Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919 – 1933

TATE LIVERPOOL 

23 June – 15 October 2017

Otto Dix, 1891-1969
Self-Portrait with Easel 1926
(Selbstbildnis mit Staffelei) 1926
800 x 550 mm
Leopold-Hoesch-Museum & Papiermuseum, Düren
© DACS 2017. Leopold-Hoesch-Museum & Papiermuseum Düren. Photo: Peter Hinschläger.

“Photography has presented us with new possibilities and new tasks. It can depict things in magnificent beauty but also in terrible truth, and can also deceive enormously. We must be able to bear seeing the truth, but above all we should hand down the truth to our fellow human beings and to posterity, be it favourable to us or unfavourable.” August Sander

Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919 – 1933 is an overwhelming experience and a profoundly relevant exhibition in a “post truth” world. It combines two extraordinary shows Artist Rooms: August Sander and Otto Dix: The Evil Eye, each giving context, insight and new perspectives to the other. With over 300 works on display there is a lot to take in, including Dix’s devastating War etchings. Visitors are directed first to the Sander exhibition which is completely absorbing, so allow yourself ample time to spend with Dix’s compelling work in part two. (You may well need a break inbetween!)  Entwined with a historical timeline in handwritten script, August Sander’s black and white photography brings humanity and compassion into focus, in perfect counterpoint with the psychological extremities of Dix’s paintings, drawings and prints. Curated by Dr Susanne Mayer-Büser, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, Francesco Manacorda, Artistic Director and Lauren Barnes, Assistant Curator, Tate Liverpool in collaboration with Artist Rooms (a collection jointly owned by the National Galleries of Scotland and the Tate) and the German Historical Institute, the exhibition is an inspiring collaboration, moving beyond words and essential viewing.

August Sander, 1876-1964
Secretary at West German Radio in Cologne 1931, printed 1992
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
260 x 149 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d’Offay 2010
© Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017

The Weimar period in Germany between the first and second World Wars has always fascinated me, because the outpouring of Art it produced illuminates the best and the very worst that human beings are universally capable of. Art has a pivotal role to play in acknowledging, understanding and potentially altering human perception. It can confront us with uncomfortable truths and with the timeless necessity for ongoing ethical, social and cultural reappraisal. Weimar Germany produced astonishing, disturbing and visionary work in film, literature and visual art, dancing on the edge of an abyss, or peering courageously into it as Germany descended into Nazi radicalisation. Sander and Dix were witnesses to the monumental collapse of civilization around them. Their work is testament to “magnificent beauty” and “terrible truth” of the human condition, encompassing our propensity for creation and destruction as a species. To have lived through such a time is something of an abstract to 21st Century eyes, which is why this work needs to be seen, doubly so in the times we’re now living in. This history lived visually displays how chillingly easy it is to deceive ourselves, individually and collectively.  In terms of freedom of expression and tolerance, Art is a matter of life and death, something totalitarian regimes have always understood and that we forget at our peril.

The effect of seeing this exhibition may be jolting, shocking and highly confrontational to some viewers, especially in relation to the savagery of Dix’s work, but grinding poverty, dispossession and the depravity of war exist all over the world today and that should shock everyone.   Sander’s epic photographic project People of the 20th Century, which began in 1910 and was still unfinished when he died in 1964, endures as a creative act of responsibility, reconnaissance and remembrance. The exhibition presents 144 photographs from the series, mixing the various categories and portfolios: The Farmer, The Skilled Tradesman, The Woman, Classes and Professions, The Artists, The City and The Last People. Sander sought to create “a social atlas of Germany”. His categorisations responded to the descent into fascism with the addition of The Persecuted and Political Prisoners portfolios, the latter made by his son Erich Sander in prison before his death in 1944. Significantly August Sander doesn’t preach or denounce, but allows the character and dignity of each sitter to speak for itself. These aren’t portraits taken for aesthetic reasons or commission, but with the objectivity demanded by the political, social, cultural conditions and constraints of the time. Sander’s lens, like his mind  and heart, were egalitarian by nature. He was leftist, antifascist, aligned with the Cologne Progressives and worker’s movement, politics that made him a target for the National Socialist party. In 1936 stocks of his first book Face of our Time (German: Antlitz der Zeit), published in 1929, were confiscated by the Nazis and the photographic plates destroyed. His work was considered “un German “by the Third Reich in its essential connectivity. What speaks to the viewer across time are the faces of individuals and the humanity at the heart of Sander’s life- long project. Photographing German society according to hierarchical occupations and class was entirely in keeping with his worldview. To contemporary eyes, categorising human beings may seem extremely clinical and ironic given the systematic application of that methodology to the Holocaust. We may also perceive categories such as The Last People; idiots, the sick, the insane, and the dying or The City; Travelling People, Gypsies and Transients as dispassionate and potentially inflammatory, however Sander’s intent was inclusion, highlighting marginalisation in German society.

August Sander, 1876-1964
Disabled ex-serviceman c.1928, printed 1990
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
260 x 190 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d’Offay 2010
© Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017

In Disabled Ex-Serviceman (1928, gelatin silver print on paper) for example, we see the human cost of industrialised warfare in his image of an amputee at the bottom of the stairs, literally and metaphorically, unable to rise. After the disastrous First World War, the pointed gaze of the soldier confronts us with the pariah status of an entire nation and our own complicity or resistance in the world. There is no glory or heroism, just damaged, desperate lives in a climate of inflation, unemployment and poverty.  Sander’s portraits affirm the relationship between photographer and sitter as one human being beholding another, appealing directly to the emotional intelligence of the viewer. Whether fixing his gaze upon a Mousetrap Salesman, Proletarian Intellectuals, Blacksmiths, Bricklayers, Mothers, Artists, Circus Performers, Industrialists, Philosophers or SS Officers, Sander’s grasp of humanity allows him to craft an image of everyone without judgement, a quality that should never be mistaken for neutrality. The eyes of his sitters meet ours in moments of recognition that are immensely powerful, poignant and prophetic. We see in Sander’s photographs so many people who would have been reclassified by the Third Reich as less than human. We will never know how many of these people were tortured, starved and murdered as part of Hitler’s “Final Solution”. Political activists, so called “degenerate” artists, disabled people, homosexuals or anyone of non-Aryan descent were all marked for extermination by the regime. Thankfully in Sander’s work we can still see some of their faces, long after the generation who survived WWII have passed.

One of my favourite Sander images is Girl in A Fairground Caravan (1926-32, silver gelatin print on paper). Framed by a small window with just her head and shoulders visible, her hand extends to the outside lock on the door, within a stain-like pattern on the side of the caravan. On the cusp of adulthood her face is solemnly fixed on the viewer, poised, wary, with eyes far older than her years. Far from a youthful, carefree existence, we feel her confinement and the edge of trust in the camera as witness. It is an intensely psychological portrait of a threshold stage of life and its attendant fears, together with a burgeoning climate of isolation and persecution. With the hindsight of history, the caravan resembles a railway carriage. Whenever I look at this photograph I wonder what became of this young woman, how her story unfolded in the gathering storm and whether she survived, existed or eventually prospered. Sander’s images are timelessly potent in that respect. Even though many of his sitters are nameless, they are real, relatable and hauntingly empathic, as fragile as we all are in the midst of events we cannot control. The girl looks as though in the next moment she could turn the key in the lock and step outside, but here she remains, held in a single breath of hesitation, suspended forever in the photograph between childhood and adulthood, life and death.

