The Unpublished Photographs of Embla Svennson
What one can say about Embla Svennson is much the same as what one can say about absence. What is seen is what is missing. In Embla’s photograph of a room, empty except for a chair and a table, one sees the photographer, off frame holding the camera on the scarcity and solitude of her life. The aesthetic of exception characterizes Embla’s work and is the reason that so little of it survives.
In her life, Embla Svennson was an outsider even among the Swedish Art Brut bars she frequented, among the schools she broke into in order to use equipment she could not purchase, and even among the artists who existed around her but did not and could not acknowledge her. Most notably, although no mentions of her occur in his work, interviews, or—I suspect—even his carnal dreams—pulsing with citric acid veins. Anders Petersen is the antithesis of Embla Svennson’s negative space. Embla was born in Ghent, Belgium, nineteen months and nineteen days after the birth of Anders. Though Anders and Embla were similar in age, educated in Hamburg, Karlstad, and Stockholm at the same times, they were destined never to meet. Yet, Anders was an imperative influence on Embla’s art. The more radical Outsider Art theorists say that Embla was outcast from Anders and his brutalist crew by the very time of her birth; born exactly one Bahá'í calendar year later, they claim she was born into a different system of time. The rational critics claim more reasonably that she was othered because she was a woman and that her art was othered because it focused on what was not there, what could not be hung in any museum, what barely belonged in the lives of private citizens, though it might it if they’d admit it.
Anders became interested in photography when he saw a picture of a snow-covered Parisian cemetery. The photographer left his own footprints in the snow. “It was though the dead had risen from their graves during the night,” Anders said, “and strolled around, visiting each other.” We do not know exactly what or who inspired Embla.
Embla had always been a troubled child. At an early age she learned to masturbate. Her nanny found her on the floor of her nursery in imitation of a cricket, chirping and cooing. Embla was always interested in the subtleties and monuments of her body, the brief secondary exposures, and the lines of light. Like Anders, the structures of prisons are recurring in her work without the clichés of bars for melodramatic effect. One editor of Anders’ work quoted him saying: “Every person locked up in prison is a revenge against those who have failed in life. The humiliation of prisoners is ours too.”
It is understandable to assume that this sentiment of body as prison began early in her life. The Svennson family, in perfectly polite Swedish society, was middle class and much beloved by their neighbors and yet seemed to have a hard time dealing with their daughter’s developing bohemian tendencies. As a result, when Embla was old enough, they sent her to Hamburg to study German, where Anders was also a student. There his reputation as serious and never-light artist grew to supersede her own reputation as a shadow. They must have shared studio space and known many of the same people for the Fotoskolan was frequented by the same strange roustabouts. Anders became close to these men; Embla was of course outcast. He said, “Mixing with outsiders, I felt accepted for the first time with who I was.” The only abstract evidence that Embla and Anders may have known each other is an uncanny similarity many of their photos have, and many pairs are dated within the same span.
Compare Anders’ Rosen, Arret and Lilly (1968) with Embla’s Man and Woman Eating, also 1968. While similar in superficial subject the two are shockingly dissimilar. Rosen leans over the table and a glass of beer and looks at Lilly, who looks the viewer in the eyes, uninterested; Arret is partially obscured by Lilly’s shoulder, though he appears to be smiling. Glass is a method of seeing, of magnification, and also obscuring. The glass on the table refracts the light into the viewer’s eyes. The viewer gains a miniature microscopic effect as a counter-result. Looking through it is clear that Anders knew them, was kind to them. In Embla’s photograph it is clear that the subjects and the viewer/photographer are removed from the couple, who are doubly degraded and removed from themselves. For Anders, what Barthes would call the punctum—the wound—of the images, is community; for Embla, it was the absence.
Embla, like all of us who wear glasses, was well of aware of the filth of frames and of lenses, the fear that glass will break and shatter the eyes like seven years bad luck from broken mirrors.
