Series: NATASHA KERTES DIAPHANOUS. Mardin Series In spite of the bewildering variety, there is an underlying uniformity of procedure, which is what the viewers should expect of me as an artist for whom style was always subservient to the compelling demands of the creative imagination. This historic land on which Mardin stands in Turkey evokes one of my most fertile of all sources of inspiration, - landscape in relation to human figures past or present, or to human powers conceived. I was brought up in a world which estimated the value of “high art” by its “sublimity”; its ability to move the spectator to awe or pity. The idea can be traced back to the Aristotelian definition of tragedy as conductive to pity and terror, and it was brought to the status of a philosophical dogma, applicable to life as well as to my art like a painting and to the appreciation of natural landscape. Creative activity was divided into higher and lower branches, and the expression of the passions, which became the most essential part of my art. Upon my arrival to the land of Mesopotamia I understood how to infuse into a portrait that suggestion of the heroic which high art required. Traveling alone to the far lands during hot summer to achieve impossible was heroic in its nature and thinking if photography could be elevated by judicious emulation of classical postures, landscape, still lower in the hierarchy of art, was also capable of improvement by the introduction of serious themes and allusions to a nobler past. The most important aspect of contemporary landscape theory is the concept of the Picturesque. This was an aesthetic principle that grew up alongside the grandiose notion of the Sublime and was expounded by reading about this magical land. My mission was to be drawn on a fairly large scale and occupy a significantly large area of the picture-space with the style that allocated an important place to human incident and acknowledge the behavior of people as a relevant aspect of the depiction of architecture and landscape. Even where a figure occupy a tiny proportion of the total space, it’s inventively conceived to throw into relief some aspect of the scene, handled with the greatest delicacy and accuracy with touches of white body contour to produce studies of “sublime” art. For the most part I relied for my effect on the sheer power of the scenery I represent, to create a figure that accord with the scene and time of the day, to give meaning and interest to the scene, providing just the explanatory “moral” significance to the power of being a woman. My motivation was above all visual. Not that art does not have a content, content that can to a certain extent be explained by reference to literary sources. Significant content, in fact, I regard as essential to the highest forms of art and to make it worthy of the public’s attention. But my relative carelessness over titles, my cavalier attitude suggest that it was the visual effect and the hint of underlying literary sources that were important to me, not an intellectual content of the kind that underlines the works of artists: the imaginative use of landscape instead of the “ tame delineation” of an object beautiful, interesting or picturesque in itself, sort of a painting of idealized landscape peopled with the embodiments of moral qualities. In particular the very forms of the landscape became the means by which the virtues of morality could be expressed. My moral philosophy was a matter of passion and visual expression, not of strict archeology and attention to sources. Allied to this ambition to succeed were an immense skill and an immense visual appetite and visual memory, without which I would have never been the artist I am. Linking the theory of the Picturesque with informality of history and Impressionist painting with beauty of this land I committed myself to the academic idea of high art, elevated the life of an ordinary person to conform to the grandeur of nature as I conceived it. The awe-inspiring nature of the view reflects astonishment and fascination, introducing spectator to the scene with exceptional delicacy and insight. The great power of conception and sublimity of intellect was to show my character as finely contrasted with wonderfully expressive of surprise and its concomitant fear posing as Italianate sculpture or Claudel inspired subject. As an artist, I never lost my desire to express myself on a broader front than that of the intimate and informal sketch; and behind the plethora of “private” material, where lies the notion of the fully wrought work of art for exhibition and sale. It was, therefore, a proposition highly congenial to my creative temperament that I should embark on a long sequence of loosely related scenes, an anthology of sites which I found especially inspiring in history, achieving exceptional heights of subtlety and a feminine expressive power. My extraordinary ability to observe, understand and convincingly record self -portrait series while transforming it into strokes of documentary art. The interrelation of various elements to produce this new manifestation of the “sublime” depends for its emotional effect on two equally important factors: light and shadows. But such a light as that of the sun, immediately exerted on the eye, as it overpowers the sense, is a very great idea. Light of an inferior strength to this, if it moves with great celerity, has the same power, for lightning is certainly productive of grandeur, which it owes chiefly to the extreme velocity of its motion. A quick transition from light to darkness, or from darkness to light has yet a greater effect. The other element in the composition that makes a crucial contribution to their sublime effect is the human figure, which is suffused with history, and has that relative subordination to the objects around it. Inserted in the landscape for the sake of forming patches of light and shadow, or in order to lead the eye from or to some other point in the composition, or to add to the general sentiment of the scene, and increase its peace, its sadness or its brightness, to employ the suggestion of the human face and obtrusive limbs is hardly ever is the figure “banal”. They enhance the sense of the picture not only compositionally by providing essential movement across the foreground, but emotionally since the real subject is of the photographer’s herself, in calm and sunshine, - becomes a matter of the scale and warmth evoked by my handling of figures. The brilliant shine of the sun create an atmosphere of gaiety in the classical structure of the vast landscapes; and the life that shoots palpably through the scene is supplied by a brilliantly free method of elevating the mundane to the level of “art”.
