Joseph Lichy, March 2018
A tutor on my MA told me I should look at a certain painter. I said I didn’t like his work. The tutor replied that it wasn’t about ‘like’, the implication being that liking and disliking was an obstacle to understanding. It was a formative conversation even though it wouldn’t quite settle. In fact it wasn’t until Lonely Old Slogans, Daniel Richter’s 2017 show at Camden Arts Centre, that I saw how the tutor’s dismissal misses a trick, which is including attraction or repulsion in the conversation – but as a phenomenon, declaring it like Groucho Marx does in his telegram to the Friar’s Club of Beverley Hills: “PLEASE ACCEPT MY RESIGNATION. I DON’T WANT TO BELONG TO ANY CLUB THAT WILL ACCEPT PEOPLE LIKE ME AS A MEMBER”.
Being a Romantic involves undertaking a similar riddle which is what -for my purposes at least – Richter’s exhibition is all about. It’s there in the title Lonely Old Slogans. The lonelyartist is the Romantic artist, stuck in the groove, up to his or her eyeballs in shibboleth. Irony is the natural recourse, and right from near the beginningof the movement, Enlightenment critic Friedrich Schlegel mapped out Romanticism as oscillating between ‘enthusiasm and irony’. Somewhere along the line however, irony moved to sheepishness.Looking back, Lord Byron swimming the Bosphorus still falls within the original mapping, butwe can’t really be anything except sheepish about Byron’s contempt for capitalism – a contempt not because the proletariat were being exploited, but because capitalism was essentially un-aesthetic and run by ‘Jew Rothschild’. With its ideals of natural purity and the way it modelled itself after myth, it doesn’t take much to join the dots between Romanticism and Hitler. Difficult if you happen to be Jewish andRomantic. Then there’s the connection with the 80s New-Romantics, all louche-ness and Byronic frilly shirts – a fitting re-invention of a movement that itself re-invented the past as well as the dress of the past.
The people in Richter’s paintings are also dressed-up – not just in old clothes but fancyones. Bicorn Napoleon hats, harlequin clown suits and studded punk jackets. Various tropes from modernism and beyond are also tried on, mixed and matched and fused together. There’s also dark urbanity in the work: moody crowds in acidic washes gather in city centres and parks promising violence. However, like JMW Turner’s steam train hurtling through the mist with unnatural speed and force, Richter’s nightmarish visions don’t make the work less Romantic but more so. It also doesn’t appease the criticism that reduces current Romanticism to sentimentality, or – and this one hits home with respect to my own practice – ‘playing in the ruins of modernism’. In Richter’s work however and especially within his accompanying presentation on the Camden website, there’s a quality of candour and – dare I say it – humility which allows an opening up rather than solely a shouldering of that criticism, more of that honesty later.
It’s relevant that in the past Richter and myself both squatted houses, in London and Hamburg respectively. Friezecritic Jörg Heiser describes it as Richter’s ‘éducation sentimentale’and after all, protest squatting with all its strong ideologies and visual identities, is just about the most Romantic thing you can do, and has clearly had a bearing on Richter’s work. Squatting also shares with Romanticism its grievances with authority and forms of hierarchy: scientific reason over spiritual expansion for example, or late capitalism over an imagined alternative. This springs from an inner sensibilité(a term associated with the early Romantics), which can struggle with the notion of hierarchy even on a cognitive level. Because of this, there’s a feeling of equality between all imagery and things, and even of oneself with regard to other things and people. Why should a plinth be less important than the sculpture or indeed the people at the private view? This logic can make for locating and navigating subject matter of issue. It’s relevant for what Richter says in his presentation about his painting Tuanus:
‘So my idea was just to use that in lets say a very brutal or clumsy version and drag that through the century. It’s based on a very small photo in a left radical magazine from Frankfurt and it was made in a park, and it was a park where the bankers hung out for lunch time, and then the junkies squatted the park, and started hitting each other, and then the police started raids, and so the bankers would have their nice park back. What I was interested in because it was a very small photograph, was it seemed to have this weird sexual context – like hanging out at the park and meeting others to mate – cruising – yes cruising that is the word, it had this weird connection you know, because there is this like uniform-y bending over, submissive one interrogation thing, and then I just had lots of trouble painting it, because it was a very unknown territory, and I didn’t want it to be illustrative. The thing is, I wanted the painting to work as a painting, and I can’t really explain the difference between, well I could but it’s too short, between let’s say the information layer, and the way it is done, then how these two merge and produce something new, like the aesthetic mehrwert, which is the aesthetic surplus in English I think.’