Though she was often alone, no time was as particularly lonely as college. In Hamburg she had few friends. The only notable of which was known as H.D., a student at the Fotoskolan. Embla had no job and was not even technically enrolled in the school; it was through H.D. that Embla obtained and copied a key.
In 1968 the first destruction of Embla’s work occurred. She had been in the darkroom one dark night when the rector—a man white and frail as paint chips—found her, confiscated and burned her work, and banned her from the premises. When Anders Petersen was caught later that same year using the equipment his work was lauded and he was admitted to the photography program on the spot. “I do not like having to see people powerless or rejected,” Anders has said, “They are everywhere, in every society.” Reluctant as he may be to reside outside civilized culture, Anders will never truly be an outsider to anything except for the commercial art community. Even then, he is reluctantly included in the occasional advert and often lauded. Sometimes, in hushed tones, it is suggested that Embla had met Anders and impressed herself upon him. It is whispered that she may have published some her photographs under his name, but that is impossible, for it appears that so little of the work survived the rector’s destruction, the later fire of her studio, and her own self-destructive fires. Also, the photographs that do remain of Embla have never been recorded in an Anders exhibition, though even if they were written in to the guide or the brochures the art of Anders and Pedersen were are similar they can scarcely be distinguished.
Banned from the school she remained taking photographs and working on H.D.’s borrowed equipment. In this period (1968-1971) her images became more and more fragmented. In some, erotic eclipses of H.D.’s figure appear and disappear in the corners. Most of Embla’s surviving self-portraits are from this time although the largest body of her work is from much later. In this period also, there was a shocking number of photographs of funerals and of what seem to be bodies of young men and women, strung out, hanged up, & dying.
In 1972 she began hanging about the Café Lehmitz, perhaps hoping to find Anders, who published his first collection of photographs depicting the addicts, transsexuals, brawlers, and students who lived there, under the same name as the café. Anders’ gallery show for the collection Café Lehmitz featured all of the pictures hung in clusters along the walls. “The walls were plastered,” Anders said, “like a huge family album! Everyone who recognized themselves was welcome to help themselves to the pictures. The exhibition was over four days. At the end, all the pictures had gone.”
In 1975 her mother visited her studio and, disgusted, burned all the work inside until the building itself caught and extinguished itself in its charcoal tilt. It is suspected that the largest body of Svennson’s work was destroyed in this time. Beyond this, biographical information on Embla Svennson becomes even harder to come by. It is hard to imagine what she could have been doing for the next thirteen years. What we know for certain is that in the mid-1970s and into the next decade Svennson discovered and converted to Catholicism. She lived in Berlin, Saint-Etienne, Paris, Soho, Varmland, Stolkholm, and Rome, where she lived from 1980 to 1985 and where she gave birth to her daughter Ramona. It is clear that she returned to Ghent one time in her life and stayed only long enough to be disgusted by the Ghent Altarpiece and to leave. The rest of her life is only available through intense speculation of her photographs. This except and the notes that accompany it are an attempt to explicate the artist from the art work: an exercise that, though productive, almost always fails.
A Wall of Her Work (1968): This photograph seems to have been a misfire. A shot too soon after the subject had moved or an accidental trigger, a twitch of the finger. In it we can see a wall of photography, illustrations, and excerpted adverts. A portion of the following photographs are enlargements of crops from this one. We can see a town on the Italian coast, Einstein’s eyes and hair obscured by a picture of a couple kissing, an 1950’s ad where a man kisses a woman with a football in his hand, a salad bowl in hers—Embla collected images of the expectation, she admired them—some pictures of classrooms. Looking at this picture you may notice that few of the smaller pictures are isolated subjects; most are groups of people or couples. Only the Eifel Tower, Hitler, and Einstein remain alone.
