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Manufactum on canvas: On the widespread success of figurative painting Niklas Maak

„Sergej Jensen“, Galerie Buchholz, New York, 2015, Installationsansicht

„Sergej Jensen“, Galerie Buchholz, New York, 2015, Installationsansicht

It’s hard to believe but it’s true: Even after a hundred years of radical criticism questioning painting’s status as the alleged epitome of autonomous bourgeois art, figures painted in oil continue to make the hearts of many collectors and art writers leap. Figurative painting from Germany in particular – preferably subsumed under the term “Leipzig School” – regularly circulates as a top seller at art fairs and is beloved by neoliberal politicians. Critical discourse only disturbs the image of the artist often associated with this work, tinkering about in solitude at a distance from civilization. How can this phenomenon be explained? In 2010, Niklas Maak searched for answers to this question for “Texte zur Kunst.” One trail led him to the Rhineland region. Today we are republishing Maak’s contribution to issue #77, “Painting Is Not the Issue,” offering a warm-up to our June issue on “Figuration.”

A notable auction took place at Christie’s in New York on November 10, 2009. Beforehand, Basquiat’s “Brother Sausage” was seen as the outstanding lot, but on that day it flopped, as did Warhol’s “Tunafish Disaster”. Instead, the most expensive sale was Peter Doig’s “Reflection (What does your soul look like)” – a figurative painting depicting a man’s reflection in a puddle – which went for a surprising US $10,162,500, including premiums, to an unnamed telephone bidder. At more than double the lowest estimate, the price was only slightly lower than Doig’s existing 2007 auction record. Even at times of crisis, it seems, figurative painting has no problems being placed in the market. Doig’s success is not a one-off. Far removed from critical discourses on painting (exemplified in Germany, for instance, by Sergej Jensen, Michael Krebber and Amelie von Wulffen), and untouched by the success of conceptual and institution-critical strategies in contemporary art, figurative painting has become a kind of separate artistic biosphere, one with flourishing commercial success and broad cultural impact. In fact, it might be described as a kind of Galapagos Syndrome – the persistence of a biotope which privileges criteria like “quality”, “personal style”, “flesh tones” or “painterly virtuosity”, unaffected by art-critical and art-historical debates on painting as a medium. The representatives of this Galapagos Art are fond of portraying themselves as inhabitants of isolated aesthetic islands, far from the mainland of hegemonic avantgardism. But in spite of this rhetorical gesture – itself ideological, of course – this art is not at all crankish, anachronistic or peripheral. Rather, the art and its propagandists intervene in contemporary discourse with anti-modern fervour. Moreover, at least in commercial terms, this painting stands at the very center of the modern world, a world to which it at first appears to be a sentimental counterfoil. In thinking about the success of figurative painting (or this figurative painting), we should distinguish between at least two phenomena: On the one hand, there is the work of artists like Peter Doig and Neo Rauch, and in its wake a kind of figurative painting very popular with newcomers to the art market, and more often seen in private contexts – living rooms, doctors’ consulting rooms and lawyers’ chambers – than in museums, Kunstvereine or biennials. On the other hand, there is the enduring success of the figurative work of artists like Baselitz, Lüpertz or Kiefer. These – like the late Jörg Immendorff – all began their careers with markedly political gestures, often vaguely oriented towards Fluxus, before a near-simultaneous volte-face brought them back to easel painting and to an essentialist iconography, ensuring their pronounced and enduring success in the market. But how does this painting function? In formal terms, Peter Doig’s paintings fall back on well-known, art-historically approved techniques: streaky, shimmering overlays of colour, like a distillation of Turner and Monet, combine with a systematic deluminescence of scenery and with a colour scheme – somewhere between Hodler and Gauguin – guaranteed to be described as “painterly”. A critique of this as simply an epigonal mélange is stalled, however, by the depiction of snowboarders and heavy trucks, which seems to firmly anchor the paintings in the contemporary world. In iconographic terms, this new figurative painting continues a key avoidance strategy of 19th century painting, a reaction to photography’s capacity to document the world – namely, painting’s flight into the fantastical and the prehistoric. In short: even the best photograph could not capture fairies or mammoths. Here figurative painting found a niche, one later successfully occupied by symbolism and surrealism. Both subgenres are well represented in the codes of contemporary figuration. A peculiar crouching white figure in a canoe brings a whiff of David Lynch into Doig’s river scene, enough to dispel accusations that it is merely a decorative landscape. The figurative painter is represented in the press with recycled clichés from 19th century myths of the Bohème. Without fail, press reports describe Neo Rauch as the lonely hermit of his Leipzig woolen-mill atelier, a location the painter himself describes as “... a place of concentration and inspiration”, adding that “... the best ideas grow on me here” – a comment probably not to be understood in a literal botanic sense. Der Spiegel celebrates Peter Doig as “the best and most expensive painter of his generation”, who “rather than servicing the art market’s avarice, withdrew to the Caribbean island of Trinidad” – as if