Horizons: Where the Sky Meets the Earth

By Tone Lyngstad Nyaas

Throughout her career, Edith Spira has explored a wide array of styles and expressions, from abstract drawings to poetic paintings of nature where the colours, temperature, and light of the given place conjure up various moods. Her compositions are often defined by their formalistic play between horizontal and vertical structures and their pastose, layered brushwork. The various layers bring to mind geological sediments, while elements that allude to pastures and cultivated fields encapsulate a landscaped beauty. In some works, the horizontal bands mark an implied division between earth and sky, while in other works this boundary is dispelled by the paint being permeated by an intense light that creates an atmospheric space. The landscape’s recognizable components have in some paintings been used in a formalistic play between spatiality and surface, which is then repeated at rhythmic intervals across the entire surface. The landscape also refers to a fragmented pictorial space where an intense glimmering of light seems to dissolve the matter of nature. The journey represents a substantial part of Spira’s exploration of various cultural landscapes and their distinctive topography, vegetation, and light, which form the basis for a contemplative, abstractly pictorial architecture. A pregnant articulation of nature’s sensual components is evident in her art, which also pursues a modernist tradition where the intrinsic values of the form, colour, and line are played out like the various notes of a musical score.

Spira began her career in Vienna in 1974 at the Academy of Applied Arts (Hochschule für Angewandte Kunst), where she studied until 1978 under the noted professors Adolf Frohner and Oswald Oberhuber. Starting out at the graphics department, she worked figuratively with the human body as her point of departure, even though abstraction and conceptual art dominated the masterclass she was attending. Spira experimented with analogue black-and-white photographs where she explored different structures that she came across both in the cityscape and out in nature. This opened up for a larger investigation of abstract effects that have since been a key component of her visual grammar.

The art scene  in Vienna was to a certain extent influenced by the Vienna Actionists (1960-72), who were inspired by the American trends within Happening and Fluxus. They had a clear political agenda of confronting tharte authorities with the repressive conditions of society. By abandoning the autonomous modernist concept of art, the Actionists championed alternative processes in the guise of expressive performances that violated taboos and questioned society’s underlying moral framework. Although the Wiener Frauenkooperative women’s collective, which Spira helped found in 1978, is not directly connected to Vienna Actionism, the feminist art students of the collective rejected traditional conceptions of art by moving into the Galerie nächst St. Stephan, which was transformed into a studio and shared housing. At the gallery, they organized exhibitions and held lectures from a critical gender perspective on art history’s objectified depictions of the female body and on the underrepresentation of women artists in galleries and museums. Spira herself exhibited graphic art in the form of etchings based on expressive nudes. She also held lectures on the role of women in the Resistance movement during the Second World War. The Wiener Frauenkooperative received a good deal of media attention and laid the groundwork for later feminist expressions within performance art in Vienna. For Spira, her participation in the collective made her more aware of what women in art were subjected to, while her affiliation with the group was more short-term and intellectual, as her artistic orientation did not evolve towards an overtly political message. After finishing her studies at the Academy of Applied Arts in Vienna, she moved to Norway with her family and settled down on the island of Dønna along the Helgeland coast of Central Norway, an island known for its radical community and rich cultural scene within theatre and music. She began working on watercolours, collages, and drawings where the coastal landscape’s light and its seasonal shifting of colours and hues were expressed in an abstract, surface-heavy style.

