PRINT Summer 1992

Second Nature

Art is always realistic, because it tries to create . . . that which is foremost reality. Art is always idealistic, because all reality that art creates is a product of mind.
—Konrad Fiedler, On Judging Works of Visual Art, 1876

We meet them in almost every culture. As bringers of fire and water, as founders of law and order, as teachers of arts and crafts, and as inventors par excellence they are central figures in mythology. We call them “bringers of culture” and “divine tricksters”1 because they enjoy mediating between the gods and human beings. There’s Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods to give it to mankind; and Triptolemus, who, at the behest of Demeter, taught humans how to cultivate the soil; and Icarus, sent by Dionysus to teach the cultivation of the vine; and Palamides, who, it is said, brought us the art of writing. Not all was good, however, as the stories of the unfortunate Epimetheus and Pandora’s box well prove. Today these mythological “bringers of culture” are long defunct—and in their stead come the artists, the bringers of a new conceptual reality.

Which artists? A young realist painter like Michael Bach, for instance. For years, Bach has looked to such motifs as cityscapes or parks for his source of inspiration. His themes are thus based on the real—that is, the man-made environment, of which he takes innumerable photographs. But, using these images merely as a starting point, he sets out to recreate his documented vistas through the medium of painting, endowing his pictures with a novel set of formal and structural elements and eliminating all human beings from the scene. The gradations of color and light in such a painting as Schauspielhaus (Playhouse, 1985–86) present us with an austere, harmonious composition, in which the architectural forms, too, seem compressed, softened in shape and hue. The result is stunning. The cityscape suddenly seems to exist on two levels of perception: on the one hand, man-made reality is accepted as a fact, as something prefabricated and given, but on the other hand, reality has subjectively been refabricated as something highly dependent on the artist’s ideas about it. This second order of reality becomes less fact than fiction, more conceptual than concrete. It is more a subject of meditation than representation. It is, as Konrad Fiedler would have it, the glorious union of imitation and modification.

Or we might consider another young realist, Michael van Ofen, whose works—sea-, war-, and landscapes, as well as animal paintings—are all plagiarized from books. There is, therefore, an original, but, as with Bach, it only provides a starting point for his own endeavors. By this strategy, van Ofen makes strange images that would otherwise be familiar, using a reductive color scheme that boasts an almost mystical light: blue and white are the leading colors for the seascapes; red and white for the interior spaces; green for the animal paintings; and shades of brown and yellow for the military subject matter. Landscape vistas, such as Ohne Titel (Untitled, 1990), are painted in a nuanced brown and white. The moods conveyed by these paintings are varied, ranging from an almost romantic stillness when it comes to the landscapes, to the explosive eruptiveness of the seascapes, to the decidedly kitsch effect of a royal stag, or the unpleasant, trapped feeling one gets when confronted with an image of war.

What is also fascinating is the elusiveness of van Ofen’s painting style. It varies all the time, embracing a stringently linear brushstroke as well as a cool, nearly informal one. Up close, the collaboration between color and theme breaks down—the brushstrokes call themselves to our attention. In fact, one would say that color and theme defy each other. Recreation, creation, and deconstruction are enacted simultaneously; they are held in an equilibrium by the viewer, who must accept an active role as a conceptual coartist. He or she must accept an artform that, whatever vision of “reality” it might propose, finally exists only in the mind, independent of any physical entity.

Then there are Karin Kneffel, Andreas Schön, or Martin Honert, each of whom is producing cool, rational images, full of hidden meaning, reflections of a man-made community created according to deliberate plan. These artists are concerned with the poverty of social identity at the end of the 20th century, with barely objectifiable historical interconnections, with a refutation of the cultural skepticism of the ’80s. No, painting is not dead. Above all, in their work they reflect a view of the real that, at first glance, might seem regressive, if not nostalgic. For in terms of cultural history, both serene landscape and placid animal painting easily remind us of the well-known Rousseauean thesis that has all societal evil beginning with our emergence from the state of nature. Somewhere, one suspects, the spirit of a Freudian discontent with civilization, or cultural pessimism, is alive in the works of all these realist artists.

