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[September 2006]

Rafael Without Hands


”The chauvinist middle class citizen is still thriving and was in no way exterminated when the Wall fell.” Thus notes the controversial German history painter, Jörg Immendorff, as I visit him in his large studio in Düsseldorf. Immendorff is still able to make his brushes see, hear and speak, despite his sickness onto death. And since he can now no longer move the brushes with his hands, he has invented a special technique for painting which, in addition to a PC, involves five hardworking assistants who are kept to their task by his sharp intellect and huge artistic ambitions.

In the 1970s Immendorff’s punky art was cult. His agitating, deeply personal, as well as odd paintings and installations were rounded by his experiences of the German underground settings. But at the same time he let his critical observations form part of a far wider narrative focusing on Germany’s schizophrenic partition in the post-war era. Through a remarkable formal language, subscribing to the simplified and signalling language of cartoons, he blew new life into the historical painting. The snow falls heavily in his cold war pictures from the 1970s and 1980s, where it is freezing so hard that the DDR becomes a tooth chattering ‘drrrr’, and the BRD a ‘brrrr’. Today Immendorf’s art has taken a completely new turn. In an innovative visual language he treats myths, art historical references, and perennial subjects such as love, longing and death.

With this exhibition at Galleri Bo Bjerggaard both types of work have been put into play, and together they generate a notable dialogue across the decades. Here we meet both the rebellious and ebullient young painter and the death-marked mature painter. The agitating social critic is present by way of his paper works from the 1970s, of which some constitute a prelude to the famous Café Deutschland series, whereas the mythological painter is represented through a number of oil paintings created in 2005 to 2006. But there is a leitmotif running through it all: Even today it is to Immendorff a question of being awake and of taking a stance, and thus he creates pictures both for our times and about our times. To him it has always been a question of distancing himself from the narrow confines of parochialism and of walking the plank. And hence also risking to flop. Immendorf still follows his country’s political developments closely, but today he no longer puts his art before the cart of a particular political ideology, “When I speak about politics and political quality in art, it is about the creative power as such, which is about that in human kind which fights against standstill and stagnation. This ability is fundamentally revolutionary and hence political, and so it is capable of countering authoritarian systems and despots who will always fear opportunities and see art as a dangerous virus that enables people to act for themselves and think in an anti-authoritarian way”, he explains.

In the autumn of 2005, Immendorff showed the exhibition ‘Male Lago’ at Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, the most important art event in Europe that year. It was remarkable, partly through its volume of several hundred paintings, sculptures and pieces of furniture, partly through the narrative power of the works, and finally by the striking installation-like set up: Immendorf had constructed an entire ‘Lidl Village’, a kind of oppositional Dadaist parallel society –an idea he got as a revolutionary academy student back in the 1960s at Joseph Beuys’ school of painting in Düsseldorf. ‘The Village’ consisted of eight bright red houses with terraces that could be climbed. Within they functioned as actual museums abounding with Immendorff’s narrative works, so rich in material. We saw examples of experimental action art of the 1960s, across his radical leftist probings of the 1970s, in addition to his fabulous and punky historical paintings from the late 1970s and 1980s – pictures that were to decisively influence the young, wild painters in Denmark – all the way to the more mythological and formal template paintings from the new millennium, born and sampled on the computer. Red foot paths connected the buildings that from above looked like a heart with ventricles and blood vessels.

The citizens of Berlin took to the exhibition, because it confronted them with a dark chapter in their contemporary history as filtered through an unorthodox mind. The opening did not pass quietly either: The then still incumbent Chancellor and personal friend of Immendorff, Gerhard Schröder, opened the exhibition from one of the red houses. A prodigal son was accepted, and with this atonement, the wounds of a divided Germany seemed to heal: Immendorff was for many years preoccupied with reuniting the then split Germany thorough his pictorial narratives; and since reality has followed suit, so to speak.
Immendorff started out as an enfant terrible of German art culminating in his expulsion in 1969 from the Art Academy of Düsseldorf, where he is ironically professor today. Thus the avant-garde ends up being part of the institution with friends at the highest level of government, if it can only muster staying power and a high artistic level. Over the years he has caused outrage time and again with his uninhibited life style, involving both drugs and many short-lived female acquaintances, which has given him a lot of press, also in the tabloids. Something rarely afforded visual artists who tend to be much less spectacular than for instance rock stars. But today his works enjoy appreciation in many layers of society.

The artist fights a battle with ALS – Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis – a terrible neurological disease with progressive chronic paralyses that however, as a wicked punishment, leave the intellect intact, so that there is full consciousness of one’s own slow death. In the course of my visit, Immendorff has to call for his oxygen machine as he runs out of breath. Yet he retains his courage to speak out and is full of optimism. He was married some years ago and today has a five-year-old daughter who fills him with love of life and gives him daily joy. He is amidst arranging a dinner party with the top artists and political elite of his country, he makes agreements for the loan of his works for an exhibition in a German art venue, and he regularly calls on one of his assistants to hold his cigarette and cup of tea. With his characteristic deep voice, he lets the words flow from his lips, as we look at the huge paintings that hang abundantly in his 2,000 square meter large studio in the middle of Düsselfdorf. In the stairway hang the very same posters that could be seen at the Danish Poster Museum in Aarhus this spring and summer. They testify to nearly five decades of touring exhibition activities from Kassel to China.
The paintings from this last decade contain a completely new visual alphabet, “My studio is like that of a druid. Here we make magic potions. I see myself as being central to the development of a wholly new painting, but like the druid Miraculix from the Asterix series, I do not freely give up my recipe”, smiles Immendorff. Figures recur from earlier works, and he borrows from old natural science books and from art history, as we see in this exhibition, and as is reproduced in the small catalogue booklet. This exhibition comprises elements from German renaissance art and the Romantic period. Often the ‘ground’ is marbled or filled with remnants and templates in the form of signs, figures, or things thrown in to create a tension at the surface. Immendorff’s experiments with the surface may be compared with Matisse in his old days, when he through the power of his assured sense of the simple and decorative energy of the image transformed his handicap into a new artistic victory: the paper cutting, which he produced from his sick bed. With Immendorff it is now an instance of a rare degree of dialogical pictures. Wonderful pictures that develop and shoot off from picture to picture. Like a composer he develops his score and places his notes, the templates, onto the surface. From canvas to canvas they are connected to new and different templates, and so new narratives arise. He makes use of his assistants’ arms instead of his own and conducts everything from his wheelchair. One bar at a time, from picture to picture. There is no preceding plan; all happens intuitively. The new paintings cohere aesthetically in all their complexity, especially by way of the amber colour for which Immendorff has a predilection. An amber halo or aura often surrounds his figures. Immendorff is in love with the amber colour. It is the highest form of abstraction. It has a potential as if it contained the rays of the sun itself. “Let a child hold the hand up against the sun, and it will immediately become orange amber, transparent, metaphysical”, says he.

Translated by Michael Münchow

From the exhibition catalogue to ‘Jörg Immendorff’, Gallery Bo Bjerggaard, Copenhagen, September-November 2006.