Thursday, December 01, 2005

Bernhard Heisig: The Sound and Fury of Painting

(Click on the images for enlargement.)

Never has paint been so ear–splitting. His canvases rage. Banks of loud speakers turn up the decibels. Glaring brass tubas and coronets blare. Multiple red–lipped toothy mouths shout from table–top radios. Rifles gripped by steel–helmeted Wehrmacht aim at you. Flame bursts from the darkness. Terrified and terrorizing faces scream. Slogans shout from banners. The prostheses of veterans flail incoherently. A prone naked soldier with a toy tank on his chest grimaces and waves an Iron Cross. Marionettes and puppets shriek. Brueghel’s broken and hollowed–out Tower of Babel is there, its blank windows like the multitude of languages that prevent communication. Icarus screams as he plunges. Bosch’s phantasmagorias are updated in sound as well as haunting light. Cacophony assaults you, along with masks and naked flesh that are dumped in your face.

The paint is troweled on to the canvas; crusts of pigment make it more articulate. Helmets, gun muzzles, hooks and limbs seem to extrude from the surface. The acid pink, scarlet, bright citron and bitter absinthe–green screech. Nazi schwarz, weiss und rot insignia lurk under corpses. Both artist and his subjects cry out, he at them and us, they in their hysteria inflamed by leaders, entertainers, sports idols and hot metal flying unseen through the air. The effort to push sensation to its limits and synesthetically confound sight and sound are driven by an urgency to break through to viewers’ attention, to force us to come to grips with the reality we desperately try to evade by distractions.

In fact, the artist is trying both to draw our attention by all this noise and to undercut it by its excess. The cacophony, he hopes, will be self–canceling and help us hear the truth he has wrung from the clamor and violence. The multiplication of Babel’s languages will prevent work on the tower intended to assault heaven. The recklessness of Icarus flying too close to the sun will dash him to the ground.

Die Wut der Bilder (The Rage of Images) titles the retrospective of some 70 works of Bernhard Heisig, now 80 years old. The canvases have been brought together for an eight–month tour of Germany, beginning in Leipzig last May, thence to Düsseldorf, the cockpit of non–narrative painting, and now concluding in January at the Martin–Gropius–Bau, Berlin’s Municipal Museum. A previous retrospective traveled to West Germany in 1989–90 as the Wall was coming down, while the only showing of his work in the US was in a group exhibition at the same time that visited Harvard, UCLA and the University of Michigan. Heisig was not permitted by the US to accompany his work here. He participated in an earlier group show in England at Oxford in 1984.

His big works, some of them mural–scale, are intended to assault viewers and shock them out of their complacency, their refusal to recognize the reality in which they are complicit. The canvases are indictments of statism and militarism in general, in particular that of his country since Fredrick the Great and especially since the Nazis. Nor did he shrink from criticizing the East German Communist regime for which he was alternately its ornament and embarrassment.

His decades–long indictments are driven by guilt for his own acts and fury at his countrymen for their denial of theirs. At 17 he volunteered for the Nazi Waffen SS. He served in a panzer unit, driving a tank, fought in the Ardennes Forest on the Western front and defended his native Breslau in the East during a three–month siege and bombardment by the Russians. He blames the Germans as much as the Soviets for its destruction. He was seriously wounded several times and held in a Soviet prisoner camp. His mother, who had fled on foot across the battlefield during the attack, later visited her son before he was released. They returned to Breslau in 1946 to find it 70 percent destroyed and finally settled in Leipzig in what was then the German Democratic Republic (GDR).