The family relocated to the city of Trondheim in 1982, and Spira began studying at the academy of art there. Norwegian contemporary art was undergoing a major sea change at the time, as it was not until the beginning of that decade that postminimalism, arte povera, and neo‑expressionism began influencing the Norwegian art scene in earnest. From the vantage point of postmodernism, Spira’s articulation of sensory experiences can be seen as a critical examination of ecological issues and the relationship between humanity and nature. Her emphasis on the organic, as a contrast to the notion of art’s permanence, manifested itself through an accentuation of the ephemeral and fragmentary. This often took place in three-dimensional installations of ceramics, plaster, and polyester, which Spira experimented with before returning to painting at the end of her studies at the academy. During the emergence of postmodernism, the act of painting took many different directions in an expanded field: art history gained renewed currency, even as the traditions of modernism were expressed through the new abstraction. The international transavantgarde movement emphasized painting’s active use of pre‑modernist art history and mythologies, as promoted by the Italian art critic Achille Bonito Oliva in his book La Transavanguardia Internazionale (Transavantgarde International, 1982). In London, Norman Rosenthal and Christos Joachimides curated A New Spirit in Painting (1981), where Susan Rothenberg was the only woman included. Such exhibitions also highlighted Neue Wilde painting from Germany, New Image Painting from the United States, and the School of London. A renewed belief in figurative, pre‑modernist painting gained ground, with personal experiences and an increasing interest in mythological and literary themes turning painting away from an overtly political agenda. Aligning strongly with modernist traditions, Spira did not identify with the new figuration that was permeating much of postmodernist painting. On the contrary, an influence from neo-abstractionism and neo‑expressionism is evident in her works. Stylistically, what characterizes neo‑expressionist paintings is a deliberate shapelessness that emphasizes tactility, as inspired by informalism and tachism. Spira’s compatriot Martha Jungwirth is another contemporary artist who works within this tradition, where an organic idiom executed with gestural brushstrokes leaves traces of the artist’s body clearly discernible on the surface. Spira moved painting closer to a tactile expression by mixing sand into the paint, and, like Jungwirth, she plays on the immediate and the seemingly random in her compositions. As such, the works are part of the neo-expressionism (1970–85) that continues modernism’s ideas about artistic self-sufficiency and autonomy. The emphasis was placed on the materials’ intrinsic essence in the form of texture, colour, and form, essential categories that are associated with the aesthetic practice of fine art. In the mid-1990s, Spira created monumental, monochrome works with whitish hues. After this phase, she repeated the concept except with reddish hues and a layered composition that features detailed black lesions that punctuate the blood-red surface of the canvas and evoke human skin and open wounds. Even though the themes can be associated with bodily and emotional concerns, the painting’s grammar is kept within reductive, formal criteria.

From the early 2000s, Spira cultivated abstract reflections on nature, where the picture’s surface would often be split in two in a manner that suggested the magic interface where the sky meets the earth. Such a position hints at a cosmic yearning, as manifested in the ever-present horizon line that is contrasted with the fundamental weight of the material. In Am Ufer (2005) the painting’s subdued field encapsulates microscopic structures that seem to imitate the landscape’s botanical life. The dark colours of the soil gradually change hue up towards a high, luminescent horizon line, thereby creating a spatially suggestive effect. A dissolved texture creates a shimmering, enigmatic landscape where horizontality is explored in a manner that brings to mind the Norwegian painter Olav Strømme (1909–78), whose landscapes are meditations on the human condition where the horizon remains as the naked object of the viewer’s inner eye. It is in this overlapping between neo‑abstractionism and the revitalization of the landscape as a meditative surface for our inner projections that Spira develops a formalistic vocabulary of nature lyricism. Her paintings cultivate an aesthetics where a tapestry of chromatic nuances create a rich texture that allows the colours’ luminescence to shine through the overpainting. An example is her 2009 work Schwarze Sonne (German for “black sun”), where a luminous, atmospheric glimmering in brownish hues that are bright and warm are dispersed across the earth and the sky. In the middle of this inferno of life-giving energy, a black sun can be discerned. The landscape was painted in the Sahara, where the light is overwhelmingly intense, but what is interesting here is how the black sun contrasts with the painting’s vibrant energy. The title evokes Julia Kristeva’s 1987 treatise Soleil noir (Black Sun, 1989), where the French-Bulgarian philosopher analyses the many faces and positions of melancholia within literature and art. A recurring theme in the book is how melancholia – the black material that suggests the suffering person’s sense of loss and sorrow – is transformed into a source of creative power. And in Schwarze Sonne, this life-giving melancholia is linked to a luminous, atmospheric landscape.

