Leaves in a Metaphoric Garden

SYLVIA VON HARTMANN'S works cast the viewer in the role of outsider. This is not some deliberate ploy. It is because her art is so self-enclosed, so personal, and so heartfelt that, as she says, the possibility of other eyes seeing these images hanging in a gallery or even in a home does not enter her awareness as she is making them.

Ms. Von Hartmann does - once they are out of her hands - exhibit and sell her works. But possession of one of these paintings is likely to be a tentative ownership, as if one had purchased private correspondence, a bundle of letters never intended for others, perhaps not even meant to be mailed.

These images are like visual allegories of intense experiences. Whatever the meanings her imagery veils or hints at, they are certainly not mere abstractions. These pictures are not allegories in the sense of those dramas or poems in the past that used to symbolize virtues and vices by personifications. They are allegories for feelings that the artist believes can only be shown outwardly as metaphor: leaves, chestnut buds just breaking, apples peeled and starting to dry up, peach stones, stones, and, above all, picked flowers.

To Von Hartmann, such collected or noticed ``objects'' are memorabilia to which she attaches determined associations. They are subjective tokens of the greatest significance, however small. Her flowers have the veracity of those botanically accurate flowers decorating the borders of some medieval manuscripts, a comparison that is furthered by her frequent use of text (often in German and in Gothic script) in her pictures.

This is not to suggest that Von Hartmann somehow imitates medieval illuminations. Her color is quite different, for a start, and the enigmatic complexity of her images are distinctly modern. But there remains a sense of something enclosed, almost sacred, like a garden of love.

To this artist, a leaf is not just a leaf or an apple just any old apple: To her, they are passionately specific, particular, and forever part of the time, day, and place with which she associates them, the emotions with which she invests them. They are entries in her diary.

Some diaries have been written in code for intimacy's sake. Sylvia von Hartmann's method of composing her pictures is itself a kind of code to preserve secrets, to protect, to only partly reveal. Her use of German is part of this, since, although she is German, she has long lived in Edinburgh, Scotland.

THE way she makes her pictures is not some coolly contrived technique. It is integral to the character of her work. She uses gouache - opaque watercolor - and over it she works with pigmented wax. This wax, of German manufacture, is today made especially for her. She then draws through the wax surfaces and veilings with a razor blade and an old steel gramophone needle.

She is therefore on the one hand covering over, and on the other, disclosing, taking away surface, and working down from one image to another, as she chooses. In this way, a final picture can contain completely invisible or only partly visible earlier states, all of which, she feels, are necessary in the passage of the picture's making, but known only to her memory of them.

Viewers can only make limited connections from their own experience and sensitivity. Some have been deeply moved, particularly women. Others are enchanted by the beautifully observed minutiae. Still others, perhaps, by a romantic nostalgia that is more than cliche. But to those who can only see her fantasy, this artist insists that she is not concerned with the imaginary, but with fact.

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