The way Richter talks about themes – the narrative of bankers and squatters, weird sexual context and parks – gives them a satellite-like position in relationship to himself, and this raises the question of thematic central occupancy or a lack of one. There seems to be a void, which would be interesting if it was itself the subject matter or a defined approach but what’s problematic is that it seems undeclared. On the other hand what is declared and brought to the forefront of his practice is the motif or filter of ‘aesthetic surplus/mehrwert’.This is a motif because it’s used repeatedly, it’s a filter – especially in Tuanus– because it acts as a camouflage-like layer of mark-making and seems to function as proxy subject matter, like a distraction. Elsewhere though, distraction functions successfully as the explicit subject matter of the work. For example in the early abstract paintings, the lack of focal hierarchy allows a diffused and meandering gaze. In this way these paintings function in a similar way to the genre that they explore, which is the New York School of the 40s and 50s by way of hip-hop graffiti. Heiser writes of this early work that it’s problematic in its ‘…deliberate ugliness […] shapes and colours gripping each other in a headlock.’ For me though, the opposite’s true, for example in Der ewige Tagtraum der 3 IRREN vom Berg(1999), the acid marks and shapes are well held together with a uniform spread and a complex depth. There isa lot of trippy patterning in these works but that’s reflected in their New York School roots. Abstract Expressionist paintings were hung on the walls of psychoanalyst’s waiting room partly to get the clients in a reflective mood. Graffiti meanwhile, has always defended itself as a necessarily decorative addition to expanses of grey concrete.
Der ewige Tagtraum der 3 IRREN vom Berg, 1999
Richter’s landscapes with no figures such as Schatten der Hoffnung (Shadows of Hope) 2012, likewise function successfully, with similar mechanisms to the abstract paintings. The painter also makes landscapes which are inhabited however, and that’s where Mehrwerthas limitations. Richter explicitly references Romantics such as Turner, Caspar David Friedrich and Whistler, but for these painters the inhabitants of their landscapes are of the same register as the immediate vicinity – they’re part of the fabric of the whole. Meanwhile, when the figures of these painters are in a different register, it’s to draw attention to how incomparably sublime their environment is. In a sense, Richter’s panoramas which areinhabited don’t fall within the landscape genre at all, because all the beautifully executed topographical detail – the mehrwert– becomes something like background decoration, while the figures themselves have no inherent tension, they seem to function in a more compositional sense. Perhaps however, it’s to make a deferential joke about historical Romantic painting, or to illustrate a deliberate failure. And there’s nothing wrong with that except for the fact that Richter says he doesn’t want to illustrate.
Schatten der Hoffnung (Shadows of Hope), 2012
A flower in flames,2012
In fact, no one wants to illustrate, at least not painters – for us the word is a slur. Someone sometime said that illustration is a lesser art, and a fear of it has haunted painting ever since. This prejudice is partly chauvinism: illustration being considered passive and so less alpha, just a carriage to someone else’s driving content. Illustration doeshave a receptive element, but then receptiveness is ideal for bypassing the ego, or for being a conduit for subject matter, embodying it. In any case receptivity isn’t the same as describing or interpreting things, which, as Susan Sontag says in her essay Against Interpretation‘is to impoverish, to deplete the world – in order to set up a shadow world of ‘meanings’. This alludes to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave,which is perhaps the root of the fear of illustrating. Plato tells of a cave that’s also a prison, and on its walls the guards cast shadows of puppets that represent or ‘interpret’the world above, and that captivates and occupies the prisoners, subduing them. Squaring the writing of Sontag and Plato with Richter’s spoken presentation probably isn’t particularly generous considering the leeway we rightly grant the immediacy of speech, especially as English isn’t the painter’s first language. On the other hand interpretation does seem to be of key issue for Richter:
‘Like the guys in the orange boat which I painted 16 years ago. And when I painted it the aim was on one hand to have for sure the kind of infrared paranoid psychedelic view on the migrant. But the other was to pretend to myself that it was like One Thousand and One Nights, like a drifting floating carpet. Nowadays everyone sees this image as a refugee topic. When I painted it half the people saw it as a fairytale topic and I was happy with that. You can see how like images change their meaning while society changes. You have to trust the viewer. The viewers are the trust or the evidence if something works or not. I may also make mistakes in my own interpretations. You do things fifteen years ago when you had that and that thought. Ten years later you look at the work and you think I fooled myself. I fooled myself, it was never about that topic. I just used that in a Freudian slip way, and behind it is something else, something that has more to do with me. So it’s also like a learning process, what you do also teaches you about why you did it maybe.’