There’s unexpected beauty and grace in Sander’s image of two Blacksmiths (1926, silver gelatin print on paper), part of the Skilled Tradesman / The Worker- His life and work portfolio. The older man, hammer in hand is so positively strong, proud and confident in his skill, gained through years of experience. We feel that he is at a stage of life where he is comfortable in his own skin, whilst his younger apprentice, with a heavily defined and doubtful, creased brow, hasn’t matured into his profession or himself yet. Side by side with the anvil between them they are level, part of an endless cycle. Humanity is Sander’s baseline in every shot.

August Sander, 1876-1964
Turkish Mousetrap Salesman 1924-30, printed 1990
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
260 x 191 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d’Offay 2010
© Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017

In the photograph Turkish Mousetrap Salesman (1924-30, gelatin silver print on paper) from the portfolio The City/ Travelling People, Gypsies and Transients, we see strength, resilience, weariness, fear and sadness in the face of a man, perhaps in his late 40’s or early 50’s. His intense eyes convey vulnerability and stature, transcending his position in society. Economic hardship and uncertainty are etched across his face. Sander’s choice of a large format camera, glass negatives and long exposure times, capture with care every detail of the person. We feel the rough texture of the salesman’s worn jacket, delicate wisps of aged hair and patches of loss, his scars, beautifully defined mouth and soulful eyes. Rejecting the latest photographic equipment, Sander favoured the daguerreotype, declaring that it; “cannot be surpassed in the delicacy of delineation, it is objectivity in the best sense of the word and has a contemporary relevance.”  The choice of analogue in our own time and what it signifies in terms of Craft and human values, equally so.


August Sander, 1876-1964
The Painter Otto Dix and his Wife Martha 1925-6, printed 1991
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
205 x 241 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d’Offay 2010
© Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017

Sander’s double portrait of The Painter Otto Dix and his Wife Martha (1925-6, silver gelatin print on paper) presents an interesting dynamic of equality. Martha, a fashionable socialite, faces the camera in a frontal pose, whilst her husband with his unmistakable profile is positioned behind her, blonde hair slicked back in an “American style”. We are left in no doubt that the primary subject is Martha and she’s confident in the role. The image is from Sander’s portfolio The Woman and the Man’, classified in the group ‘The Woman’, part of his ‘People of the 20th Century’ project. In spite of the classification of “wife” Martha is in no way subordinate and in her direct gaze we see a person in her own right with a strong, intellectual presence. It is a fascinating partnership which reveals itself further in Dix’s paintings and drawings of his wife, clearly in a different league to many of his other depictions of women. Referred to affectionately as Mutzli, we see her dignified profile in Woman in Gold (Mutzli) (1923, watercolour, gold paint and pencil on paper), her face partially concealed by a sophisticated, decadent hat. In Dix’s beautiful drawing Portrait of Mutzli Koch (1921, pencil on paper) we see only her face and neck, draped in the suggestion of a luxurious fur, hair pulled back into a bun with arched eyebrows framing her gaze. Dix draws the curve of her cheekbones, nose and cat -like almond eyes with the strength and delicacy of a caress, every mark declares his love for her, a quality more frequently absent from his Art.  The tenderness and sensuality in this drawing is equally met by Mutzli’s direct gaze at Dix. The artist’s picture books for Hana, his wife’s child from her first marriage, are fantastic and delightful, with scenes from Fairytales, the Bible and hybrid creatures rendered in watercolour and pencil. Although they are not without a Dixian edge, fused with the dark spirit of the brothers Grimm! Dix’s Bremmen Town Musicians, part of his Cornucopia for Hana (1925) are rather demonic looking in contrast with scenes such as Knight Hans at Hoher Randen and His Family on Horseback with its bright, buoyant palette. This aspect of the artist’s work, combined with domestic family life is a recent discovery, bringing a surprising dimension to an artist famed for his acute lack of empathy.

Otto Dix, 1891-1969
Assault Troops Advance under Gas (Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor) 1924
Etching on paper
196 x 291 mm
Otto Dix Stiftung
© DACS 2017. Image: Otto Dix Stiftung

Serving as a machine gunner in WWI, Dix was exposed to unspeakable violence and killing on an unprecedented scale. We cannot begin to imagine the horror of trench warfare, the loss of life or the social disintegration which followed the annihilation of an entire generation, but in his series of 50 etchings War/ Der Krieg (1924) Dix gives insight to his experiences on the front line, attempting to purge himself

“All art is exorcism. I paint dreams and visions too; the dreams and visions of my time. Painting is the effort to produce order; order in yourself. There is much chaos in me, much chaos in our time.

Like Goyas cycle of over 80 etchings and aquatints The Disasters of War (1810-1820) which he consciously studied, Dix’s War etchings are among the most powerful, visceral and damning images ever created in response to human atrocities. The process of etching was intensely physical for Dix, like scratching his wounds, a cathartic bloodletting, burning away the surface metal with acid to banish his nightmares. It is hard to describe the way that these monochrome images of a modest scale conjure the smell of death and rotting flesh, the terror of men driven mad by fear, hollowed out by exhaustion and the relentless shelling, reducing the earth to a pitted, desolate landscape of body parts. Dix leads us into his memories of the Western Front, battlefields where the horizon is ruptured, disappearing into broken lines like lost hope. Human bodies are caught on barbed wire, impaled, mutilated by machine gun fire or dismembered by bombs. Surprisingly one of the most disturbing images is the most still, completely uninhabited by the human figure. Shell Holes near Dontrien Illuminated by Flares (1924, etching on paper, 195 x 260 mm, Otto Dix Foundation, Vaduz), conveys a moment of profound, out of body stillness, when the world slows in the face of severe shock and trauma. This is a print that you can actually hear, held in the breath of the artist/witness and the viewer beholding it. It is an image etched in my mind forever.

Otto Dix, 1891-1969
Dying Soldier (Sterbender Soldat) 1924
Etching on paper
198 x 148 mm
Otto Dix Stiftung
© DACS 2017. Image: Otto Dix Stiftung

In Soldier and Nun (1924, etching on paper, 200 x 145mm Otto Dix Foundation, Veduz) the artist depicts the desecration of rape, placing the viewer behind the soldier in the composition. This voyeuristic positioning on the threshold mirrors the scene before us, amplifying the horror of bearing witness. There is also, in the context of Dix’s oeuvre, a very uncomfortable edge of complicity in how the image is composed. The print was withheld from the original cycle, deemed too shocking to be shown, but like all of Dix’s war etchings it is a document of modern warfare that needs to be seen and acknowledged. Dix’s Sex Murder (Lustmord) (1922, Etching on paper, 275 x 346mm, private collection, courtesy of Richard Magy Ltd, London) displays a bloody crime scene, clotted in black with two dogs copulating in a corner like a cartoon. There is no empathy in Psychopathy and none here either in the rendering of the female figure as a mutilated, discarded doll. The misogynist violence in early pulp fiction, the plotlines of contemporary thrillers, TV cop shows and interactive games like Grand Theft Auto aren’t so far removed from Dix’s Sex Murder as a recurrent obsession in 20th and 21st century popular culture.  Dix often depicted himself as a predatory, lurid and monstrous figure in his work. He projects severity and power in his self-portraits, a veneer of fashionable respectability that is prone to disintegration in the fluid immediacy of his watercolours and hard-edged drawings. Dix displays his own morality and logic in chaotic and highly disturbing scenes which would be confessional if they weren’t so entirely without remorse.

