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Lyricism and Meditation: Laurence Prat’s Series InFlux

Pamela J. Warner, Ph.D.

A woman paddles down a river ... in an eggshell.  A drummer walks along to the beat of ... fish floating in the air, keeping time.  A pied piper in a bright red bodysuit emerges from the brush playing a piccolo, leading us over the ridge beyond ... in the nude.  Roses shake in the air like ... maracas.  A cellist installs her instrument while a bright red ... ibis alights on her shoulder.  Laurence Prat’s series In-flux plunges viewers into a universe of sounds and colors where music and meditation blend into seamless surreal montages.  Framed, even haunted, by mirroring figures in the traditional pose of thoughtful meditation, the women and spaces pulled together in the artist’s imagination pulse with life even as they flirt with death.  The multitude of boats, swimmers, and paths inform the attentive viewer that this series is about passages, movement through space and time.  Like the water of the mighty Rhône river that flows silently through the series, time marches on darkly, inexorably, yet constantly bubbles up with instants of joy and surprise.  Holding these two competing realities in balance is not only the visual work of this series, but also of each human life.  The surreal elements remind us not to take it all too seriously.

Figure 1. Laurence Prat, Lisière, 2011, 70 x 41 cm, ©Laurence Prat.
Figure 2. Edouard Manet, Luncheon on the Grass, 1863, 2.08 x 2.645 m, Paris, Musée d’Orsay.

A figure dressed in stark white contemplates us from her weedy perch in Lisière (FIGURE 1).  In a pose reminiscent of Victorine Meurent’s in Manet’s infamous 1863 Luncheon on the Grass (FIGURE 2), the woman shocks us perhaps as much as Victorine, not through her gaze and nudity but through the starkness of her bald head and the surprising white modesty of her clothing in the midst of this luxuriant landscape.  Her outfit and smooth skull, impossibly pristine in this rough and tumble outdoor setting, speak of a purity that we come to realize may no longer exist on the inside.  Cancer, the invisible killer, has worked its way into this body, her baldness an index of the toxicity of treatment.  A modern Charon awaiting passengers for her boat to ferry us across this metaphorical river Styx to the island beyond, she waits, silently contemplating her fate in a pose held at least since Dürer’s famous Melancolia engraving of 1514 (FIGURE 3).  Refusing to be ashamed, indeed refusing to grow ugly, the figure sits intently, the vitality of the abundant nature around her matched by the vitality of her powerful gaze. 

Figure 3. Albrecht Dürer, Melancolia I, 1514, 24.1 x 19.2 cm, London, British Museum.

The journey she proposes, however, is not the journey into the heart of darkness offered by Arnold Böcklin’s Island of the Dead from 1880 (FIGURE 4), an admitted point of reference for Prat in designing this composition.  Rather, the organization of the photograph promises a journey from the shadows into the light.  There, from the sunny banks of a clearing across the river, a nude figure easily overlooked at first glance dives back into the river of life, avoiding death for now (FIGURE 5).  Prat wanted to capture the movement between life and death; the contemplation, while still alive and on the earth, of the liminal spaces of non-existence.  Thus the classic pose of meditation made famous by Dürer, Manet, and Rodin here acquires a lyrical complement in the figure diving in the water in the background.  Life and death are always intermingled, and what interests Prat is the possibility of passage between the two worlds, not as a finality as in the Böcklin, but as a form of poetic play.

Figure 4. Arnold Böcklin, Isle of the Dead, 1880, 73.7 x 149 cm, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Figure 5. Laurence Prat, Lisière (detail of background), 2011, ©Laurence Prat.

