Helmut Schweizer


Helmut Schweizer’s series “Französische Landschaften” (French landscapes, 1987–89), works that have been photographed, then overpainted, consists of two groups. These at first seem antipodal, especially since they were hung here in separate rooms. One group is lushly variegated, with hues that blur softly into one another or spread eruptively like protuberances, constantly revealing new motifs whose objective meanings are difficult to pinpoint. The overall format in this group is oblong. In the other group, the pictures are consistently vertical and uniformly toned, the color going from cold white to steel blue and then anthracite. Here, the subjects are both very readable and utterly alien; if they appeared to us in a nightmare, we would prefer to wake up very quickly. They have an almost magical symmetry that arrests the viewer’s wandering eye. These demons are not the kind that are handed down in myths and evoked in thousands of images. They are not the dragons or devils that Christian culture has always carried in its inscrutable depths. Rather, these alien creatures, presented on tinted photo-paper, are based on highly concrete things: they are views of French nuclear facilities, overlapping and reflected around the vertical pictorial axis. All these reactors, whose locations supply the picture titles (Creys, Chooz, St. Alban, etc.), are in landscapes marked by centuries of Western culture: the Loire, the Dordogne, Provence, Sainte-Victoire, etc. They are like personae, in the full Latin sense: masks that do not so much disguise as reveal. One of the largest of these works has a bull-like visage, evoking a pagan place of worship. The technoid coldness that they radiate seems appropriate to our present-day civilization.

The oblong works consist of photographs of French regions with motifs superimposed from The Apocalypse of Angers, a sequence of 14th-century tapestries. Schweizer seems especially fascinated by the letter Y, which recurs throughout these tapestries. The split letter symbolizes the fork in the road, where humanity has to choose between two possible routes. Elsewhere, the Rhône Valley is interwoven with an eye, as if the world were being viewed in the very last second before its destruction. The time and place of the two series making up the cycle cannot be specified. That which appears as an abysmal present in the series of reactors can ultimately be the final point of history as well: this presents a view of post-human history as a kind of everlasting paralysis. Thus, we see that the two series of pictures in the cycle are not at all opposite, but are simply different approaches to different aspects of the same subject.

Martin Hentschel

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.