David Anfam – Waiting for the End

The grotesque body, as we have often stressed, is a body in the act of becoming.     – Mikhail Bakhtin

Walking through the historic galleries of many a major art museum – at random, say, the Alte Pinakothek in Munich or London’s National Gallery – the astute observer may notice a difference that is as much geographical as cultural. Indeed, once we are aware of it, the latter phenomenon looks almost wholly linked to the former. Simply stated, much of the art that originated north of the Alps from the late medieval period onwards feels altogether distinct in spirit from its tramontane, southern counterparts. One tends towards the ideal and to Classical canons of beauty and refinement that, as it were, help smooth over the blemishes of time and tide; the other inclines more in the direction of a harsh realism attended, sometimes, by fantastical elements. Put another way and more flippantly, Verdi contra Wagner, Proust versus Thomas Mann and pasta against sauerkraut.

Nor is this dichotomy any the less valid for courting a cliché. On the contrary, clichés can spring from deep impulses. Likewise, such ideas (in part related to burgeoning nationalisms during and after the Enlightenment) were initiated at least as long ago as Madame de Staël’s De l’Allemande (1810-13) and, closer to our time, with the art historian Wilhelm Worringer’s treatise Abstraction and Empathy (1908). Worringer proposed that in a benign or beautiful ambience human beings were more likely to identify with things around them (hence the clear, easily perceived lineaments of Classical and Renaissance art), whereas in difficult circumstances people retreated into themselves, with calmness and clarity giving way to excess, angst and abstraction (as in the so-called Dark Ages and, again, in certain moments of modernity). As Worringer wrote, “Whereas the precondition for the urge to empathy is a happy, pantheistic relationship of confidence between man and the phenomena of the external world, the urge to abstraction is the outcome of a great inner unrest inspired in man by the phenomena of the outside world…. We might describe this state as an immense spiritual dread of space.”1 Enter the art of Jonas Burgert – yet coming from an angle that, to his great credit, does not quite conform to any of the foregoing criteria.

On the one hand, Burgert’s immensely crowded panoramas do appear to echo Worringer’s concept of a horror vacui. To scan them is like rifling through the leaves of an encyclopedia devoted to some unknown subject, wherein one entry/item follows another with alarming pace but in no readily decipherable order.2 Thus, in Luft nach Schlag [x] a vast congeries – ranging from bells, mannequins and decorative cloth(e)s to graffiti, abandoned poles, stairways and rubble – surrounds a central businessman- like watcher, perhaps, one might imagine, a modern Spieβer? Whatever, he functions almost like a rubric, a personification of some letter of the alphabet that by rights ought to organize, to interleave, the chaos around him. Except that he does not: in fact, he makes everything seem more baffling. Consequently, his role is more akin to that of a latter-day Everyman, a descendant of the wayfarer in Albrecht Dürer’s Knight, Death and the Devil (1513), now immobilized by the surrounding errant world. This is a Nordic morality play without a plot, drama amid quiescence. Equally, Burgert’s art is saturated with what the art historian Hans Belting defines as an especially Germanic mood. According to Belting, “our Innerlichkeit, the introspective and brooding side of our [German] nature, has always been drawn to the spiritual/emotional aspect of art which – supposedly – is more fully satisfied by music and poetry than by the visual arts, whose image enters the eye in a predetermined form.”3 In this sense, Burgert’s stage is one attuned to an almost indefinable sense of expectation and apprehension – wherein the past haunts the present and the future apprehends it – a similar Stimmung to that found in the enigmatic paintings of a nineteenth-century Swiss predecessor, Arnold Böcklin.

On the other hand, Burgert defies the logic of realistic images in a way that places him in a far more up-to-date context. Poetically speaking, many of Burgert’s titles eschew commonplace meaning and are elusive/allusive rather than explanatory. When I asked the artist as to why, even with my modest command of the German language, I found these words hard to grasp, his disarming answer was that they are mostly untranslatable and even baffling in the original.4 Similarly, rather than assume Worringer’s loaded concept of “empathy/Einfühlung,” Burgert instead speaks of Empfindung, thereby opposing a cooler, more objective attitude lacking in overt emotionalism, kitsch and the like. Visually, too, there are the disorientating changes in scale between one part of a painting and another; the oft-remarked fact that his figures, hominoids and other protagonists almost never seem to make eye contact (or any other kind of emotive contact for that matter) with each other; and especially the idiosyncratic use of color. It is hard to think of another contemporary who manipulates color with a legerdemain comparable to Burgert.