 

The landscape space – an eternal metamorphosis

Spira’s paintings focus on the landscape space, which is often expressed through horizon lines that mark a lush, undulating cultural landscape. Her compositions are often divided into geometric planes where pastose brushstrokes create a variation of different textures. The elements of earth, air, and water are subjected to a process of material exchange, where they are mixed together in an inseparable symbiosis of light and matter. Some of the works depict a cultural landscape where water features prominently in the guise of the river and the sea. In Delta 1 (2008) the river is envisioned as the landscape’s life-giving principle underlying the area’s abundant vegetation, which glows in warm, golden hues. Rivers meandering through cultural landscapes are the timeless lifeblood of society, and ever since the dawn of humanity they have spurred the growth of civilizations, of which the most famous are the early Mesopotamian cultures along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Water also has other associations, given that it mirrors and doubles its surroundings, a motif that is explored in Mirage VII, where the theme of reflection transcends the landscape’s reddish hues, which acquire a psychological quality. For the water being alluded to here symbolizes above all transformation and, in psychoanalytical terms, the subconscious. Not least, the element of water is an essential part of watercolours and of the viscous, fluctuating traces of felt-tip pens.

Spira is particularly fascinated by the Danube and its tributaries and wetlands, and in 2007 she travelled to the Danube Delta in order to experience the place where her beloved river meets the sea. The Danube Delta, regarded as the best-preserved delta in Europe and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991, includes Romanian and Ukrainian areas and flows into the Black Sea. Spira’s journey there brought back childhood memories and the magical first-time experiences that attach themselves to the mind with such impression. These unforgettable individual moments, such as smelling dried grass or feeling a river’s mist, are something we all have within ourselves and that we wish to recall and hold on to. In such a manner, the painting becomes a surface upon which the artist can project a reservoir of sensory recollections. When seen through the lens of climate change, pictorial representations of nature also evoke a collective sense of loss and melancholy. In Delta 3 (2009), the element of water has been transformed into abstract components on the surface, where the layered horizontal modelling is contrasted with vertical brushstrokes that create small shifts and set up a pulsating movement throughout the surface.

In the I Ching, or Book of Changes, natural imagery is used as a metaphor for eternal and universal transmutations, also ones pertaining to the human life-cycle and to humanity’s interaction with its surroundings. The 2,800-year-old text, which is one of the Confucian classics in Chinese literature, has greatly influenced Spira’s philosophical curiosity as to how transformation, transience, and time concern both nature and humanity alike. The ancient divination texts are linked to a series of sixty-four hexagrams, a fascinatingly abstract semiotic system that shows how geometric structures can be filled with specific literary content.

 

The body – the landscape and the inherent energy of colours

Many of Spira’s works explore the distinctive atmosphere and hues of a place, as when she directs her gaze at the Mediterranean horizon, Sahara’s sand dunes, or the gentle landscapes she has experienced on her trips throughout Europe. The cultural landscape’s topography of flat, cultivated fields and reflective waters, such as in Spira’s depictions of the Danube wetlands, at times evokes Dutch nineteenth-century landscape painting. During his study trips to the Netherlands, the Austrian painter Eugen Jettel (1845–1901) painted farmers working in peat bogs. These paintings typically feature a low horizon line with an overpowering sky that is reflected in the water that seeps into the cavities the extraction of peat has created. The sky’s reflection cuts into the substance of the iron-rich bogs, and the vestiges of human activity in nature – such as stacks of peat and exposed roots – are included as features of the landscape. Kitty Kielland’s depictions of the flat, coastal region of Jæren in Southwestern Norway feature a similar topography of cultural landscapes, where reflections of the sky are captured in the dark cavities of the local bogs. In this manner, the elements of earth, air, and water changed place in Kielland’s naturalist paintings. Her peat bog landscapes paved the way for a new type of landscape imagery that focused on those parts of the landscape that had not been aesthetically idealized during romanticism. They reveal a fascination with naturalism’s depreciation of highland vistas and cultivation of the overwhelming drama of nature, which manifests itself in how she emphasizes the elements of the flat, cultural landscape and divides the work into horizontal and vertical axes. Delta 4 includes another vital feature of Kitty Kielland’s paintings from Jæren, namely the way overcast weather gives the hues of the landscape an optimal, colouristic expression. In Spira’s work, the delta wetlands are depicted in heavy, brownish-green tones that light up against the pale horizon line of the sky.

