“On the Art of being a Popess”
In appreciation of Hedi K. Ernst Schmid’s impressive sculpture of that name.
Wim de Geest
“Since its installation in the inner court of the “Aux confins de la Raie” property the majestic statue of the Popess has had a powerful impact on the space of which it is now the centrepiece.
In what is to follow I want to investigate which aesthetic forces could be possibly energizing this work of art. Nobody who enters that space can fail to sense how truly the Popess is casting her magic spell all over the place.
Let’s start with the name. Popess obviously is a misnomer. There is no such thing. The ‘Holy See’ in Rome is not there to be occupied by a woman. Neither is the ‘White Mitre’ to be worn by a woman. This is by Roman Catholic canonical law the Pope’s privilege.
The sculptress ought to know better! Or shouldn’t she? Could it be that her sculpture is intended as a bold and disturbing statement, an openly feminist protest challenging the male chauvinist assumption that there is no room at the top for a woman? As a message embedded in a daring and carefully crafted ceramic sculpture, which itself is the trademark of a renowned Swiss artist?
I suggest we go for the latter possibility and therefore prepare ourselves for a kind of close reading of what is on display.
We are looking at a nearly normal size representation of a human figure, reclining in an armchair. The figure is wearing a white mitre. There is something weird about the face. Where one would expect a nose and lips there only is a cross. Higher up, right in the middle of the forehead, there is one, threateningly staring eye, framed by a triangle. In what shows on the right and left side of the head there is a resemblance of an ear. Both are asymmetrically disposed, as we are wont to expect in the wake of Picasso’s Cubistic adventure.
We take stock of what is on display at the top floor and register that the Popess looks very much as the Cyclop, the one eyed giant in the Odyssey.
Below the elongated neck the rump displays two cup-b sized breasts and a slightly swollen belly, possibly the sign of a beginning pregnancy. The upper half of the body makes one think of a Thalidomide victim. No arms, only two stumps, ending just below the shoulders. Thighs, knees and legs closely joined, feet trapped in a kind of foot warmer. With the absence of arms and hands and with two sternly immobilized legs there is ample evidence of a severe inhibition, even of a deficiency.
There is another thing we should bear in mind as well. We are looking at a ceramic sculpture.
The rest of the available white surface, back and front, is covered with undulating black lines. In keeping with the above interpretation we have no difficulty in relating the seemingly endless strings to parts of the gut and to the umbilical chord.
Where does this analysis lead us?
Apart from being impressed by the candid reference to the role of female procreator or “genetrix”, we are struck by an apparent contradiction.
Are we to see in the Popess a feminist claim that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is an unacceptable discrimination?
But if this is indeed a plea for a change of attitude, how are we then to understand that the sculpture so manifestly points out the inhibitions inherent to a woman’s occupying the ‘Holy See’?
Why insist on the Popess’ being armless and being condemned to inactivity? Why is she to be gagged? Why is she supposed to wear the apparel of a buffoon? Why does she have her feet forcibly held together, incapacitating her forever to walk? Why can she not have two eyes? Why on earth has she to be demoted to the state of an inarticulate good for nothing cripple?
The explanation for this offending contradiction, can only lie in the acceptance of its being ineluctable. Things being what they are, society has no other solution for the predicament of ambitious women. You either stick to your biological role as a wife and mother or you opt for the alternative of leading the life of a career woman, at the cost of family life and your children lacking due attention and care.
The approach of the artist who we see at work in the Popess offers the advantage of presenting the two opposed messages simultaneously. The contrasting halves of the statement can be perceived in one sweep of the eyes and of the comprehending brain.
In a sentence like the silence is deafening, there is also a contradiction present. The technical name for this phenomenon is “oxymoron”. The reader, however, has to trace the words, one after the other. And only at the end can he compute the total meaning. Which he then perceives as a contradiction in words: how may something as inaudible as silence cause deafness?
Let’s go back to our intention to define the energizing force that explains why this sculpture is a masterpiece. We now can interpret the Popess as a spatial type of “oxymoron”. What Hedi K. Ernst Schmid succeeds in doing, is to unite the contradictory contents, so that they may be simultaneously perceived. By doing so she upgrades ‘being a Popess’ to ‘the ART of being a Popess’.
This statue consists of several, separate elements crafted as individual entities and assembled into one holistic work of art. The special merit of such an approach is that it enables the artist to shape, decorate, glaze and fire each single element, using all the techniques available to the ceramist, while obliterating the fact that he also is a sculptor. At the end his sculpture benefits from opportunities not regularly on offer to a sculptor. A huge statue like this one cannot be glazed and fired in a kiln, unless one uses this type of procedure.
Our Popess exhibits the unique quality of being sculpture and picture at the same time. It coalesces the potential of a two- and a three-dimensional representation.
We should by now be ready to switch our attention to just the surface of the statue. With other words we are about to address the meaning of the two-dimensional level, putting, for the time being, the intended meaning of the three-
dimensional level on the side burner.
The Popess is the only polychrome part of the statue. It is difficult not to make the connexion with the Arlecchino character of the Commedia dell’Arte. The use of only basic colours is restricted to the persona of the Popess. The patterning uses black lining, which is also dominant in the decoration on the back of the chair, on its left and right side walls and on its front. Except for a difficult to be missed reference to a blue bra at the height of the Popess’s knees, the coloured surfaces miss any relation to concrete and recognizable things. They are abstract and they playfully obey a rhythm that one can hear at work in contrapuntal music of Bach and the like.
The ornamental decoration on the outside surfaces of the armchair contains the most straightforward message the artist wants to convey. As the
matter stands, we have to read the right half before the one at the left? What else is one to expect in this far from conventional and by now clearly conceptual work of art?
On the right side we witness five spermatozoids – no mistake possible! – move toward the centrally placed area, that looks very much like a uterus in profile. And on the left side we can see a pendant central area with also in profile a representation of a uterus, that is now harbouring an embryo.