Muses and Messages
Lynne Bentley-Kemp, PhD
That art depends upon myth as a decoding device is no surprise to anyone who has seriously studied history and art theory. Myth encompasses such a large space in so many traditions and cultures that it enables us to understand art in a way that no other method of interpretation can accomplish as effectively. The work of Natasha Kertes utilizes myth to explore concepts in a manner that on the surface seems simple and easily defined. After all, Kertes practices in, what many might think, the superficial realm of fashion. But like Shiva and Shakti she deals in ambiguity and paradox. There is more here than meets the eye.
Her commercial work is arresting and creates narratives that utilize allegorical devices and revel in exquisite elegance. In her life as a fashion photographer Kertes creates a world of alluring beauty with an array of Aphrodites and Apollos at her disposal. The images she makes professionally interpret these compelling figures as trendsetters who reek of wealth and leisure. After all, fashion imagery is bound and determined to sell us style and luxury, not to have us obsess on identity politics and the sacred feminine.
From that standpoint I believe Kertes’ personal work might be considered the antithesis of her professional life. Her muse in this body of work is the chrysalis – an emerging woman in an ancient world. The initial stage of this metamorphosis is embodied through the completely shrouded woman who inhabits each of Kertes’ images and creates a narrative that might be defined as the feminine muse hidden from the gaze. There are more questions than answers here.
What can we make of the veil? Donning the abaya traditionally signifies a woman’s self respect and social status in Middle Eastern society. In the 21st century we are confronted with the popular culture definition of the hijab that emphasizes the distinct differences of the other. It is a fearful response that comes with the baggage of Eurocentric paranoia, although I doubt this is Kertes’ aim.
Kertes may see the veil as liberation, a formative stage in the birth of the goddess. In these images the woman is in the act of breaking the veil and liberating herself to what? Is it a world that will subjugate and confine her? The relationship of the figure to the uninhabited biblical landscape is an enigma. The absurdity of this surreal environment adds a playful element to the scene. It is almost as if a Tom Robbins novel is coming to life and teasing us into believing something more serious is going on while we are trying to parse the semiotics of the image.
So we return to myth and that is where stability reigns. The images exist in a form that is built up of layers of time and circumstance. Our intellect and instinct work together to break down the symbols into something concrete and familiar. Kertes’ pictures defy the easy answer and force us to come to the conclusion that these are not simply surreal images, though they are absurd and theatrical. They work on our genetic memory in way that opens us to a kind of empathy for dreams and visions.
The chrysalis is every woman and the message contained is one of cautious optimism and acute observation. In order to disperse hard attitudes we must understand gentleness and vulnerability. To be vulnerable is to be strong and courageous. To be liberated is to operate in all of these modalities. To not know may be as important as knowing.
Lynne Bentley-Kemp is an artist and independent scholar living in the Florida Keys. She is presently teaching The History of Photography as an online course for Florida Atlantic University and has been a college professor for 28 years.
About Natasha Kertes
Russian, b. 1972, Klin, Moscow Oblast, Russia, based in Miami, FL, United States