The series began with a group of landscape photographs Prat had taken around her childhood home.  She had grown up in these spaces and sought to memorialize the places that had fostered her childhood dreams.  At that time, she had no idea of integrating people into the compositions.  Rather, she was focused on life’s journey as a one through spaces that are at once familiar and yet always partly unknown, much like the people closest to us in our lives.  Having walked these paths many times, both alone and with her family, Prat spoke of her father:  “There were so many things about him as a man that I never knew.”  Looking back over the photographs several months later, Prat had the idea to integrate figures into the landscapes to more fully embody the mixture of people and places that constitute a human life.  Her first art historical reference was the squirming-with-life landscapes of German painter Hieronymous Bosch (FIGURE 6), which came to her in a dream-like, poetic reverie as the series was taking shape.  Recognizing that it would be hard to achieve something so complex in photography, she thought about other strong images showing figures in a landscape.  Grünewald’s famous Isenheim Altarpiece showing the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ from 1510-1515 (FIGURES 7 & 8) stood out in her mind for its stark juxtaposition of death and life in landscape settings.  But rather than emphasizing the physical pain and suffering of illness and death as Grünewald did, Prat sought to carry Bosch’s surrealist elements into the twenty-first century as humorous eruptions of a life-affirming vitality.

Figure 6. Hieronymous Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, between 1480-1505, 220 x 390 cm, Madrid, Prado Museum.
Figure 7. Matthias Grünewald, The Crucifixion of Christ from the Isenheim Altarpiece, 1512-16, Colmar (France), Musée Unterlinden.
Figure 8. Matthias Grünewald, The Resurrection of Christ from the Isenheim Altarpiece, 1512-16, Colmar (France), Musée Unterlinden.

Working in the art historical tradition of composed portraiture, where artists would first create a setting and even a body and clothes before adding the specific features of an individual face into a pre-existing setting, Prat took the pre-existing landscape settings and juxtaposed onto those spaces portraits of artists and intellectuals whose work or personality had marked her with its strong emotion.  What results is a highly personal mapping of past and present.  A vague emotion crystallized in long studio sessions with the selected women, whom she invited to dress in clothes typically worn in public performance settings.  During the course of posing, Prat felt the sitters entered more and more fully into her own history, allowing her to achieve her pictorial goals.  Prat would make a large number of studio portraits and then study the various poses and expressions.  Once she chose the pose she wanted, she would spend two to three weeks working on the montage with the existing landscape setting and adding in the surreal elements present neither in the landscape nor in the studio sessions.  The sitters are all women that Prat knows and admires—singers and dancers, musicians and filmmakers or performers.  She chose them in part because she likes their work and because their lives have touched hers and so many others through their creative and intellectual expression.  She was also interested in the different origins of the sitters, and this cosmopolitanism adds to the poetry of the series.  The women are impossible to put into (and in so doing, easily dismiss as belonging to) neat categories.  They break out of boundaries to embody a form of freedom increasingly difficult to come by in our society.  Their freedom inspired Prat’s own as she experimented with the addition of unconventional and unexpected props and objects.

Figure 9. Laurence Prat, Les Iles, 2011, 60 x 60 cm, © Laurence Prat.

The more surreal elements of each photograph disrupt our visual expectations and sometimes came to her during the studio session.  Jeanne Crépeau, a filmmaker from Quebec, Canada, boldly paddles along in an eggshell boat in Les Iles (FIGURE 9).  Other eggs, unopened, float by with their promise of life to come.  A tree along the shore, its branches flaming orange with new seed pods, seems to point the way down the river, encouraging exploration even as a stately green tree directly behind the figure anchors the composition with its vertical solidity.  Crépeau holds her paddle aloft in a gesture inviting forward movement while at the same time blocking defensively like a kendōka master.  Without showing the landscape photograph to her sitters, Prat invited them to imagine themselves in a context so they wouldn’t feel so alone in front of the camera.  She told them a story of the place that nonetheless remained abstract since they had never been there themselves.  Each woman photographed would then understand and interpret Prat’s idea in her own way, participating thereby in the creation of the pose.

Figure 10. Laurence Prat, Rochemaure, 2011, 92.2 x 70 cm, © Laurence Prat.

Once the journey in the river of life has begun, we do not simply walk along, Prat’s series seems to suggest.  The American jazz musician Aldridge Hansberry smiles invitingly as the sun spills forth from behind the hills in Rochemaure (FIGURE 10).  Life literally explodes its boundaries here:  the riverbank bursts impossibly with white daffodils while yellow and white fish—echoing the colors of the flowers—swim through the sky.  It’s not clear if they emerge from the river or directly from Hansberry’s drum, but they move towards us, look us right in the eye, and invite us to drop our rational, reasonable minds to join a joyful procession along the water’s edge.  Hansberry stands back from the front of the picture plane, giving us plenty of space into which we can project ourselves.

