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Erotic energies rededicated

21 September 2012

Ruth Poyner tells the story behind paintings on show in Chichester

Layers of colour: Daniel Eltinger's oil-painting evasive response to the question about the i, beginning with "in my father's garden. . ."

Layers of colour: Daniel Eltinger's oil-painting evasive response to the question about the i, beginning with "in my father's garden. . ."

DANIEL ELTINGER could be described as "colourful" - to say the least. You know this is true when you stand in front of one of his two-metre-square paintings and the many layers of colour leap before your eyes. You also know this is true when you learn that Eltinger lived a double life as a woman, working often as a transexual prostitute.

But let's start at the beginning of this story. Earlier this year, Nuffield College, Oxford, loaned Chichester Cathedral 12 abstract paintings by the German artist Daniel Eltinger. These striking paintings are broadly understood to have theological themes, and come with titles such as Christian Sentiment and Little Easter Play. The artist has a very unusual technique, which has been labelled "inversive". Eltinger paints colours and images on to what he calls "transparent foil", and then "inverts" the image by pressing this on to canvas. This method is repeated with different colours and foils, as many as 50 times, and the resulting paintings are rich with layered colour and texture - open to and inviting interpretation.

Eltinger's use of the word "invers­ive", however, references more than mere technique. The language of psychology has included "inversion" to describe a "reversal of gender traits"; and this, too, is part of the artist's story. Born in 1981 in Stuttgart, Eltinger graduated with a degree in Fine Arts from the State Academy of Art and Design in 2010. At the age of 16, he "discovered an urge to live as a woman and decided to accept this challenge". From this point on, he attended school "as a transexual person, hoping to find a coherent expression of my new identity".

Aged 18, Eltinger started working as a prostitute in the red-light dis­trict of Stuttgart, and continued to do so for seven years. Now that his life has moved on from what he describes as a "demoralising and painful" time, understandably, his reflections on this period are un­easy. Eltinger says that he was searching for his identity and in need of "more intense experiences and stronger stimuli", although he doesn't know where this impulse came from, "I can't give a satisfac­tory answer to that, even though I have looked for it." He is robust enough to refuse shame: "I am not inclined to examine this in terms of guilt"; but is clearly relieved to have closed this chapter. "It was as if I had hunted my personality to death."

Nowadays, Eltinger is enjoying the beginning of "a second life that builds on the first", and says that working as an artist has helped him come to terms with his past. He still describes himself as "transsexual", but says that his "erotic energies are rededicated to art". He is open about his history, and hopes that both his art, and his biography, will contrib­ute to "tolerance and integration".

This newly formed second life as an artist is receiving recognition in Germany, but here he is relatively unknown. His paintings were first exhibited this year at Nuffield Col­lege, and then travelled to Chiches­ter Cathedral, where they are cur­rently on display. The curators at Nuffield College were aware of Eltinger's biography, and completely comfortable with it, but decided to focus more on the technical and theological aspects of the work. Here at Chi­ches­ter, we chose to represent the exhibition with an account of Eltinger's personal journey; and it is fair to say that the bright colours of this exhibition are acting as a sort of torch. . .

In fact, the visitors' book tells all. There are objectors, of course. There is outright dismissal: "Crap"; some confusion: "Haven't got a clue about what this work is"; and even a warn­ing: "Not sure about Mr Eltinger - careful!" But other comments also speak volumes. Here are just a few:

"So good to see this in a Cathed­ral, with an honest explanation for the public."

"I have never before encountered such inclusivity and acceptance in a Christian church. It is very welcom­ing and moving to see an exhibition like this."

"At a time when the Church is being rent by the issue of sexuality, thank you for showing the tolerant and accepting side of Christianity by staging such a beautiful exhibi­tion by such a complex artist."

Moved by these reactions, and wanting to learn more, I speak to the social psychologist Dr Lesley Prince, recommended to me by the British Psychological Society. Dr Prince is warm and honest, and re­counts his own experience as a straight man, always attracted to women, who nevertheless wrestled with a profound feeling of "not-rightness" in his male body.

Dr Prince undertook full surgery to become a woman, but, owing to health complications, and the re­sult­ing withdrawal of hormones, his masculinity gradually returned. With a hint of mischief he tells me: "There is nothing worse than being in a frock and heels, wearing full slap, and someone says: 'Can I help you, sir?'"


Dr Prince's ease and humour are the result of years of soul-searching. Nowadays, he has found peace by eschewing shame: "No more secrets, no more hiding, no more dishon­esty," and, interestingly, by embrac­ing life "on the gender divide". He says that he is neither male nor female: "A little bit of both and a bit of neither: my life is about liminality."

Dr Prince, and other specialists in this field, argue that the either/or nature of male/female categories can stifle the diversity of human experience. He tells me that studies are showing how various forms of "gender discomfort" are more com­mon than previously thought. He argues for society to break through seemingly "impermeable social categories, so there is more breath­ing space"; and he believes that this "breathing space" is funda­mental to human potential: "it takes a lot of energy, funnelled into vigilance of the self and others, to maintain what is effectively a disguise and guard against being exposed as some­one who bears the stigma of 'not being normal'."

As our conversation ends, he emails me one of his papers, co-written with a colleague: "Colour: A Metaphor for Sexuality". The paper contains a description of light being passed through a prism revealing all the colours of the spectrum. We are invited to see gender and sexuality in this way: "taking male and female as the end points of a dimension along which there are shades of maleness and femaleness in various proportions".

This image is powerful for me. Not just because colour features so strongly in Eltinger's paintings, but also because, coincidentally, we used a similar metaphor when presenting the paintings here at Chichester. We accompanied the exhibition with an account of Eltinger's personal jour­ney, and ended this text with a thought-provoking declaration by another gender theorist, Kate Born­stein, who says: "gender is not sane. . . it is not sane to call a rain­bow black and white."

Not surprisingly, the visitors' book has something to say about all this colour, too. "Mesmeric use of colours: complex and exciting," says one. "Keep the colour reigning!" entreats another.

So let's just say that Eltinger's colourful art - and colourful life - have brought a spectrum of shades to Chichester. And that these rich and vibrant colours are bring­ing with them quite an illuminating light.

Ruth Poyner is the Visitor Services Officer at Chichester Cathedral. "Invitatio: An Exhibition of Daniel Eltinger's Inversive Art" is on display at Chichester Cathedral until 26 September. The cathedral is open daily with free entry.


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