But such concerns matter little to the modern, demythologized “bringers of culture,” long since shaped by the mentality of the natural sciences. Such persons do not think or dream in mythological terms; they believe they have surpassed such symbolic references to reality. They do not believe in supernatural forces that might intervene in the course of nature and history. They are alone, and the world they create and experience stands at the center of their own cool, rational thoughts, explications, and actions. These beings are aware that primeval events like the receipt of fire, which once required mythological explanation, may be easily explained as human discoveries. They are aware that mankind disposes autonomously over life, nature, and history, and that, as a consequence, we are living in a “risk-taking society”2 at the expense of a nature that, in mythology alone, was once paradisiacally one with mankind.

The metaphysical restitution of nature may be urgent in the face of what we humans have done to the planet, but it is finally thinkable only in the form of an artificially created landscape. Landscape in this sense is already a product of art, comprehensible and accessible only as a man-made product. And the same holds true for many other phenomena as well, for instance fire. Kneffel, for example, who has become known for her “portraits” of animals, has very recently begun painting large-scale pictures of raging conflagrations (Feuer I, Feuer II, Feuer III, Feuer IV [Fire I, Fire II, Fire III, Fire IV, 1991]), while Honert is currently working on a fire sculpture that will be six to ten feet high. These representations of fire are enormously precise, seeming to spew flames, smoke, glowing embers, burning wood, ashes, and airborne ash. In Honert’s piece the effect is deliberately heightened by internal illumination of the sculpture. Fear of fire is addressed by neither Kneffel nor Honert. On the contrary, one feels a childlike temptation—and is in this sense restored to a “natural condition”—to stretch out one’s hand and touch the flame.

Kneffel’s and Honert’s works are fundamentally different from other fiery paintings of older or recent art history, for example 18th-century depictions of flame spewing volcanoes, or the fire paintings of such 20th-century masters as Max Ensor, Salvador Dalí, or René Magritte.3 Their work, by contrast, is much more direct in its effects, and is intentionally free of any symbolic force or significance. We have here no world conflagration, no apocalyptic fire; fire is no symbol for passion and intensity, no metaphysical signpost of hell or supernatural disaster. Rather these pieces coolly demonstrate that our awe of fire, as Gaston Bachelard asserts, is “a respect that has been taught; it is not a natural respect.”4

Life in the risk-taking society, in a world made entirely by human beings, defines the relationship to history of the demythologized bringer of culture, and the artist in particular, as an increasingly subjective one: “There can no longer be an objective historiography. . . . In place of history, stories are being written with growing subjectivity, lack of objectivity, indeed with scurrility, poetic license, and obscurity.”5 For an artist like Schön, who paints archaeological and other historically resonant sites from modern-day aerial photographs, mimesis is largely beside the point. Vezelay I and Vezelay II, both 1989, give us views of the verdant French countryside; they also represent the place where, in 1146, Bernard de Clairvaux preached the Second Crusade against the “infidel.” The landscape of Pyrgoi I, 1991, is a factual rendering of the foundations of the Greek city in Southern Italy where a notable battle of the Peloponnesian Wars was fought, surrounded by lush farmland and meadows. Pyrgoi II and Pyrgoi III, both 1991, are, however, fictional elaborations of the same archaeological site. Here Schön takes the found traces of an ancient civilization as the occasion to think through historically possible forms and to show the thought processes by which we invest these with meaning. The actual place, Pyrgoi, is therefore cited as a type continuously undergoing transformation through the subjective process of painting. It is not objectified in its “real” historical uniqueness, as perhaps would be possible using photographic means. The result of Schön’s practice is to render palpably the ambiguity of history itself, which is interpreted as subjective and in the process of becoming, as coming into being and then passing away, not as something empirical, unchanging, or resident in any artifact, site, or event.

