Gunter Brus

Galerie Jörg Stummer

When Günter Brus sets to work with his lead pencils and colored pencils, his soft pastels and oil pastels, he is a visionary drunk on images, striving to encompass no more and no less than the visible and invisible cosmos. His visions and deepest feelings pour out almost deliriously, solidifying into creatures and apparitions whose intensity derives from Brus’ unconditional commitment of self. These works on paper cover much thematic ground, for in Brus’ world the cosmic is mirrored in the everyday, the everyday in the cosmic; there is no distinction between high subjects and low. This does not mean, however, that opposites are neutralized into effective meaninglessness, but that the real theme here is the clefts and chasms that separate ideas and things, the spiritual and the corporeal. The exploration of these abysses enriches our understanding of the decay basic to this earth, enabling us to confront it constructively. Brus tells of the ceaseless human yearning for transcendence, and he does this as one who perceives the body as the “musculature of the soul.” For him, transcendence lies in extending one’s range of feeling to the limits of spiritual and bodily experience.

The roots of these images go back to Brus’ beginnings with the Wiener Aktionismus group in the mid ’60s. Having reached the boundaries of the bodily representation of sense phenomena—and, from some viewpoints, the boundaries of artistic freedom—he began to draw, indeed had to begin drawing if he wished to avoid moving from self-inflicted wounds to self-destruction. As it turns out, drawing hasn’t limited his expressive possibilities but extended them. What Brus could once think without being able to communicate physically he can now express with the utmost singleness of purpose. Now he has a space in which to create frightening but luxuriantly beautiful visions of human baseness issuing from the realm of the cascade of form and color spraying abominations as it falls. The viewer is confronted with an indecency that is deeply unsettling, but from which it is impossible to withdraw; the message penetrates like the Holy Ghost, or like a demon.

I don’t wish to claim Brus for theology here, but simply to illustrate the existential intensity of his work. His Schädelschreiromantik (screaming-skull romanticism) embraces traditions of both high and popular culture, each of which, if on a different esthetic level, deals with humanity’s deepest fears and hopes: birth and death, love and hate, salvation and damnation—in brief, the givens of earthly existence and the effort to conquer them. Along with such artists as Goya, Egon Schiele, Alfred Kubin, William Blake, and Philipp Otto Runge, Brus counts among his influences postcard sunsets and kitsch paintings of saints, Alpine romance novels, and writers like Edgar Allan Poe and Georg Trakl. His work is full of “the mad amid the beautiful,” as his much-beloved author Jean Paul once put it.

The part that writers play in this incomplete sketch of Brus’ antecedents reflects another aspect of his work, namely the poems which form a crucial part of it. His drawings always incorporate a more or less detailed title—a poetic chiffre or tonic note which carries on a remarkable dialogue with the visual content. There are also entire image-poems and illuminated books in which image and text join symbiotically. In essence, all Brus’ work is one long illustrated book—a world of flowers, fruits, and alpine constructions, a phantasmagoria populated who, in spite of everything, rise above the earth, above an abyss of swampland, destruction, and pain. Brus’ reflections of our world of cruelty set the heavens as the arena of this pandemonium; he shows us how closely horror and laughter coexist. This is not comfortable, but it is salutary.

Max Wechsler

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.