Heisig–s painting is driven by his trying to live down his youthful folly and anger at his contemporaries for not taking responsibility for collaborating with the Nazis. He says that “a sense of guilt slowly came over me.” [Christina Tilmann and Michael Zajonz, Wut erhält mich am Leben, Tagesspiegel 10.21.05] Asked if he would have acted differently knowing what he does today, he replies, “I can only say that I didn’t know any better then. I did what I thought was my duty.” In a number of his canvases a figure holds a rag protesting that “I did my duty and no more than my neighbor.” A recently repainted mural displays the disclaimer: “Saw nothing /Heard nothing/ Did nothing.” Other works show wounded veterans who manicly persevere in their patriotism. Heisig has said that, “The only thing I can really paint well is anger.” [Hanno Rauterberg, “The Only Thing I Can Really Paint Well is Anger,” Die Zeit, 3.17.05, Trans. from the German on line http://print.signandsight.com]
***
Bernhard Heisig was born in 1925 in Breslau, the capital of then German Silesia, (now Polish Wroclaw), which until its conquest by Frederick the Great in the 18th century was Austrian and German-speaking. By World War II it had a population of 600,000, still mainly of German descent, most of whom fled or were killed.

The son of a painter, Heisig describes himself as “sort of a child genius” whom he says his father found almost impossible to teach. It was in his studio that he received his first training. [Rauterberg] The boy entered the College of Arts and Crafts in 1941. A lithograph crayon self–portrait of the following year shows his intensity and precociousness. In 1942 he signed up with the Waffen SS. After the war Leipzig in East Germany became his home for most of his career. For 12 years now he has lived in the small rural town of Strohdene in Brandenburg. In 1947 he joined the SED (Sozialistiche Einheitspartei Duetschlnds, Socialist German Unity Party), that ruled the GDR, and was later accused of being insufficiently enthusiastic about his membership. He insists that he was then and remains a socialist, though not entirely of the kind the GDR envisioned.

Although he sought admission to the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst in Leipzig, he could not gain entrance until 1948 and dropped out three years later because he would not succumb to official Socialist Realism, which was ironically dubbed “Socialist Idealism” because of its prescribed depiction of smiling workers devoted to their tractors and assembly lines. The authorities criticized him for his dour painting. The models he sought out were social dissidents: Bosch and Brueghel, Otto Dix, George Grosz and Max Beckman. He was also drawn to the painterly Lovis Corinth and Oskar Kokoshka.

Heisig’s early training had been in the graphic arts and book illustration, which he continued to practice and teach throughout his career, building a reputation. The current exhibition offers a selection of his lithographs, among these a series of Prisoners of the mid-1960s that show the incarcerated stripped and forced to stand against a rough wall of which they seem to become a part. From this period are lithographs that he did for Berthold Brecht’s Mother Courage, that show her and the soldiers of the wars of the 17th century reduced to predatory survival. He also illustrated Brecht’s Three Penny Opera, riffs from which appear in his oil canvases.

Before his cast of mind was apparent he was hired as a tutor at the Hochschule, then instructor and finally elected rector, because, he said, no one else wanted the position. During his tenure he did not shrink from criticizing the authorities for wanting to impose political orthodoxy on art. In 1964 in a public address he challenged them for their paternalistic restraints on artists, calling for an art that “makes waves, provokes, attacks.” He was relieved as rector but, recanting his indiscretion, was retained to teach. He shifted back and forth from compliance to resistance and underwent interrogation and re–education by the party in 1968, doing caricatures of the authorities between sessions. He finally resigned from teaching.

Between 1968 and 79 he could do an energetic but conventional portrait of Lenin and an ambiguous one of him humorously trying to convince a skeptical old peasant. He expresses his regret for not always standing up to the authorities, for instance, to defend demonstrators who were pulled out of a procession because of their banners, but he did help the opening of an unauthorized exhibition of artists in 1985. Finally he had enough and in 1989 shortly before the tearing down of the Wall, he handed back to the East German government prizes and medals it had awarded him. “It only became clear to me then what a “pile of shit the state was,”he says. [Rauterberg]

Among his earliest freelance work were lithographs of 1951–54 on the revolution of 1848 in Essen and the Paris Commune of 1871 when the populace briefly seized the government after the Prussian defeat of the French. For him this was a defining moment of socialism that was to become a continuing subject of his canvases. Receiving a prize for his illustrations to Brecht’s Mother Courage in 1965 at the Leipzig book art exhibition, he was exhibiting around the GDR the following year. When in 1973 he mounted the first comprehensive exhibit of his work in Leipzig and Dresden, he was becoming recognized in East Germany as one of its leading artists. He had been rehabilitated and was appointed chair for the federation of art educators in Leipzig and by 1974 in all East Germany. Two years later he returned to the Leipzig Hochschule as rector to remain until 1987.