A Wall of Shoes (1969): Women’s stilettos hang from hooks, or their heels are the hooks pounded like nails into the display. They are all as sharp-toed as the pitch of a witch’s hat. They vary in price from twenty-five euros to four thousand five hundred. These are clothes which one wonders if Embla would have worn. We wonder if Embla walked or drove or took the cab. We wonder what Embla saw with the dark eyes of her nipples, also pointy, also pitched.
We critics are not often careful about crass desire: anything can be sexualized especially a woman artist.
Plate & Knife (1967 or 1968): This is a photograph of a plate & knife. The plate appears bonelike and dry as does the clam left over. The plate was once full and is now empty. Embla Svennson always ate alone, even in public, even in bars, and even on the bus. Where other people ate, so did Svennson, but never with them. It seems as if she only photographed empty plates. Some critics wonder if this was an impersonal method of documenting her eating habits, her slow decline into weightlessness and poverty.
A Tree & A Window (1970): A tree grows before a window like its own blinds. Yet Embla captured from behind a branch a man. Or part of a man. Half his face is obscured from the limb’s loose grasp, he is smoking and dressed in white. It is possible he has a daughter. It is not unlikely. He is watching birds. He is waiting for Embla to ring his door for a cup of tea. He may also, possibly, be watching T.V. This is a sort of intrusion Embla was active in. And yet it was private because what is important to this picture is not the man, it is the window and the tree. It is what we can concretely see, as other critics say, though we know that that is less interesting.
Carousel Horse (1972): The horse has eyes painted on and gazing straight down the length of its nose. It jaw hangs open as if dangling an invisible cigarette. The reins are pulled tight but the rider is not in frame. It is presumably a child, at the park with her parents. Some critics suggest that this photograph belongs dated in correlation with her daughter’s fifth birthday, others that it belongs as a remnant of Embla’s own childhood. These are increasingly both unlikely, so we date it 1972 as a guess, an average.
A Dog with A muzzle (1974): This dog has bitten someone. Police reports from Rome of this year suggest that it may have been a young boy: “A 4-year-old boy was being treated for a serious neck injury at St. Joseph´s Hospital on Monday after being bitten by this Rottweiler mix that is currently under quarantine," the article reads. Embla was not afraid of dogs, though this dog looks at her through a side eye that says she is.
Smokestacks (1980): Two smokestacks stand like obelisks to a fallen plant. Graffiti is visible near their bases; it seems to say crisis. It seems to say that these are two brick fingers reaching up to the sky, or scissors aiming to cut the clouds which abound in the back ground.
Statue in Garden (no date): This statue is probably that of Saint Francis but one cannot be sure because all the meaningful iconography has been obscured by vines. What remains is the head, bearded, in black and white, looking down his nose into the bushes. In the background the apartment buildings that are seen are probably residential from the neighborhoods of Hamburg or Stockholm, but this could also be from the courtyard of Osteraker Prison. Possibly related is Two Men Running (Osteraker Prison 1980): In this white and blinding photograph two men run past the fence of the prison, either for exercise or for escape.
Man and Woman Eating (1968): They are sitting at the table which is clothed many times and at many intersecting angles. The viewer first notices how the fabric conflicts: the monotone shirt of the man, and the striped shirt of the woman who looks away from him, hand to her nose in disgust. There is no food on the table, only one half empty glass of wine by her elbow. She must not be disgusted by the food but by him. He is gently smirking. It is possible she is laughing but it is doubted. These two are probably not friends of Embla because the angle suggests she was snooping. Most likely these two were artists and Embla was an admirer. Embla, an avid art fan, often sought out the people she admired and seldom had meaningful conversation with them.
A Boy’s Face (1969): One can almost feel the texture of this photograph. It looks almost illustrated. The boys six crocked teeth look white as toothpaste or napkins, his eyes look painted with makeup, and his hair looks like a fine lined fire. The lines are dark as if they were inked, or the light and the shadowed was developed in lap to lend the feel of a comic book, the feel of an educational book: Fun with Dick and Jane, perhaps, see Dick run. See Embla run. Embla may have saved that book to read to her child though her child was ages away. This boy could be unreal. He could be an illustration. One can never be sure what is real and what is an image of an image.
