Text and photos by Christine Bachmann.
“Every time I walked through a clearing and the branches parted, when the twigs struck the water from my arms, the leaves licked the drops from my hair, I met a man called Hans.
Yes, I have learnt this piece of logic, that a man has to be called Hans, that you are all called Hans, one like the other and yet only one. There is always only one who bears this
name that I can never forget, even if I forget all of you, completely forget how I loved you dearly. Long after your kisses and your seed have been washed off and carried away by the great waters- rains, rivers, sea- the name is still there, propagating itself under water, because I cannot stop crying it out, Hans, Hans…”
We know the drama of Undine, from the little mermaid who saves the prince, falls in love with him, gives up everything, leaves her family unreservedly and exchanges her voice for a pair of legs. It is exactly the lack of a voice which becomes her undoing when the loved one fails to recognize her. After all, it was her singing that lured him into the realm of the boundaries between land and sea which he isn’t allowed to enter otherwise. She is allowed to live in his house but her feet hurt from walking on the ground and her voice remains silent.
And because he is a human living under civilisations restraints, he opts for a woman, less alien to him and living in the neighbouring country (not in the sea) and speaking his language.
The only way the little mermaid can return to her world is by killing him. The attempt fails which doesn’t come as a surprise as she loves him.
Instead, it is her who ends up dying, falls into the sea and turns into foam.
The drama of Undine is old and repeats itself every time a man meets a woman. Both come from such different worlds that the more one delves into the world of the other, the more one is likely to lose oneself. On one hand this continues to be an impossible state of affairs but on the other, it is also a chance to cross the well known boundaries and extend ones horizon.
It’s the struggle for an ideal middle ground.
Now we know that the prince in this story behaves with the least bit of consideration. In some adaptations he is naive and blind to what is happening which makes it difficult to blame him for his actions. In other adaptations again, he appears fully aware of what he is doing or rather what he isn’t doing when he eventually connects with the known, the familiar and rejects, even attacks all this new ground seemingly alien to him. The mere rejection is as full of facets as the human being himself.
Undine lives isolated, under water, on an island, yonder dark woods. The man lives on land, amidst society, at court, civilized. Of course, there are also women around. These are the women who can only call themselves “a woman” once they have married a man and are bearing his name. This is her right from birth, there aren’t many other rights for her. To live beside her man, to bear his children – domesticated till death will part her from him.
Best case scenario he will die first. This way, as a widow she gets a chance to spend time by herself and maybe an Undine drops by to remind her of who she really is.
These are stories dating back a hundred years and further. In fact, the most recent literary adaptation was written in the 1960’s. A long time ago, you are forgiven to think. Though, is it really so long ago and did this drama change much? Can it ever seize to exist so long as men and women meet? It may be a latent aftertaste in a normal relationship but worst case scenario, it could end in violence.
It figures that Undine needs to project a lot of anger on everything—humans, the circumstances, the living, the lack of love, the intrigues, the abuse and above all, the man. He who back in the 1960’s was looking for a lady to lean on his strong shoulders only for her to get his back with all her might.
There are more than enough relationships these days that work under these conditions. At first, it might not look that way because women are earning their own money now (which means that emancipation has come to its natural conclusion?!?) but neither men nor woman want to face what happens with women in terms of emotional dependency and self loss.
I began to take up this topic as part of my final piece of work in my photography studies.
I was particularly interested in the novel “Undine leaves” by Ingeborg Bachmann. The synopsis is: Women are not being accepted as who they are and are only recognized by society once they had been pushed into roles. This society was by and large created by men. These roles have an especially limiting affect on the women’s personalities. In our culture human beings are only able to live with one another in these pressurized roles. In fact, these circumstances are found to be unbearable because they require both men and women to continuously deny themselves, emotionally as well as physically.
Ingeborg Bachmann writes using noun-specific language, thereby giving Undine a voice.
Thanks to Ingeborg Bachmann’s initiative, it is the first time Undine is in a position where she can describe herself. In previous adaptations, she was only ever the subject people would write about. She is fully aware of her fate and fights with it. She doesn’t allow to be pushed around unconsciously by her environment and her longing for love. She breaks free from the romantic notion of love and addresses Hans in a wordy monologue. Hans also represents our current culture which repeatedly rejects her.
Traitors! When nothing else helped you, abuse would. Then you suddenly knew what it was, you thought made me appear suspicious. Water and veils and that which cannot be set in stones. Then I was suddenly a danger which you became aware before it was too late. Then I was cursed and from one moment to the next, you regretted everything. You expressed your regret on church benches, in front of your wives, your children, the public. In front of your mightily gigantic authorities. You were so brave, so brave as to regret having met me and to secure all that was insecure inside you. You were safe. You quickly set up the altars and brought me along to be sacrificed. Did my blood taste good? Did it taste a little bit like the blood of the white whales? Of their speechlessness?“
I read the text numerous times. I became so engrossed in every line observing what type of images this evoked inside my head. I began to create self portraits. I looked for women amongst my circle of friends and people I knew. Then I started to advertise. Every one of these women enriches my work by sharing their life stories with me. I work very intuitively. Upon first meeting a woman, I often detect something in her that I want to portray. It is a lot about latent strengths. Most women don’t know how strong they are.
It is the century old after-taste of the woman being depicted as the weaker sex that deprives us women off the awareness of our natural strengths. Due to the lack of self confidence, some women build a huge wall of defence or put their emotional life on hold. Others are so delicate that they always need to be protected by others. I’m interested in how we women really are, how we feel and how we view ourselves – away from common assumptions of femininity and the descriptions of men.
Especially in the realm of paintings in art history, women have been portrayed by men for centuries. I study these depictions and use some of them as an inspiration. There are figures like Ophelia, lying placidly on lawns, flowers in hand. Drawn in such a delicate way that it doesn’t allow for a smidgeon of character strength to come through in the painting. Of course they are victims but they don’t defend themselves. In these portrayals woman are quietly accepting the rejection of their being while looking lovely at the same time.
And things aren’t much different these days…
And so my work is also an expression of Undine’s deep pain that arises from the suppression and the tenacious fight against this state of affairs. Simultaneously and as a result of this fight, a strength of life is growing which may only be developed in this way.
Please visit Christine Bachmann website for more stories and photographs.