The sequence of oil canvases on the Commune between 1962 and 72 reveals how his passion loosened his design and rendering. His painting is still tight in an earlier scene of working people and militia pausing in the street before resuming their battle. But oil studies of 1963 and 64 are painted with a violence that anticipates his mature style. His brushwork in a triptych a decade later matches the fury of the revolutionaries battling the Versailles and Prussian armies backed by a Prussian officer’s uniform propped up by a tailor’s rack, bankers and a bare–breasted dancing girl. In one side panel a communard stands by an ascendant Marianne, symbol of the French people, while in the other she expires among the despairing.

In another painting that also memorializes the Commune on its centenary, Heisig compresses his imagery in a single canvas, so that the scenes become less narrative and more a montage of symbols. Shoved together are the open coffins of the communards, one still firing at the troops of Versailles, a financier with a turned–down collar and tie holding up a puppet of Napoleon III with horns as scapegoat. The dramatis personae fast–forward to troops of both World Wars, a bank of loudspeakers, a table radio and Heisig himself in the foreground in animated speech.

Already in 1964 he did Soldier’s Nightmare, which was to become the first of a series that extended into the next 17 years with titles like The Nightmare of an Ignorant Soldier. Each shows an anguished trooper, his body in various stages of undress, suspended prone above the mayhem with a toy tank on his stomach, who desperately holds up his Iron Cross and ribbon. Heisig replays obsessively his horror of battle and painfully dawning recognition of the dementia of war. In one version in a lower corner his mother is screaming at her son’s plight. The title of the 1981 culmination of the series that shows the soldier entirely stripped, is simply The Battle of the Ardennes, but the struggle depicted is in himself, still fighting to preserve a remnant of his patriotism and pride. One of his paintings of Icarus plunging naked to the ground is clearly a self–portrait and reverse image of his nightmare with toy tank and Iron Cross. Behind him is the Tower of Babel, another effort to defy human limits. Heisig was to come back to both repeatedly in other works.

The turning point of his style from realistic history painting to phantasmagoria is marked by Fortress Breslau—The City and Its Murderers of 1969. His characterization of the near total destruction of his native city, this is one of his typically ironic titles. The Nazi decision to defend it had turned it into a fortress and invited its demolition. The suspension bridge across the Oder, that curves placidly and broadens out from the opposite direction, is like a cornucopia that pours out its bitter fruit: a snaking tram stalled by the fighting crowded into the foreground. Wehrmacht soldiers reel from bullets while one soldier closest to us in a lower corner, continues to fire his machine gun. Another, still helmeted, is strung up by the neck with a caption attached: “I made a pact with the Bolshevik,” in fact to join in the destruction of the city and himself by continuing to resist for three months. Parallel to him but upside down, the nude body of a young woman, her lip–sticked mouth and teeth gaping, is trussed up by her feet above a steel–framed bed (analogous to the bridge) and just showing beneath her, a Nazi flag.

In a version of ten years later, this scene is the center of a triptych in which two nude dancers cavort against a banner whose swastika arms look like theirs and a huge black spider. On the opposite side a veteran holds up an Iron Cross while his other arm has been replaced by a hooked prosthesis. The portrait of a spiked helmeted relative hangs on the wall and the pendulum of a grandfather clock swings, as history repeats itself. The Breslau bridge was to haunt many of Heisig’s images, suggesting that the needless destruction of his native city where he grew up was a transforming experience for him.

