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The Photographic Work of Clara Gutsche, Adrian Piper and Allyson Clay
Clara Gutsche, Les Soeurs Carmélites, Le Choeur / The Choir, Trois-Rivières
Gutsche’s Convent Series
is a repudiation of the Hollywood version of the naïve nun and stereotypical suppositions about the chaste female as vulnerable, incapable and in need of protection. Instead, Gutsche emphasizes the spiritual strength of her subjects through carefully composed images and astute attention to such signifiers as figure, object, architecture and light. In Les Soeurs Carmélites, Le choeur / The Choir, Trois-Rivières
(1991), the nuns are seated in high-backed formal chairs around the perimeter of a sparsely decorated choir chamber; each is separated from her neighbour, but joined in a communal act of praise and worship. The composition is spacious and uncluttered to reflect the nuns’ focused and unobstructed communion with God.
Clara Gutsche, Les Soeurs Cisterciennes, Le scriptorium / The Reading Room, Saint-Romuald
Throughout the series, [t]he prevalence of symmetrical arrangements suggests a desire to create the illusion of eternal order.1
. Gutsche’s emphasis of the austere monastic environment subtly conveys the spiritual and intellectual motivation to choose convent life. Nuns engaged in study occupy the rows of simple wooden desks piled with bibles and other books in Les Soeurs Cisterciennes, Le scriptorium / The Reading Room, Saint-Romuald
(1991). The quest for knowledge is both a communal and a solitary pursuit in the convent. Gutsche captures the metaphorical expression of the personal quest in Les Soeurs Cisterciennes, Le cloître / The Cloister, Saint-Romuald
(1991), where a solitary nun is bathed in light as she reads by a window.
Clara Gutsche, Les Soeurs Cisterciennes, Le cloître / The Cloister, Saint-Romuald
But given the limited options for women when the majority of these nuns joined their convents, the choice to remove oneself from secular society may have been more complex. Perhaps, it was also a refutation of the limitations placed on women’s secular life. Gutsche reflects the implication of a nun’s choice in Les Soeurs Carmélites, Le grand parloir / The Large Parlour, Trois Rivières
(1991), where she accentuates the architectural barrier of the metal grille and the distance separating the public and private areas of the cloister. It is also a psychologically telling image in Gutsche’s use of light: four nuns are framed in a centred square of light surrounded by the dark square of the adjoining public visitation room. The viewer is placed in the darkness and isolation of the external world, excluded from reaching the nuns’ enlightenment.
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1. Clara Gutsche, “Revelations,” Canadian Art (Spring 1995), 66-71.