In the opening sequence of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011) celestial scenes show a rogue planet on a collision course with Earth. Foreshadowing shots of the end times are part of a slow-motion tableaux that introduces the female protagonist, Justine. In one shot she is shown in profile in a wedding dress trudging through a forest, impeded by Spanish moss that clings to her legs. In another, she stands with arms outstretched as a swarm of insects encircle her statuesque figure. And, in yet another, she is seen from above floating slowly down a stream as a veil and plants surround her body. This shot is evocative of Shakespeare’s Ophelia and her famous depiction by the Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais (Ophelia, 1851–2). Ophelia as we know met another kind of end, drowning from despair and heartbreak over Hamlet’s refusal of love.
The story of Ophelia is what comes to mind when encountering the multitude of photographs of ‘sleeping beauties’ by Swiss artist Annelies Štrba in the exhibition My Life’s Dreams. Almost all 38 archival pigment prints on canvas – the largest 125 by 185 centimeters – include depictions of girls and young women asleep in luxurious settings bathed in rich textiles, carpets and pillows. Other photographs of woodlands, mountains and meadows complement the more prominent images of females adrift in dreamscapes. Štrba’s production techniques are complex: her pictures are constructed with layers of photographic images and awash in deep purples, saturated blues and intense reds punctuated by acidic yellows, oranges and greens. The works hang salon style; the cumulative effect of imagery, technical virtuosity and installation radiates an overall warm luminosity.
In Nyima 499 (2012) for example (the title taken from the Tibetan word for the sun), an adolescent girl with her arms outstretched sleeps on an inviting velvet sofa. Dark colours envelope her light grey hands, face and legs while neon green spots yield details of designs on her dress and the sofa. In Nyima 535 (2012) a young woman lies sprawled across an Oriental rug; her old-fashioned dress a psychedelic fluorescent blue. A forest scene with a crepuscular sky seen through trees in the distance is montaged with this image. Not unlike late 19th-century Pictorialists, Štrba creates a dialogue in both subject matter and technique between the mediums of painting and photography. Indeed, the feminine world she portrays recalls photographs by Gertrude Käsebier and Anne Brigman. Their images of softly focused domestic interiors and dramatically posed female nudes exposed intimate moments among women and girls from the turn of the last century. Their work was all the more compelling in the very fact they were women taking the photographs and in their choice to reveal an otherwise private world. But, whereas these Pictorialists trafficked in subjects decidedly female in an age decidedly male, representations of sleeping beauties today do not exert the same meaning or possess the same critical agency.
The Sleeping Beauty fairytale originated in France in the late 17th century. It was subsequently interpreted by the Brothers Grimm and later by Walt Disney. As a version of it goes, a princess is cast under a sleeping spell until she is awakened by the kiss of her one true love, Prince Charming. A life literally contingent upon the love of a man is exactly what Shakespeare portrays in the story of Ophelia. In Melancholia, however, Justine’s husband walks out on her, her father leaves unexpectedly and her brother-in-law kills himself. While Von Trier introduces Justine in the context of Ophelia, in the end Justine stands strong – eyes open – confronting head-on the apocalypse and her own death. That means something. The photographs of sleeping beauties by Štrba are relevant because they incite another look at outdated representations and narratives of the vulnerable female figure and encourage renewed questions on their meaning and circulation.