Séverine Cattin, art historian
Translated by Anne Malena
The Downside-up Threa
Some artists move you with all they do. Renate Rabus is of that number. She embroiders, gardens and makes poetry out of the ordinary as a true thread virtuoso. The artist from Neuchâtel practices embroidery as a form of meditation but rarely has a spiritual exercise ever procured so many sensations. Her intimate art, composed of thousands of tiny knots, fascinates by its existential quest for universal harmony.
Embroidery, women and contemporary Art
While digital aids – videos, computing, multimedia – have never been more present in contemporary art, a real return to traditional techniques, for example embroidery, has been seen over the last ten years or so in the international art scene 1.
From the French Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) and Annette Messager (*1943), to the Egyptian Ghada Amer (*1963) or the Portuguese Joana Vasconcelos (*1971), there are more and more contemporary artists who adopt embroidery as an artistic technique, attesting to the diversity and creativity of a medium long relegated to the level of craft. They equate embroidery with painting or photography, sculpting their threads and their materials by means of collage or accumulation, to express engaged subjects – politics, feminism, sexuality, even pornography – or more personal topics.
Textile art owes much to 20th century female artists who have contributed in a significant way to its re-evaluation and institutionalization as an artistic medium. Even if Russian avant-garde artists, such as Natalia Gontcharova (1881-1962) and Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979) seem to have initiated this tendency at the beginning of the century, it is not before the 1970s that textile art makes a comeback on the international art scene, notably by female artists. According to Aline Dallier, critic of feminist art and specialist in textile art, feminism’s second wave is indeed characterized by the search for a culture and an aesthetics “related to the history of women’s condition” 2..
From that point on feminist artists use materials and techniques traditionally associated with women and, more specifically textiles, because of their marked “feminine” history and symbolism.
Lausanne, a centre of influence
As the 1970s were particularly suited to the comeback of textile art on the international art scene, it was in Switzerland that was opened in 1962 the first international Biennial of Tapestry in Lausanne. This show helped Switzerland in becoming a recognized artistic venue for international textile art in all of its forms. As confirmed by the art critic Françoise Jaunin in 2011 : “In sixteen shows and a little over thirty years, the Lausanne Biennial has been the catalyst and the witness for all of the textile daring creations that converge on it every two years from every corner of the globe” 3. Over the years the exhibited works have left behind ancient traditions and become fibre sculptures, reliefs or installations. Tapestries have been replaced by plastic forms and the gamut of material is larger. Even the traditional textile language has been abandoned to make room for new themes, inspired by the relation man-nature, the private realm or self-worth 4.
Even though she privileges embroidery as an artistic technique Renate Rabus (*1950) has followed her own path as a self-taught artist, not influenced by the fashion upheaval of her peers. Even if the Neuchâtel artist does not claim these influences 5, her work does fit into this current artistic tendency, at its own level and in its own way.
Poetry of the ordinary
Far from adopting the militant position of some contemporary feminist artists, Renate Rabus does approach the world in a concerned and sensitive manner. In her artistic practice she privileges figuration, or at least a figurative proposition that can be seen in the themes inspired by her environment : her garden, her family, her childhood, her readings and her music. Renate Rabus turns matter into poetry, the simple life of men, animals and insects ; she is content with banal details resulting from a concrete observation of nature, which she finds almost everywhere. For several years the artist has been creating embroidered scenes of insects, amphibians or chameleons within tight frames. To ensure that we finally notice them she makes them huge, which helps in showing the details of the precise and delicate chromatic reliefs in their structure. Playing with spools the artist succeeds in rendering the shimmering transparency of the natural light that penetrates their bodies.
In a pseudo-naïve style Renate rehabilitates the trivial in a very different way from pop artists. She does not despise ordinary elements at all but attempts, on the contrary, to extract their hidden poetry and to bring out the soul they contain. Thus her insects, like energy fields full of vibrations, transmit pure emotion to us. The memory of forgotten things, to which we pay no attention, lives within her works. Since the gaze is incredibly mobile, it keeps jumping from one spot of the canvas to another, lights up and questions itself a thousand times per second, stops and starts again. Renate creates a new reality, with increased sensitivity and poetry, attesting, through a homage to creative power, to the earth’s fertility and nature’s eternal cycle. In the same register we also find her works inspired by the four seasons. Expressing the possibilities of a harmonious encounter between art and nature these are destined to inspire respect for life in all of its forms, like a payer for our future.
