Magdalena Åberg: Cracks Inside


I was standing in my grandparents’ hallway when I realised that only Mother was putting her overcoat on.

Only Mother was going to the funeral. Not my little sister, not Grandmother, Grandfather – and not even me! We were not going. I was eight and a half. Completely stupefied, taken aback – but I said hardly a word. I was perfectly quiet, but crying out inside.

It was as if I at that moment, a moment my entire body still remembers, had understood a certain attitude towards Father, which would prevail for the rest of my childhood and adolescence. An attitude seemingly just decided, just prevailing, without any admonishing, without words. As if Father had been erased, a finished chapter we needn’t go back to. As if grief wasn’t necessary, didn’t exist.

My need for creation has come out of wordless grief. Ever since I was a toddler I had drawn and painted a lot, so it wasn’t far-fetched. I found channels for letting out that grief, that was it. Perhaps it was a survival strategy that I instinctively grasped. It’s not Father that I’m constantlyworkingthrough or trying to bring back; it’s the lack of grief, the lack of space for grief, the opportunity for grief.

Empty, dark, unfathomable depth.

Magdalena Åberg, Untitled, 2019. Ceramics, 50 × 35 × 12 cm. Photo: Jussi Tiainen

A lump turns into Something. As creation moves ahead, the lump of clay becomes Something – I know it has happened when I start thinking of it as You.

With time, at some point during thepainstaking building process, the lump, by way of rolled coils delicately smothered-together, will get a characteristic shape of its own. I realise You have appeared once dialogue makes itself known: mysoundless but tender address. Once that happens, setbacks will be difficult to handle. Cracks, for instance.

It’s paradoxical: I was just writing about dialogue, so I should respect Something’s own moves in this process. Moreover, my work is about the body’s inner organs, which are transient, beyond our control, prone to illness – and yet I become frustrated when I lose control!

It’s because the cracks feel like carelessness, the neglect of a child. Why did I remove the supports and the plastic protection too early?

The bond with Something then becomes related to the parent’s bond with asick child: the anger that it’s You who have to be afflicted fades away and is transformed into an even greater tenderness. Even You are transient and beyond my full control, showing me the way away from my need to control.

Magdalena Åberg, Physician, 2016. Acrylic and oil on canvas, 115 × 80 cm. Photo: Jussi Tiainen

My grandfather and my father were both physicians and pharmaceutical chemists. When I became an artist, I thought I had chosen something as far away as possible from that. I studied ceramics but was put off by the course requirements of knowledge in chemistry, so I found painting instead – but now, much later, I started doing ceramics again.

The arts of healing and ceramics both have an incredibly strong foundation in their long developmental history and in that of humankind. Today, neither of them is practiced without contact with the knowledge gathered – the scientific gains – within their fields. We are far from just suddenly noticing how clay stiffens and changes colour in fire. Instead we know, within a margin of ten degrees, exactly which firing temperature above a thousand degrees is best for a specific mix of clays with a specific glazing on top.

Likewise, we know we can’t randomly cut into a person based on where she believes the pain to be. So much research is being done to show that our inside, on the microbial cellular level, may reveal itself as an unknown landscape, a terra incognita, even for those in the know – but the physician still knows an incredible lot because of what others before her have arrived at.

That some artificially intelligent robot will soon be able to read your illness from your breath is an entirely new step. We’re moving away from an art of healing that needs the big cut to be operative.

Magdalena Åberg, Untitled, 2019. Ceramics, each ca 9 × 9 × 5.5 cm. Photo: Jussi Tiainen

But in both arts – and I choose to use this word here – we can never leave the out-of-control behind. It is Someone/Something we are in dialogue with.

A body that must be healed may not be fully controlled.

A lump of clay is at first living matter, where coincidence, the air bubble/the unnoticed foreign grain may play tricks even in a carefully controlled electrical kiln programmed for raising temperatures at intervals traditionally considered suitable.

Cracks appear.

And somewhere in all this I think the physician’s and the ceramicist’s fascination with the nucleus, with life, is always there, should always be there?

And also a longing for the primeval, for direct contact with Someone/Something to be given care, to be healed and shaped.

Photograph, from family album, of Magdalena Åberg’s mother during an outing in Sweden, mid-1970s

(Wrapped in silence.) In my mother there is so much silence – so I, too, must have it in me.

And I do! It’s there in me at those countless different occasions when so-called normal communication, small talk, is expected. But then, in other circumstances, created by myself in response to a desperate need, everything that isn’t silence gushes forth from me – but not in the form of spoken or small-talked words.

Like from a machine gun, communication spurts out – as painting, ceramics, illustration, text.

Do people, also the silent ones, always have the chance to become communicative if they only find their own circumstances?

Mother had to get Alzheimer’s to be able to express anger, to become impolite and distrustful. And now, when anger hits, it gushes forth, so out of control that she sometimes becomes violent.