Figure 11. Laurence Prat, Canal, 2011, 75 x 68.7 cm, © Laurence Prat.

The inviting spirit of a playful dance continues in Canal (FIGURE 11), where a sprightly pied piper emerges from the brush in a bright red body suit, advancing and teasing with her poses and flute before reaching a moment of dignified equilibrium at the center of the long gravel path that leads into the distance.  With its perfect linear perspective, the road invites—practically begs—us to follow its trajectory.  But no, the pied piper suddenly shucks her clothes and heads off over the ridge in rhythms that recall the French filmmaker Jacques Tati.  The American singer, performer, and saxophonist Eugénie Kuffler looks back just once to see if we’re coming with her, but to call her American is already misleading, as her background combines Jewish, Hungarian, and Australian traces as well.  This mixing gives life its richness and Prat celebrates the beautiful poetry of identity through the InFlux series.

Figure 12. Laurence Prat, Chenavari, 2011, 96.4 x 52 cm, © Laurence Prat.

This celebratory feeling infuses Chenavari (FIGURE 12), a portrait that presents us with someone who has embraced and now embodies the dance of life, holding her roses aloft like so many maracas.  Her vitality overflows—literally and figuratively.  From her beaming, laughing smile to her abundant poitrine to the flash of hot pink beneath the fluttering lapels of her black coat, everything about this portrait of Mina Saïdi Scharouz, a Franco-Iranian cinematographer and anthropologist, luxuriates in free, lyrical expression, supported by the rhythms of the green and golden foliage around her.  Her pleasure wells up like the mound of earth behind her, a visual metaphor in my eyes for the courage to rise up and meet life head on.  Significantly, she is coming down from this mountain, not heading towards it, and she returns with the brimming joy of her life’s journey.

Figure 13. Laurence Prat, Ancône, 2011, 78 x 54.7 cm, © Laurence Prat.

Ancône (FIGURE 13) introduces a tonal shift into the series, both in its more subdued palette and less obviously out-of-place tropical birds.  We are under the same blue sky with wispy clouds as Canal, but the mood is more inward and reflective, rather than inviting and openly expressive as it was in Chenavari.  Our inner ear hears the richer, autumnal tones of the cello, longer and slightly mournful compared to Canal’s piccolo flute.  Its melody seems to draw the birds in:  there is a feeling of gathering, of assembly.  Hélène Bass, a cellist in real life, blends into her instrument with her brown dress that nearly matches the color of the wood.  The bright red bird nearly alighting on her shoulder keeps our eyes anchored on the musician, her hand hovering above, not yet settled on, the body of the cello in an interesting parallel to the bird who had not yet landed on her shoulder.  These signs create a feeling of expectancy as the glassy surface of the Rhône flows silently by.

Figure 14. Laurence Prat, Arbre, 2011, 91.5 x 40 cm, ©Laurence Prat.

By the time we get to Arbre (FIGURE 14), we realize that the concert has passed.  It is time to say goodbye.  A late summer, late afternoon sun bathes the glorious poplar tree, which seems to lean towards the disappearing glow, yearning to hang on to its last rays.  A Middle Eastern oud rests against the poplar’s trunk, left there by its player, Kamilya Jubran, a Palestinian musician and singer.  She stands near the front of the space, waving lovingly to someone, something outside the picture.  The angle of her salutation (forward and to the right) balances the setting sun in the back left, stretching a diagonal across the vertical space  Her smile suggests that something warm, something rich has been shared, but that it’s time now to say goodbye.

Figure 15. Laurence Prat, Trois, 2011, 70 x 45 cm, © Laurence Prat.

Is she waving to the Franco-Russian Natacha Chetcuti in Trois (FIGURE 15)?  I like to think so.  The trees have now lost all of their leaves:  the season is shifting into the later part of the year.  Chetcuti wears black sunglasses, out of place on this particular gloomy gray day, and looks up into the distance as if seeking the sun, unwilling to accept the shortening of the days that winter brings.  The power of her longing has conjured up impossible green grass and spring flowers jutting into the picture frame at the front and fluttering around her as so many brightly colored butterflies.  The perspective in this photograph seems to tilt up and away from us, as if the earth is rotating before our very eyes.  The two large trees framing Chetcuti seem to want to grow away from their encircling vines.