Innovating formal vocabulary
Stemming from embroidery’s ancestral technique of applying the needle on an already weaved fabric stretched over a drum or within a frame on an incline, Renate Rabus’ embroideries also fascinate by their innovating formal vocabulary.
Let’s recall : there are four types of stitches in the traditional embroidery motifs. “There are straight stitches that determine simple lines ; crossed stitches, like the cross stitch and the herringbone stitch ; split stitches that help in filling surfaces. In that category there is also the stem stitch, often used to fill spaces. In addition there is the ‘plumetis’ or ‘feather stitch’ that is used on top of quilting to obtain relief effects. Finally, the curled stitches, like the chain stitch for outlining motifs ” 6.
The artist implements this practice by, on one hand, renewing these traditional stitches, which demands very intricate work. As she invents new stitches according to what she wants to represent, Renate Rabus subverts their codes and creates her own formal vocabulary. On the other hand she uses various materials with the embroidery thread – traditionally cotton, wool, silk, linen, gold and silver. What she finds is not always composed of textile or fibre, strictly speaking, but can potentially be subject to plastic transformations, which she incorporates in her creations through collage, accumulation or recycling. This technique is visible in particular in her “Winterreise” where the artist uses mummified birds found in her garden and that she has set in plexiglass before integrating them into her compositions. They sometimes serve as the very origin of the work, as in her recent “still lives”, a rat or a salmon tail are the subjects around which the artist embroiders. For Renate Rabus these animals gain the possibility of being reincarnated like they did in ancient Egypt. This artistic approach can also be found in the work of Annette Messager (*1943), among others, who considers taxidermy and photography as interchangeable in their capacity to preserve living beings for eternity.
Displaying a striking attention to the minutest detail, these apparently mild and complacent embroidered structures are often the background for an underlying drama. For several years indeed Renate Rabus has been working on her own interpretation of Schubert’s lieder in a series entitled “Winterreise”. Since each song is a self-exploration, her thread covers the canvas with an ever renewed invention of new stitches. Her winter landscapes are not only scenes, they are also emotional aids. Thanks to their universal and timeless aspect they convey with finesse the mystical ambiance of the composer. Tinged with moving clarity, the language of the first eleven lieder is based on her spiritual vision, on an ever more sacred dialogue between life and death.
and women in all this ?
From her portraits of women to her wedding dresses or dolls, some of her works reveal the artist’s identity and intimate iconography, following the example of her “Disappeared Dolls”, a childhood memory. Familiarized very early with material, the plastic artist also creates textile works in three dimensions from soft materials, as in her installation “Family Meal”. With baroque ornamentation, her stuffed bodies, delicately sewn by hand and feeling soft and comforting, evoke the pleasure of sharing a meal with loved ones. Sometimes her work subtly unveils gender issues, as in her embroidered scenes of martyr female saints looking like a commemorative plaque. That series of four portraits of saints with atrocious destinies represents a moment of revolt on the part of the artist for these women sacrificed on religion’s altar.
Carried by incredible poetry, not devoid of humour, the needle allows Renate Rabus to give an elaborate plastic shape to her desires and her fears, all the while creating an ever evolving work. In these times of simulacrum, imitation of authenticity, her work amazes by its intimate and sincere artistic approach. The thread is always there, subtly connecting the artist to the earth, unveiling fragment by fragment the life material of this singular artist.
1 There have been many embroidery exhibits in museums and galleries over the last ten years. Of note are the Ghada Amer retrospective at the New York Brooklin Museum in 2008 or “Métissages”, a traveling show exhibited, to mention only one location, at the Paris Museum of Decorative Arts in 2006, among many other references.
2 Aline Dallier, ” Transgression et extension des frontières de l’art ” in L’Audace en art. Paris : L’Harmattan, 2005, p. 46
3 Sur le fil des arts – 30 ans de la galerie Filambule – 1981-2011. Editions Humus, 2011. p. 3.
4 Tapestry International Biennial. Canton Art Museum, Lausanne, 1970-2000.
5 The artist’ testimony and the documentation she has shared with us are the main resources for this analysis. Indeed, there is no real scientific literature yet about her work.
6 See : Qantara Patrimoine Méditerranéen : Arts du textile. www.qantara-med.org