Magnus von Plessen

The name Magnus von Plessen often comes up in discussions of new painting from Berlin—but how many people have actually seen his paintings? They’ve yet to be exhibited in Berlin itself. In 2001 they were shown at the Neues Kunstmuseum Luzern; then, last winter/spring, there was a small exhibition at K21 Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen near Düsseldorf. Now his most recent paintings have been shown in Zurich—the first-ever gallery exhibition for this painter, which might be explained by the fact that his production is limited to just a few paintings a year.

Von Plessen’s earlier works were predominantly portraits derived from photographs; the same was true here, although two of the seven works on view were not portraits. The copying of mechanically produced originals has been a matter of course at least since Pop art, but von Plessen’s paintings raise new questions about the relationship between the photograph and its handpainted copy. In an interview published in the Düsseldorf catalogue, von Plessen recalls a moment in Joyce: As Stephen Dedalus looks out across the sea, his image of it is distorted by the memory of his mother dying, the green of the ocean becoming the color of her sputum. Through the green of the water, his mother returns his gaze. Thus von Plessen says that “what we see looks back at us,” quoting the art historian Georges Didi-Huberman but thereby aligning himself with feminist theorist of visuality Kaja Silverman, who, in her most recent book, World Spectators (2003), likewise speaks of the gaze of the image meeting that of the observer. She, too, insists that there is mutuality between the image and its observer, a mutuality that, if taken even further by way of certain precepts of phenomenology, makes us observers the true creators of reality: “Finally, it is we alone who determine whether the world will appear, and so Be, or languish in the darkness of non-Being. We bring things into the light by looking, in the strongest and most important sense of that word.” Von Plessen gives us a hint of the worlds that might be created if the relationship between the gaze of the observer and the gaze of what is seen were a mutual one—if the photograph ceased to be an object and became a kind of subject itself, one that could reflect images back to us.

Every observer who meets the gaze of what is seen is confronted anew with the question of space; for in this mutual gaze, perspective, with its hierarchically directed projection, loses its grip. How then should space be configured, and with it time and motion? Even in the portraits, the space von Plessen creates tends to move. It is no longer perspectival, but then what kind of space is it? These questions become even more urgent for von Plessen in his most recent paintings, Ohne Titel (Treppe) (Untitled [Stair]) and Ohne Titel (Dachboden) (Untitled [Attic]), both 2003, which are no longer portraiture—although the cluttered room into which the latter grants a peek does contain a human figure—but depictions of interiors. Photography rarely touches on such questions. But for us, the observers, these are new questions as well, as different as the space von Plessen allows us to glimpse. It shows us the distortions our perception can undergo, so long as we accept the gaze of the painting.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.