Otto Dix, 1891-1969
Corpse Entangled in Barbed Wire (Leiche im Drahtverhau) 1924
Etching on paper
300 x 243 mm
Otto Dix Stiftung
© DACS 2017. Image: Otto Dix Stiftung

There is undeniable madness, depravity, societal decay and death in Dix’s Neue Sachlichkeit /New Objectivity, elements shared with fellow artists George Grosz and Max Beckmann. Satirical and abhorrent depictions of the human figure were weapons Dix and Grosz used to attack middle class complacency, the military, church and state. The unflinching reality of their work is grounded in human behavior and experience, their rejection of Romantic idealism and expressionism. In the aftermath of WWI and the “Golden Age” of the roaring 20’s, Dix declared that;

“People were already beginning to forget, what horrible suffering the war had brought them. I did not want to cause fear and panic, but to let people know how dreadful war is and so to stimulate people’s powers of resistance.

Whilst I don’t doubt the artist’s intention of resistance, there is also an aspect of his personality, arguably unleashed by his war time experiences, which revels in the adrenalin fueled excitement of killing and sexual violence. It is a source of masculine power for Dix, coupled with personal revulsion and disgust. The artist’s commitment to depicting “life undiluted”, to “experience all the darkest recesses of life in order to represent them” is a double-edged credo. He admitted that “the war was a horrible thing, but also something powerful. I was not about to miss it. You have to have seen people in this untethered state to know something about humans”. Dix’s response to what he saw around him, later manifested in immersion and participation in the underworld of Weimar Germany’s streets, nightclubs and brothels, a search for truth devoid of nobility or redemption. His works on paper explore a nocturnal world distorted by fear, loathing and collective psychosis.

Otto Dix, 1891–1969
Reclining Woman on a Leopard Skin 1927
(Liegende auf Leopardenfell) 1927
Oil paint on panel
680 x 980 mm
© DACS 2017. Collection of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University. Gift of Samuel A. Berger; 55.031.

Dix’s grotesque, almost hallucinogenic depiction of prostitutes and their clients, including sailors and soldiers (including  himself), achieve a heightened state of animalistic abandon and debauchery. Even his society portraits, rendered with the finest technical precision, amplify the prevailing sense of Nietzschean annihilation, a philosopher Dix was drawn to at an early stage of his development. The artist’s extremism is centred on the body, in the coupling of sex and death, the dominance of instinctual drives and inevitable decay, which he projects onto the human figure as Germany personified. His iconic portrait of nightclub dancer Anita Berber (1925) in garish, pursed lip red is a parody of glamour. Reclining Woman on a leopard Skin (1927, Oil paint on panel, 680 x 980mm, Collection of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Gift of Samuel A. Berger, 55.031) is a superb example of the dangerously mesmerising spirit of the age. The woman in the painting with her cat-like eyes and claw-like hands holds the mask of her pale, made up face temporarily in place, coiled like a caged animal about to strike. The red folds of fabric and leopard skin feel strangely alive, with the figure positioned in the draped, though spartan, recess of a boudoir/ lair.  The acidic green gossamer dress garishly clashes with opposing red, while the woman’s glazed eyes are remarkably cold and fixed, seeing right through to the flesh and blood that you are. In the background a Hyena-like creature lurks in the darkness, teeth bared, a manifestation of raw instinct and animus/anima depending on your point of view. The arrangement of the body is a series of highly articulate serpentine curves, painted with consummate skill. The calculation in this image is frighteningly compelling, concealed and revealed by the artist’s technique. We sense that we are only a second away from the mask of the subject or artist being torn away and that anticipatory tension permeates much of Dix’s work.

In Vanitas (Youth and Old Age) (1932, tempera and oil paint on canvas) the subject is at once a rendering of Death and the Maiden, derived from the medieval Dance of Death and a visual statement of Dix’s contemporary Germany. The proudly smiling, golden haired nude, every inch a beamingly healthy Aryan maiden, could easily be a poster girl for the Nazi propaganda machine. However, Dix places her on a distinctive edge of shadow, framed in judgement within an allegorical tradition. We feel immediately that she would not be out of place in a tableau of the Seven Deadly Sins. Her expression is so righteous and sure of itself that it is faintly ridiculous, whist a skeletal crone hovers in the background. It’s a reminder that the girl in the foreground is just food for worms as we all are and that her idealised beauty is preposterously shallow. It’s an ugly, repulsive image in the association between ethics and aesthetics, but that is precisely the point. The artist’s rendering of the figure is sharp as a blade in his exposure of the subject as part of a cultural tradition of seeing.

Dix was acutely aware of his German artistic heritage like a Faustian pact. His use of tempera techniques, oils and the woodcut reflect the influence of German Renaissance masters such as Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Crannach the Elder and Hans Holbein. The fastidious delicacy of his paint handling meets the savagely critical depiction of the rich, privileged and famous. Even at this level, flattery is exceedingly rare in a Dix painting and sentimentality categorically dead. Then as now, the gap between rich and poor was ever widening and Dix captures the outrage and repugnance of those conditions, whilst denying political motives in his art. His searing body of work remains anti-war, in spite of the revelry he conveys in minute details of violence. The objective recognition and striking calm of a prostitute meeting the gaze of the artist in Dedicated Sadists (1922, Watercolour, graphite and ink on paper, 498 x 375mm), suggests that although Dix defended his art as a moral imperative, on a deeper, personal level he is confronting aspects of himself with the same brutal honesty. Dix’s humanity ultimately resides in his complexity as a man and an artist, holding up a mirror to the ugliness every human being is capable of. Dix doesn’t just paint, etch and draw death as the great human leveller, he strips it naked and makes no apologies.

There is a profound sense of darkness, light and the internal struggle between the two present at the beginning of his practice, when Dix was experimenting and finding his voice. Birth (Hour of Birth) (1919, Woodcut print on paper, 180 x 156mm, Galerie Remmert und Barth, Düsseldorf) in starkly, chiselled monochrome is a fine example. The sun and moon are attendants, the nipples and belly button are stars in a body bisected by the absolute values of black and white. The child’s path into the world is, at least initially, an angular projection of light from its mother’s open thigh. There is a trajectory of fate in this black and white vision of the world that feels inescapable. Dix’s painting Longing (Self Portrait) (1918-19, Oil on Canvas, 535 x 520mm, Galerie Neue Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden) is a fractured face in deep blue/ black with red mouth agape, a man divided between a quartet of dualistic elements. Between sun and moon, the impulse of life in the pink embryonic form in the top right-hand corner and a red devilish goat in opposition. A green star and branch springing from the artist’s head implies creativity and intellect as the anguished man’s only means of survival and integration.

