Siegfried Anzinger

Siegfried Anzinger has typically been grouped among the neo-Expressionists, but his recent retrospective suggested that he is as much an impressionist as an expressionist—that is, he seems as preoccupied with the conditions of light and atmosphere that inform the perception of an object as with his own subjective interpretation of it. Many of his ’90s paintings are in fact plein-aire pastoral scenes, implying a deliberately lyrical move away from the claustrophobic interiors of his epically anguished ’80s canvases. The works in the retrospective can be grouped according to the figures and objects they thematize, including human faces and bodies, animals, and carts. Despite his newfound lyricism, Anzinger is a master of the quick study that turns into a monumental image: a flash of gestures and drips will suddenly become a memorable rendering of a familiar reality, fraught with existential, even religious import. The works in the “Madonna” series, 1997, for example, not only demonstrate the range of his handling—he moves easily between the impulsive and the meditative, pulling out all the stops in between—but suggest the depths of his roots in tradition. They also reflect his personal struggle to find faith and hope in spite of the skepticism that seems built into his gesture.

There are precedents for Anzinger’s recent religiosity, or at least his exploration of traditional religious iconography, in earlier works such as Schutzmantelmadona and Der 6. Tag, both 1985; but in the artist’s most recent paintings, his concern with religious imagery seems to have become an obsession, as in Gott mit Löffel (God with ladle, 1998). This canvas, which depicts a scruffy peasant in a void, is reminiscent of Goya’s Quinta del Sordo image of a demented figure with a soup bowl and spoon. Many of Anzinger’s works seem to carry the irrationality of the “black paintings” to an expressionistic extreme, underlining a moment of dementia in creativity. This becomes explicit in a number of 1998 works—After Genesis, The Cat, Sigmund Freud, and Erschaffung eines Esels (Creation of a donkey)—all of which show a clumsy, godlike human figure, floating in space like one of Goya’s grotesque Fates, bringing an animal into being. Indeed, animals have all the presence and majesty in Anzinger’s paintings; humans tend to fade into absence, or become shadows of themselves (as in the various 1996 images of a figure referred to as “M.L.” with a lion or lions), when not becoming distorted monsters, as in certain early works.

Anzinger is a profoundly conservative painter, and there is a peculiar virtue in his conservativism. For all the urgency his gestures sometimes have and the macabre sexuality he can throw in our faces—as in Sugar Penis, 1984—he regards the object, however faded or forced it might seem, as indispensable and sacred. Can one read Anzinger’s religious sensibility as a postwar German response to the destructiveness of the Second World War and to the secular profaneness of the modern world? In a 1977 essay entitled “The Return of the Sacred?,” Daniel Bell pointed out that “the thread of culture—and religion—is memory,” and that memory at its most intense is a “space of wonder and awe” suggestive of the sacred. It is this intimate, auratic space, fraught with mystery yet limited to particular beings, that Anzinger tries to create in his ’90s works. He presents a welcome alternative to the terror and anguish carried to operatic excess in all-too-many neo-Expressionist works that saw the light of day during the ’80s.

Donald Kuspit