Albertina Museum, Vienna
3 September 2014 – 6 January 2015
by DARRAN ANDERSON
The portrait has always had the problem of the pose. The most interesting portraits are those that subvert the pretence of the sitter and the situation. This can be done through brutal and beautiful honesty, as evidenced in the work of Rembrandt, Lucian Freud and Jenny Saville, or by suggesting narratives (Vermeer) or symbolic clues (Jan van Eyck). It can be achieved through biting satirical mischief, as in the work of Otto Dix and Raoul Hausmann, or by showing the subjects in positions and scenes that no rational person would want to be publicly viewed in, as in Francis Bacon and Edvard Munch. The greatest icon-makers are often the secret iconoclasts.
As a portraitist, Arnulf Rainer might seem a vandal and it is something he tacitly admitted to in the past. Rather than simply deface though, at his best, Rainer refaces. He manipulates and extracts emotions and character from the sitter and the viewer through various techniques, most notably overpainting. The results reveal as much as they alter and what they ultimately reveal are the limitations, the vanishing points, of revelation. Critics may have noted that Rainer turned away from the Surrealist phantasms of his early work into more minimal expressive works, but his interests remain crucially consistent, even as the art changes. He portrays not just how death and madness, for example, might constrict us or expand us, but how they are us. This is an exhibition that impacts. If there is a conclusion, it is that there are no conclusions. It is this that disturbs as much as the mutilated forms. Yet a dark humour, benevolent or malevolent, is never far from the surface.
There is the distinct sense that Rainer is an artist not willingly contained. Most artists find a voice and stick to it for comfort or commerce, often at the expense of ingenuity, vitality or surprise. While Rainer’s works are identifiably “his”, they seem like detonations captured in premature time and uneasy stillness. These are relics from the unseen performance of their creation. Rainer inhabits forms, uniquely and enigmatically, and flares up wildly within their boundaries. They are left marked, sometimes almost to the point of destruction. Yet alongside this, there is the feeling that what is left behind has almost become sanctified, like an object invested with aura by the alterations of a witchdoctor. Nothing remains as it was before.
Death is less the elephant in the living room than the living room itself. It’s there in the death masks Rainer collected and “despoiled’”. It is there in the manipulated photographs of half-charred bodies from Hiroshima that he was sent and processed in his own fashion. It is there in the skull shapes seared on to the portraits of Van Gogh and Franz Xaver Messerschmidt’s gurning and grimacing character studies (the originals are exhibited in this same city). Madness is here, too, as it was periodically in the minds of those aforementioned artists. Yet these are still symbols, simulacrum, responses, and we must be careful not to mistake an art gallery for a mausoleum or a bedlam. Rainer is alive (the exhibition celebrates his 85th birthday). So, too, is his work; thrillingly so.
Humour, absurdity, violence and revulsion all play their parts, sometimes simultaneously, in the photographic portraits he has painted over as “Face Farces” and “Body Poses”. You realise what strange ludicrous creatures humans really are, and at the same time what magnificently malleable and complex beings. A figure might be vomiting blood and bile or childishly creating a waterspout from his mouth. Another seems to be sleeping in the manner of a brutalised corpse. Wreckage blooms in Rainer’s monochromes just as mysteriously as the actions, intentions and fates of his individuals. The energy occasionally comes from Rainer’s vibrant, violent colours and the skilled slashes of the brush, but also from these ambiguities. The view that he vandalises depictions of the past convinces only on a superficial level. If anything, his desecrations offer a skewed respect that the taxidermy of canonisation neglects. When a prone figure opens his mouth in a sexualised gasp or yawn, it seems both a tribute and a slight to the gilded ecstasies of his countryman Klimt. Rainer is nevertheless affording his predecessors infinitely more value than the gift shops and the replicators do. He is opening a dialogue, tearing open if you will, while most are engaged in bodysnatching.
Deftly spanning his life’s work, the exhibition excites and no doubt runs the risk of exhaustion for some. Many of the images are not easy viewing in subject matter, form or repetition, but, then again, who said art should be easy? Any fatigue or disgust we find is, in itself, an interesting development worth reflecting on. There are works of relative calm that edge towards the abstract, particularly his painted crosses. The connotations we have with the cruciform shape, the sheer attack of Rainer’s approach and the other-worlds of the paint and grain up close prevent them slipping into placidity. Ultimately, it might be realised that expression is both the symbol and the symbolised; an inarticulate howl of pain or laughter that cannot help but articulate. There is no escaping meaning and yet no meaning is entirely satisfactory.
We have few responses to the insane or the dead, and Rainer offers no facile questions or answers. In this, he does us and them (if there is a divide) a great service. How can we respond to images that are violent and absurd and funny and somewhat depraved, images that are both unflinchingly true and shamelessly contrived? We might commend them for their vitality, their terrible beauty, their many-sided complexity and incompleteness or their avoidance of sentimentality. A more honest appraisal would be to simply allow ourselves to be rendered speechless, an enactment of what they used to call awe. We might even refer to it as the sublime, even though it looks and sounds identical to the void. And that silent explosive mirroring is the dark heart of Rainer’s art. Long may it beat.
On the Trail of Wise Fools and Simpletons in the Himalayas
Those unfamiliar with Tantric Siddhas and Himalayan art, culture and religion may be surprised to learn that Himalayan history is filled with stories of spiritual beings who, it is said, attained enlightenment through highly unorthodox means. 'Holy Madness: Portraits of Tantric Siddhas', currently on view at New York's Rubin Museum of Art, presents more than 100 paintings, sculptures and photographs of Tantric Siddhas, produced during these figures' illustrious history.
In the darkest hour, there may be light: Works from Damien Hirst's murderme collection
A range of symbols spring to mind when thinking about death: the hooded figure wielding a sickle, the faceless boatman ferrying the souls of the dead across the River Styx, the watery existence ascribed to the souls in Hades' underworld and Purgatory - the quintessential departure lounge where Christian souls gather waiting to pass into eternal bliss.
Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution 1760-1830
The Royal Academy of Arts is currently hosting 'Citizens and Kings: Portraiture in the Age of Revolution'. However, despite the British Museum's own superb and scholarly comprehensive exhibition entitled 'Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century' (2003), there seems little evidence of deep scholarship here, building upon that masterly tour de force. Rather, this is (of course) an 'entertainment' (which it undoubtedly will prove to be for the broad mass of the Royal Academy's regular public). This is a shame, for the British Museum had unearthed a world of discovery, no less.
On Photography: A Tribute to Susan Sontag
Susan Sontag's passionate engagement with photography is the subject of a small but intriguing bit of curatorial ingenuity; a show that offers a handful of Sontag's potent statements on the medium illustrated with images that provide point and counterpoint to her ideas.
Vienna is a wonderful city at almost any time, but at present it is particularly inviting. In addition to its superb permanent collections, such as the Kunsthistorisches Museum, there are several temporary exhibitions of outstanding quality and interest.