This fascination with naturalism’s and Kitty Kielland’s melancholic landscapes is akin to the lyrically abstract expressionism of the post-war era, where a subjective experience of nature’s inherent energy is evident. By interpreting experiences of nature, artists sought to suspend the boundaries between humanity and nature, between the body and the landscape. In Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, the experience of nature cannot be separated from one’s own body, since the material world and humanity are made of the same matter: “Quality, light, color, depth, which are there before us, are there only because they awaken an echo in our body and because the body welcomes them.” It is this communication between the body and the world that Merleau-Ponty claims is “pathic”, that is a rationality that pertains to being moved and touched and that has already been incarnated in the sensory phenomena the body is familiar with, and that on this basis contains an ante-predicative logos. The body and the landscape therefore exist as a totality in our perception and are mutually contingent upon each other. Merleau-Ponty addresses painting, which in contrast to the scientific stance – which is exploitative and which renounces entering or inhabiting – constitutes the body’s first immanence in the world. Spira’s treatment of natural impressions are precisely about giving form to this experience of coexistence, where the experience of nature creates a liberational basis for a formal concentration to ascribe form, colour, and line with an expressive quality. In such a perspective, Spira’s paintings can be seen as a continuation of lyrical abstraction, where the formal elements serve as an associative catalyst for a sensory experience that depicts an empathic and corporeal link to the world. The painters Inger Sitter (1929–2015), Knut Rumohr (1916–2002), and Jakob Weidemann (1923–2001) are regarded as central practitioners of Norwegian post-war lyrical abstraction, where the experience of nature serves as the basis for an organically abstracted vocabulary. In Spira’s art, the specific experience of nature’s materiality, chromatic hues, and refractions of light is also treated through compositions that are devoid of the characteristic horizon line. In Dialog (2011), the canvas is marked by a vertical axis placed in the golden cut and that divides the composition in different greenish hues that evoke a forest floor, where budding life seems to rise up from the ground. A range of hues is evident beneath the greenish colour, referring to growth and transformation, not unlike how Weidemann abstracted his experiences of nature in his forest floor paintings and botanical studies. In these paintings, Spira clearly breaks from representing depth through a central perspective and instead creates a concentrated surface. One example is Marrakesch 2 (2012), where the experience of the site’s distinct light and colours have been depicted on a uniform surface that is only punctuated by discreet formal markings.

 

Abstraction, appliqué, and exotic gardens

In a series of watercolours, Spira has explored quadratic forms that are composed almost as mosaics. The inspiration from Oriental textile traditions, where the details are arranged in a pattern, has here been transferred to compositions with different structures that adhere to certain ground rules. In one particular series, for example, she uses only a single a colour in each square, while in other works she explores various nuances within a colour scale. Using this additive technique, she creates a flickering of quadratic shapes that dance to and fro across the surface according to how the colours themselves create a sense of proximity or distance. The compositions bring to mind a vista overlooking a cultural landscape that resembles a mosaic-like quilt. The allusion to growth and vegetation are also evident in the watercolours’ titles, which refer to gardens and cultivated landscapes. Paul Klee (1879–1940) and his “abstraction with memories”, as he dubbed his own watercolours and drawings from Tunisia, have undoubtedly influenced Spira’s geometric compositions and paintings from Tunisia and Marrakesh. Klee’s encounter with Arabian culture greatly influenced his development of abstraction, as he abstracted the city’s architecture, exotic gardens, and intense light in geometric fields of colour that were rhythmically organized in the picture plane.

In garten 15 (2008) the light culminates in the centre of the composition, while the ploy of not colouring certain squares at the margins of the picture creates an additive organization of the surface. This type of composition, with clear allusions to appliqué and woven textiles, evokes the Pattern and Decoration movement, which looked to the traditions of women’s handicraft to develop a visual idiom with a renewed emphasis on the ornamental and decorative. The movement was inspired by Eastern ornamentation and textile traditions as well as the minimalist notion of the grid, often in serial depictions. Spira’s watercolours can be placed within this discourse between painting and textile art. When the compositions are transferred to oil painting, their geometric structure is dissolved in organic structures and pastose brushstrokes. Procida 3, for instance, exudes a glowing, colouristic warmth in the guise of earthy tones that are set up in small rectangles and squares along horizontal lines. The painting provides a sense of architecture that has been abstracted into the surface, evoking the Portuguese artist Maria Helena Vieira da Silva (1908–1992), who was a leading force in European informalism. Vieira da Silva’s art evinces a decorative style and explores abstract patterns that she developed in the 1930s to create complex arrangements of small rectangles, unfolded as a pattern in the surface, in a way that bears a strong kinship with Spira’s compositions.

