different positions in the sketches. There is a familiarity about these subjects suggesting that they be people Deichmann had a relation to or used to see every day. We find intimacy in the images. These people are not glued onto the image like the characters of Emanuel A. Petersen’s paintings, so remindful of paper dolls. They are not created for our or the painting’s sake: they are attending to their own business. And that is just how Christine Deichmann drew and painted them. Two of her watercolours, portraying women and children, can be seen in Nuuk Art Museum.
MOTHER AND CHILDREN
The subject matter are a mother and children. A woman sits with a small child on her lap and a little girl leaning on her. They sit on an edge, against an earth tone background, and we are unable to determine whether they are inside or outside. The children eat dried seal, nikku. The mother looks down as she holds the baby on her lap and helps him grasping the piece of dried seal. The child’s gaze is directed at us – he makes eye contact with the painter and the viewer at once. We witness and participate in an intimate moment between mother and children, and the eye contact makes us aware of this shared moment. We, the viewers, stand outside this little scene of caring; at the same time, the eye contact reveals a relation between the artist and her subject. This subject appears direct and immediate, captured as instantaneously as by a photograph; that is, however, not entirely exact, as evidenced by the background, which does not locate the mother and children in any specific place. Although the image seems immediate, it is constructed and elaborated by the artist – to some extent, staged.
Deichmann is clearly committed to composition in her sketches, through the repetition of bodies and postures. This one picture is structured on a specific composition too. We can imagine drawing a triangle around the mother and children. Starting from the little girl’s finger with the piece of seal, a line heads upwards across the bodies, through the mother’s hand holding up the baby’s nikku, further on crossing our eye-contact with the baby, up to the mother’s downward gaze, and all the way up to her topknot.
The structure of the image, the blue colour, and the mother with the children all recall a Christian motif: Mary and Christ child. It is a kind of icon, a form of symbolism about motherhood and care of the children.
A detail worth noticing are the baby’s clothes. He wears a coat with a fur collar. This is, perhaps, a more nuanced look on clothing than the one rendered by Deichmann’s contemporary male colleagues, who in many paintings equipped their human figures with traditional anoraks or a whole embellished Greenlandic national costume.
The eye-contact is again central in the portrait of a woman whom Deichmann used for several sketches and watercolours. The woman, wearing a national costume, stands by a closed sketchy window and looks back at us viewers, smiling or perhaps arch. Christine Deichmann was allowed to draw her, use her as a subject. Nevertheless, this gaze, the eye-contact, equally excludes us. The image retains an intimacy that we cannot possibly share – and that creates a relation. The woman is not a drawn object, but a human subject.
It is exactly such intimacy and human relation that distinguishes Christine Deichmann’s portraits and representations of everyday life from her male Danish colleagues. She offers us no view over Greenland, no ambitions to represent Greenland itself to the rest of the world, rather little drops of a retouched everyday life. Her depictions are romantic and on the edge of what I would call “the cutified”. They voice, however, a woman’s perspective on and identification with the everyday life that she took part in at the time. Not immediate, but elaborated artistically, and with a predilection for women and children – not necessarily as something specifically Greenlandic, but more of a persistent theme.
Christine Deichmann did not bequeath to us any words or thoughts about her art – at least, not as far as I could see. In a way, she also falls into the black hole that Greenlandic art history has destined for women prior to 1945. But she does have a name, dates, and a body of work which is owned by Greenlandic museums – as well as being featured on postcards and posters sold in bookstores and shops all over the country.