Two Women (Paris, 1972): In this picture two women cuddle post coitus. One presses her face into the neck of the other, the other is asleep with neck stretched. The pillows are an afghan print.
Surgery (Saint Etienne 1972): They are cutting something but one cannot tell what. We, these critics, please note, are photographers and poets, not doctors. If it had to be guessed it would appear that the doctor whose hand is hovered above uncut flesh with a scalpel is about to enter the wound left open and held by the assistant’s hands. The scalpel will cut something loose and remove it. It is assumed. Looking at this picture has been reported by some to cause headaches. “There is so much body and no clear distinction between whose hands are whose and whose blood belongs to whom.” At this time Embla’s health was deteriorating. She would reach a point within the next three years where her weight maintained an unhealthy level, or she maintained that level herself. It is unlikely, though possible, that this picture corresponds with an emergency surgery she underwent when her appendix burst, but then who would have taken the picture?
Untitled Self-Portrait in Car (1966): We suspect that this photograph was one of the first Embla took. She holds the camera as if she were not holding it all. As she gazes out the window of the car the scenery is blurred into white. We cannot say where this was taken; only that it was taken and it is responsible to note that it is possible it was not taken by her, but by her collegiate friend, H.D. Probably in Hamburg Germany, judging by the flowered dress, and pulled back hair: one of the only portraits in which Embla smiles.
Double Exposure #1 (1966): The underlying image here is a black man well-dressed holding a woman barely dressed for the cold. The woman is wearing a sweater and a short skirt. Snow is visible on the parked cars of the background. Always an expert of placement and imitation, Embla later photographed herself in the frame where the woman was. The overlap of the exposures blurs the photograph but Embla’s face is ghostly where once another’s face was clear. We have reason to suspect that this picture was taken in the midst of Embla’s familial fallout. One may notice the darkness of her eyes which is not due to lighting, since both were taken in straight front on lighting. These are instead likely linked to her fatigue. For a few years after this picture Embla will not show the entirety of her body.
Legs (1968): These are the legs of Embla Svennson. See how they are covered in scaly tights and folded like a snake. The rug beneath them is oriental, delicately decorative, this suggests that it was not taken in her home but in someone else’s. It may have been taken at the Fotoskolan.
Self-Portrait #2 (1968): Here is the back of Embla’s head. Her hair is in pigtails, woven like rope. In one of her few surviving notes she said, “I would like to hang myself with my hair the greatest achievement of the human body is to be a tool for its own perfection”
Self-Portrait #3 (1970): Here is Embla holding a cigarette to her lips with her foot. She was quite an acrobat. Reports from her lovers say that she was flexible and flew around. This is why none were long lasting and less than loving. It is not that one cannot love one who is in movement; only that those who love those who move must be moving too and in the right directions. Her lovers included: Ingrid, Gertrud and Barbara, Gertud, Ninna, and Paul: father of her daughter Ramona.
Double Exposure #2: Cunt (Rome, 1969-1975): Between 1969 and 1975 there is a shortage of portraits of herself. One of the last in the series, taken in 1975, is a picture of her genitalia, before and after shaving. One reason suggested for the lack of her nude portraits is that her mother destroyed them while torching Embla’s studio: the walls and work and all. Another suggestion says that around this time Embla visited Rome and rejoined the Catholic Church. Her daughter is named Ramona after this occasion.
Self-Portrait as a Man (Soho, 1970): In 1970 Embla began the practice of presenting herself as a man. In this portrait she is disguised as a gangster. Her breasts are barely noticeable, bound beneath a white wife-beater, and she has stenciled tattoos on her arms and elsewhere. One on her neck reads “mi vida loca.” She may have shaved her head for this. She may have used her own pubic hairs for the beard. Embla was an expert of appearance. Though perhaps we will never recognize her.