the market could not be served from there too. Praising the painter as a “maverick”, the Süddeutsche Zeitung notes that he works “alone in his atelier” – as if this were some kind of unique selling point. Doig, it goes on, “withdraws from the populated world” into a seclusion from which he can paint the “ancient dream of open spaces”. Here we see more clearly where these myths of solitude are heading – towards essentialist ideologemes suggesting that anachronism leads “us” back to the “ancient dream”, on towards the sources of “our” collective conditio humana. The sublime, too, makes a reappearance as an aesthetic category. Doigs “grandiose landscape”, it is suggested, was inspired by the abstract expressionists’ unbounded compositions. The sublime in Doig’s image, it is claimed, lies in its appropriation of something of Barnett Newman’s “The sublime is now” (Süddeutsche Zeitung, December 12, 2008), or in the “magical power” of its “luminosity”, (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, September 20, 2008). The art critic Ben Lewis holds up Doig as a new Turner, a “virtuoso painter” whose influences are as “wide ranging as they are visionary”, whose motifs exhibit a “sense for the sublime”. It is striking how national history plays a significant role in post-war figurative painting – both Richter’s raf-cycle and Immendorff’s “Café Deutschland” could serve as key examples. But more recent painting also contributes to themes seen as “typically German”. The paintings themselves and their exegetes seem to seek out motifs of national identification; in doing so, they parallel recent statements by musicians, as when conductor Christian Thielemann professed himself capable of detecting “Germanness” – something “dark”, apparently – even in music from composers from an Austro-Hungarian background (FAZ, February 9, 2010). The new figurative painting is pervaded by fetishes appealing to the “collective experience” of a generation and of a geographically specific milieu, whether Tim Eitel’s vintage-wearing hipsters or Eberhard Havekost’s motor caravans. Neo Rauch’s recent work also uses motifs generally perceived as “German”, Rauch’s early work used light and airy colour to stage the collision of two separate figurative image systems: on the one hand socialist realism, on the other a pallid pop art. But in more recent work, this chromaticity gives way to darker tones, and an arsenal of local objects is introduced – throngs of mineworkers, tractor-drivers and farm animals among the slagheaps of Saxony, medieval turrets and gabled and half-timbered houses. Aside from this range of signifiers of national identification – unmatched elsewhere in art – a further factor in figurative painting’s market popularity is the bizarre relationship between its pleasing visuality and a darkly threatening content. Whether Nazis or colonial crimes, themes of historical barbarity have never had such a sheen of elegant over-exposure as in the paintings of Luc Tuymans. As Tuymans’ short entry in “Art Now” [1] once reassuringly pointed out: While his works might touch on weighty historical matters, “the specific horror of particular paintings” is reserved for their titles – “Gas Chamber”, etc. In short, you can hang this above the sofa and it won’t ruin the evening. The role of atmospheric accoutrement played by today’s figurative paintings is particularly important when they are seen in the context of private spaces. The owner of a Tim Eitel work once explained to me how the dark-grey painting exuded a “dreamy kind of mood”. This kind of art is perhaps best understood in terms of home improvement rather than as responding to any art-historical discourse. Of course, the figures represented in these images – standing in meadows or in museums – are also mirror images of their buyers, just as art collections in general are increasingly best understood as portraits of their owners. Genetically related to the luxury goods with which he made his millions, the works shown by Pinault in Venice have come to collectively resemble nothing so much as champagne packaging. For Pinchuk, Gursky’s large-format images offer artistic confirmation of, literally, the boss’s point of view – while Gursky’s early photographs (“Rhein” or “Montparnasse”) still occupied a “democratic”, egalitarian perspective, his Dubai and Formula One images are dominated by the oligarch’s authoritative standpoint. The photographer no longer observes from a public space; he takes his pictures from the VIP box, the executive suite or the private jet. The success of this kind of figuration fits with the rituals of the “new bourgeoisie”, whose posed self-image needs a certain contrapposto, and finds it in artists bringing the excessive and enigmatic into an overregulated everyday life. Die Welt celebrated Anselm Reyle as an “art-market star in a heavy-metal t-shirt”, quoting him as saying that “neon colours are like a jacked-up electric guitar”. Reyle thus vectors the underground appeal so valued by a conservative, dignified collector milieu when purchasing some expensive bohemian glitter for the home. Knowing that Neo Rauch listens to Danko Jones’s hard rock while painting, or that Daniel Richter was once into martial arts and the squatter scene only adds to the pleasure. Thanks to Richter’s large-format images, the art-buying classes can see the riot police from a demonstrator’s point of view. To purchase these images is to buy an option on a moment of wild and dangerous life. Happy the doctor who can talk his oh-so-shocked clientele through the Meese hanging in his waiting room, not forgetting to mention, of course, that he knows this Meese guy personally, he’s really crazy, a “total original” – leaving the patients as impressed as they would be, say, by tales of motor biking illegally through Iran and North Korea. Central to the aesthetic and commercial