Marilyn Holsing: Further Tales of Young Marie Antoinette

Gallery Joe

Showing through January 7

By Em Kettner


Marilyn Holsing’s show is split between the two rooms in Old City’s Gallery Joe.  Acting as a partner series to an earlier body of work, Further Tales of Young Marie Antoinette features a collection of paintings and multi-media dioramas to illustrate an imagined history of the tragic 18th century French queen. The main space houses works on paper, while sounds of birds chirping over a babbling brook float out from the vaulted area and provide a bucolic soundtrack for the whole gallery. Though they initially appear to function as quirky, narrative illustrations of girls in a garden, the “tales” sympathetically expose their subject’s dark and fractured interior.

Eight paintings on paper march around the entry room in succession. Floating in oblong ellipses, the works exhibit palpable pride in their handcrafted qualities. The images are painted with uniform, short and thin strokes that evoke the art of needlepoint or embroidery, and each has its own scalloped or ribbon border. From a short distance, the paintings appear to be bits of tapestry, or the kind of richly detailed upholstery found on chair backs. Scenes of adolescent girls painted to resemble domestic wallpaper or fabric suggest homage to the female’s place and practice of yore. Holsing’s methodically fashioned works, which shed light on the overlooked—and indeed, mostly fabricated—details Marie Antoinette’s life, represent something deeper than record keeping.

Holsing produces a convincing and authentic idea of the future queen’s youth. Understandably the source of jealousy or curiosity due to her high status and foreign upbringing, Marie Antoinette is often trailed closely by a clump of ladies-in-waiting who mock or mirror her every action. These women operate as a single unit in many of the paintings: huddling together in matching dress or completing each other’s actions as in The Source of an Ill Wind, where three nondescript girls follow one another into a crouching position. Here the illusion of embroidery, which functions as a historic and narrative device, falls away to reveal the more mysterious and contemporary potential of Holsing’s mark-making technique. The meticulous dashes evoke a fanatic, impressionist depiction of light dappling the characters and wind-blown grass, while the units of identical girls also describe several stages of one moving figure. This method effectively forges proto-cinematic scenes that flicker and shake from every angle.

A reflective viewing of the paintings warrants a reading in which the ladies-in-waiting act as an implied portrait of the fractured-self. In Young Marie Repairs a Rent, the only work to feature two floral vignettes budding off and flanking the main image, one finds Marie strangely alone, embroidering the ear of a pig. The resulting scene looks like an illustrated adage – I am reminded of Brueghel’s encyclopedic Netherlandish Proverbs, where a blissful peasant showers a group of hungry pigs with roses. So too here, Marie’s attempt to ornament this hog seems pathetic and futile. Perhaps it is her allegoric response to the position of her bullying servant ladies: one may be in the company of royalty, but remain a lowly swine under the finery.

Then again, one could interpret the young Dauphine’s embroidery as emblematic of her own anxiety. Suddenly a member of the French royalty, Marie Antoinette is expected to leave her Austrian customs and youthful abandon to embrace the culture and etiquette of a queen. Though this mark of royalty is sewn into her hide, perhaps everyone will yet discover the wild skin beneath. With a fragment of a picket fence inviting the viewer into the scene, one must question whether the opening is an invitation to help Marie reassemble herself, or an accusatory gesture: is the viewer implicated as a participant in this tradition of self-decoration, or even positioned as the absent—and therefore voyeuristic—ladies-in-waiting? One senses the ephemeral nature of Marie’s solitude as the tiny particles of sky hurry the clouds and usher in nightfall.

In Gallery Joe’s dark “vault” space, the impression of stop-motion animation present in the flat works is made manifest: two large dioramas fit snugly into the back corners of the room.  The glowing scenes, accompanied by pastoral sounds and hushed voices of gossiping French girls, separate Marie Antoinette from her jeering ladies-in-waiting. Fashioned like paper dolls, Holsing continues her range of allusions to feminine artful activity. The right diorama features the tongue-wagging ladies roaming around a primly kept garden. Avian shadows circle the painted lawn. The left diorama is a more desolate environment, where sheep roam around a stream with dwarfed or truncated trees. Framed in the hollow of intertwined, amputee trunks, Marie Antoinette cradles a sheep and sneaks deeper into the wild away from the echoing ladies’ voices. The motif of a ladies-in-waiting unit confronts Marie as both a source of exterior and interior critique: a judgmental, multi-voiced conscience that torments with a repeated breakdown and evaluation of every action. This temptation to escape into a less conscious state, shown here by Marie’s implied transmutation with the sheep, makes the queen’s struggle painfully relatable.

I found Holsing’s efforts did not seek to justify or condemn the tragic character Marie Antoinette would later become. Rather, there is a sympathetic attempt at redemption and transcendence in the illustrated vignettes. The mirrored and repetitive nature of the forms and figures creates an overwhelmingly reflective environment. I could imagine the scenes further confusing the distinction between inner and outer worlds. Perhaps Marie’s projected self could be even more obscured, fractured and multiplied if the ladies-in-waiting confronted their reflections in the ponds; less form-specific brushwork could complicate the imagery and began to knit the ladies together. Of course, there is a bit of hopelessness in this suggestion: to clarify the queen’s metaphysical relationship to her mocking critics would make her ultimate escape the most impossible event in Holsing’s story. Further Tales of Young Marie Antoinette resonates with the viewer who antithetically yearns to fence off parts of his or her own psyche in the quest for wholeness.


Em Kettner is an artist and recent graduate of the painting & drawing department at the University of the Arts.She was named for her mother’s favorite poet and her father’s favorite mother.