In ancient Greek philosophy human breath was regarded as more than just an organic function. “Pneuma” was described as the soul or spirit and interpreted as a cosmological principle. The focus of Judith Esiler’s new series of paintings under the title “Anhauchen” is the ethereal connection between the inner and outer spheres. For this project, the artist searched for film images where the human breath is visible. The work on this series was driven by Eisler’s fascination with the German verb “anhauchen” which does not have a direct equivalent in the English language. In German, the term is often used poetically. “Hauchen”, i.e. the verb without the prefix “an”, describes a way of breathing out, something between “exhaling” and “blowing”. “Anhauchen” implies a target – to de-ice a frozen window pane or to clean a glass by using the warmth of your breath. With the “final breath” (in German: “der letzte Hauch”) life leaves the body, the soul seeming to weigh just as much as this final flow of air.
Eisler’s approach in painting is based on the technological reproduction of images. For hours, she watches video films, her finger resting on the pause button. As soon as she finds a promising image, she stops the tape and photographs the flickering image on the screen. Each of these images has been travelling through various media before being captured. The journey leads from celluloid to video tape, then to photo material and finally to canvas. As copies of copies, these images carry traces of their histories, such as imperfections and blurring, which produce “painting-like” effects. For her motifs, Eisler mostly prefers filmic intermediate moments; incidental images, which usually remain unnoticed. She calls these surprising moments of visual indecision “apparitions”. The figures in the paintings from the series “Anhauchen” do really seem rather ghostly, appearing like hallucinatory light or shadow beings. The strong light-dark contrasts unveil the filmic origins of the glamorous motifs: It would be rather difficult to photograph the beam of a spotlight which seems to penetrate the woman’s head in “Isabelle”. In her paintings, Eisler communicates characteristic filmic features such as lighting and frames. In addition, she emphasizes colour which is normally used to provoke emotions but also creates a dimension of autonomy. “Colour eases the ties which restrict the plot and slows down the pace. It was difficult to harmonise colour with the pure narrative realism of films”, as Frieda Grafe puts it. By including both drawings and paintings in her new series, Eisler also refers to the revolution caused by the introduction of colour movies.
Images of people on the phone or smoking cigarettes are archetypes of cinema. Eisler’s figures never directly address the viewer. Even though the paintings do not primarily aim at narration, they still create a psychological atmosphere, drawing the viewers into the pictures’ element of “suspense”. The smoking figures seem absorbed in thought and full of tension. They bring to mind shamanist rituals of conjuring up spirits through smoke, which enables the intoxicated medium to have transcendental insights. Around 1900 the followers of psychic photography claimed to be able to capture the invisible. In a certain type of these manipulated images a person would appear, surrounded by a cloud of smoke, which revealed the faces of dead people. The “pneuma”, as a kind of fog, marks a threshold allowing an exchange between this world and the next. A similar transgressive dimension can be found in Eisler’s choice of motifs from films such as “Ekstase (Ecstasy)” featuring Hedy Lamarr or David Cronenberg’s movie “Crash” – both films about the yearning for emotional transgression. There are numerous references to the relationship between photography and death. Eisler’s “spirits” communicate more than just the ambivalent connection between extinguishing and capturing something. They rather haunt the viewers, drawing them into the “sfumato” of the paintings. We are taught to inhale with our eyes.