Natalie Holland’s Kassandra
Natalie Holland, born in St. Petersburg, Russia, is a classically trained artist. After graduating from the Russian Academy of Arts she relocated to Norway at age 19, where she enjoyed a two-year apprenticeship with the well-known enfant terrible, Norwegian artist Odd Nerdrum. In 2007 Holland moved to London and stayed, relishing in its multicultural diversity, cosmopolitanism, and dynamic art scene.
Today Natalie Holland is best known for her traditional portrait paintings, occasional still lifes, and captivating symbolic figurative work which focuses on contemporary societal themes such as feminism, human rights, religion, and today’s sociopolitical challenges.
Growing up in Russia and then living in Norway and the UK, Holland is very attached to the ideas of secularism and personal freedom. She is a feminist, a humanist. She places the emphasis on the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and prefers critical thinking and ethics over dogma or superstition. To Holland faith, agnosticism, atheism, but especially religion are personal ideas and values that should not invade the public sphere. Religions, while historically important, should never influence secular society.
Being an immigrant twice over, she understands firsthand how a newcomer needs to and should adapt to his or her adopted culture, not only by learning the language, but also by integrating values, ethics, and conventions — which are often exactly those elements that beckoned the newcomer to relocate in the first place!
Yet lately, Holland speculates, integration seems to be reversed. It’s as if a social experiment went horribly wrong… Slowly but surely western secular society is being forced, often out of concern of appearing racist or the fear of inflaming aggression, to accept mores and attitudes we have fought hard to eradicate in past centuries.
During our interview Holland tells me how much she admires the journalists who uncovered and exposed atrocities of imported religious doctrines, such as genital mutilation and arranged underage marriage, whose publications resulted in changes in Norwegian law. Changes that may not have completely eradicated these disturbing practices, but at least have shed light on it and saved many girls and women from horror and agony.
Looking at her latest painting entitled Kassandra, one is drawn in by the contrast between the vivid turquoise shawl and the ominous and psychologically tense atmosphere of the scene. Kassandra shows a middle-aged woman dressed in white, awkwardly indicating a man standing behind her. He’s wearing a horse mask and his attitude seems resolute, almost defiant. Gazing towards the future, the woman’s facial expression seems resigned yet hopeful.
Besides being masterly painted — folds of fabric and wrinkled skin are Holland’s forte — this painting obviously offers a deeper narrative. While viewers will give it their own subjective interpretation, I’m intrigued by the artist’s thoughts and message behind this fascinating yet slightly disturbing representation.
Holland emphasizes that her thoughts as symbolically expressed in her paintings (also see her Annunciation and Nude) are not political statements but comments made as an artist, a citizen, a woman — as an observer of the people and world around her.
The title Kassandra (also known as Cassandra or Alexandra) is taken from Greek mythology. The beautiful princess of Troy, an epic and tragic figure, was bestowed with the gift of prophecy by Apollo. Upon refusing his sexual advances Apollo cursed her so that nobody would ever believe her predictions. Kassandra’s talent for prophetic vision became a source of never-ending pain and frustration when none of her predictions were believed, and she was judged a liar and a madwoman. She foresaw the destruction of Troy and warned the Trojans about the Greeks hiding inside the Trojan Horse. We know how that story ended…
In modern times Kassandra is an enduring archetype. Her name is frequently used as a metaphor or allegory in fictional, philosophical, political, and even in information science, as well as other life situations when valid warnings are disbelieved. In psychology, the Cassandra Complex is applied to the individual who experiences profound physical and/or emotional suffering as a result of distressing personal perceptions which are questioned or disbelieved by others.
Holland describes the meaning of her painting by stating, “The ability to see the future remains as enticing as it is questionable. However, history is rich with tales of people who possessed that very gift. Those who were believed were declared prophets; yet more often, those who foretold the truth were ignored or vilified. That isn’t surprising — the kind of future prophets tend to see is usually less than pleasant, or worse.”
The story of Kassandra has always intrigued Holland. She poses, “Imagine being convinced that you can see the future. Whether this ability is real or not, it is something you believe in with all your heart. You possess the knowledge of things to come that other people cannot or do not want to see. At that point the question begs, what do you do with that knowledge? Do you try to warn those around you, risking ridicule? Or, fearing the visions of the future, do you start questioning your ability and reject it as a mere figment of your imagination? Perhaps it is better to keep the knowledge to yourself as it will not make any difference in the end. The future will come in spite of everything and will destroy both the prophets and those who wouldn’t believe them.”
Perhaps this painting mirrors the artist herself — simultaneously veiling and exposing her view on the society we live in, and her fears of real or imagined dangers that may destroy our way of life. A hard won way of life that has significantly improved since the Age of Enlightenment but now seems threatened by unfamiliar forces and internal timidity or apathy. Perhaps, through her painting, Holland is trying to warn us of things to come, following in the footsteps of serious journalists exposing hidden truths. Perhaps she is afraid she will not be taken seriously and become Kassandra herself. Holland speaks through allegoric imagery, her preferred tools for communication are oils and brush. Although Kassandra is provocative, it undoubtedly shows the artist’s love affair with life, with humanity, with beauty. Most importantly, this painting will make you think.
Find out more about Natalie Holland by visiting her website.
Written by Lorena Kloosterboer, realist artist & author © Antwerp, Belgium
Originally published in PoetsArtists Magazine, May 2016