Magdalena Åberg, Interiors #4 (k), 2018. Oil on wooden panel, 20 × 30 cm. Photo: Nina-Maria Oförsagd

I myself tend to become anxious after the fact rather than speaking up and asserting myself where I really should, for instance in condominium board meetings. Anxiety, wrapping me in its silence, makes me shun people and conversations. It has taken me years to become a bit better at breaking this – by speaking up, however belatedly.

I’ve had so much better opportunities than my mother to find my own circumstances, my own ways of communicating. Have I been lucky? Or was my need just greater, even a necessity? My circumstances for creation have developed out of wordless grief.

A person who existed and then suddenly didn’t exist, not on any level, neither alive nor dead in speech, pictures or memories. Silence. Lack of grief. As if we were carefree. But my circumstances turned me into a machine gun instead, with this perfectly untrammelled compulsory need constantly to express myself, to spurt out all the silent, wordless lack of grief.

Magdalena Åberg, from the series Interiors, 2018. Oil on cupboard door, 36.3 × 39 cm. Photo: Jussi Tiainen

Cracks. In the brain, in the knee: a grief in my stomach.

I buy an evening newspaper with headlines about how early we may discern traces of Alzheimer’s in the brain. I imagine cracks in the brain, but I don’t expect anything. Not from the article, not from my own memory in the long run.

I live like a machine gun in the present. Everything wants to be said: painted, written, shaped. Is this a sign, perhaps? That there are traces of future cracks that intuitively make me feel in a hurry? That this kind of consciousness will be lost to me. When? Do I want to know?

And if I’m afflicted, how will the change be experienced from the inside? Do I get to keep the feeling of a kind of nucleus, that the most important things are still intact? Or does everything become a fleeting maze of impressions and ethereal fragments of memory? Often, when I try to do umpteen thingsat the same time, a certain confusion sets in and I feel that I’m wearing my brain down.

When paying my bills, I sense particularly well how the brain will just give up one day, give up remembering the difference between accounts, codes, sums and reference numbers. Everything becomes a mashup of numbers. And I’m almost astonished that I can handle this, really.

Magdalena Åberg, Interiors #7, 2018. Oil on wooden panel, 51 × 70.5 cm. Photo: Nina-Maria Oförsagd

So I don’t know if I need to read that article. I create my own circumstances. And I eat vitamin B12 supplements and hope, deep down, that I won’t be afflicted at all. By the brain cracks.

For me yoga opened a door to the inner landscape that I had shunned in my fear of hospitals, a landscape that I had been associating only with medicine. Suddenly I became aware of my inner organs: alive, vital, constantly present and active. Perhaps I also needed (being a bit over forty) to damage my knee while running before I could turn to yoga in earnest. Partly as a replacement for running. And partly, I think, my susceptibility to the philosophy of yoga increased as I became more aware of transience – that a body part, a meniscus, can get cracks, become over-used, used up.

I depict organs overcome by horrendous disease, but without becoming especially frightened by the conditions I paint. It’s not as if it directly concerned my own organs.

Perhaps I place a treacherous amount of trust in my organs – except perhaps the two organs whose transience and fragility may be profoundly sensed: the brain and the stomach.

Magdalena Åberg, from the series Interiors, 2019. Oil on wood, 89.5 × 122 cm. Photo: Jussi Tiainen

Ventriculus. Gaster. The stomach. The belly.

Of all the inner organs, this is the only one that makes itself known, even visible, on the outside. Swelling up – from over-eating, ovulation, flatulence or less fathomable causes. Shrinking, sometimes just as unpredictably. Growling. Screaming for food.

If a migraine pulsates in the head then the stomach wants to turn itself inside out to get rid of all food, as if the brain and the stomach were in cahoots.

All these complexes for the belly, which in our culture should preferably be perfectly flat, but which for most of us (at least if we live here, with our abundance of culinary temptations) very seldom actually is.

One bodily sensation of happiness was when the belly swelled up, not because of the stomach but because of life in the womb. To legitimately be able to love one’s swollen belly, caress it, expose it.

A very different and detestable thing: when the belly is swollen without womb-life.

Sometimes I think my belly has been a cemetery for grief. In childhood it was fussy, oh so fussy, with what it would consider ingesting. Yet my belly was often swollen, or so I remember it. It became my enemy. As a teenager I was downright violent to my belly and didn’t listen to what it wanted. But when I was mature enough to free myself from my childhood home, with its remains of a seemingly carefree family, I became kinder to my belly. I no longer had the urge to torment it; it no longer had the urge to be fussy.

A tentative friendship.