valuation of figurative painting, and to justifications of their astonishingly high prices, is the claim that the paintings possess – deep down – a clear-eyed analytic vision. Asserting this, a phalanx of interpreters and gallerists rummage in the bargain basement of culture-critical theory, finding enough material to cobble together a Gorgon’s head they wave energetically in the direction of doubters. Thus Tim Eitel does not paint quietistic, devitalised or decorative images, rather his art “reflects” – “critically”, of course – a society marked by ideological backlashes, devitalisation, cocooning, social segregation and a mania for home decoration. Similarly, it is claimed that Anselm Reyle does not naively serve the representational desires of the bourgeoisie, but reflects them. (Reyle’s “major talent”, claims the website of the Tübingen Kunsthalle, lies in “tracking down the taste consensus of the educated bourgeoisie and cheerfully pushing past its pain threshold”.) Thus a certain kind of painting is accepted as critically analyzing a malaise, when in fact it forms part of it, as if all there was to art was a making explicit of its own context, the context into which it is fed and in which it functions. The question of what this supposed critique actually achieves – other than adding a tinge of glamorous self-doubt to the decorative effect – is thus swept under a rich interpretative carpet. But even if we concede that figurative painting has something to tell “us” about something or other, what does its symbolism and formal language actually tell us? Some among the disparate set of current figurative painters might be seen as participants in an architectural-theoretical discourse about spatiality and form. But things become stranger when humans are added to the picture. When they are, recent German image-production can be seen more clearly as a battlefront of reactionary backlash. With Neo Rauch’s miners and tractor-drivers, posed awkwardly in front of storage barns, medieval towers and farmhouses, the question remains whether these are horror fantasies or a wish to flee urban civilization to a dark pre-modern rural world. But the next generation of painters are often openly reactionary, despite their hijacking of the vocabulary of emancipatory movements in art and architecture. The people seen in these paintings, in their futuristic housing and trendy clothes, might be compared to the pop-coloured, bright orange information stands of neo-liberal politicians – socio-aesthetic vampires who suck the blood of an optimistic 1960s aesthetic, adopting the costume of modernity to fight that era’s political achievements, whether political asylum, feminism or opposition to nuclear power. The repressive and reactionary character of the new figuralism comes in part from its jarring recourse, on a formal level, to pre-avant-garde criteria such as “brilliant craftsmanship”, “atmosphere”, “artistic signature”. Its position on gender is just as bad. In his 2005 painting “Feinkost” [Delicatessen], Ekkehard Tischendorf shows a woman’s legs, stomach and crotch under the motto “edible string”. In his “Wildtulpe”, [Wild Tulip] the breasts of the woman depicted are partly smudged away, as if someone had groped the image while the paint was still wet. Where women are not displayed as meat or as bizarre porno-chic sex objects (see also: Martin Eder’s strident porno-poodle fantasies), they are depicted as simply enduring or waiting. In Tim Eitel’s “Expectation” [Erwartung], for example, female figures lie around on flokati rugs, heads back, staring into empty space, waiting for things to happen, or just for things. Seen in this way, a certain kind of figurative painting truly is “salon art” in the worst sense of the term. In a specifically German context – the French situation is different – the success of new figurative art is unthinkable without the ideologemes of recent German art history. Here, historical narratives posit early 1960s figurative painting as a liberation from the escapism of the post-war informe, from the likes of K. O. Götz and E. W. Nay. There was, of course, something important and ground-breaking then about works like Kiefer’s “Besetzungen”, Immendorff’s action project “lidl”, Baselitz’s “Große Nacht im Eimer” [Big Night Down the Drain] and the young Lüpertz’s manifesto “Art which gets in the way“ [Kunst, die im Wege steht]. But new questions have to be asked of that 1960s generation. Why, along with the economic oil crisis, did this generation have its own artistic oil(s) crisis? How did a whole generation, strongly identified with social action, withdraw into an extraordinarily conventional kind of painting? Can it be traced back to Michael Werner, [2] the gallerist representing many of these artists and an exceptional salesman for their flatware (which sold better, in any case, than the scattered remnants of performances)? And how could a movement focussing strongly on individual experience make an essentialistic turn towards Man and the conditio humana, a subject on which Kiefer, by his own account, is fond of reflecting? Perhaps this little-explored moment – a moment when a generation broke with its origins and was depoliticised, with its major figures later to be ensconsced as painter-princes in castles (Baselitz) or palazzos (Kiefer) – holds an explanation for the current “figuration phenomenon”. This phenomenon is more than simply an interesting discourse on modern painting, it determines events in the market.

Translation: Brían Hanrahan


[1]Uta Grosenick, “Luc Tuymans”, in: Art Now, Cologne 2002, p. 512.
[2]Cf. Isabelle Graw, “Geld spielt eine Rolle. Über Marktbezüge und konzeptuelle Expression im Werk von A. R. Penck”, in: A. R. Penck, exh. cat., edited by Ingrid Pfeiffer and Max Hollein, Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt/M. 2007, pp. 126–141, here pp. 136–140.