Walter Dahn

Rheinisches Landesmuseum

The atmosphere was dignified: color and black-and-white photographs by Walter Dahn were hung in the light-filled exhibition hall of the Rheinisches Landesmuseum. Dahn rejected the idea of a retrospective of his paintings, asking instead for an opportunity to show the main thrust of his work, both preceding his intensive concentration on painting and later paralleling it: namely, his concern with the meaning of the inundation of images supplied by the mass media.

Some of Dahn’s artistic concerns, obscured by the spontaneity of his painting process, appear more clearly in the photographic work in reference to which Klaus Honnef, the organizer of the exhibition, has spoken of a didactic, political impulse. The roots of the work, in which reflections on the media become critical social commentary lie in the ’70s. They have been filtered by recent developments in painting in general and by Dahn’s personal experiences as a painter in the ’80s. Although not unique to Dahn, another significant impulse is his obsession—especially in the photographic medium—with stylizing the inappropriate to the point that collisions of extremes set off sparks of rebellion. The size of conventional paintings, the photographs employ as motifs preexistent images from catalogues, newspapers, and books, as well as from Dahn’s own drawings and graphic works produced collectively with friends. Even when Dahn has photographed the object directly, there are still preexisting models of a sort. These “objects” are diverse: a photography-store window featuring a formal portrait of the current president of the German Federal Republic (Richard Von Weiszacker); “naive” stick-men drawings; and a triptych of a fallen boxer, a skeleton in a grave, and masked Nicaraguans.

Is this mere arbitrariness, or, in light of the endemic overexposure of image motifs in this age of mass communication, is it high-gloss cynicism? Even original images produced by artists emerge from an unconscious reservoir of extant motifs. It is all a question of selection—in photography no less than in other media—and, more importantly of the growing critical discourse generated within the stepped process of reproducing images, which in Dahn’s photographs signifies a deliberate, technically enhanced distancing. Incremental gridding and soft-focus drawing submerge the images’ contents in ambiguity Here, the banal presents itself as the monumental; the unsettling becomes comic; the horrifying, mythic; and the mythic dime-a-dozen. Motions and definitions are set aspin. In question is the reality of the image—whether a political, cultural, collective, or subjective one—from which the artist creates, spontaneously or calculatingly

The ceremonial distancing achieved in Dahn’s photographs produces a sense of shock (which in many of the paintings is diluted to a rather superficial irritation). In one 1985 photograph, the caption “The Spirit World” appears above a display case of ethnographic objects. The spirit world of the 20th century is a potpourri of conflicting images, the clarification of which could be an act of artistic conjuring. It is important to note that it is not the individual photograph that is provocative, least of all the photographs of drawings. What is subversive, rather, is the way Dahn undermines the certainty with which image, reality, image-reality and image-value are generally perceived through the incongruity and equivocal distancing of the images.

Annelie Pohlen

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.