Photograph, from family album, of Magdalena Åberg’s father on an island in the Åland archipelago, mid-1970s


Father, the chemist, developed drugs capable of healing people’s diseased organs. At the same time, he himself abused beverages, so that his own organs ended up being destroyed when he was only 47. ‘Only’, I say, because he left behind five children unnecessarily early. And yet there are now fifteengrandchildren, and he somehow lives on in them a little bit. Perhaps their creativity, distinctiveness andunruliness come specifically from him, although he didn’t live to see even the oldest of his many grandchildren.

Mozart’s, the composer’s, life was eleven years shorter than that of my father. Yet it might be called a wonder that he did survive until 36, considering the physical care he received. He was never breast-fed; instead he was given sugar water and oatmeal gruel by nannies while his parents were travelling, having left him at home.

And soon he would also be travelling, without building regular immunity, without friends of the same age, without play or schooling. Sickly and under pressure his entire life. But then, towards the end, he composes (among many other things) the major work that I and countless others have been inspired and comforted by, that makes us feel our lungs expand. The work I have been listening to countless times while painting, for instance, the series of canvases about my grandfather‘s experiences as a frontline physician.

Requiem. Its words are about taking leave, absolving the deceased of sin, giving them peace. I listen to Requiemas if I, time and again, could attend all the funerals I missed, taking leave and forgiving the leave-taking I missed.

Magdalena Åberg, Interiors #11, 2018. Oil on wooden panel, 81 × 81 cm. Photo: Nina-Maria Oförsagd

Genes we inherit, genes we influence.

Mother, myself – even my teenagers, it seems – we all have taut skin around our skulls. And underneath, brains prone to working in full gear, good at things like mathematics and grammar. The skin is so taut that it impedes the supply of blood to the brain. Mother got Alzheimer’s, while the rest of us have had problems such as hair loss and migraines. But my migraines are rare because of yoga, and curly hair has regrown after acupuncture.

The body isn’t just condemned to certain things; it is also susceptible to change, to care. Can we also prevent the cracks that befell Mother’s brain?

Perhaps we also need new pharmaceutical chemists.

In medical terms, liver disease caused my own big deficiency in childhood. Liver disease strongly influenced my life, but somehow indirectly – not inside me. I’m not worrying about my liver, not worrying that there might be something there to haunt me beyond my control, crawling out of my genes.

For a long time I wanted to think that Mother’s silence led to her diseased memory. Taut skin around the brain, all the words encapsulated. That her brain broke down because of all the sorrows that were not allowed to escape through her mouth/hand. But such simple explanations don’t exist. No one’s bodily functions are so explainable. Alzheimer’s lurks inexplicably in some of us. In the silent and in the talkative.

I google images of brains, healthy and afflicted by Alzheimer’s. The difference is haunting. Nothing feels more significant right now, intellectually or emotionally. But visually I don’t find a way to adopt these images and turn them into art, not yet in any case. Perhaps it is too incomprehensible because it is so concretely visible, so located in a single organ, what I see happening to someone whose identity and personhood appear to be shrinking, retreating into illness.

Magdalena Åberg, Interiors #2 (Å), 2018. Oil on wooden panel, 30 × 30 cm. Photo: Nina-Maria Oförsagd

Walks and pain relief.

I bring Mother to a party, but she escapes and starts walking. I run after her. My youngest child runs after us. About one hour of angry and insufferable walking at a snail’s pace follows. The loop of a few hundred metres feels like being stuck in one place forever.

‘So walk faster’, Mother snorts, although she is the one setting the snail’s pace, and tries to bend off towards leafy, sandy paths while I try to steer us back to our relatives’ party. And, again and again: ‘So go to the party with your child!’

What would have happened if I had left her?

That’s what’s so brutal about the art of healing. About Western medicine. So paradoxical. The physician cuts into the patient, cuts her open, to give her care, to cure her.

A person who, like myself, is afraid of blood will admire and be astounded by those who choose this profession, but there are so many who feel the vocation that only a fraction of them can be admitted to become medical students.

Humankind wants to interfere with life, to create health and security. To eradicate pain. To create a life full of pleasure, where suffering is swept under the green operation cloth. At the same time, it’s fantastic how much life can be saved by our art of healing, under the operation cloth! Just as fantastic as when some new drug against Alzheimer’s makes Mother more conscious and present again, for a while.

Magdalena Åberg, Untitled, 2019. Ceramics, dimensions varying from 14.5 × 9.5 × 6.5 cm to 4.5 × 3.5 × 2 cm. Photo: Jussi Tiainen

I’m listening to Mozart’s Requiem. This music was created when suffering and pain were much more tangible, and human knowledge about alleviating pain, anaesthesia and cures so much smaller.

I wonder if any of the music created today will survive its time so powerfully and for so long.

Magdalena Åberg

This essay was first published, in Swedish, on the webpage of YLE, Finnish Radio and TV, to accompany Jag målar det förtigna (I Paint the Silenced), a television documentary about Magdalena Åberg’s practice.  English translation by Anders Kreuger.