- "The Skin She Lives In":The Skin Ego in the Sculpture of Ursula von Rydingsvard
The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl
Ursula von Rydingsvard has said that, when she was a child, the goal of her life was to "die in a state of grace" (Phillips, 2011, p. 28). Ursula was born at the height of the Second World War in 1942 in Deensen, Germany. Ursula's parents had been exiled from their homeland after the German occupation of Poland. At the end of the war her family lived for five years in eight different postwar refugee camps for displaced Poles. Her Ukrainian-born father worked at farming, while her Polish mother helped sustain basic family needs in clothing, cooking, and caring for their seven children. Ursula remembers this period as a time filled with struggle and austerity, but also as one of deep propinquity within her family. Her family immigrated to the United States in 1950. The circumstances of her parents' farm labor in these camps and the imaginative imprint of the raw wooden textures of barracks indelibly imbedded von Rydingsvard in the material world. Yet some of her most compelling memories from childhood capture the fabric of her devotional aesthetic and her delicate cravings. Catholic liturgy offered dignity, repetition, and above all the "intrusion of grace" into a mundane world (pp. 27-29). As she recounts in a recent interview:
The Church was extremely important. Even though it was another barracks, it was bigger than the one we lived in. It always had a cross on it. And inside, it was clean. A tremendous effort was made to make it feel special, to make it feel as though there was something of great [End Page 585] consequence in there. Its [sic] the only place that you saw white linen with a little bit of embroidery around it. It's the only place where you saw clean clothes that were the vestments that the priest would wear and altar boys would wear. I remember being very attentive to the part of the mass in which the priest holds the chalice and he has a little board that he puts on top of it and then a beautifully clean, white folded, ironed, cloth napkin over the chalice. This is where the body and the blood of Christ are. And that's where the communion is that he later serves you. When the priest opens up that little tabernacle, you would see the almost silk-like materials that puffed out and lined it's [sic] walls making certain for me as a child that Christ lived in it. This is something you never would come across outside the Church. Everything in the other barracks was, you know, rough.(Sandler & Yau, 2010, n.p.)
The feeling of fabrics covering the rough-hewn textures of the wooden barracks lingers in von Rydingsvard's earliest aesthetic sensibility. Indeed, when Dore Ashton (1996) asked the artist what her earliest artistic experience had been, her mind returns to a sensation of fabric touching skin:
I remember something about unbleached, coarse linen. It would almost take its own form. I remember its being on me, almost like a nightgown—something about light on my body. Maybe I was three or four . . . outdoors, on the steps.(cited in Levi-Strauss, 2010, p. 21)
My essay will similarly linger over von Rydingsvard's sensations of coverings and enclosures that prefigure, if not predestine, her artistic impulses. The origins of such grace derive from von Rydingsvard's exquisite sense of touch: tender and brutal, comforting and terrifying, sublime and beautiful. While her touch has turned predominantly to the surfaces of the cedar planks that she variously sculpts into submission, rubs with dark graphite, covers with animal innards, and sheathes with complex plastics and resins, my suggestion will be that it fundamentally derives from and draws upon the memory of earlier surfaces [End Page 586] of human skin, what French psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu has resonantly called the "skin ego." Anzieu's theories of the skin ego specifically direct us to human touch and human skin as containers for the being and doing of the...