Meanwhile Heisig followed the aging of his mother, Hildegard, in a sequence of moving portraits from at least 1966 to her death 12 years later. They show her as a small woman but tough, reflective but independent, gradually losing weight and becoming bent but at the end sitting upright, casting a sidelong glance at her son with a tentative smile. Two years earlier she seemed the survivor as the iconic bridge of Breslau and her city burn. Now she was in possession of herself. Through the succession of six portraits, the artist’s brush, which even in the first sweeps freely in bright hues, is increasingly replaced by palette knife and the tones darken, but his mother’s face remains bright. Her likeness appears in a number of his big montages of horror, a witness.

Heisig’s youngest son, Walter, also is a repeated subject, particularly after he appeared in his father’s studio one day in the uniform of the GDR, having been called up for service. Heisig rememberss that he was dumbstruck at the similarity of cut of his jacket to that of the old Wehrmacht, which he once wore. [Brochure of the Exhibition] He paints him in uniform but his face chalky, his mouth screaming, his arms out in front of him with two clenched fists. He seems both hysterical in a pose reminiscent of Hitler and terrified. Around him are the now familiar detritus of Heisig’s haunted attic: a prone soldier holding up his ribbon and Iron Cross, fragments of the Nazi banner, howling faces and a giant cosmic egg out of Bosch from which bursts an enlarged crustacean that suggests the technology of war.

During the late ’70s imagery alluding to Bosch and Brueghel appears, although their influence likely was implicit in Heisig’s earlier nightmarish landscapes crammed with human follies. Babel and Icarus, both used by Brueghel, are two versions of the effort to storm heaven, reaching for god-like power, applicable to all imperialisms. In News from the Tower of Babel (1977) a scantily dressed bunny girl pours her heart into a microphone as she sits on the canon of a tank naracistically blinded by her well–primped hair. A soccer player who balances a ball on his nose like a clown suggests the distraction of sports. Meanwhile Icarus screams while plummeting headfirst to earth.

Heisig’s studio became the setting for his phantasmagoria with his collection of stuffed dressmaker dummies, marionettes, puppets and masks that suggest manipulation by leaders and the misuse of art. Das Atelier of 1979 shows his studio crowded with a live nude model amid props, including a shiny tuba, jester’s cap and bells as well as a maquette of Babel. A prone stuffed dummy with its legs akimbo and a black hand grasping the air is being examined by a barely dressed young woman. Falling backwards, he recalls the artist’s naked image of himself and Icarus in other paintings. A helmeted soldier charges in with a rifle at the ready: Heisig was still struggling with his demons. Meanwhile his mother looks in from a grandfather’s clock. To provide even more immediacy, the artist’s hand with brush reaches in from the edge applying paint to the nude model’s thigh.

In The Persistence of Forgetfulness, also of 1977, a shouting veteran, who has only one limb intact with which he proudly holds up an Iron Cross, kicks up a wooden leg, as if goose–stepping had become automatic. His own wounding and the corpses of his comrades that sprawl beneath him make no difference, in fact steel him in his militarism. Meanwhile naked lovers embrace, and a jester in cap and bells thumps on his big tuba. Above a tumult of mouths a carnival banner is stretched by cables to read: “We Are Still Brothers and Sisters,” as if their heroics had made them so.

Christ Refuses Obedience is one of his most powerful paintings. In the second of a pair that he was doing between 1984 to 88, a bare–chested soldier with a dog-tag and a red wound in his side grimaces as he rips off the crown of thorns from his bleeding brow and pulls away from the cross. This is said to be a self–portrait. [Exhibition leaflet] The more traditional crucified Christ lies in the shadows. They are enveloped by grotesque human masks and a bullnecked storm trooper (or is he a Teutonic Hell’s Angel?) in the foreground and skeletal puppets at the side, recalling James Ensor’s Christ’s Entry into Brussels of 1888. One skeleton pulls a gag across the mouth of a man. A big banner suspended by cords reads: “Everyone So Wise, Judge,” while “Ja,Ja,Ja” are shouted for crucifixion by faceless mouths.