 

Time, separation, and points of contact

Spira’s drawings, which often mix in collage, watercolour, and felt-tip drawings, show spontaneous linework and a specific interest in automatism and the importance of letting go of rational control during the artistic process. Time is also a central theme in these works, which are impulsively scribbled down along with textual fragments as part of the visual vocabulary.

Drawing has a fascinating history, beginning with the first traces of human culture 73,000 years ago. The medium’s direct connection with the corporeal gives it a particular status as a catalyst for recognizing our immediate presence in the world. Drawing is a basic tool that begins in childhood, where it allows for an existential navigation and where the drawn lines incorporate the subject’s experience in the world. Spira’s drawings express these fundamental perspectives, where the medium records a certain passage of time, which is comparable with how music unfolds in time. There is an aural dimension to the line’s rhythmic variations, where dotted additions of colour establish a sense of organic flow, only limited by the size of the paper. In order to exploit the line’s formal variations, Spira often uses bamboo canes that have been sharpened into quills, which gives the line a calligraphic and almost sculptural quality. The traces of impulsive creativity explore the line’s possibility to express inner psychological mechanisms. For it is this landscape that contains the expressive tonality that typifies Spira’s drawings, where meaning has to be inferred from beyond what is figuratively recognizable. In certain segments, the line is so weak that it just barely touches the surface: it is as though it is seeking its own room to live, oscillating as it does in wobbly ledges between visibility and withdrawal; in the next moment, the same line has intensified with an energetic, vital flair, as though possessing an inner life of its own. In certain drawings, the meandering of the line creates branches in the form of a pulsating membrane of organic structures that alternate between becoming denser and opening up in rhythmic intervals. The texture of the given paper is also a contributing factor to the artistic expression, along with the untouched areas that articulate the tranquil intervals of silence.

In 2001 Spira was inspired by Japanese calligraphic traditions and began to paint with Chinese brushes, where she explored how refined brushwork could serve as a marker of the body’s movement. The drawings in the Irrgang series (Norwegian for “labyrinth”) have a sense of musicality where rhythms, gaps, and jumps make it feel as through the movements of the line have been steered by the temporal unfolding of sound. These works allude to the sphere of music, which has a long tradition within the interpretation of abstract painting. Paul Klee related the creation of abstract art to composing music. He explored the analogy between music and art by explaining the visual with musical terminology, for example how chromatic hues and polyphonic elements underscore the different and opposing rhythms of the picture plane. For Klee, Goethe’s theory of colour was essentially and specifically the idea that sound and colour can be extrapolated from the same universal regularity that was at the heart of the parallels between painting and music. Goethe’s theory of colour proved influential to early-twentieth-century abstract art. The connection between these disciplines was also expounded on by Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) in his 1912 essay Concerning the Spiritual in Art, where he emphasized how all five senses are active in the reception of art and how a colour may evoke smells, aural effects, notes, and rhythms. The neurological phenomenon of synaesthesia, that is a fused form of perception where for example a sense such as hearing triggers a visual experience, is an experience that is evoked in Spira’s drawings, where the lines’ staccato movements create a labyrinthine circuit that accentuates the interaction between body, time, sense, and materiality. This serves to link the external to the internal, the emotional to the material. Irrgang features a shifting between the dense and the open, between sound and silence, where the texture may bring to mind an organic tapestry of microorganisms designed by the pulse of the hand. A central focus of Spira’s drawings is the point of contact on the paper’s surface where stains and dots seem to hover on the surface somewhere in between emergence and absence. In the paintings, the brushstrokes are drawn out in horizontal or vertical structures, where they are organized within a given section, while the lines and brushstrokes of the drawings evince a free and spontaneous style. In both media, the individual strokes and overall composition can be related to tachism, which developed in France in the 1940s and 1950s. This movement is characterized by spontaneous and seemingly random brushstrokes, often as manifested in splotches of running paint, and by the idea of automatism and the loss of impulse control, where the linework seemed almost like random doodling. These traits are above all evident in Cy Twombly’s (1928–2011) expressive, calligraphic, and graffiti-like paintings, which in his later career also feature a dialogue between text and image through their inspiration from writers such as Stéphane Mallarmé and Rainer Maria Rilke. Twombly noted that copying his “childlike line” was nigh impossible, as it originated from an authentic approach. Another artist who belongs to this direction is Antoni Tàpies (1923–2012), who developed so-called pintura matérica, or matter painting, where a variety of materials such as clay, waste paper, textiles, and steel wire were incorporated into the paintings. In the 1980s he created monumental works whose spontaneous linework, often sprayed onto the canvas, referred to calligraphy as a semiotic system, but with large, untouched areas that evoke a meditative silence. The term “tachism” was first used by the French art critic Michel Tapié (1909–87) in his 1952 book Un art autre (Art of another kind) as he sought to define some of the post-war European expressionism that broke away from cubism and orderly academic principles of composition. Tachism, by contrast, pursued automatism, spontaneity, and the dissolution of form. The movement was part of informalism, or art informel as it was known in France, an abstract type of painting that was seen as a European response to American abstract expressionism and in particular action painting, which was a more outrightly performative approach to painting. Lyrical abstractionism and tachism treated the visual with a new kind of intimacy and with greater sensitivity in its nonfigurative vocabulary. The movement found a liberating energy in the spontaneous and gestural, even as its practitioners cultivated individual rather than collective artistic statements. Similar to other forms of post-war abstractionism, the movement emerged from the shadows of the Second World War and its humanitarian catastrophe. Another aspect of tachism that is present in Spira’s art is the centrality of process and action. In Tageslinien, these elements are present where the flow of the line brings to mind automatic writing, and where the intimate format supports the thoughts jotted down in the diary. This series of calligraphically enhanced watercolours was also published as a book that combined the paper-based works with self-penned texts.

