The Reflexively Deflecting-back Corporeality of the Animating Pleasure in Catholicism

“Art had disintegrated itself!” This is what Beza was confronted with: “contents deconstructed down to their smallest elements”—painting as a building kit that exhibits itself. And she did not want to leave it in this state. The solution: reassembly of the elements; the copulation of colors and forms. This is precisely what Beza’s pictures present, with immense pleasure in the body and a fine sense for the sensual qualities of mental images. The beautiful nude returns thus—not idealistically elevated, far from any transcendental purity: natural, almost naturalistic; not resting, but communicating its internal movement to the viewer: pleasure in the sensual quality of the eye’s delight, joy in the madness about details of its nuanced attentiveness.

A meticulous painting technique corresponds with this aesthetic animation—even if, as was the case in the portrait of John Paul II, whom Beza painted while he was dying, the emotions that are worked off in creation recede and final sections remain fragmentary. Feelings are always the motor. But not in the way blind passion guides the brush in manic rapture; it is precise calculation that guides the mixing of the paints, the first preliminary sketches and the composition, all the way to the final execution of a painting. The only thing she dislikes is the laboriousness of stoically working out fine lines in a photorealistic manner—Beza calls that “pingeln” (finicking). The clover and the grass and the flowers, however, over which the girl “in the meadow” is squatting (and seems to be urinating), have a plastic quality that jumps out of the picture at the viewer. He or she can count each individual blade, each leaf and each bud, and one almost hears a rustling. Thus the viewer becomes a voyeur and feels no shame. Beza lends this moment the rare charm of innocent intimacy, an immediacy beyond social standards aroused by the picture’s technique and its mood. It is the norms that are dubious here, you see. Once released from the customary prohibition of that kind of intimacy into a sensual idyll, the viewer is compelled to reconsider the standardization of sensuality and intimacy.

This imperative is essential to Beza’s paintings. Animating pleasure in the body pulls the viewer into a delightful game, releases him or her from the handed-down orders in dealing with the sensual and gives access to an open space for new reflection.

This movement, which deflects back onto the viewer him- or herself, is also what distances Beza’s art from any hedonism that celebrates mere indulgent sensuality. In the thought space liberated by sensual animation the figures encounter conservative—Beza calls them “Catholic”—qualities. There is the already-mentioned Pope. From Poland, like Beza: idol from her youth and figurehead of Polish independence. Above all, though: the patriarch. Beza’s picture is a declaration of love to the Holy Father, not a gesture of subordination under the moral code of the Church in down-to-the-letter precision. Beza is not Protestant. It is a declaration of love to a father whose instructions, like the regulative ideas of critical philosophy, point toward an orientation that is dependent on one’s own experience and therefore never quite certain—it is called life.

There is “Maria,” proud and elevated, in purple and holding a sword. She looks like a crusader. And behind her Jesus Christ’s radiant cross. Splendor divine dignitatis. Glancing out of the painting, partly toward God above and partly to the front, she combines the reverent moment of deep inwardness we are familiar with from the painting of the Pope with a tense readiness to act. Is she going to kneel down to pray or draw her sword and weigh in? Pray for what, fight for what? Questions that the picture asks the viewer within the context of its figuratively inherent meaning.

Her eyes, however, are like doves, and thus here Beza’s very personal pleasure in the sensual returns to the rigid figuration of Catholic femininity. It brings “The Song of Songs” to mind, which could also head the act “und ewig lockt das weib” with its verse (1:6): “Do not stare at me because I am dark, for the sun has burned my skin. My brothers were angry with me; they made me the keeper of the vineyards. Alas, my own vineyard I could not keep!”

Björn Vedder
translation by Rebecca van Dyck, Hannover