Sigmar Polke

Galerie Chantal Crousel

In this exhibition Sigmar Polke commemorated the bicentennial of the French Revolution in his own distinctive manner. His testimony continues the lively interest that certain German intellectuals have always had in this event. Goethe, like many of the early Romantics, saw in the Revolution the realization of his dreams and hopes, even if the turn of events brought him disillusionment and disenchantment. Polke’s vision is, in this perspective, one of the most original ones. He doesn’t cover up the violent, even bloody, nature of this event, emphasizing that violence wasn’t merely a perverse effect of the Revolution, but a constitutive and fundamental part of it. Each of the nine canvases shown here refers to a bloody historic episode and was inspired by engravings that were popular at that time. Two pieces explicitly refer to July 14, 1789. In both cases Polke chooses to represent decapitated heads brandished on pikestaffs. One is prosaically titled Die Pikenschaft (Pikestaff, all works 1988), while the other is called Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité (Liberty, equality, fraternity).

Polke seems to be pointing out that it is at just such a terrible price that great humanist ideals have been bought. Undoubtedly emblematic of this paradox is the two-headed serpent in Les Quatre Saisons (The four seasons), which cuts off one of its own heads. Initial presents a gothic church with decapitated statues. The sacking and pillaging of sacred places is important to Polke’s ideas about art. For him, art is not a neutral site. Painting is really a field for battle and pillage: it is the sentient space par excellence of esthetic and extra-esthetic conflicts.

La famille royale (The royal family) is a more sarcastic piece. Polke was inspired here by an engraving which referred to the transferring of the king to the tower of the temple. A turkey, a sheep, and a ram caricature the members of the royal family. Kinderspiele (Children’s games) is undoubtedly the painting that most nakedly presents the cruel contradictions which run throughout the French Revolution. In a setting of luxuriant vegetation, two children play with a man’s decapitated head. The horror of the scene is not immediately apparent. Polke faces, but does not reconcile, the paradise of childhood with the savagery of History, utopia and terror, Rousseau and Robespierre.

Polke’s specifically pictorial experimentation takes a backseat here. In fact, it is the imaginative life of the French Revolution that is privileged. Polke has constructed a brilliant inventory of visual forms from this great event of the Modern era. The French Revolution proves an ideal vehicle for Polke’s demonstration of the moral imperative of the image and of painting.

Bernard Marcadé

Translated from the French by Hanna Hannah.