Axel Kasseböhmer, Walchensee, Nr. 79, 2011, oil on canvas, 13 x 19 3/4".

Axel Kasseböhmer, Walchensee, Nr. 79, 2011, oil on canvas, 13 x 19 3/4".

Axel Kasseböhmer

Axel Kasseböhmer, Walchensee, Nr. 79, 2011, oil on canvas, 13 x 19 3/4".

Does it make sense to look for the best painting in a show that presents seemingly endless variations on the same motif? Axel Kasseböhmer’s exhibition “100 x Walchensee” showcased a hundred small oil paintings of waterside and mountain scenery, each 13 x 19 3/4". Although there are differences in imagery, color, texture, and atmosphere among them, all were created around the Alpine lake where the German painter Lovis Corinth worked in the 1920s and produced an important body of landscape paintings. Corinth, who owned a house on the lake, painted in all seasons and during all times of day, and this must have inspired Kasseböhmer to take on a similar challenge. His ensemble was presented as an installation on two facing walls, each showing fifty paintings in a regular grid.

Quite a few of the paintings depict the actual lake with mountains in the background. Others present a road, a field, or details of individual trees. And some, significantly, cannot fully be identified as landscapes, since they seem almost abstract. Such a rigorous stylistic exercise calls to mind Raymond Queneau’s Exercices de style, published in 1947, which describes a simple scene of a passenger entering a bus in ninety-nine different ways, with variations in vocabulary, perspective, and tone of voice. There is a crucial difference, however: In Queneau’s book, the scene itself is hardly important; the actual subject is the exercise, making clear to what extent style defines a story. In Kasseböhmer’s oeuvre, however, the landscape does have some intrinsic importance. Part of the work seems rooted in a Romantic interest in nature as a projection of the artist’s worldview. And this Romanticism is embedded in a larger perspective, escaping a particular time frame, through the variations in texture, ways of drawing, and choice of color.

Kasseböhmer demonstrates his technical virtuosity particularly by letting the paint act on itself. A great deal of chance and play is at work here, for instance when the dripping or scratching of paint becomes part of drawing the outlines of the landscape. The joy of painting is obvious in these works. Occasionally the painter even seems to get carried away by the endless possibilities, fetishizing his medium, or his own virtuosity. Yet in his experimentation with texture, layers of color, and the pleasures of process, he comes up with some great surprises—as in a work where drawing appears as a result of a comb going through a thick layer of paint. His palette, too, is very composed and precise, offering a partial antidote to his frenzied exploration of paint’s other material properties. So there are more and less successful works here. One of my candidates for best in show would be a blue landscape that impresses with its accurate and bright simplicity (Walchensee, Nr. 79, 2011).

However, the point here is the ensemble as a whole, for it is only through the whole that we can see the artist posing a serious painter’s problem: that of how to work within such a traditional and often practiced genre today without disqualifying yourself. Seriality is part of Kasseböhmer’s response, combined with nonironic attempts to capture nature in a work of art. The dynamics of looking through stylistic variations creates a delicate balance between landscape painting itself and a reflection on the history and validity of the painted image.

Jurriaan Benschop