Dierk Schmidt

Galerie Ursula Walbröl

Dierk Schmidt is concerned with the possibilities of historical painting in the present day. In his recent exhibition “Hostages,” he established a network of historical associations with a recent occurrence: On October 19, 2001, a boat carrying 397 asylum seekers sank off the coast of Australia. The actual circumstances of the sinking were never fully clarified, but given Australia’s draconian refugee policies, people do seem to have become, as Schmidt has put it, “hostages between political and bureaucratic systems.” He draws a parallel between this event and a much older tragedy: On July 2, 1816, the Medusa, flagship of a French naval unit, ran aground in the vicinity of Cap Blanc with some four hundred passengers comprising both soldiers and settlers. The lifeboats were quickly taken by officers and important passengers, while the common soldiers, sailors, and settlers crowded onto an improvised raft that was supposed to be tugged by the lifeboats. When a storm arose, the hawser snapped; after twelve days, only fifteen of the 150 people on the raft were still alive. The French painter Théodore Géricault captured this moment in his monumental historical painting The Raft of the Medusa, 1818.

At the time, Géricault’s painting was hung high up and in very bad light in a room of the Louvre. In Schmidt’s painting of precisely this room, Louvre 2001/Salon Carré 1819, 2001–2002, he included next to the Géricault another significant historical painting, Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, 1830. He represented the Australian shipwreck with printouts of reports found on the Internet. Hung from the wall was a short quotation from Peter Weiss’s Aesthetik des Widerstands (The Aesthetics of Resistance [1983]) describing Géricault’s painting and posing the general question of how, if at all, art can be useful in political struggles.

Such questions are central to Schmidt’s work. Is a politically engaged mode of painting possible, and if so, how? Can art take on a political function? Schmidt attempts to find answers through a kind of painting that eschews illusionistic depiction of historical events and instead brings visual and textual references into dialogue. Instead of a singular image, he presents multiple related images with titles like Liberty, 2001–2002, Ruddock overboard, 2003 (Philip Ruddock is Australia’s immigration minister), Prime Minister John Howard speaking about the children overboard affair, 2002, Not a seascape, 2003, or Xenophob—Schiffsbruchszene, gewidmet 350 ertrunkenen Asylsuchenden im indischen Ozean (Xenophobic—Shipwreck scene, dedicated to 350 asylum seekers drowned in the Indian Ocean), 2001–2002, the central painting of the exhibition. Often painted on acrylic or PVC sheets rather than canvas, they are reminiscent of photocopies but at the same time look as if they were lit from behind. There is something sketchlike about the paintings: Details are only hinted at, and sections are blocked out and left white, as in Louvre 2001. Quotes and references are woven together with suggestions and omissions.

The question of painting’s potential political function remains difficult to answer. If we think of the display of Guernica at a UN press conference about the then impending Iraq war, it becomes clear that art can take on a symbolic role in politics even today. In contrast to Picasso, Schmidt employs no angry, emotional pictorial rhetoric. Any passionate identification with the historical event is thus hampered. In its place, Schmidt speaks to the necessity of minding the connections—and thus hits the bull’s-eye of political critique.

Sabine B. Vogel

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.