15.02.2020 by Charles Burns
I heard about Inger Eidem long before I knew her name. Whilst cutting silhouettes at events I’d occasionally meet people who’d tell me about silhouettes they had done in their childhood. Apparently the artist cut through two pieces of paper at the same time, one of which became a portrait and the other a caricature.
Wait, what?! Is that even possible? I thought they must be hallucinating.
It was some years later that I came across the work of Inger Eidem. These silhouettes turned up on eBay one day, and once I started looking I found a number more.
It seems Inger worked for many decades at Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. The earliest silhouettes I found date from 1947 and the latest from 1984, so she worked there a long time. Every year she had a new set of cards printed, ovals for her portraits and rectangles for her caricatures.
After collecting a few of these I realised that her silhouettes always came in sets of three rather than two: two portraits and one caricature. Yet, this must be the artist people were talking about.
I must admit, I was a little disappointed when I saw Inger’s caricatures. I could see what she was doing (exaggerating the features) but to me they didn’t really seem to work. The caricature doesn’t really capture the likeness of the person in the portrait.
At the time I was still searching for my own way to make silhouette caricatures, but wasn’t having much luck. Inger’s work seemed to confirm my own impression that caricature doesn’t really work in silhouette. I was having exactly the same problem: whenever I tried to alter the profile, the likeness seemed to vanish. This is exactly the opposite of what a caricature should be.
Did she really sell these? Would anybody buy them? If not, what was the point of them?
Furthermore, why did so many of Inger’s clients walk away with the impression that both versions were cut at the same time? Look at them, it clearly isn’t the case!
As so often happens when I gaze at old silhouettes, the artist began to speak to me. Slowly, all my questions were answered. I began to understand her working method, cutting for so many years as a street artist in Tivoli Gardens. There was a little bit of magic going on. Or, should I call it a sleight of hand?
Inger began by cutting through two sheets of paper. She’d point this out to the client as they posed, then cut a carefully-considered portrait in about a minute or two (my guess is 90 seconds). After cutting, she opened this out the make the two portraits, which she pasted down, face to face on two oval cards.
She then made a show of placing them on her table for the client to examine. Meanwhile she picked up a third sheet and cut a very rapid caricature, in just 20 or 30 seconds. Perhaps she did this from memory, or perhaps with a surreptitious glance at the client. She quickly pasted this onto a rectangle mount and added it to the table, saying:
“…and here’s my caricature version!”
The client probably didn’t see this happen, being absorbed in the portraits (or if they did, it didn’t matter). As soon as the caricature appeared they burst out laughing. How could they not? As they were examining their portraits, a ridiculous caricature suddenly appeared out of nowhere.
It was a frivolous extra, an inconsequential gift from the artist. What was not to love about it?
As an entertainer I understand the importance of laughter. As Inger’s clients laughed, two important things happened:
First, they were distracted from any burgeoning doubts they may be forming about the portraits. It was a deal clincher, designed to please, but it had to be done really quickly! Inger wanted her clients to pay up and walk away happy. She didn’t want them dithering about, deciding whether the portraits were a good likeness or not.
Second, laughter attracts people. Inger was looking to keep a crowd around her, so she could keep cutting. These periodic bursts of laughter did a lot to attract attention. People would wander over to see what was going on.
As an ex street artist I really appreciate this. What an elegant system! It fits the street-artist’s mantra perfectly, no wonder she kept it going for so many years. I wish I’d thought of it in my Covent Garden days. If my current career ever comes to an end, and I find myself back on the street again, that’s exactly what I’ll do. I’ll base my street act on Inger’s business model:
“Two portraits for a tenner! (and a caricature thrown in for free… )”
Some years ago I was fortunate to be booked for a November event in Copenhagen. What a great city! Of course I paid a visit to Tivoli Gardens, to see where Inger worked. Their website hints that there may still be a silhouettist working there to this day, but it surely isn’t Inger! Whoever they are, I didn’t see them, the silhouette stall was obviously closed on that off-season day.
Today, whenever somebody tells me about an artist who cut portraits and caricatures at the same time (it does occasionally still happen) I know exactly who they’re talking about.
Do you have a silhouette in your family by Inger Eidem? If so, I’d love to see it. When was it made?