Dix had eight works in the infamous “Degenerate Art Exhibition” held in Munich in 1937. He lost his teaching position and 260 of his works were confiscated by the Nazi’s between 1937 and 1938, some of them destroyed. Looking around this phenomenal exhibition, it is a miracle that the works we see today survived. Like Dix, August Sander created a prolific body of work and whilst their images may confront us with uncomfortable truths, their New Objectivity is pertinent to unfolding events on the contemporary world stage. We are witnessing the largest displacement of people ever seen since WWII, growing inequality, economic turmoil, modern slavery, increasing radicalisation of politics and the threat of environmental catastrophe. In viewing this exhibition, we cannot hide from the powers of creation and destruction wrought by human hands and are forced to examine our own resistance, complicity and responsibility for the history we are making today.

Tate Liverpool, Portraying a Nation Germany 1919 – 1933 exhibition trailer:

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North & South: Landscapes of Lotte Glob

8th July – 29th August, The Watermill Gallery 

Lotte Glob, La Gomera Walks X (Ceramic) Image courtesy of The Watermill Gallery, Aberfeldy.

Lotte Glob’s 5th exhibition at the Watermill Gallery is a celebration of her distinctive vision, boundless creative energy and perpetually evolving practice in ceramics, etching and drawing. For the viewer, it is an invigorating experience of connectivity with Nature, guided by the artist’s masterful transformation of materials into deeply grounded, visceral works of Art. Born in Jutland, Denmark in 1944, Lotte Glob’s command of her chosen media is undeniable, with over 50 years’ experience as a leading international ceramic artist. Her vibrant energy, reverence for the natural environment, creative experimentation, playful humour and enthusiasm for life are inspirational, expressed in the prolific outpouring of works in ceramics, sculpture, painting with clay, printmaking and drawing. She is a remarkable woman and a force of Nature, inseparable from the mountainous Sutherland landscape. The UNESCO North-West Highlands Geopark is her back yard and from her home on the shores of Loch Eriboll, the rugged, ancient landscape is a natural wellspring of creative renewal, providing raw materials and spiritual sustenance. Rocks and sediments gathered on treks into the surrounding country are incorporated into Glob’s work, fused with glass, clay and fire. Often works are returned to the landscape of lochs, mountains and moorland, a way of restoring balance within and without. The artist’s characteristic strength of form, rendering of texture, sensitive handling of colour and glazing techniques are incredibly painterly, bringing extraordinary depth, skill and understanding to the Art of Ceramics. Her drawings and etchings also bear the unmistakable mark of a human hand aligned with Nature’s endless cycles of creation, destruction and rebirth.

Seeing Lotte Glob’s work is always an immediate, heartfelt experience of connectivity with forces greater than ourselves, testament to our essential relationship with the natural world.  Like the Australian Aboriginal vision of the Dreamtime, not as a dream but as a timeless, living reality, where everything is alive; rocks, water, trees, animals and ancestral beings, there is an overwhelming sense of holistic Creation in Glob’s work. It’s in the substance of her materials drawn out of the physical and unconscious ground, the alchemical process of creative distillation and the artist’s vision, above and below the surface, which enables us to perceive the world around us with renewed, multifaceted richness.  For the last six years during the Scottish winter the artist has travelled to La Gomera, off the coast of Morocco, spending time walking and absorbing the colour, light and raw energy of the volcanic island. Inspired by North and South, the sense of rejuvenation in the exhibition touches the soul.

Lotte Glob walking on La Gomera. Image courtesy of The Watermill Gallery, Aberfeldy.

Blue Lagoon (Ceramic, 61 x 61, Edition No: unique) is a stunning introduction to an exhibition you can dive into on so many levels. The glassy pool of vivid turquoise and ultramarine blended with umber, descending to black, contains a world of life on a universal scale. You feel immediately that the gradients of hue in this sphere have been created by a knowing hand, an absolute master of the medium who can control exquisite accidents of firing, fusion and glazing. Glob paints with ceramic, suspending umber like peat sediment in water, blurring the line between Nature’s marks and her own. The primary circular form feels like a portal of the imagination, a scrying mirror, the human eye/mind as a window and the substance of an entire planet. There is depth, breadth and height in this cosmic view, like a feature in the landscape captured by satellite from infinite space.  There is a sense of macrocosm and microcosm in this life-giving pool that sets the tone of the whole exhibition in terms of rejuvenation through creativity and the forging of raw elements; within the individual/ collective Self and the wider world. In the presence of Lotte Glob’s work, it is impossible not to feel the connectivity of humanity, our dependence on the natural world and the power of Mother Nature. Framed by what feels like the cracked, parched skin of the earth, cream layered crust separating from red molten core, Blue Lagoon is a sublime and tactile affirmation of life and fertile imagination. It is a pool of blue that unexpectedly swallows you whole with its beauty, a release and relief from the everyday, relentless blur of urban existence. At its centre is the stilled truth about how to heal ourselves and renew the world through shifting perception.

Hung side by side in perfected symmetry are Erratics on the Move-Day (Etching, 68 x 87, Edition No: A/P) and Erratics on the Move-Night (Etching, 68 x 87, Edition No: A/P), which bring an ancestral presence to stone, darkness and light. On a geological level, ‘erratics’ are rocks or boulders that differ from the surrounding land, having been carried and deposited away from their place of origin by glaciers. There are also human associations with the word, which we feel in the paired forms present in both images, isolated in darkness and light. Inclined towards each other, they feel like aspects of Self, masculine/ feminine elements of procreation or the beginnings of life on a cellular level, ‘on the move’ in a state of metamorphosis.  The erratic, wandering spirit that creates a different path through life, defying expectation, is also part of the artist’s identity. In the “Day” image two steely, solid forms with a delicate patina of etched marks are illuminated by a cream, green tinged ground of light, whilst “Night” immerses the viewer completely in the tonality of moonlight. Ovid hollows of stone are formed by the finest etched marks imaginable, receding into orbital craters of mind, scoured by time, winds, rain and lunar tides. The two etchings operate beautifully in unison like hemispheres, evoking a sense of completion and illumination moving from darkness to light.

Lotte Glob, Erratic (Etching) Image courtesy of The Watermill Gallery, Aberfeldy.