Heisig was led to examine the origins of German authoritarianism that took him first to the repression of the socialist-led revolution of 1848 against the Prussian monarchy. From his works on this the exhibition offers The First Civic Duty of 1977, that takes its title from the words of the counter–revolutionary general who proclaimed that “The first duty of citizens is order.” The canvas narrows in on the tumult with the rifles and bayonets of faceless soldiers over the sprawling corpse of a spike–helmeted officer while civilians rush forward and shout, one of them recognizable as Heisig vehmently points in accusation towards us.

The exploration of German history took Heisig back two centuries to Fredrick II, whom the artist presents as the progenitor of German militarism. A series since 1996 on the fighting kaiser display a mad violence that seems the more incongruous because of the decorative white knee britches, blue jackets and cocked hats of the troops that remind you of toy soldiers. Their orderly ranks that reach to the horizon are shattered as the first bullets take their toll. Faces howl in horror as their counterparts would continue to do in the centuries to follow. Fredrick holds the head of his close aide whose execution he ordered when he was exposed as homosexual. As Heisig pursued the subject of Frederick, his subject seems to age and become more crazed and the artist’s rendering more ragged.





During these same years Heisig did a number of smaller works on anti–Semitism. One, The Hunted of 1989, shows in the shadows a lonely white bearded old man with a yellow star on his coat grasping the railing carefully as he trudges up the stairs of what seems an apartment building. A bit of light catches his cheek and a larger spot the street seen through a window, suggesting his being forced to withdraw increasing from the world.

The title of another work, Two German Painters, done in 1992, is important because they are Jews, who as such were denied their citizenship by the Nazis. In the sunny background “Jew House” is scrawled on a building and two caskets are being borne through the street. The two artists are in the shadowed foreground. Felix Nussbaum with a yellow star on his coat holds up his identity card, as he appears in a self-portrait that became famous. He had successfully eluded the Nazis until just before liberation when he was captured, deported to Auschwitz and murdered. Behind him is Max Liebermann, the god–father of German modern art, who in 1898 led the Secession from the Berlin Association of Artists in a demand for artistic freedom. After World War I and the discrediting of anti-Semitism, which the Kaiser had formerly given license, Liebermann was selected head of the Prussian Academy. But the advent of Nazism brought back discrimination, and Liebermann died depressed in 1935. Heisig borrows from a well–known photo for his image of the bent old man with a poster of Hitler behind him.

Heisig summed up his view of the world and career in three murals. One of them, Men, War and Old Painter, dates from 2002–04. Near the center and larger than the other faces is Heisig himself, brush in hand, glancing sidelong at his entire repertoire of imagery, but in particular a woman, in a dark cloak (perhaps his deceased mother} flying off in a dark coat. She is connected by a pair of spurting arteries to a giant golden egg yoke or sun (the source of life?)These lifelines suggest that human blood is incendiary. She flies towards a burning apocalyptic Babel, as if this is the trajectory of life, from fire to fire. Near Heisig is his stock ironic image of a worker with the strip of cloth affirming that “I did my duty like my neighbor.” The rest is a city in flame and heap of heads, including von Hindenburg (German World War I commander who later as president invited Hitler to become chancellor) Hitler himself, Nussbaum, faceless Wehrmacht helmets aiming and shooting, a brass band, the Pope, women of high society and laughing populace. Dante’s Inferno burns in this world.