Spira’s interest in literature is evident in her artistic practice, where the dialogue between words and pictures features prominently. She often invites others to join her as collaborators in this exchange, as when she in 2019 asked her friends to send her words in different languages, with an eye towards creating an alphabetical dictionary illustrated by her own drawings. In 1998 she invited twenty people to each write a text that was to be the starting point for her own paintings. The collaboration resulted in two exhibitions titled Translations, a series of monumental watercolours where the artist for example incorporated the words in repetitive, textured layers.

In 2008 Spira began to overpaint old books and reimagine them as sculptural objects. In one instance, she searched through books of poetry for words that called to mind the night; these words were then left untouched while she painted over the rest of the pages. The series was shown at an exhibition at the Belvedere in Vienna called Die Nacht im Zwielicht (2012). This layered overpainting and dialogue between text and image evokes the notion of the palimpsest (from Greek pálin, “again”, and psáein, “to scrape away”), that is a reused parchment or papyrus where the original words have been crossed out or written over but continue to exist beneath the new transcriptions, at times even shining through the new layer of text. In Spira’s case, the book and its text are reused and transformed from their form, with the overpainting creating a sense of mystery, since the text as a rational testimony is hidden from the viewer. The notion of the palimpsest is widely used in the humanities, referring in its general usage to how existential experiences become rewritten, relying on the past collective remembrance within literature, art, and music. The French literary theorist Gérard Genette analysed this concept in his 1982 treatise Palimpsestes (Palimpsests, 1997), where he investigated a selection of literary texts and showed how they are based on a transformation and rewriting of other texts. In this perspective, all literature and visual iconography are to a certain extent hypertexts, where it is the interstices and the relationships between the texts and how they are rewritten that is of interest. This concept of traces also plays a key role in Spira’s drawings, where such traces are often based on photographs of house walls, whose graffiti, cracks, and peeling create interesting structures that inspire how the drawings are executed. With palpable sensitivity, Spira explores the line’s grammar, energy, and movements, which together form a tangled labyrinth without any real beginning or end. When encountering Spira’s drawings and paintings, these lines can be seen as a continuation of the incipient post-war abstractionism, which was a clear response to the totalitarian regimes of the Second World War, where art was used as a tool for political and ideological propaganda. Abstraction came to express a sense of individual liberty and an aspiration for artistic autonomy. Spira’s artistic practice springs forth from this revolutionary break, where art became the catalyst for humanistic values and artistic licence.