A larger scale work; Erratic (Etching, 120 x 80, Edition No: 1/10) in blues, greens, rusted orange, burnt umber, yellow ochre and charcoal black, also brings humanity to consideration of Nature. The seemingly precarious balance of a smaller stone holding up an enormous boulder is a relatively common sight in the North West Highlands and Islands, landscapes sloughed and smoothed by the last Ice Age, but this isn’t a vision of landscape as mere scenery. Incredibly focused details; striations and cross hatching, energy and light, hit the haloed edges of the boulder, as if energy were flowing out of it, creating a powerful force field of resilience. Made up of tightly coiled circular marks and elongated forms flowing into each other in emerald green, yellow, rust and charcoal black, the boulder opens out like a living organism. The land is a matrix of air, stone, earth and water, imprinted with vegetation, scratched and etched marks like miniature energy trails of mind, boring into the soil. In the mid ground, the wave of a mountain seems reflected in the water, then perception shifts, moving beneath the surface it as if entering an underworld, swimming through etched, undulating lines which the mind parts in the eye being drawn into the image. The blue pool in the foreground is where we stand immersed at the centre of evolutionary life, pivoting like the grounding stone and held in the palm of the artist’s hand. Pigment is drawn right to the edges of the composition, suggesting that we are seeing only a vertical slice of the monumental landscape.  The adjacent pastel drawing Boulderland presents a grouping of living stones, each with an eye or nucleus, resting in rubble like sentinels as the earth turns, erodes and reforms itself, a process invoked by the artist’s use of earthy ochre, burnt umber and charcoal black. There’s a sense of what is held in the landscape in Glob’s drawings and etchings, the mythology and depth of ancestral knowledge which reveals itself when we choose to be still, listen and (collectively) remember.

The permanence of ancient stone is contrasted with the dynamism of elements and seismic events in Eruption Diptych (Ceramic, 30 x 61 each) and Hills on Fire (Ceramic, 47 x 64). In the latter, the artist captures in mind, body and spirit the ethereal spatter of ash and smoke rising from the flames, the burning heat becoming air, scorching our senses. Glob’s La Gomera Walks series are journeys into different strata of landscape, utilising a palette of red rust, acidic, sulphurous yellow, moss green, pure ultramarine, turquoise, peaty umber and black with the separation of ground, pigment and glaze akin to the volcanic formation of the earth’s surface. Saturation of colour, variation of texture, density of light, minerals and sediments create a feeling of landscape that combines an aerial, God’s eye view with microscopic culture. We can feel the granular friction of stone, massed energy, the flow of lava and the dry atmospheric air of Tazo Walk I & II encountered by the artist as a physical reality and transformative state. That sense of journeying into the landscape reaches a zenith in Bird’s Eye View/Ridge Diptych (Ceramic, 30 x 61 cm each) where we move along a sculptural path of fused rock and in Spine of the Hill (Ceramic, 30 x 61) with the interior structure of the mountain laid bare in white stone vertebrae, exposing our bones of ancient lineage. These powerfully structured, abstract compositions work in brilliant counterpoint with the artist’s ability to create highly nuanced, illuminations. This phosphorescence, isn’t an optical experience, but operates in the same way a Russian icon painter uses light reflective minerals, engaging the mind’s eye of the viewer to complete the devotional work of Art in the act of seeing. In Northern Lights a ceramic tile becomes a lustrous, shimmering, iridescent movement of pure radiance, a shared human experience of the Divine in Nature that is instantly relatable and awe inspiring, regardless of belief.

The open stone work and exposed timber beams of the historic Watermill in Aberfeldy provides complimentary textures and a series of intimate spaces to contemplate Glob’s work. The artist also features permanently as part of the architecture, with a large fused disc of glass, clay and sediments in vivid turquoise at the entrance to the building and the outdoor lower terrace area home to a group of her wonderfully animated flying stones. This is an exhibition to stimulate your senses, nourish the imagination and revive your spirit.

http://www.aberfeldywatermill.com/art/exhibition/lotte-glob-tiles-and-etchings

http://www.lotteglob.co.uk/ 

Joseph Beuys A language of Drawing

Andy WARHOL (1928–1987) Joseph Beuys, after 1980 Print, screenprint on paper, 126.30 x 117.10 cm. ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008.© The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London 2016.Image: © Tate / National Galleries of Scotland.

Andy WARHOL (1928–1987) Joseph Beuys, after 1980 Print, screenprint on paper, 126.30 x 117.10 cm. ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008.© The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London 2016.Image: © Tate / National Galleries of Scotland.

ARTIST ROOMS:  Joseph Beuys A Language of Drawing, 30 July – 23 October

Richard Demarco & Joseph Beuys/ A Unique Partnership, 30- July – 16 October

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh.

2016 marks the 30th anniversary of the death of Joseph Beuys (1921-1986), an enigmatic figure in the history of twentieth century art whose concept of “Social Sculpture” feels urgently relevant.  Beyond the historical context of post war Germany; his belief in the ability of each human being to use their innate creativity to build a better society remains aspirational and politically charged. Parallel exhibitions at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (SNGMA) provide the opportunity to explore and re-evaluate Beuys’s work, legacy and his relationship with Scotland as part of a wider sphere of European culture. Joint ARTIST ROOMS holdings from the National Galleries of Scotland and the Tate have been brought together for the first time in Joseph Beuys- A Language of Drawing, featuring over 100 works from 1945 to 1984. Complimenting this significant survey of Beuys’s drawings is Richard Demarco and Joseph Beuys: A Unique partnership; an exhibition of objects, photography, film, posters, recordings and original correspondence exploring the collaboration between Beuys, Edinburgh gallerist Richard Demarco and the impact of Scotland on the artist’s practice. Beuys’s choice of media and raw elements are invested with intentionality and his delight in playing with language.  He utilised his drawings as “reservoirs” of ideas, often preceding what he described as “actions” in performance, teaching and political activism. Using a wide variety of materials; graphite, ink, industrial “Braunkreuz” oil paint, watercolour, newsprint, leaves, bone, hare’s blood, felt, fat, stone dust, clay, zinc, lime, copper and iron oxides applied to paper, card, metal and wood, Beuys’s drawings are a wonderful window into the endlessly fertile ground of the thematic obsessions, concerns and beliefs that define his art.

It feels very timely to go back to the Beuysian origins of the phrase; “everyone is an artist”; to extrapolate the real aspiration behind it from what it has become in the popular imagination. In the 21st century access to technology has given many the capacity to create and perform online to an increasingly global audience. In this environment seemingly anyone with a platform is an artist. But having access to new tools to express and project your own desires doesn’t constitute “cultural democracy “(or progressive civilization) on its own. Having the purchasing power to buy the latest upgrade is a profit making trajectory that doesn’t necessarily equate to the growth of awareness and conscience needed to actually use it. Joseph Beuys declared that “the creativity of people is the real capital. Art=capital” and he was right, however the word capital in the 21st century has been reduced to only one meaning; monetary wealth. Nowhere is this more evident than in the contemporary art world aligned with the language of advertising. In looking at Beuys you have to re-examine how we define art and culture and completely re-evaluate the role of the artist as compliant agent or resistant activist as part of the wider question: “what is Art and what is it for?” The striding Western Hero in La rivoluzione siamo Noi [We are the Revolution] (1972 (phototype on polyester sheet, with hand written text, stamped (based on a photograph by Giancarlo Pancaldi), GMA 4563, SNGMA) cast Beuys resoundingly as the resistant activist. Although the cowboy swagger is arguably part of the artist’s mythical persona, within his statement that “everyone is an artist” there is also the assertion, commitment and intentionality of building a better society. Significantly there is a sense of collective responsibility underneath that iconic hat.