In this kind of “conceptual realism” a connection is opened up between the no longer objectifiable reality of history, on the one hand, and the subjective reality of the landscape created by the artist, on the other, which the viewer must work to reconcile. Looking at Schön’s images, we ourselves channel them back into reality, imparting to them a second order of the real. Real things thus continuously find in us their conceptual counterpart. This is the fundamental presupposition. For in pointing to the relationship between objects and the artist’s subjectivity, paintings of the supposedly real world touch on the potential of the man-made physical and mental environment, whose sole form-giving precondition is mankind itself: history, finally, can only be materialized in the mind.

The work done by all these young artists would seem to reflect the inspiration of concepts developed in Germany in the ’60s and ’70s by Hans-Peter Feldmann and Gerhard Richter. Like Feldmann, Kneffel, van Ofen, Honert, and Bach are interested in the collective accessibility of images and objects from the world of trivial, popular, and everyday life. But each is also concerned with “experimenting with what to do with painting, how I can paint today, and above all what. Or to put it differently: the ceaseless attempt to get a grasp on what’s going on,” as Richter said in 1984.6 What is different is the kernel of anthropocentrism that lies at the heart of the conceptual realism of the ’80s and ’90s.

It is not that the human per se takes center stage in this work, although, to be sure, Honert often depicts human beings (Kinderkreuzzug [Children’s crusade, 1985-87]; Messdiener [Altar boys, 1988–89]; Schwimmer [Swimmers, 1985]), and these in a decidedly cool style that strives, in material terms, for concrete objectivity. In Schön’s and Kneffel’s work, in fact, there is no direct reference to the human: Schön’s landscapes are unpopulated, and Kneffel’s animals inhabit empty fields.

What is anthropocentric about the work of these artists is articulated more at a conceptual level expressed in terms of the artist’s subjective reliance on his or her chosen medium. In the mirror of reality created by Schön or Honert or Kneffel or van Ofen or Bach, as sited in the artwork itself, one recognizes the traces and structures of human activity or intervention. One may say, then, that what these artists practice is an “inverted” realism, a realism projected onto the individual artwork by the viewer. It may be a question, as with Schön, of a critical or skeptical attitude toward the historical traces left in the man-made cultural landscape; it may concern the unmediated force of the collectively shared images that bind the community of artists born in the same decade as Honert; or it may, as with Kneffel, be a matter of the painting-as-construction, in which the individual image of the animal corresponds to the planned development of domesticated species, or in which fire appears as a “social” rather than a “natural element”7 and yet remains something self-contained. In any event, in this version of realism, Homo pictor, the “image bringer” or “creator of images,” with his profound dream-inspired rather than scientific insight, becomes one with Homo faber,8 whose works he studies, comprehends, and explains—very critically, sometimes nostalgically, always honestly, and, above all, realistically.

Norbert Messier is a free-lance writer who lives in Cologne.


1. Carl Gustav Jung, “On the Psychology of the Trickster Figure.” in The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology. ed. Paul Raclin, New York: Greenwood Press, 1956, p. 195.

2. Ulrich Beck, “Auf dem Weg in die industrielle Risikogesellschaft?,” in Aufbruch in die Neunziger: Ideen, Entwicklungen, Perspektiven der achtziger Jahre, ed. Christian W. Thomsen, Cologne: Dumont Buchverlag, 1991, pp. 27–41.

3. Cf. “Das brennende Bild,” Kunstforum 87, January–February 1987, pp. 27–34.

4. Gaston Bachelard, The Psychoanalysis of Fire, 1938, trans. Alan C. M. Ross, Boston: Beacon Press, 1964, p. 10.

5. Christian W. Thomsen, “Aufbruch in der Neunziger,” Aufbruch in die Neunziger, p. 20.

6. Gerhard Richter, quoted in “Malerie, z.B. Landschaft,” Kunstforum 70, February 1984, p. 48.

7. Bachelard, p. 10.

8. Ibid., p. 55.