'Chéri' and 'Voie de Fleurs, sans Pleurs', installation shot
Leporello 'Voie de Fleurs, sans Pleurs' details
The following text was commissioned by Manifesta in 2020
To take the wind out of your sails: my portrait of José Mujica is not, obviously, an artwork informed by political activism, but a talisman; a safeguard of qualities all of us should strive to achieve: unshakeable belief in civic responsibility and the perseverance of personal grace. But it is, above all, a portrait — a portrait of an activist politician meant to enrich my ever growing gallery of male beauty.
In portraiture, the fame or the notoriety or simply the exposure of the sitter - an implied physical presence - tends to obliterate the artist and her Frankensteinish skilfulness. Independent of size, portraiture can be monumentally chilling (Doge Leonardo Loredan by Giovanni Bellini), or palpitate with intimate immediacy, even after thousands of years (the mummy portraits of Fayum). We expect a portrait to be truthful and revealing because we believe in people’s faces to be guidelines through good and evil - only to find us often confronted with the mountain of lies, deceptions and flatteries, as summed up by the term Make-up. This cosmetic art form comes closest to portraiture by sculpting the face through light and shadow and using gradations of colour imperceptible to the untrained eye. Furthermore, the implicit connection between treachery and expertise truly contributes to its disrepute.
This disrepute notwithstanding, portraiture worthy of the name has, whatever its style, one thing in common: to achieve likeness and discard fuss. Meaning the artist steps back and, working against her own identitarian entanglements, becomes a true medium, an impersonator. The fatigue besetting the artist in this process has, to my knowledge, never been properly assessed, whereas an actor, because of becoming someone else, is, at least in Germany, for two hours after her performance on the stage, exempt from the rule of law.
Portraiture in general comprises a multitude of sub-genres, such as the self portrait, the dynastic portrait, the group portrait, the allegorical portrait, the pin-up, the promotional portrait, the propagandistic portrait, the caricature, the politically engaged portrait of the victims and perpetrators of social injustice and violence as well as liberators, official memorial portraiture, and last but not least the intimate portraits of empathy, love, friendship and beauty. Like everything else in life, these categories can, and do, sometimes overlap in astounding fashion. While some of them allow for a higher degree of artistic freedom, others are more restrictive, depending on their function within the social realm.
Since the social realm is constituted by the interlocking of the public and private spheres (politics and family) and both are almost exclusively dominated by our patriarchal traditions, it follows almost as a rule that the more powerful the sitter and the more representative of those traditions, the higher the insistence on “realism” will be, but only in ways which highlight the authority, respectability and virile dignity of the subject, up until the point where “realism” turns into an ossified and outrageous perversion of those qualities. In such cases the artist works under complete censorship and has become a fully absorbed state-artist, or if not, you really wouldn’t like to go into the back of her mind.
Official memorial portraiture was the starting point for my portrait of José Mujica; it was a daydream about a wished-for commission of, say, the Ministry of Culture and Education of Uruguay. This daydream was prompted by the artificial segregation and sterility suffered by the contemporary artist, and her implacable hostility towards the “divide and rule” manipulations of the art trade. If only you could earn your dough by immortalising an exemplary leader of a government without blame! But the fact that you can cherry-pick your leader, only because he drives around in a baby blue VW Bug and is smiling irresistibly and wants you, of all people, only because you, frustrated as you are, to portray him, is of course a delusion of grandeur. His unasked-for portrait might even be embarrassing to him, if you think about it - enemy of all forms of idolatry, if there ever was one!
Official memorial portraiture is traditionally realised through one of the three dominating technical disciplines - each of them replete with their own histories: sculpture, painting and photography. Their common characteristics are material presence and permanence, physical likeness, dignified restraint, and, in certain societies, ubiquity to the point of invisibility. Always depending on a commission, usually by some body politic or dynastic, these portraits are widely believed to lack the hallmark of true art: autonomy. They include notables from the military, the clergy, the world of industry, trade and politics, as well as esteemed representatives of culture and science; “…the godfathers and mothers of what we are taught to cherish - or to smash.” (Lukas Duwenhögger, Confluences, Picpus No. 13, 2014.)
The most costly examples are rendered in stone or bronze and often involve superb craftsmanship, regardless of artistic merit. Mostly displayed in public squares and parks, these sculptures attract no interest at all - except from pigeons. That has changed right now, but not for the first time and not for the same reasons and not in the same old places.
Meanwhile, paintings and photographs must be sheltered from the elements, thus becoming more remote and less easy to attack. Their lack of outdoor monumentality is compensated for by more or less conspicuous framing and display, above mantlepieces in great salons or behind the intimidating desks in the inner sanctums of finance and law, for example.
Since her totalitarian past has made Germany so averse to official memorial portraiture as to ban any form of figuration in public monuments altogether, I experienced the above-mentioned phenomenon of ever-present father-figures only after I came to live in a country called Istanbul. The likenesses of the nation’s founder, materialised in any conceivable way, are as inescapable as the air that you breathe, and therefore hardly perceptible any longer.
Deposing him is unthinkable.
I happened to live in Berlin when the monuments of communist fatherhood were slain, and anyone under the moon will remember the dismemberments of multiple Saddams.
