Beguiled by Beauty

Bettina WitteVeen's Der Erlkönig

On a wild ride through a windswept forest, a boy tragically and correctly reads nature as one sign of his impending death after another while his father insistently misreads the same landscape as benign. Goethe’s extraordinary short lyric “Der Erlkönig” is the departure point for Bettina WitteVeen’s equally rich, poetic and hauntingly exquisite photographic project. The concerted psychological impact of these images is, like Goethe’s deeply disturbing exploration of the father’s relation to the son, an unforgettable lesson in perception and meaning. The literal, often breathtakingly beautiful, scenes of life in all its vitality and loveliness before you, for example, poppies worthy of Monet floating on a nimbus of jade green pasture: are only the beginning of the story. If one begins the trip like the father in Goethe’s poem, accepting the look of the woods as it is, then one ends as the son, understanding the words upon the wind. Each triptych unfolds a paysage moralise of historic, philosophical and spiritual messages held firmly together at the roots by the allegorical graft WitteVeen made between “Der Erlkönig” and the narrative of Hindu God Shiva, the Cosmic Dancer and Lord of Destruction, purifier of Karma and deity of both Agni (Fire) and Indra (Sleep). The trio titled “Congo”, for example, juxtaposes an irresistibly inviting grove of birches in Germany, the perfect setting foe Goethe’s poem, with a waterfall in Sumatra and an evocative scene in which two young girls gather firewood in the Congo. What are they saying to us?

The dialogue begins with the identification of a rapidly emerging subtext, the differences between Europe and the pre-industrial world of Africa and Indonesia with the sickening foretaste of the prospect that Nature, as with the son in Goethe’s poem, is endangered by the seductive blandishments of materialism (the father), so that the photograph may soon become the only record of a vanishing life.

Art at its greatest, like Nature, is replete with codes. Strong art, and WitteVeen’s art is very potent art indeed, has inner meanings that are not just for art historians to play about with, but strike deep into the spiritual, emotional and cognitive strata of the human mind in amazingly universal ways. Each color, for example, in WitteVeen’s “Der Erlkönig”, offers a key to multiple meanings that are like ligatures tying together the series as a whole. That pulsing red, for instance, in the “Alder Trees” begins with the horticultural fact that when a branch of the Alder is cut, it bleeds red, but red also stands for Shakti, which animates the world and offers a nod to Kali, Shiva’s concert, who dances provocatively on the near wall.

This exhibition is the latest part of an epic, seven - year project that has taken the artist deep into the wildernesses of Indonesia, Africa, Europe and North America to find the presence of ancient myth in the world today.

In the artist’s world, “The Erlking” is what happens today, part of the intended effect is the correlation between man and nature, the most enduring theme of humanism, a word that meant more in Goethe’s day than in our own.

Charles A. Riley II, PhD
New York, November, 2006