In 1928 Hans Hildebrandt defined women’s art as “the secondary melodic part in the orchestra”, whose role can only be to accompany the primary melody, men’s art (Behr, 1988, pp.14-15). The themes in paintings by women have often been seen either as a re-working, a bad copy, of those of “the Artists” (Borzello, 2016, p.30), or as too menial, personal, wrapped up in feminine feeling. On this basis a partial history of Modernism has been created and regurgitated, leaving women out of the cacophony of a men-dominated primary melody. In these optics, women’s art is often seen as a chronicle of their lives, detached from the more important universal themes of men’s paintings (Birrel, 2021, p.15). A victim of this attitude is the Swedish artist Sigrid Hjerten (1885-1948), whose painting The Red Blind (1916) is often interpreted as a self-portrait, and therefore intertwined, by definition, with the artist’s self and her biography (Moderna Museet). Questioning the traditional interpretation of this painting exposes an array of narratives that free Hjerten from a gendered analysis of her work.
Sigrid Hjerten, The Red Blind, 1916
Firstly, it is crucial to pinpoint the elements that make The Red Blind unlikely to be a self-portrait, and dismantle the exclusively biographical approach reserved to women artists. Self-portraits were indeed a common theme for Hjerten. Over the course of her career, she created several of them and included herself in group portraits as well. Her self-representation always shows specific traits: slender, fashionably clothed, short hair, and diaphanous skin. The woman in The Red Blind, however, does not possess these features. She has long silver-like hair, created with shades of grey and blue strokes, and a darker complexion made from mixing pink and brown tones.
Sigrid Hjerten, Studio Interior, 1917
In addition to the physical characteristics, another important element in deconstructing the idea of the painting as a self-portrait is the mirror. The mirror has been a key attribute of women’s self-portraits since the beginning of the genre (Borzello, 2016, p.22), and has also been used and associated for centuries with allegories of Vanitas. Given the historical connotations of the mirror, Hjerten’s choice to include it cannot be a casual one. The mirror in The Red Blind is cut out of the frame. If the artist had been painting herself she would have been posing in front of it, whereas here the mirror is behind the figure. This telling detail not only indicates the painting is not a self-portrait, but also virtually conceals the artist. Had the mirror been depicted in its totality, the identity of the artist should have been reflected in it. This amputated mirror loses its “real function […] to make the woman connive in treating herself as, first and foremost, a sight”, as John Berger defined paintings of Vanitas (Berger, 2008, p.51). Women had long been confined to being the representation of the vice in paintings, and this rejection of the theme of vanity could be a willing one. Hjerten detached this painting from two of the genres that have women as protagonists: the self-portraits and the allegory of Vanitas.
Having concluded the woman in The Red Blind is not the artist herself, it is appropriate to analyse whether she could be a reclining Venus or an Odalisque. Typical of a representation of Venus are the hand demurely covering her sex and her gaze directly inviting the viewer. Moreover, Hjerten was fascinated by “Oriental” art and culture, and painted “oriental figures”. One example is Hinduiska, (1930), a portrait of a Hindu woman wearing traditional clothes. The women in Hinduiska and The Red Blind present striking similarities in the drooping eyelid framed by dark definite eyebrows and the plump, heart-shaped lips. The languid eyes and fleshy lips seem to have been associated by Hjerten with the type of “the Oriental woman”. Therefore, her interest in “the Orient” could have brought Hjerten to explore with this painting the theme of the Odalisque, a type of reclining Venus.
Sigrid Hjerten, Hinduiska, 1930
The woman represented could simply be a model. In light of the artistic policies of the time, the painting can be interpreted as an affirmation of freedom from an artist finally allowed to look at and paint a naked body. It is imperative to note that before the twentieth century women were not generally allowed to paint from the nude. It was a bold, extremely modern action for Hjerten to paint this body and exhibit it. Following this narrative, the woman appears to be a model posing for Hjerten. Yet, another earlier painting titled Female Model, (1910) already functioned as a proclamation of the woman artist’s newly acquired liberty. The title of the 1910 picture makes an explicit reference to the object of the artwork, the rosey body of the female model standing out against the stark background of brown and grey tones. Unlike in The Red Blind, the model there is the one and only focus of the image.
Sigrid Hjerten, Female Model, 1910
The red blind of the title is a key element, one which has not been considered in the above interpretations. Colour was believed by Matisse, with whom Hjerten studied in Paris, to be vital to expression and to producing certain sensations (Matisse, 2003, p.72). Placed on the rolled-down blind, red seems to allude more to the colour of passion. In the secrecy created by that closed blind, anything could happen, even those things forbidden by a sense of feminine respectability and propriety. Naked, laying on the bed, in the private setting of the bedroom, the woman could be a lover. Queer sexuality was common within the Bloomsbury Group at this time (Birrel, 2021, p.4). Furthermore, the artist Nils Dardel, a friend of Hjerten and her husband, was a dandy and bisexual (Ashby, 2017, p.108). These facts illustrate both how queerness was accepted within these Modernist artistic circles and how Hjerten had first hand experience of it, supporting the theory that the silver-haired woman is Hjerten’s lover. Visually, the tipped bed (unmade after the consummation of the two women’s love), the glaring rays of the lamp creating a suffused light in reality and an explosion of passion and euphoria in the painting, and the drawn blind giving the lovers privacy, could also suggest that this is a representation of a love affair.
Far from providing a definite answer on the identity of the sitter, this enquiry, outside of the boundaries of a personal approach to a woman artist, offers inspiration for new attitudes to paintings historically excluded from mainstream art history.
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Borzello, Frances. (2016). Seeing Ourselves: Women’s Self-Portraits. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.
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