The shadow side to being empathic and open as to what the audience might require or know about painting is is that it leads to second-guessing – a form of interpretation based on assumption. I know this from experience.Richter says ‘You have to trust the viewer. The viewers are the trust or the evidence if something works or not’. Conversely, from the perspective of a viewer, I need to be able to trust the artist – the professional. Without which it’s difficult to agree to suspend disbelief. This agreement is important as it compliments Romantic earnestness – otherwise at risk of being proselytising and boring. This is tricky stuff, because the suspense of disbelief is in the realm of stage magic, the sort that famously never reveals its mechanisms. Earnestness meanwhile is all about uncovering essential truth, an unfashionable notion because it’s been debunked – or at least it feels like it has.
Richter hints at the knowingness of how gauche the notion of truth has become in the Camden show’s title and he goes on to talk about it in the accompanying presentation, of the ‘lonely guy’in his attic, painting and having an existential crisis. According to historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin, the Existentialism condition is the heir to the Romantic condition. Whichever title it’s given, its point of crisis is something we currently seem sheepish about that, perhaps because now there’s so much pressure to be productive. As Karl Ove Knausgård writes inA Man in Love, My Struggle: 2, crisis has become mainly a teenage concern
‘For who brooded over the meaningless of life anymore? Teenagers. They were the only ones who were preoccupied with existential issues, and as a result there was something puerile and immature about them, and hence it was doubly impossible for adults with their sense of propriety intact to deal with them. However, this is not so strange, for we never feel more strongly and passionately about life than in our teenage years, when we step into the world for the first time, as it were, and all our feelings are new feelings. So there they are, with their big ideas on small orbits, looking this way and that for an opportunity to launch them, as the pressure builds. And who is it they light upon sooner or later but Uncle Dostoevsky? Dostoevsky has become a teenager’s writer, the issue of nihilism a teenage issue. How this has come about is hard to say, but the result is at any rate that the whole of this vast question has been disregarded while at the same time all critical energy is directed to the left, where it is swallowed up in ideas of justice and equality, which of course are the very ones that legitimise and steer the development of our society and the abyss-less life we live within it.’
Just like squatting coming from a middle class background,‘Uncle’Dostoevsky’s The Idiotoffers a Romantic model that upends the absurdity of class-hierarchy whilst being conceivably absurd in itself. The protagonist of the novel is the regal Prince Myshkin who places himself at the disposal of all others, treating with complete equality the conniving, the downtrodden and the high-born. Whilst he is in some ways naïve, Myshkin doesn’t yield volition due to his naivety per se, instead it’s more to do with his excessive and reflexive empathy for others, and rather than transcending the violence and misery that surrounds him, he’s deeply troubled by it.
Though it’s extreme, the model that Dostoevskydescribescorrelates with Richter’s painting in the way its various themes seem to share equal footing with each other and how trust is placed in the interpretation of the viewer.
The other means of addressing inequality and hierarchies that Knausgård mentions is involvement with left-wing activism. This second model is more worldly – it has purpose and direction after all. As Knausgård points out however, politics has a diminished extent because of its concern with morality. This hinders the sense of expansiveness which is Romanticism’s particular home turf – actually a non sequitur because it’s such an un-earthly locale. In any case, as with the previous models Knausgård discusses, it’s a state I’m familiar with: disassociating from worldly affairs and drifting off indefinitely to a place where there’s no pain or inequality has more than once seemed an attractive prospect. Trying to make sense of this experience invites looking into anything at all which professes to have answers. The whole plethora of associations this carries – Eastern mysticism, the occult and all kinds of myth including that of the Nazis – is why figures including logician Bertrand Russell finds Romanticism so un-empirical and irksome.
Vexation goes right back. Isaiah Berlin talks of how, in the 18th century, there was outrage at the music of composers such as Christoph Willibald Gluck, their wordless sonatas divorced from the established stories of the world, were mere ‘sounds’. Berlin quotes critic and historian Jean-François Marmontel attacking Glock:
‘He has arrived, the mountebank from Bohemia, he has arrived, preceded by his reputation. Upon the ruins of a superb poem he makes Achilles and Agamemnon howl, he makes Queen Clytemnestra scream, he makes the indefatigable orchestra snore.’
The charge of disregarding myth or stories of experience to create something abstract, alongside the charge of co-opting myth – either for the pursuit of nazism or in a New Age sense, leaves interpretation of myth as the only acceptable option… acceptable but unfortunately still sheepish.
To admonish us floundering Romantics for being so complicated, it takes the stern delivery of Isaiah Berlin who quotes the German poet and mystic Novalis in his 1965 lecture The Roots of Romanticism:
‘When storms rage in the poet’s breast, and he is bewildered and confused, gibberish results.’ A poet must not wander idly all day in search of feelings and images. Certainly he must have these feelings and images, plainly he must allow these storms to rage for how indeed can he avoid it? – but then he must discipline them, then he must find the proper medium for their expression.’