A yet larger work, composed of five panels, Yesterday and in Our Age, was begun in 1974 with revisions completed in 2005. It is an encyclopedic historical panorama and critique. It, too, is not so much a centralized composition as episodic, a montage of incidents, notables and themes familiar in Heisig. The central figure is hardly more prominent than the largest figures in the other panels. He is Heisig’s anti–hero, a worker in sleeveless undershirt who holds a piece of cloth with the broken message: “We only did our duty/No one is more guilty than his neighbor/No one is more cowardly than his neighbor/Doer of our duty.” Next to him a worker submits to crucifixion. Below a chorus of soldiers and civilians presumably shout the same message as coils of brass tubas blare and further down one person covers his mouth, while Heisig himself looks on. Other workers, some in concentration camp stripes, guarded by a soldier, dig the earth. Behind, Mother Courage, desperate to protect her children, pulls her wagon across battlefields on a little stage. Scantily clad ladies join the chorus, and behind them the Tower of Babel looms, symbol of the human welter before us.

The left panel offers a central kiosk with loudspeakers massed at the top and advertisements of grimacing and shouting girlie mouths along with a poster of von Hindenburg. In the lower left corner a prisoner raises his arms in irons to point an accusatory finger toward Hitler. Confronted by this defiance, Der Führer crumples hysterically while a rigid watching Wehrmacht soldier turns out to be only a tailor’s rack fitted with a uniform and helmet.

The right–hand panels are devoted first to the Paris Commune and a US soldier collaring a guitar-playing protester while the Statue of Liberty looms behind them. A longhaired hippie holds up a placard: “Stop the World. I Want to Get Off.” Icarus plummets again into a bloody sea where a shark surfaces,alluding not only to Mac the Knife in Brecht–s song, but to a world become predatory. Meanwhile three figures, a jester, a blindfolded bald bourgeois and a third looking at his hands are explained by captions: “Saw nothing/Heard nothing/Did nothing.”

Withdrawn from the mural or painted over is a panel that appears in the catalog showing smiling workers, one nursing an infant, and an older woman wearing GDR medals. This seems to have been an early version intended to conform with the authorities’ wishes. With the exception of those who resisted authority—the Communards, the anti–Nazi prisoner and long&ndashhaired protestors in this mural, and elsewhere the soldier ripping off a crown of thorns and insertions of his mother’s face as an antidote in his painted indictments, Heisig rejected positive images in his narrative works. It seems that it was not that he was opposed to the ideal of the worker enjoying his labor—he claimed after all to be a socialist—but he refused to join with officials who used that goal to legitimize their control.

A third mural, Time and Life, done for a Reichstag cafeteria, dating from 1999, pulls together many of Heisig’s familiar images and generated heated controversy as to whether an artist of the GDR, that some regarded a criminal regime, should be hung in the legislature of united Germany.
***
The influence of Berthold Brecht on Heisig is pervasive. In one painting Brecht’s Jenny wails into a microphone imagining herself a pirate who will revenge the ignominy of her life. The dramatist’s impact reached to the artist’s very conception of painting and composition. The painter&rsquos pandemonium, his pushing painting to its limits, inflicting his scene on you, generates what Brecht called an “alienation effect” intended to move viewers to distance themselves from the action, forestalling identification with the characters so that you will critically examine their and your own conduct. [David Elliott suggests Brecht’s alienation effect is a general feature of the work of the GDR artists, including Heisig, which were shown at Oxford in 1984. He does not go into any detail, and does not specifically refer to Heisig’s use of this. See the catalog of the exhibition, Tradition and Renewal, Oxford, England: Museum of Modern Art, 1984, p. 10]

This tactic of detaching viewers from personal involvement yet drawing their attention, even fascination, is also accomplished by the provocative slogans and messages strung up in the paintings of Heisig. Again like Brecht, it is pressed on you that you are confronting a make–believe scene so as not to lose yourself in it. The artifice and illusion are part of a more complex reality that includes both and forces you to try to decipher what is real. Brecht and Heisig entertain and absorb us by taking us behind the scenes, flaunting rather than concealing their artifice with a view to debunking the pompous flimflam of the establishment.

