Beeldbrug episode 10: Natalija Gucheva and Annemijn Gruisen

Pieter Bruegel de Oude, Nederlandse spreekwoorden, 1559,  oil on canvas, 117 x 163 cm, Staatliche Museen Gemälde Galerie Berlin
Natalija Gucheva, The Camel Saw Ears, Requested Horns As Well, 2020, acrylic paint on canvas, 150 x 150 cm.

“What on earth is going on?” Two figures dressed in traditional clothing are in a place that makes you think of an American diner. Full plates of spaghetti are under their noses, waiting to be devoured, but the figures do not seem to be that interested. And that is not the strangest thing, because there is much more happening around them that claim the attention. A tennis racket, connected to a purple rotary phone, is flying through the air. A dog is panting in the corner of the painting. A seedy figure is standing in the door opening, the bottom part of his body is hidden from view by a bright flash. And is that a tongue in the top right there?

You can say that it is an eclectic scene, but artist Natalija Gucheva has not just randomly put these elements together. On the contrary, behind the figures and objects there is a strong symbolism. Together they refer to the saying “The Camel Saw Ears, Requested Horns As Well”, originating from Macedonia, serves as the title of her work and denotes eagerness and jealousy. The camel is not content with his ears after all, he also wants horns. The elements depicted in the painting carry the same message with them. The phone, for example, represents gossiping and the tongue is a symbol for prejudice. There is also strong symbolism behind the dining figures. They depict the westernisation of the Macedonian tradition. Dressed in traditional clothing they dine in an American restaurant, where they dismiss the national traditions as ‘boring’ or ‘old-fashioned’ and exchange it for westernised ideas and customs. By using symbolism and sayings, Natalija pictures societal problems in a playful way. 

An artist that also used sayings and expressions in his work is Pieter Breugel de Oude (1526-1569). This Flemish, sixteenth century artist became world famous with his painting Dutch expressions. This artwork, made in 1559, shows one hundred and twenty-five Dutch expressions and sayings. Most of these expressions are not known anymore to the modern Dutch person, but a few of them are still in use today. On the canvas we see, for example, someone “door de mand vallen” which translates to “fall through the basket” and means that you are caught out. We also see “bij iemand in het krijt staan” which translates to “to stand in chalk with someone” which means that you are indebted to someone. Another example is “de hond in de pot gevonden” which translates to “finding the dog in the pot” which means that you come home and there is no food left to eat.

Just like Bruegel, Natalija challenges the spectator to not only look at their artworks but also to understand it. What do you actually see? Why are specifically these elements pictured? What do they convey? The artwork almost becomes a game, a visual word search, in which the spectator is expected to find the hidden stories and solve the riddles. 

Written by Annemijn Gruisen