Iconoclasm is mostly a hapless and violent form of censorship, underestimating the power of memory and creativity, as, for instance, in the defacement of religious imagery or the destruction of “degenerate” art under the Nazis; but the recent attacks on, and rethinking of public memorial portraiture, its tradition and function, have reminded us of how much blood is on the hands of certain dignitaries in whose benevolent shadow we might have unwittingly kissed, and made us conscious of the glaring absence of so many people who actually personify true dignity.
If we think about censorship we all too easily jump to the conclusion that it is a political tool for staying in power. But censorship starts with our birth, and the very instrument of our communication, language, leaves us forever in the dark about its ultimate vocation. Is it a means of oppression or of the struggle for freedom? This equivocational twilight, a pendulum swinging back and forth, is historically most familiar to the Jew and the Homosexual.
The undercurrents of censorship, public symbolism, its susceptibility to the tides of history, and finally the limitations and powerful personal transactions between artist and model intrinsic to the genre, can offer possibilities of investigation, elaboration and engagement with aspects of our lives which all too often get buried in the coffin of “representation.” The deceptive simplicity and directness of a portrait can thus come to represent not only the physical and even spiritual likeness of the sitter, but “…an insoluble mixture of political motifs and social elements - a mixture only poets can capture.” (Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951).
The very unusual overlap of official portraiture and the portrait of love has been brought about by the incomparable José.
Portrait of José Mujica , oil on canvas , in artist's frame , 45 x 29 cm , framed 59 x 43 cm , 2019 , private collection
The following text, by Manfred Hermes, was written for the catalogue of Documenta Kassel, 2007, where A Roman Holiday was shown alongside The Celestial Teapot
Roman Holiday features a group of bare, starkly lit utility buildings, embedded in dense vegetation, receding far into the background. The iconography of industrial buildings once inspired Bertholt Brecht to develop the idea that photographic depiction is no guarantee for realism. Although Roman Holiday is indeed based on a photograph the resulting picture seems to support Brecht’s thesis. What is for Duwenhögger a compeletely uncharacteristic absence of human figures only underscores the clandesting feel of these buildings. They can only be seen from an elevated outside position and their inner life remains hidden from view. In this way the painting shows that whenever something is depicted, something else is excluded. This exclusion puts the elevated position of the viewer into question, making inaccessibility the theme of the work. The title, taken from a 1953 American movie adds another layer of interpretation : the disappearing of traditional class boundaries.
Green houses are also labaratories or factories in which plants, but not only plants, are grown, cultivated and manipulated. Their purposes (profitability, usefulness, the production of normality) are irreconcilable with artistic practice as Duwenhögger understands it because they regulate things, produce clichés or smooth over differences. He counters this tendency, for example, with an individualised treatmentof the foliage that divides the surface into parts, be they windsweptor compact, polka-dot or cross-hatched, softly or sharply contoured. However, this is not so much about painterly effects but about symbolism. But heret he symbolic extravagance that comes to light needs images in order to manifest itself. In order for certain relationships to become apparent, the production of images becomes necessary.
A Roman Holiday, 1999, oil on canvas, 170 x 240 cm, private collection
Roman Holiday bettet eine Gruppe kahler, scharf beleuchteter Nutzbauten in eine dichte Vegetation, die sich weit in den Hintergrund erstreckt. Die Ikonografie des Industriebaus hat Bertolt Brecht um das Diktum bereichert, die fotografische Abbildung biete noch keine Gewähr für Realismus. Obwohl Roman Holiday auf ein Foto zurückgeht, scheint das Bild mit dieser These übereinzustimmen. So verstärkt etwa die für Duwenhögger völlig uncharakteristische Abwesenheit menschlicher Figuren den klandestinen Charakter der Gebäude. Sie können nur von erhöhter Position aus gesehen werden, und auch dann bleibt ihr Inneres verschlossen. Das ,, Auβerhalb” wird so ins Bild selbst verlegt (der Titel führt dann ein weiteres ein, die im gleichnamigen US-Film von 1953 durchgespielten Aufweichungen von Klassengrenzen).
Gewächshäuser sind hier auch Labors oder Fabriken, in denen nicht nur Hege, sondern Züchtungen und Zurichtungen (nicht nur von Pflanzen) vorgenommen werden. Deren Zwecke (Rentabilität, Nützlichkeit, Serienproduktion von Normalität) sind mit einer künstlerischen Praxis,wie Duwenhögger sie versteht, insofern unvereinbar, als sie die Dinge regulieren, Stereotype produzieren und Differenziertheit einebnen wollen. Dem begegnet er mit einer individualisierten Behandlung des Laubes, die die Bildfläche in zerzauste und kompakte, gepunktete oder schraffierte, weiche und scharf konturierte Teile zerlegt.
Die hier ausgestellten Arbeiten bilden nun eine kurze, signifikante Reihe. Mit dem Celestial Teapot (siehe S.240) teilt Roman Holiday das prägnante Weiβ, das Interesse am Industriebau und eine Abweisung des ästhetizistischen Pols. Hier tritt eine symbolische Extravaganz in Erscheinung, die Bilder dringend benötigen. Wenn es an Bildern fehlt, kann es vorkommen, dass Zusammenhänge nicht deutlich werden.
The Celestial Teapot and Roman Holiday, as shown in Documenta Kassel, 2007
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