In a tableau such as Stück/Hirn [x] we might almost be looking at the celebrated floor of Jackson Pollock’s studio in Springs, East Hampton, raised up – replete with spatters, splashes and runs of pigment – to become the background for a somber yet subtly impish actor/artist whose prosthetic hands, wildly extended by poles, ape the “hands” of a clock. It is almost as though this were Burgert’s transformation of Gustave Courbet’s The Artist’s Studio (1855) into a contemporary allegory of the process of painting and its myriad ingredients. One sees duration (the clock “hands”); a bright red bull’s eye target (distant shades of Jasper Johns?); some colors of the spectrum – respectively cool blue at left and warmer yellows and oranges at the center and upper right (memories of the color chart in Marcel Duchamp’s Tu’m [1918]?); ornament (the swags at upper right); tribal makeup (the small inset painting-within-a-painting, above center; geometry (the attenuated triangles on the floor and perfect circles on the wall); theology (the minuscule figure in the pose of a Crucifixion (upper left); and nature (the leaves and branch on the floor). Above all, it is hard to know whether we are beholding a scene of creation or ruination or, probably, both. The ubiquitous sub-text, so to speak, is that of the philosopher Walter Benjamin’s famous dictum: “Allegories are, in the realms of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things.”5 Elsewhere, a youth in Vertrauter [x], (not without the merest hint of Burgert’s own physiognomy), attends shallow bowls of pigment as though they were the artist’s soupy victuals. In Tarnt [x], a haunting frontal presence dissolves into a multi-hued motley that hovers somewhere between Robert and Sonia Delaunay’s Orphism and maybe a painterly abstraction from the 1970s by Willem de Kooning. Tremendous pictorial energy coexists with an aura of melancholia and stasis. Schutt und Futter [x] combines these contradictory elements in an explosion of vermilion, acid greens, purple, orange and other unlikely chromatic clashes. In a quintessential move, the image pulls away slightly from the white ground along its lower edges, suggesting that the whole phantasmagoria may be a kind of mirage.6 Are we in realms of phosphorescent decay, proto-psychedelia or a Pantone swatch book gone wild in an age of digitization? Or perhaps just a virtuoso display of what paint in its multiform dimensions can be and become? Burgert appears to take all sides and none. Given these paradoxes and conflicts, scant wonder that in discussion the artist voices a telling oxymoron: “beautiful trash.”

Almost at the center of Schutt und Futter stands a hallmark in Burgert’s iconography. It is a perfectly upright line, weighted and trued by something like an old-fashioned ship’s lead and suspended from a fishing rod held by a distant, deft figure in blue. If we have seen such a still center amid a mass of paraphernalia and other goings-on before, then it is perhaps the scales and protractor of Dürer’s Melencolia I (1514). For Burgert, this ruler – the double entendre is intentional – becomes the silent measure of all the unrest in the composition, a kind of unmoved mover. Poles fulfill an analogous function, at once extensions of their wielders’ human limits (a boon), prosthetic devices (indicative of a handicap) and structural motifs that strengthen the picture’s dynamics (another metaphor for stability in a world gone awry). Their almost exact antecedents are the poles (weaponry) brandished by the German mercenaries (landsknecht) depicted by such a Northern Renaissance artist as Urs Graf – whose figures were also the fashion icons of their day with their ornamentally “slashed” sleeves and legwear. Less clear-cut in their significance are the near-omnipresent ribbons. At one level, these strands enwrap the personages and, therefore, hold them together. From another standpoint, they bespeak Burgert’s interest in fashion. Fashion photographs, alongside diverse other postcards, cutouts and sundry miscellaneous fragments crowd the outlying, multitudinous walls of the artist’s studio. Why fashion? Because, dating back to the earliest anthropological urges of mankind to adorn itself for symbolic, tribal and other purposes down to our current, quotidian relationship with fashion as a marker of identity and status, it is skin that is our interface with reality. Literally conceived, clothes and their decorativeness are the ersatz “skins” that we display to the world (unsurprisingly, Burgert’s characters often are cloaked). Metaphorically understood, as the cultural historian Claudia Benthien has observed, skin is where out insides meet whatever lies withal.7 For instance, the patterning that covers the two players in Hellwild [x] represents their contending alterities to the normative eye of the spectator – the one a geometric checkerboard, the other a motley of floral arabesques. Stern order versus capriciousness.

