On the Attempt to See
The Human in the Picture
The Special Gaze
It is the gloomy gaze that catches the eye of the observer. A gaze of deep heaviness that seems to lose itself in nothing. This woman appears tired or even exhausted. Weary of life. Yet alert. Having seen all of what life means exhausts you. It is of course no coincidence that Miwa Ogasawara has dedicated several portraits to the English writer Virginia Woolf (1882–1941). The life of this great, sad author, who ultimately took her own life, was—as all of her works imply—marked by darkness and light, by desperation and hope, by a profound love of human beings and the knowledge of their loneliness. Her melancholia was her beauty. Her characters were quarrelsome. Wandering between dream and reality. This gaze on the world has much in common with the paintings of the artist Miwa Ogasawara, who was raised in Japan and lives in Hamburg. The search for the most profound human foundations drives this artist. In the knowledge that existence is marked by the constant mode of change. Nothing remains the same. There is no “I am so,” only a “this is what I am at this moment,” “I could be that” We are as mutable as the tides, as the sky, as the light. Motifs that play a key role in the painter’s work. Ogasawara reads moments. “Sometimes I think heaven must be one continuous reading,” wrote Woolf about her observations. A sentence that also applies to the pictures discussed here.
Reading a human is just as complex as being a human. For each reader brings their own interpretation, shaped by their own experiences, own memories, by the situation in which they find themselves at that moment. This reading thus becomes a matter that has neither a beginning nor an end. Something undecipherable always remains, as well as the recognition that it is impossible to grasp the other entirely. Yet we are often concerned with precisely this desire: to be seen and be read, to be understood and protected. We are very fortunate when this occurs. Miwa Ogasawara resolves this dilemma, of wanting to understand a human being’s essence, but not being able to, in her own special way. Her painting remains vague, unspecific, implying. There are no details, no clear contours. The artist does not presume to be one who sees completely; she distills out of her observations the essence of being human. Here lies the power of her works. They have a timeless significance.
Somehow. Somewhere. Sometime.
The figures find themselves in undefined spaces. They look out of a window in some direction, they squat on the floor somewhere. They all have in common, however, a (stable) grounding, they are not lost people. The faces are often turned away, show no recognizable feelings. No one laughs. But no one cries either. When several people are visible, then each one is alone, unconnected. Are they alone? Do they feel lonely? This remains unanswered. A great silence is gently revealed in these pictures that reflects the observer back to themselves. What do I recognize, where do I reflect myself, how do I live? Miwa Ogasawara is clever enough to not offer any solutions, no exclusive indications. Perhaps because the painter treats her figures with such tenderness, emphatic and protective. There is no pathos here, no dramatic gestures. It is the careful attempt to quietly get closer to human beings in all of their nuances.
“Truth is always gray” (Anselm Kiefer)
Ogasawara’s painting consequently flickers not by chance in the color spectrum of noncolors: gray-white, light gray, mid-gray, dark gray, black gray. There is no color that imposes meaning, no color that demands meaning. Her paintings are concerned with restraint. With dignity. With respect. This makes the artist’s painting profoundly humanistic.
What perhaps is not apparent at first glance is that these pictures are also committed social pictures. They are an attack on all those who believe they have the right answer for everything, who purport to know who they are, how we should live, how the world functions. These paintings are the opposite. They ask questions. They open up the gaze. As vague as her paintings might appear, the artist is uncompromising precisely in this point. She is concerned with gradations. The human between light and shadow, love and desperation, nearness and distance, calmness and anxiety. There is no judgmental brushstroke.
Again and again we see children. Youth. Girls and boys. In Ogasawara’s pictures they do not appear childish but wise. Their faces reveal a perception of the world that is much ahead of us adults. They seem clear in what they see. Their unclouded intuition, their instinct, seems to direct the perception toward the world, to raise questions: Do you not see what is happening? Can you not be more careful? When did you become what you are today? Can you not be more brave, more alive, closer to life—be yourself once again? Less know-it-all? Because you think that it has to be so. Be awake and attentive, curious and unchained. Their gaze is a challenge. We do not conceal our feelings, we are what we are! Ahnung (Notion) depicts such a girl. She stands firmly on the ground. Her posture is expectant, in no way fearful. She looks at us and through us. She penetrates us.
“In order for the light to shine so brightly, the darkness must be present” (Francis Bacon)
Ogasawara’s paintings do not leave us untouched. These pictures seek a dialogue. Here too they are profoundly human. They continually provide us with hope. There is light there, playing in the sea, dancers. The pictures are always concerned with yearning. Affection and devotion. A profound understanding of the human as a being that is lonely, alone in a pair, lost, skeptical, or seeking certainties. These pictures are always about possibilities. About potential change, mistrust against stagnancy. If one spun her motifs further, then everything could change in the next moment. The sitting girl would stand up, the young woman looking out the window would turn again to the room, the group of people at the sea would move on to the beach after swimming. There is always the option of a new perspective; it is actually conceived in the picture. Light and shadow. No moment remains as it was. That is the great opportunity of being human. I can always rethink myself: I am flexible. I is I is I is I.
“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” (Simone de Beauvoir)
Then there are the women who wanted movement, who dared it. Who knew who they wanted to be, how they wanted to change the world. These are almost the only paintings with initials, with indications. They mean a lot to the painter. Women who directed all of their energy into self-determination and freedom. V.W. (Virginia Woolf), Rosa (Rosa Luxemburg), Simone (Simone de Beauvoir). Women who fought and did not let themselves be irritated or intimidated by male dominance. Who lived out their ideas. Who questioned role models and themselves became role models. “For me an idea is not theoretical, one experiences it; if it remains theoretical it is of no use.” This is what the character Françoise says in Beauvoir’s novel She Came to Stay. The women that each era needs. Women who impress upon the world that things can be different, must be different. Against ignorance, banality, narrowmindedness, narcissism. “Adam was only a rough draft” (Simone de Beauvoir). A draft is a draft. For every draft there is also a counterdraft.
“One must try to go inside to the utmost” (Samuel Beckett)
You feel Miwa Ogasawara’s pictures. In her work, seeing inevitably becomes feeling. Since there is so much surface, as an observer one can plunge into it. Let oneself fall into it. As though one wandered into a fog. Everything becomes blurry. You walk a bit further, try to orient yourself, and ultimately the picture gets clearer. Recognition arrives only with time, with the readiness to engage, to move in the picture. For this reason her paintings get so close to you. There is a lot of space there for us. We are figures in a picture. How comforting.
© Nicola Graef