Figure 16. Laurence Prat, Lône, 2011, 75 x 63.7 cm, © Laurence Prat.

Similarly strangled trees line the river in Lône (FIGURE 16).  Our angle on the river has now shifted, and it flows away from us into the distance, but the stark and gnarled tree branches do not beckon us as invitingly as did the shores in the earlier photos in the series.  In this photograph, we encounter another seated, meditative figure, nude but swathed in a bright red cloth that flows beneath her.  As the pendant to the seated woman in Lisière (fig. 1), she gazes pensively towards another version of herself, swimming upstream in the river.  Both are watched by a third nude figure across the river on the distant bank, who leans back on her hands on her little grassy perch.  Bright, out-of-season flowers push into the foreground again here, but are not enough to overcome the feeling of melancholy isolation.  In both content and tone, Lône recalls the Romantic landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich (FIGURE 17), and that was not an accident as Sibylle Schweier, the sitter here, has a Germanic background, blending traces from Switzerland, East Germany, and the Alsace region.  The surreal power of the imagination to conjure up joy has been quieted here by the now-fully-set sun, the lurking shadows of the undergrowth, and the looming clouds in the distance.  It is as if two limbic versions of the self—the before and after—look down on an embodied self, struggling alone against the current in the real world.  The struggle or invitation here is no longer to reach the other shore, but rather to swim back in the direction of the earlier images, to return to the playful parade of the pied piper, the flying fish, and the dancing rose maracas.  The bright red tulip, rather than a failure of the joyful imagination, might represent instead hope that can emerge from the muck, the complex and interdependent relationship between beauty and decay, between joy and struggle, between death and life.  And thus for me, the series comes full circle.

Figure 17. Caspar David Friedrich, Walk at Dusk, 1830-35, 33.3 x 43.7 cm, Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum.

With none of Victorine Meurent’s sassy swagger à la Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe (even if the visual reference nonetheless echoes faintly in my mind, see fig. 2), Prat’s portrait of Schweier speaks of a different form of intimacy and quiet contemplation, equally as vital as the exuberant lyricism of the earlier works in any accomplished life.  The two modes nourish and sustain each other as they nourish and sustain the community of women gathered together in InFluxLône offers not the checkmate of a final endgame, but rather a musical coda, an invitation to return to the flow of life, to make oneself vulnerable again to the natural world, to repeat and try again, “this time with feeling,” as my choirmaster used to say.

Prat is interested in the trajectory an image makes, from its birth as an idea in the artist’s head, carried by a creative current to arrive fully manifested as a finished photographic object.  The series’ title InFlux partly refers to this movement, this energy, this flux, which carries the image from idea into being.  My reading of the series here, admittedly only one of many possible paths through this visual field, suggests that the flow of artistic creation described by Prat serves as a metaphor, a mirror in a parallel universe, of the flow of human life itself.  The lives affirmed in the making of the series, those of her sitters but also her own, have been marked by sorrow and joy, by introspection and sharing, by meditation and lyricism.  That the viewing of such a series can help us as viewers sense, feel, and appreciate that same flux in our own lives is one of the great and lasting gifts of the visual arts.  The dialogue between portraitist and sitter is therefore not a closed one, but opens onto a many-voiced conversation as the work leaves the artist’s studio and enters the public fray, where it floats along like a leaf on the river’s surface, carried by interpretation into the flux.  If the familiar phrase from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer ashes to ashes, dust to dust is often evoked in reference to the cycle of life, Prat’s series InFlux invites us to pause and reflect on the to, on the vector that carries us from one experience of the world to the next.  Life happens there, and if we look carefully enough, Prat reminds us, we, too, might see bright yellow fish winking at us from the sky.

Pamela J. Warner, Ph.D.
Department of Art and Art History
University of Rhode Island

For more work by Laurence Prat: www.laurenceprat.com
For another article by Pamela J. Warner, see "The State of Being Single: Justyna Badach's Bachelor Series" in issue #48: www.fstopmagazine.com/pastissues/48/Warner.html