In the haunting depictions of single females, their attire varies from the golds of autumn, as in schmiege [x] – a species of Flora caught in her cyclical changefulness from efflorescence to leaf fall and a counterpart to the verdant schliefe – to immer [x], where the black drapery of hair or a hat establishes a funereal mood. By comparison, Vieche [x] dissolves these apparitions into calm light, whereas Fänger [x] is a mix of anthropomorphic fetish and a monster child. At worst, these latter-day tronie – that is, resurrections of the seventeenth-century genre of portrait busts – dissolve into the nightmarish brush marks evident in scheucht [x], a terrifying death’s head suggestive of Burgert’s retort to Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893). This should remind us that Burgert’s ultimate subject is our own predicament – grasped emphatically from a post-World War Two-cum-Auschwitz perspective. Accordingly, Burgert speaks of the “deep devilishness” at the root of these events and questions whether we can sustain any spiritual beliefs after such evil and destruction. It is a very Nietzschean “death of God” Weltanschauung. Note, too, the gas mask almost disguised by the harlequin finery of the woman in Haltstand [x], the way this latter adornment starts to resemble bandages, the clothes that contain no wearers (at left in Falle [x]) and, above all, the jumbled piles of bodies. These bodies advert to the essence of Burgert’s vision.

At face value, it is tempting to compare Burgert’s packed, tumultuous scenes with those of Hieronymus Bosch and Peter Bruegel the Elder and, even more recently, the GDR artist Werner Tübke’s Early Bourgeois Revolution in Germany (1976-87). Certainly, Burgert takes from his Netherlandish predecessors the notion of the theatrum mundi. In short, a world that appears like a vast stage or amphitheater in which human activity present an absurd spectacle.8 In this scheme, the viewpoint is high and the horizon non-existent, as though we were plunged into an inescapable morass of anatomies, metamorphoses and other uncanny distortions of the natural order of things. Its apotheosis is BSL 54131 [x]. Here, the sole point of clarity, of stability amid chaos, is the severe black and white striped garb of the central female. It amounts to a supreme existential fashion statement, as it were, the human plumb line in a sea without fixed form or reason. Not for nothing does Lotsucht [x] summon thoughts of a Ship of Fools.

Yet the comparison with Bosch, Bruegel, Tübke and their ilk is, in the last analysis, altogether false. Their art conforms to beliefs in theology, history painting and analogous ideological conventions. Instead, Burgert rejects these anachronisms as well as various contemporary “isms”. His entire sensibility is keyed to the grotesque in the most profound sense: a mood in which what was once familiar and fathomable – color, architecture, faces (witness Immer Kopf [x]) and the human body itself – becomes constantly changeful and therefore, in a sense, regenerates itself.9 As the Russian semiotician Mikhail Bahktin theorized the crux of this mode, “the grotesque body, as we have often stressed, is a body in the act of becoming.”10 Unlike Bruegel’s famous set piece, too, Burgert’s oeuvre is not a triumph of death insofar as mortality appears constantly deferred. In sum, Burgert’s work is a dark carnival, albeit brightly pictured, in which multiform life seems to wait for an end that, by a twist of the human condition, forever remains at bay.

1 Wilhelm Worringer, transl. Michael Bullock, Abstraction and Empathy. A Contribution to the Psychology of Style (Chicago: Elephant, 1997), p.15.
2 A little akin to the philosopher Foucault’s concept of a “heterotopia.” See Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (New York: Vintage Books, 1971), passim.
3 Hans Belting, transl. Scott Kleager, The Germans and their Art. A Troublesome Relationship (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998), p.6.
4 These and other remarks are based on an extended discussion with Burgert in Berlin on December 4, 2016. I am most grateful to the artist for his time and insights.
5 Walter Benjamin, transl. John Osborne, The Origin of German Tragic Drama [written 1924-25], (London & New York: Verso, 1998), p.178.
6 By sheer coincidence, Philip Guston employed a similar device in his paintings of the 1960s.
7 Claudia Benthien, transl. Thomas Dunlap, Skin: On the Cultural Border Between Self and the World (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).
8 Walter S. Gibson, Bruegel (London: Thames and Hudson, 1977), p.77.
9 James Luther Adams and Wilson Yate, The Grotesque in Art and Literature: Theological Reflections (Grand Rapids, Michigan and Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Erdmans, 1997), p.17.
10 Mikhail Bakhtin, transl. Helen Iswolsky, Rabelais and his World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), p.317.

© Art Ex Ltd 2017