The strategy of both is not mimesis, that is, telling a story, but the analysis of the human condition by selecting illuminating though not necessarily directly connected episodess. Viewers by being lured into figuring out what they see are led to re–evaluate their own conduct. While theater and painting usually invite you to savor someone else’s reality, Heisig like Brecht wants his viewers to rethink it, realize that it did not have to be this way and change their own lives. The idea is not only to induce viewers’ pity and fear. It is not to give them a thorough–going catharsis at contemplating an unavoidable catastrophe of heroic but flawed persons, but to help them see how they and we are responsible for our own disasters and could prevent them if we wanted. The point is: reality is artifice, something we can make or unmake. But there are also consequences and limits, as Icarus, the builders of Babel and militarists discover.

Heisig’s settings are often his studio with all its paraphernalia of conjuring tricks: masks, puppets, marionettes, dummies, live models and maquettes. Or you are at the carnival with its clowns, freaks, masquerades. With these props implying how people can be manipulated, he exposes a world of patriotic illusions and unthinking violence from which a young soldier, later veteran, struggles to disabuse himself. Which is intended to help viewers also to clarify their vision. Art becomes an instrument of demystification and re–engagement.

Another analog to Brecht is Heisig’s use of montage and welding together seemingly disparate images and episodes from different times and places. These include his nightmarish scenes of his own war experience, the inclusion of Babel and Icarus in modern contexts, a charging soldier invading his studio, his mother witnessing these scenes. Heisig’s pulling in far–flung references to throw new light on the issue leads him to expand his canvases into tryptiches and five–panel murals or to divide up a single panel into framed sub–sections, such as the one that exposes different aspects of Fredrick II’s rule.

Large or of medium scale, these canvases are sprawling but calculated scrambles of images and words. They are universes. No part dominates the others, but each throws light on an enfolding reality. In general, Heisig’s canvases do not tell a story or display a consistent setting; they present conflicting and re-enforcing examples, each evocative, intended to build a new conception of things or pose problems that make it difficult for us to evade. This is comparable to what Brecht called “epic theater,” in which there was no tight narrative sequence as in a conventional drama so much as a series of mutually illuminating juxtapositions. By “epic” Brecht seems to have intended a structure composed of varied, discontinuous scenes that cut across time and place, encompassing human history and revealing its perennial plights.

Heisig’s art like Brecht’s is shamelessly didactic, intent on getting viewers to reflect and learn. This is a problem since people resist being told what they should think. And neither artist does. They are problem–posing rather than problem–solving. But they insist on the destructiveness of the way we currently live, forcing on us the responsibility of choosing a solution, while not imposing one themselves. Both artist and dramatist try to overcome resistance by surprise, irony, extreme spectacle and sensory assault, Heisig by brilliant color and stridency, Brecht by song and dance.

They are convincing also because of their unflinching realism, their refusal to sentimentalize. The world they present is unforgiving. It is largely of anti–heroes, its most attractive figures rough–hewn and shrewd. Mother Courage fails to save her three children during the Thirty Years War because as a peddler to opposing armies she is small‐time war profiteerer who gets carried away by haggling for a better deal. While we may be tempted to admire her durability, what is pressed on us by Brecht and Heisig is her becoming a victim of her own unscrupulousness. But some of Heisig’s images of her look like those he did of his mother, whom he shows as someone who has seen everything and remains unbending to the end.
***
Heisig’s criticism of his contemporaries, one might complain, is only an effort to shake off his own guilt. But he is the first to declare his responsibility and paints not only to confess it and work through his pain but to persuade his contemporaries to do the same and, even more important, to act so as to prevent what he and they perpetrated and condoned from ever happening again.

These are not paintings for your dining room. They are public art appropriate to government buildings and schools in particular, museums of course.