Joseph BEUYS (1921–1986) Ohne Titel [Untitled], 1970. Photograph, gelatine silver print on canvas, 233 x 227.5 cm. ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008.© DACS 2016.Image: © Antonia Reeve / National Galleries of Scotland.

Joseph BEUYS (1921–1986) Ohne Titel [Untitled], 1970. Photograph, gelatine silver print on canvas, 233 x 227.5 cm. ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008.© DACS 2016.Image: © Antonia Reeve / National Galleries of Scotland.

Beuys understood the power of mythology which is why, in the story of him being rescued by a group of nomadic Tartars, he rolls himself in insulating fat and felt; an act of psychological survival after being shot down in the Crimea during WWII whilst serving in the Luftwaffe. Although criticised for the lie of being rescued by a tribal culture, the truth still resides in the myth. Shamanic is a word that gets used a lot around Beuys, however he is iconic not for the cloaked mystery of his artistic persona or for the celebrity treatment of becoming a Warhol multiple, but for his actions; “My art is my teaching” was how he described his own work and his art expands way beyond gallery walls. He was a passionate advocate of the capacity of art to heal individual and societal wounds and like other German Artists of his generation, used his language of drawing as a way of coming to terms with the atrocities of Nazism and human complicity, including his own. From the end of WWII he was actively reclaiming the language of his homeland; the idea of the gesamkunstwerk; the total work of art, which had been misappropriated in Wagnerian proportions during the Nazi era. For Beuys this was an ideal within and without, a synthesis between different disciplines, a total work of art as bound to human life, manifest in the concept of “Social Sculpture”. Psychologically he was his own gesamtkunstwerk;

“I outlined a new biography in drawings. I had already conceived the idea of a social work of art upon which I am still working”. (Joseph Beuys, 1980).

The idea that people can use their creativity to bring about positive cultural, political, economic, ecological and social change is an eternally hopeful premise for reconstruction. The imperative then was a world visibly in ruin in the aftermath of industrial scale warfare, genocide and the age of the atom bomb. The imperative now is displaced humanity, global corporate rule and impending ecological disaster.

In the poignant drawing Dove, Food, Rainbow (1949, Graphite and watercolour on card, AR00095 ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through the d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund 2008.) Beuys uses simple linear graphite and white washes of watercolour on a raw, textured ground of found card, to create a feeling of profound lassitude and hope. The bowed head of the dove linked to the promise of a rainbow which has not yet burst into colour and the mountainous horizon is both a statement of loss and aspiration. When I think of Beuys I think of Maslow’s pyramid of human needs and belief in the motivational capacity of human beings for self-actualisation and self-transcendence.  As a follower of Rudolf Steiner’s teachings, there are elements of ethical individualism and spiritual science that become integrated Beuys’s in the trajectory of his drawings.

Beuys can be seen as shamanic in his depth of awareness; of the nature of mythology, culture and the universal tribe of humankind. It’s what makes the simplicity of Acer Platanoides (1945, Leaf on paper, AR00630, ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through the d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund 2008.) so revelatory; a fallen leaf on paper, felling the then blackened mythology of the German forest to the ground.  Out of the fascist cry of “blood and soil”, Beuys leads the viewer back to the possibility of survival and growth through creativity.  Nature in Beuys’s work is very much in the German Romantic tradition of Friedrich– we are always aware of a human mind beholding it. Beuys’s drawing The Centrifugal Forces of the Mountains (1953, Graphite on paper, 3 parts. ARTIST ROOMS, National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Lent by Anthony d’Offay, 2010. AL00196) acknowledges and crystallises that dynamism. There is a human presence in all his drawings, whether they are figurative or not. A fluid horizon of hare’s blood, fat transformed by human warmth, a symbolic battery of positive and negative forces, the flow between masculine and feminine, reason and intuition, present meanings sensed and felt in the action, rather than seen. If you go looking for the artifice of beauty in this artist’s work then you are destined never to find it. The beauty in Beuys lies in belief and aspiration. His connection with Scotland and interest in Celtic mythology shares a kinship with the bardic tradition of creativity as a source of transformation and renewal. His drawings are the process, sometimes unrealised actions, part of the trajectory of a life and linked with many others. This clearly presents a problem for some art critics and viewers hunting for explanatory meanings, traditional linear narratives or illustration. There are many works in the exhibition that document actions where the artist’s presence was vital and equally many drawings and objects that stand apart from the myth of the artist, transcending their maker. Beuys challenges traditional/ art historical classifications, his art was as much about founding the green party, lecturing, teaching, performance and the energy of raw materials as it was about the fine art practices of drawing, sculpture and installation.

In Richard Demarco’s essay Ex Cathedra; he refers to performance art as: “ essentially a form of drawing through what Gaston Bachelard, the French phenomenologist called La Poetique de L’Espace. Performance art reveals 20th century man’s need for ritual. The artist’s work through performance art can be linked to that of the ritualist, alchemist, priest and master of ceremonies and guide and explorer, of all the secret places normally hidden from view, which we need to know to truly inhabit a living space, both interior and exterior.” (A Unique partnership-Richard Demarco / Joseph Beuys, P70 Luath Press Limited, Edinburgh2016)

Tails (1962, Oil paint[Braunkreuz], graphite and felt AR00654 ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through the d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund 2008.) is a very potent expression of the artist, ritualist, alchemist, priest/ shaman and explorer, half human half animal, in the process of transformation, rendered in bloody, earthen pigment. The elongated scale of the figure gives it a monumental presence and the gestural marks have the feel of an act of worship written and illuminated on ancient cave walls. The oil based Braunkreuz paint Beuys often used in his drawings was in industrial/ domestic use in Germany at the time, it is also a play on words- translated as “brown cross” anchoring the earth bound pigment to faith, the floors/ foundations of people’s homes and to the world of the everyday. It is a powerful material anchor to what may seem a highly fantastical image. Another fibrous layer in this drawing is a sewn hole of felt heralding ritual rebirth which the figure appears to bow before. The Shaman’s Two Bags (1977, Graphite, crayon and ink on paper, AR00129, ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through the d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund 2008.)  is another example of the artist’s preoccupation with humankind’s interior and exterior life, above and below, uterine in form and crowned with antler.

Joseph BEUYS (1921–1986) Witches Spitting Fire, 1959,Graphite and oil paint on paper, 20.70 x 29.70 cm.ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008© DACS 2016.

Joseph BEUYS (1921–1986) Witches Spitting Fire, 1959,Graphite and oil paint on paper, 20.70 x 29.70 cm.ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008© DACS 2016.

