Berlin (diary) – and painting – February 2015
Colour first: grey, of course, but not warm grey – bluish, blackish, Paynes grey with white, plenty of white and a touch of lemon yellow. Not that it’s dark, and on the days there was snow it was rather bright at times and there was a snowman, well formed, with a pipe for a mouth. (This is ironic … because the book I’ve been reading is about men wounded in the First World War. Facial wounds, guttering sounds coming from them – and pipes in their mouths so that they can feed or breathe). Berlin, at least Berlin in the winter, invites such thoughts. Particularly after visiting the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen – in the Berlin suburbs. About which I can say nothing.
But this is supposed to be about Berlin and painting. Only you can’t have painting without some sort of content. We’re supposed to be concerned with form and colour and shape and mark making, for god’s sake, not meaning. But does meaning include atmosphere? Does it include sense? Feeling?
Back to Berlin and snowmen. I’m not separating the parcels very well. The snowman; the colour of light in Vermeer’s painting of the girl with yellow sleeves looking out of the window and the sense of the light falling on the wall beside her – not uniform light, but pale, pale grey with some hint of yellow, and the touch of blackness shading. The more you look at that wall the more you know that he saw exactly, exactly where the light clustered and where the shadow of a curtain or something from outside the window affected the fall of the sun, because it must have been the sun, nothing else could have thrown such an intensity of brightness into the room.
More parcels: rain on the window of the bus mixing with the pale steel of the afternoon. The glitter of lights caught in the raindrops. the buildings’ solid walls; rebuildings. Everywhere here is rebuilt and rebuilt again, carrying with that rebuilding the weight of discipline and trouble. This doesn’t feel like a place with warmth and red light and firesides and laughing. All I can see is cold homeless men with their feet wrapped in plastic shuffling across Alexanderplatz.
Where’s the German economic miracle? In the yellow trams? The excellent underground? The S and the U systems? The working electronic signs on the bus stops?
Ok. Andreas Eriksson.
Today there were many, many galleries with lots of sorts of art: drawings, photos (small, grey, uniform, dull) and other photos, more exciting. Drapes of pale, transparent curtains of light and glass and reflections on large format prints with hints of colour – I remember two small purple/magenta markings – pillars? and otherwise grey (again) – but still, these were painterly photographs. Next door there were some truly horrible paintings (very detailed, super realist) of what seemed to be largely pink sex toys but may also have been brains – all in blood red and pink and crimson – space fantasy, comic influenced.
So, before these was Eriksson’s painting. In the office of one of the galleries – otherwise uninteresting (to me) bits on the floor – no memory of what they were – but through the window of the office as we went in there was this huge slab of a painting. Portrait shaped, but a landscape. an island, I think. Per Kirkeby influenced, Nordic, floating in some sort of sea, made up of land colours, subtle, well marked, stubbled, like wood in one place, then with a fall of twigs that was sort of stencilled and realistic, but in black and like a graphic drawing, only that had been interrupted by a blur of scored black paint. It was full of life and subtlety. And delightful to find.
Other paintings in a big gallery – Warhol – graphic, yes, also beautiful. The painting and the composition startlingly good because I hadn’t, stupidly, thought of Warhol that way. I hadn’t really thought of what a good bloody painter he was. Not only, like Brecht, an alienator, but putting painting to the service of alienation.
Rauschenberg – clumping, clamping on, bits and pieces of chairs and old kettles and stuff – but the point was that he was showing us that it could be done and then finishing with it so he’d said it all in that way and there is just no more to say – while in paint, oh yes, paint, there are just endless things to say – about all our human stuff. Because just round the corner from Rauschenberg there’s Twombly with his writing bits and his smears of green and blank white or just off white, slightly discoloured, canvas. And what he’s showing us is that you can paint a whole landscape and a pastoral idea with one sentence about some Virgilian shepherd, a few smears of dark green, a bit of pale salmon pink for the sky at morning (or night) and a blue streak for the water – and there it is, all done. I keep thinking of Beckett, how he forced us to start all over again because he’d got to the point where he’d said all that had to be said – in that way.
And then Kieffer – heavy grey (again) metal and dolls’ dresses. Is it painting? Possibly, possibly not. And Beuys – slabs of yellow tallow. Fine to look at, touchable, greasy, full of destruction and rescue.
Where does all this leave Berlin? And paint? And different sorts of art? Eriksson, for instance, makes sculptures and has a huge environmentalist agenda.
Today it was drawings and works on paper and just a few paintings. de Kooning – big, yellow swirls with some green and red. Mainly yellow. Full of life. His drawings pencil playing; big, soft grey messes. Baselitz. not sure if he’s anything much more than upside downness. But, but, from across the room the red and black does kind of work. Not sure how much. Maybe quite a lot – big white strip at the side gives it space and the scratchy scoring into the grey is, what? Good for the eye?
Didn’t take to the Sigmar Polke. Never do except for some pieces I saw in colour at the Tate exhibition. Can’t see what he’s up to and don’t much care. Maybe it’s only that the colour isn’t there. It isn’t there either in the huge Richter uniform grey painting which he’s done with a roller. and right beside that there are these wonderful little watercolours – so vivid and life giving.
Arnolf Rainer was a bit of a discovery. Black drawings on photos in a series about Van Gogh; black black paintings but little snatches of colour at the sides – drips falling across dusty ochrous yellow, and the black sprouting right onto the sides of the frame so that it looks as if it was thrown on after framing – probably was. And I liked some of the Neo Rauch bits and pieces in the works – though not all by any means. There was one section of a small drawing/painting which I thought of later when I went to the brush maker.
The brush maker was a Berliner who helped Jews. He was blind, set up a small factory for blind workers; and saved and harboured persecuted people. There was a back room, windowless, which is where a family lived in secret and came out to work at the factory during the day. They (the museum people) have scored the walls so that the paint is gone and we’re almost back to washed plaster with tinges of blue left over paint and scores of marks like Sol le Witt drawings.
And the effect is so simple and pure and restorative. Just pale colour, almost not there, but there all the same. Humanity making up for itself.