Heisig is important because he presents the overwhelming issue of our time with both passion and craftsmanship. That issue is war, in particular, aggressive, unprovoked war. What is special about Heisig’s indictment is his holding himself and fellow citizens responsible for enthusiastically collaborating with and not resisting state terrorism. It is not so much the Nazi leaders whom he condemns. He accuses those like himself who eagerly enlisted and the public who supported the bigotry, nationalism and militarism that empowered their leaders, who had begun as angry and ambitious small–timers. He decries the evasions of people, their effort to exonerate themselves and their persistence in self–justification and what they continue to believe is patriotism. He exposes how they use the wounds they have suffered to reinforce their belief in the righteousness of force. He presents collective aggression as a dementia that not only wrecks carnage on others but is self–destructive, threatening total catastrophe. As socialists, Heisig and Brecht argue that the people can only save themselves from this and exploitative leaders by taking control themselves and building an egalitarian society. It was by lending themselves to a class–divided society that they drew the worst out of themselves.

Asked if his painting has relevance to the fighting in Iraq today, he says that he is also asked why he keeps painting about the past since it is over. [Tilmann and Zajonz] He replies to both questions that he must understand the past to comprehend the present. “Nothing is over.” His art, he says is a reflection on history. He adds that he wants to avoid an art of lemmings who rush blindly to their own extinction.

He connects the Tower of Babel’s attempt to reach the heavens and Icarus flying too close to the sun to the ambitions of Frederick II, Bismarck, Hitler, and, most important, his fellow human beings today in whom he sees the same threat. That is why he paints. Nothing could be more relevant when once again the West has undertaken a new crusade and empire building. In this age of world wars and war against terrorism, when the state in its self-proclaimed effort to protect civilians kills ten times as many as soldiers, reversing the proportion of a hundred years ago, Heisig’s paintings are nothing if not attacks on the hypocrisy of the “civilized.”

If there is any work that is akin to his, it is the Catharsis of José Clemente Orozco, a mural painted in 1934. It is a huge tangle of political bosses, prostitutes, the populace charging off in opposite directions brandishing weapons, all depicting the betrayal of the Mexican Revolution. In his apocalyptic works Orozco like Heisig attacks not so much leaders as the common people for permitting themselves to fall prey to them. Both artists hold those whom they most care about as responsible for leaders who exploit their weaknesses, their greed, carnality and eagerness to attach themselves to power.

What has provoked criticism is not only Heisig’s message but that his art is even the bearer of a message in this age when painting is supposed to have freed itself from that burden. He of course would say that this is just one of the evasions of our reality as socially responsible beings that puts our very existence at risk. His message is our pursuit of distractions as well as illusions of grandeur. His achievement is self–knowledge in spite of its cost in personal humiliation and seeking to share his understanding not only with his countrymen but with us.

Heisig has contrived the means to command our attention in spite of our resistance. Both his composition and painting technique grab you. The slashing pigmentation appeals because of its vigor but also its savvy ability to simulate appearances, for instance, the glare of polished brass horns and dull metal of helmets. His painting engages us also by its sheer lushness and clashing hues. Heisig invites us to indulge in the mixing of the senses, the transformation of the visual into the acoustic. Finally he exploits the sound and fury, the in–your–face shock, not as an end in itself like the pyrotechnics of the entertainment media, but inversely to yield the silence of reflection.
***
Photo credits. All color illustrations used here were taken from the catalog "Bernhard Heisig: Die Wut der Bilder," edited by Eckhart Gillen and published in Köln, Germany, by Dumont Literatur und Kunst Verlag, 2005. The two black and white illustrations are from Berthold Brecht,"Mother Courage," illustrated by Bernhard Heisig, Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag, 2001.

3 Comments:

Blogger Muralman said...

Alan,

A very insightful, excellently written article about a painter who should be more widely known and recognized. Your article will be very helpful in educating the reader.

10:29 PM  
Blogger Jonah Maidoff said...

Great. I have a student who is interested in the creation of art on both sides of the Wall prior to opening. I will direct her to the site.

4:16 PM  
Blogger Dandyrat said...

i like these works...artists is influenced by the attitude of german expressionism and Nue-saclichkeit..i love to know more about his works...

12:06 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home