Beuys’s treatment of the feminine in his work is extremely interesting as a manifestation of creative and destructive potential. In Witches Spitting Fire, (1959, Graphite and oil paint (Braunkreuz) on paper, AR00109, ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through the d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund 2008.) the squatting armless figures engulf the ground of the drawing in a frenzied dabbing of reddish, brown marks in stark contrast to their lithe, dellineated bodies. The energy of the drawing is intensely visceral; channelling a deeply instinctual and uncontainable drive. The female figures consume the space they inhabit with the associative pigmentation of blood, soil and excrement. The mystery of the female body is amplified by the male artist’s gaze in Pregnant Woman with Swan (1959, Oil paint and watercolour on paper AR00114, ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through the d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund 2008.) Here the swollen female figure in silhouette contains the ghostly masculine form of the child/ swan. The head is bowed limply in a Freudian twist; vulnerability held within the body of the Great Mother. The form echoes stone age Venus figures, the earliest depictions of fertile human body and imagination in clay.

Joseph BEUYS (1921–1986)Pregnant Woman with Swan, 1959, Oil paint and watercolour on paper, 27.60 x 21.30 cm. Permanent Collection: ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008.© DACS 2016.

Joseph BEUYS (1921–1986)Pregnant Woman with Swan, 1959, Oil paint and watercolour on paper, 27.60 x 21.30 cm. Permanent Collection: ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008.© DACS 2016.

A drawing such as this has universal resonances regardless of what has been written alongside it. There is a perception of Beuys, reflected in James Fox’s most recent programme; Who’s afraid of conceptual Art? screened earlier this week on BBC4, of being bafflingly abstract or (through the eyes of art historian Fox) allegorical. However I would argue that Beuys’s work is neither too obtuse to be accessible without written explanation, nor does it operate on a level of representation discernible only to scholars. Actions like 7000 Oaks (1982), where Beuys initiated the planting of 7000 oaks, each paired with a basalt stone in the city of Kassel, has spread to other cities around the world; a collective creative act of live sculptural installation, green politics and urban renewal. I think what Beuys was about expands exponentially when seen outside a typical gallery space. This was very much the intention behind Beuys’s first exhibition in the English speaking world; Strategy: Get Arts hosted by Richard Demarco at Edinburgh College of Art in 1970.

The underpinning conceit of Fox’s documentary was that audiences require explanation in order to understand conceptual art, or rather the ideas behind it. As I made my way through the ARTIST ROOMS exhibition a group of young art students came in; “You can draw anything as long as you explain what you’re doing!”, declared one of them, laughing and pointing to the text label beside one of Beuys’s drawings. The student and his three giggling companions exited quickly, their laughter following them down the stairs.  On one level I understand their response. For a group of immature, white middle class art students the urgency of having civilization as they knew it destroyed before their eyes wasn’t part of their life experience  and nor is it mine. Thankfully we have not been faced with the physical and psychological necessity of rebuilding life as we know it. In such a context Art isn’t a subject to be studied, it becomes an imperative; because in truth it is our only means of human reflection and survival, an idea that is articulated beautifully in Schitten (Sled) 1969 (Wooden sled, fat,, felt, belts, torch, No 47 in an edition of 50) . This piece derived from Beuys’s larger installation- The Pack (1969); a Volkswagen with 24 sledges flowing from the back of it like a team of huskies, each with a felt blanket, a lump of fat and a torch, has a curiously powerful human presence. Beuys commented; “In a state of emergency the Volkswagen bus is of limited usefulness, and more direct and primitive means must be taken to ensure survival.” Seeing this singular, editioned object of endurance and exploration displayed in a glass case has the effect of relegating it as a dead historical artefact, when in imaginative terms it is the creative key to human survival for the journey ahead; the sled to move across the wasteland we find ourselves in, the protective insulation of felt, the sustenance of fat, a torch to illuminate the path ahead and human warmth to transform the world around us. Although both exhibitions are text heavy there are other ways of presenting Beuys, as part of a wider discussion of where we’re all heading. The artist’s interests and concerns were wide ranging; art, mythology, anthropology, history, science, ecology, alchemy, Nature and all of these are combined in the gesamkunstwerk of his life’s work.

Beuys’s Pyramidales Bild (1979, Oil paint on printed paper, AR00687, ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through the d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund 2008) encapsulates his philosophy in its synthesis of ideas, beliefs and materials.  The pyramid is a multifaceted form in relation to Christianity, Theosophy and Steiner, but what is so interesting in this drawing is Beuys’s use of newspaper print and the way that the halo of fat bled into the paper defines and transforms our reading of the more rigid structure within. In this vertical diptych the geometric forms are almost architectural and the fold of the newsprint holds a sun-like apex of fat. These drawings resemble a built structure/ environment but also the human body. The feeling held in this drawing is the softened rigidity of form and feeling. There’s an emotive sense of spirituality and hope grounded in a real world of possibility. This is communicated not by an illustrative, narrative imagery, but by the combination of thought and raw, found, everyday materials which are reconfigured, crafted in an apex of human aspiration, continually striving towards light.

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/whatson/exhibitions/artist-rooms-joseph-beuys-a-language-of-drawing

Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude

The Courtauld Gallery, London. 23 October 2014- 18 January 2015.

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Featuring some of the “most radical and unflinching depictions of the naked human form in modern times” this current exhibition of thirty eight drawings and watercolours by Egon Schiele at the Courtauld Gallery is a fascinating, explicit and contentious show.

Turn of the century Vienna was an epicenter of societal collapse and cultural rebirth; the city of Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Gustav Klimt, Koloman Moser and Joseph Hoffman. New languages; musical, visual, architectural and psychoanalytical were being developed in a climate of traditional world order conservatism colliding with revolutionary Modernist ideas. Human sexuality, desire and morality were being examined as never before. Instinctual, unconscious drives as the central motivation for human behavior and as a wellspring of creativity demanded a new framework of philosophy, morality and aesthetics. The young artist Egon Schiele actively sought out his mentor Gustav Klimt, a founding member of the Vienna Secessionists and from 1910 began to develop his own response to this milieu.  Radical times provoked radical Art; for Schiele a new language of the human body that is no less challenging and confrontational today.

Although we like to tell ourselves that there are no taboos left to be broken in the contemporary world and that freedom of expression is a cornerstone of Western democracy, the prolific growth of the Dark Net as a repository of desire and fear in our technological age would seem to suggest otherwise. Moving around the exhibition I was conscious of the reverential space of the gallery and a certain lack of context around Schiele’s images.  That Egon Schiele was a gifted artist and draughtsman is indisputable, however his work casts up a host of ethical questions, not least of which is his depiction of underage female models and the doll-like passivity seen in many of his images of women. If he were alive today he’d be the subject of screaming tabloid headlines and now as in 1912, when he was arrested and served a two month sentence for “contravening public decency”, the man and his art would no doubt be attracting scrutiny from the authorities. There were times when viewing this exhibition that I started to question the artist’s justification for his work:

I still believe that the greatest painters painted the figure…I paint the light that emanates from all bodies. Erotic works of art are also sacred. Egon Schiele, 1911.

What is so fascinating about this exhibition is the way that it confronts the viewer head on with their own beliefs and assumptions about Art, the role of the artist, gender, sexuality, maternity, death and desire. Schiele’s drawings and watercolours of male and female models, including self-portraits, are beautiful and disturbing in equal measure.  Often explicitly raw, sitting on an uncomfortable edge between eroticism, Art and pornography, they also provide valuable insight into the human condition; our fears, desires and vulnerabilities.

