Johannes Muggenthaler

Johannes Muggenthaler’s goal in this exhibition was to approach the cultural mentality of Munich a century ago. For the artist, this state of mind is best embodied by the painter Gabriel von Max. Muggenthaler chose von Max as representative of this particular mindset because of the older artist’s bent for spiritism and Darwinism. It is almost as if Muggenthaler were claiming to have an outsider position similar to von Max’s with regard to his contemporaries.

This exhibition honors von Max on one level by including his bizarre, enigmatic paintings almost casually among Muggenthaler’s own works. Anthropologischer Unterricht (Anthropology lesson, 1890) shows a monkey child and a monkey mother holding in her lap a doll-like little girl. In this work, the painter wants to sum up millions of years of human history as a model for further discussion of the mystery, the incomprehensibility of nature. On the other hand, the painting displays a poignant, almost sentimental touch. This element of sentimentality, this perilous tightrope walk between platitude and genuine feeling, between kitsch and beauty, has been haunting Muggenthaler for several years now. Here his interest in “threatened beauty” is evinced most sharply in the series “Abteilung des einfachen Herzens” (Department of the simple heart, 1988). The series consists of five objects, each of which is made up of a color photo and a shiny cloth with embroidered writing. The photos show young women in poses that are intensified by the presence of lyrical texts. For instance, the phrase Mit jemandem sprechen, der nicht anwesend ist (Talking to someone who isn’t there) appears next to a photo of a girl with long blonde hair, her eyes mournfully lowered, her left hand lightly touching her throat—against a background of cactuses. Muggenthaler uses symbols and gestures that characterize the depiction of women in salon painting.

Von Max likewise employed staged photographs as the basis of several works. Despite the obvious effort to emulate a bygone pictorial language, Muggenthaler brings the personal and authentic into his work, playing with irony and the deliberate provocation of the viewer. Thus, on a collection of prison uniforms, one finds the words Der Schlaf ist viele kleine Tode (Sleep is many tiny deaths). In a similar way, the artist combines text and readymade in Adieu, 1988. The title appears on a bullfighter’s red cloth, toward which a man’s bicycle is pointed, almost as a mock-up bull.

Muggenthaler always challenges notions of grandeur. His concept of a show is not a product of willful, post-Modern speculation. It is earnestly thought through, and the result is a contemporary yet fluent critique of rationalism as a component of modernity.

Justin Hoffmann

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.