Florentine on pointe

The Imagery of Helena Blomqvist

Florentine Stein dozes off . . . She’s dancing again. She is Giselle, she is Elfie in La Sylphide and Odette in Swan Lake. Her pointe technique is superb. Her tutu is made of the finest tulle. Thunderous applause. The fragrance of flowers blends with the scent of champagne, sweat and perfume. Florentine withdraws to her room. She is thinking of her friends: Marie Taglioni, Anna Pavlova, Galina Ulanova . . . And that dancer, Isidora Duncan, who broke with classical ballet! Wasn’t her life as tragic as any on the stage? Wasn’t she strangled by her own shawl when it got stuck in the wheel of her car during a trip to the Riviera?

Florentine Stein gives a lot of thought to things past. She no longer knows whether she is dreaming or whether she is actually remembering. Age has lined Florentine’s face, weakened her body and painted her hair white.

It is so easy to like the old lady, to want to be her friend. But there is a dilemma: Florentine does not exist. She is a fictional character, a fabrication as real as Snow White or Mickey Mouse. In her latest suite of pictures, Helena Blomqvist has breathed life into Florentine. The story takes place in a city neighborhood – a model of a New York borough, as real as a backdrop in a major Hollywood production.

Helena Blomqvist is a storyteller, like Jean de la Fontaine, H.C. Andersen, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Beatrix Potter or the Brothers Grimm. Her fictional stories take place at the intersection of the oral traditions of folktales, the refined symbols of literary fairytales, the classical patterns of fables, and the modern myths of our own time. Classic movies, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Fellini’s Amarcord, or the Maysles brothers’ Grey Gardens are just a handful of references here. The list is long. Equally important are her allusions to the Pre- Raphaelites and to the photographs of Diane Arbus.

Helena Blomqvist assumes a number of roles: She is a photographer, seamstress, make-up artist, script writer, set designer and more when she creates her unique universes. The settings are as important as the characters, and they are created with attention to every detail. Playfulness in the proportions is an important part of the charm of the whole and contributes to the sense of enchantment.

The interiors speak of time lost. Old newspapers, peeling wallpaper and cracked walls hold the past. Take a look into Florentine’s environment for example. It is sparsely furnished. However, it is quite possible to compose a story about every single item. A green couch is Doctor Freud’s therapy divan. An empty birdcage is a sign of imprisonment. A carpet is about to take off at any moment, like fantasy’s preferred means of transportation. And of course the mirror! In ballet schools around the world students practice in front of a mirror to coordinate feeling and movement of the body. Also encased here are messages less solid, more deeply symbolic. The mirror is sign of truth and self-realization as well as a secret door to a dream world. It was a mirror in the drawing room that Alice stepped through on a sleepy afternoon, into a strange world of chessmen, where the Lion and the Unicorn could speak and the arguments between Tweedeldum and Tweedledee never stopped.

Florentine is Alice’s sister. Her companions are the animals of fable. Mice and rats take dancing lessons and going for a Sunday walk. Dressed in their best clothes, they pose for the camera as though they were imitating the models in the staged photographs of Lady Hawarden and Julia Margaret Cameron. The laws of reality overlap with dream sequences. Each image is cut into a prism that breaks the light of childhood and points to the road back to the realms we once loved but have forgotten where to find. Helena Blomqvist’s creative process follows a number of steps. The original idea is first expressed visually in sketches, models and stage sets, which are then photographed. However, the idea does not appear in full garb until the digital editing is complete. The last stage is deceptively easy. Naïvely, we suppose perhaps that zeros and ones are the solution to most everything. In that case the technique is seen as an obstacle to creativity. But in fact the computer is just a tool like any other. Art is relentless. It demands skill while praising talent and is indifferent to the choice of tools. The screen is the easel. The editing pen is a brush. It is the artist who chooses how they are used. To make less of the creative process in a digital world is to fall into a trap. It is a mistake equivalent to claiming that everyone who owns a computer is an artist, and that every painting made on canvas is a masterpiece.

The complex photomontage is a result of laborious craftsmanship with endless corrections, over-painting and reductions. Every trace of creativity’s inherent hesitation is erased in the final version presented to us. The original idea, the intention of the artist, is modified and matures as each new tableau takes shape. The picture is the main thing. Form and content can no longer be separated. That’s when it happens! Art takes the words right out of the mouth of its creator. It has liberated itself. Helena Blomqvist knows exactly when it is time to stop, to withdraw to make place for her works.

Helena Blomqvist’s early suites are often linked to real events. Disappointment with the exclusion of women in the pages of history inspired The First Woman on the Moon, in which women were staged in stereotype male roles as space travellers, ocean swimmers, sailors and secret agents. Subsequently, The Dark Planet is about strong women in exposed situations. The Last Golden Frog touches on climate change and the approaching environmental disaster. Political and social criticisms form a finely calibrated but distinct grid in her work. In her more recent series, some of these concerns have been discarded while existential issues of vulnerability, loneliness and melancholy have come to the fore. Here, the child steps out and into focus. The Elephant Girl is about a girl suffering from elephantiasis. The affliction has deformed her face and legs. Together with her wide-eyed friends she skulks around in unfurnished rooms with flowery wallpaper and gossamer curtains, billowing in a light breeze. The pictures in the series are drained of all color, like a bloodless body. Each scene bathes in a creepy, bluish green haze. The enigmatic, ghostly atmosphere is in tune with the Gothic horror tradition.

Swans, rabbits, foxes and monkeys are often the only companions of the children in Helena Blomqvist’s world. Slumberland opens the shutters of the enchanted but also lonely world of childhood. A little boy is our guide on a mysterious journey. The artist’s son was he model. We enter his dreams and stories. Here too, we hear the murmur of familiar voices. It is like meeting a friend of The Little Prince, Peter Pan, Christopher Robin or The Brothers Lionheart. The loneliness of the boy is palpable. It pushes him into a dream world, where he slides through a marsh on the back of a crocodile, gazes out upon the wide ocean and wanders among the shadows in a deserted street. The boy’s companion is a dinosaur, who protects him and plays with him. Together they move around in a fantasy land. The landscape is never real; it turns into a code that reflects the child’s state of mind – his loneliness, anxiety and maybe even fear. These representations echo a romantic tradition and the notion of a strong bond between nature and man’s soul. One picture in the series is particularly apocryphal in character. To be sure, the sunshine is scorching and the sky above the sand desert is blue. Still, the war of the worlds has permeated the clear day. There are powerful explosions, while mushroom clouds expand in the horizon. An army of plastic soldiers from a Legoland is following the boy at a distance but determinedly. He keeps his eyes shut. He turns his back on the war trying to convince himself that it’s just make-believe. However, the impossible has a tendency to hide a glimmer of probability. Now he is trapped in a bad dream.

The art of Helena Blomqvist is singular. Her pictorial stories are imaginative, shimmering constructions, unrestricted. Yet, in the unknown there is always something more or less familiar, drawing you into the invented reality. It is difficult to know what is the most enchanting. Countless layers of ideas, allusions and atmosphere are deposited on top of each other. Where in time are we? On the edge of prehistoric time or far in the future? Sometimes past and future meld in these works. In some of them a moment expands into eternity. Some may be read as a dystopian vision of the end of the world. Others are tales of twilight, playful on the surface but serious deep down. A splash of humor varnishes this enchanted world, which has been created for the child who is hiding deep down inside all of us. Hope is an indeterminate, comforting fog within reach. It is always there.

–Joanna Persman