Male Nude (1909, Watercolour, ink, pencil) presents the viewer with the back view of a male body concentrated on the torso turned away from the viewer, the face entirely hidden in a dark, flattened recess of the picture plane. The sitter’s hand is positioned over his shoulder as if cradling himself. It is an anti-heroic image of masculinity and humanity, a young but ravaged body, intensely vulnerable;  the antithesis of muscular, beauty seen  in the sculptures of Ancient Greece and defining ideal human form throughout the History of Western Art. Made in the year he dropped out of Vienna’s Academy of Fine Art Schiele visually smashes the plaster casts of antiquity, turning his back on the traditional framework of reference for the nude in Western Art and embracing the Zeitgeist of Fin de siècle Vienna.

Reclining Male Nude (1910, Watercolour and charcoal) presents the figure pushed to the top of the composition, cropped and perched aloft in negative space. As in many of these early works the choice of palette is expressive rather than naturalistic; the model’s flanks in orange and green, his feet defined in blue and purple. The placement of the figure, together with use of colour creates a psychological edge to the image and a pervading atmosphere of unease. Male Nude With Legs Spread, Back View (1910, Gouache, watercolour, pencil) pares the body down to raw flesh and visible vertebrae pushed through the skin, our attention drawn to the stark mortality of bare bone. In Male Nude (1910, Watercolour and charcoal) the green/grey emaciated body on flesh coloured ground is severe and impersonal, face cropped, extending the study beyond the individual to the fragility of all human life.

This idea is also explored in Sick Girl (1910, gouache and black chalk) a subject that extends back to Medieval Dance of Death images and the recurrent theme of Death and the Maiden in Austro-Germanic Art. The actual figure of Death is absent, however the expression in the child’s eyes, wells of all consuming blackness, leave the viewer in no doubt that she is waiting for death. Her naked body is reduced to lines that articulate the tension held in her angular shoulders, her hands raised expectantly over her mouth. It is a particularly disturbing image due to the way that Schiele adorns her pubic area with a halo of heightened white. Her nakedness immediately suggests innocence without this mark. The inference is that Death as the ultimate and final human experience is about to take her ,destroying life and innocence. The Norwegian Symbolist Edvard Munch who was a great influence on German Expressionism also explored the subject of the Sick Child, together with the psychological state of puberty and its attendant anxieties. Schiele’s Sick Girl hovers uneasily between innocence and experience, disease and death.

Schiele’s Mother and Child (Woman with Homunculus) (1910, Gouache, watercolour and pencil) is a highly ambiguous exploration of maternity and desire which subverts the traditional subject of Madonna and Child. The female figure is turned away from the viewer, her rump exposed, a  sideways glance to the client, black stockings and a crimson nipple suggestive of her trade. The child is twisted behind her back turning towards her as she is turning away, her attention focused on the male gaze beholding her. “Homunculus” meaning “small human being” or “little man” could apply to the child she is physically rejecting or ironically to the “little man” she perceives looking at her. Her gaze like the display of her body is both seductive and calculated. She is, over and above any maternal instinct, depicted as a sexual being.

Nude Pregnant Reclining Woman (1910, Gouache and black chalk) is another fascinating image of maternity and gender. Dr Erwin Von Graff a gynecologist at the Vienna University Women’s clinic granted permission for Schiele to draw pregnant women and newborns at the hospital. Here the artist depicts a heavily pregnant woman, legs parted, her coloration of her skin painted raw and her face a featureless mask as if her entire identity has been subsumed by the growth inside her belly. The positioning of the pregnant female body is unexpectedly exposed and intimately claustrophobic.

Schiele consistently challenged societal norms throughout his work. Seated Female Nude with Raised Arm (Gertrude Schiele) (1910, gouache, watercolour and black crayon) depicts the artist’s sister, her face shielded and turned away, torso exposed; a study of female form, every line beautifully poised in hues of green, pink and blue.  His portrait Sneering Woman (Gertrude Schiele) (1910, Gouache, watercolour and charcoal, white heightening) presents an image of sociability inverted by the hostility of his sister’s expression. The large fashionable hat that would have been worn in public is at odds with the intimacy of her bare breasts and body language; arms folded as a barrier, lips pursed and eyes narrowed to an aggressive sneer.

Squatting Female Nude (1910, Gouache, black chalk, white heightening) reduces the female body to a head and limbless torso reminiscent of ancient Venus figures, but with hands twisted uncomfortably behind the back and rouged nipples grounding the body as an earthly object of desire. Standing Nude in Red Jacket (1913, Gouache, watercolour and pencil) extends the erotic charge of colour further with the limbless torso framed by an open red jacket, red nipples and genitals. The economy of line in this drawing is extraordinary, however it is a beautiful sum of erogenous parts rather than a whole body, a self-possessed individual or an attempt to explore the complexities of female sexuality.

d1ccd554-c028-450a-bd39-b4f4ec365c9e-275x420 Woman with Black Stockings (1913)

Shiele’s portrait of his lover Wally Neuzil Woman with Black Stockings (1913, Gouache, watercolour and pencil) in spite of having freed limbs is no less passive, the model raising her skirt, lifeless and doll-like. Although this is a supremely balanced and highly skilled drawing, there is no vitality or erotic sense of the sacred present. None of Schiele’s self-justifying “light” emanates from her body. However well executed, it is merely an emotionally vacant image of a woman in sexual servitude of male desire.

Standing nude with stockingsStanding Nude with Stockings (1914)

In contrast Standing Nude with Stockings (1914, Gouache and black crayon) places the female figure at the centre of the composition; hand on her thigh, poised, angular and assured rather than submissively posed. Schiele’s lines are muscular and supremely elegant, displaying incredible fluency of draftsmanship and arguably a greater degree of equality between female model, male artist and the viewer. Another 1914 work Side View of a Semi –Nude  (Watercolour and pencil) displays a more monumental and semi abstract treatment of the body, the folds of fabric ,model’s exposed flesh and the curvature of her stockings rendered with care and precision. Like the adjacent work Friends (1914 Pencil and gouache) where the bodies of two women are melded together in a structural framework of lines Schiele achieves an enviably balanced composition. The two female figures command three quarters of the picture plane, without the psychological imbalance of being shoved into a high corner or severely cropped.

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Kneeling Nude with Raised Hand (1910)

The effect of the whole exhibition is much like Schiele’s Kneeling Nude With Raised Hand (Self Portrait) (1910, Black chalk and gouache) where the gaze is turned upon the self and the artist steps directly into the viewer’s foreground, hand raised to stop us in our tracks, his semi abstracted body in red, green and orange sensitively bleak and timelessly confrontational. Between 1910 and his death at the age of 28 from the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic Schiele created an intense and uncompromising body of work.  This first major UK museum exhibition devoted to his work for over twenty years and the ethical questions it raises about the role and responsibility of the artist, gender and sexuality are still strikingly relevant.

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