In a view of nature, man becomes a fool

Albertina Exhibition 17.12.2008-11.1.2009 „NACH 1970“ Austrian Contemporary Art Works at the Albertina Collection. Publisher, Albertina Museum, Vienna 2008

Austrian Art
Dialogues and Images
Collection Österreichische Nationalbank, Vienna
Publisher, Christian Brandstätter,Vienna 2010

Conversation between Elisabeth Olivares Diaz and Roman Scheidl

You’ve published a book, “Die Malerfalle” (“The Painter’s Pitfall,”), a pictorial journey through thirty years of your work. Is it also a reconciliation with your early work?

My early work was highly realistic and socially critical. I tried to paint the negative things that bothered me in society and my surroundings, such as the “Burning Man” or the picture “My Friends the Man-Eaters.” At that time in the early 1980s, I also had quite a problem making my themes public and presenting them, because everyone around me painted completely differently. Abstraction was still going strong, and there were powerful manifestations in other art movements. Although today, after I’ve gone through many different stages of painting, having created highly contradictory pictorial impressions, surprisingly enough, figuration and realism are coming my way again in contemporary European painting. I find that meaningful and relevant, because it’s similar to what I did twenty years ago, and my early picture themes suddenly fit into the new context very well. So I unpacked my early work to see it again for myself and found it was actually quite alright, and that I was already headed in the right direction.

That’s why my book “The Painter’s Pitfall” begins with such early pictures. Between 1977 and 1981, I used painting as a weapon against society of the time. When the current state of affairs became unbearable, pictures such as “The Iconoclasts” came into being, because I thought it better to work off my anger and disappointment that way. Recently I executed another one like it, when the conflict between China and Tibet became unbearable.

Why did you alter your themes and style in the 1980s? Did you simply feel alone with your painting, or were there also other reasons?

Yes, I felt very much alone with my artistic work, and at the same time I was convinced it was necessary to keep on working. But I slowly had to turn away from those themes, because it might otherwise have ended with suicide. Above all, I had to get rid of my paranoia of constantly feeling threatened and affronted. That was the only way I could get a new hold on life. And my move to Zurich played a deciding role. I recognized that hiding behind my abysmal Viennese world, which threatened to oppress me, there was a much larger one, beautiful and wonderful, and that it was also worthwhile to paint it and talk about it. My widened field of vision brought about a sudden change of my themes and style of painting. But everything began in 1981 with the small black and white ink and brush drawings in Italy.

You’re speaking of drawing, which always meant a lot to you. After beginning with pen and ink drawings, you progressed to ink and brush drawings. Was that the Japanese influence, the various trips to Japan?

The confirmation of my ink and brush drawings came years later by way of Japan and Asia. I began studying Asian ink drawing in Paris only at the beginning of the 1990s. Before that it was more experimental, without being modeled on anything. Doing live drawings on the stage and in dance studios regularly nurtured my drawing.

I wanted to change radically, so I knew I would have to give up my early fine painting of the 1970s, as well as my fine pen and ink drawing. My hand had done them for ten years, as though it had been programmed. And because I had to take a radical step, I thought I ought to change tools and start using nothing but a brush in place of a pencil or pen. It was 1981, and this was triggered by the illustrations commissioned by Otto Breicha. He wanted to have some black and white drawings for his literary magazine “Protokolle,” but he didn’t have any money. They had to be black and white, and easy to reproduce. And that wasn’t possible with my fine drawings. In the Lagoon of Aquilea I began doing drawings of stones on the ground and grasses, in connection with mythological motifs, just small A5 formats, around one hundred folios, all made with ink and brush. That was the first step of my transformation. Between approximately 1981 and 1983, several series, such as “Passing Time,” came into being in Zurich, consisting of many folios. It was very hard for me to leave my former self behind, but it was the only chance I had to avoid ending up in an artistic cul-de-sac, so to speak. I always had Thomas Bernhard and Arnulf Rainer in mind as role models. If not now, I thought, I might never get out of here. I had to break open everything once again. My galleries and collectors were baffled at the time. I felt it was a conscious act, naturally abetted by the breakthrough in new painting all over Europe, my Viennese painter friends, and my exploration of C. G. Jung and his archetypes in Zurich, where I had an atelier at that time.

You also went to Paris. Was Paris still as all-prevailing, as influential as at the beginning of the 20th century? What were you looking for?

I wanted to study French painting in Paris, beginning with Eugène Delacroix. There had been an exhibition of his works by Harald Szeemann in the Kunsthaus in Zurich in 1987, and that revolutionary and his visionary force, in terms of color painting, had shaken me. I had to see the originals for myself, and then his followers and the outsiders, such as Gustave Moreau, Victor Hugo, as well as Paul Cézanne, the impressionists, Édouard Manet and Claude Monet. Particularly Monet and his house in Giverny, where I liked being. I simply loved French painting. I wanted to see what it looked like, painting with light today, and understand it, as well as seeing the earlier and later developments in the original. That was Paris for me, the city of painting. Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, as well as the 1950s, the action painters and individualists, such as Georges Mathieu or Wols (note: pseudonym of Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze), I absorbed all of it, I was attracted to all of it. At the same time I was inspired by dance in the studios in the Marais district. Through my partner at the time, the dancer and choreographer Bettina Nisoli, I learned how to draw the moving body in space, later also on stage. Light and motion were my themes at that time along with Asian ink and brush drawing, and French painting, beginning with the Romantic period. I am, if you like, a romantic myself, but in the original sense. The Romantic artists were actually a revolutionary movement, which isn’t meant derogatorily – as in “he’s just a Romantic” – but in the sense of a world synopsis. The Romantics were actually all-round artists. I recognized that in the exhibition “The Tendency toward Gesamtkunstwerk” by Harald Szeemann in Zurich in 1983, which opened my eyes. That’s were I met Joseph Beuys for the first time. His idea of ‘social sculpture’ and the utopia of the ‘source of individual freedom’ greatly influenced me. Not until many years later did I get as strong an impulse in Asia and the Japanese gardens and tea houses as I’d gotten during my time in Paris.

May I return to another question? On the one hand, drawing is important for you, but on the other hand, so is color, which you’re highly dedicated to.

I find there’s always a dispute between color and drawing. Lines are rhythm and motion – color is space and light. Whoever thinks lines are so important – those are the art intellectuals – often believes that understanding is greater than feeling. So it’s a dispute between understanding and feeling, because color can only be felt, in contrast to lines, which you can see and trace. You can’t describe color. You can only see it, which is the same as feeling it. We’re often lacking the words for color. I probably know a hundred more names of colors than you do, along with certain concepts. So I can say that red there is dark Japanese red of the brand name so-and-so. That black is jet black, and that blue is a mixture of dark Prussian blue with a little Züriblau and a little Krems white with a squirt of zinc white. I can recognize it when I see it. And I’m also highly inspired by the materials, like the paper for drawing. Nice paper from Hong Kong or good paper from India inspires me to make very special drawings. To me those are all living things, the paper as well as the paints, a little zoo that I’m working with, and so I mix elephant grey with firebug red, and that’s impossible to express in words. When I look at a Goya or a Velázquez, one of the Infantas, then I look at how Velázquez painted her dress, what kind of red he used. There’s one in the Prado (Museum) which is composed almost entirely of madder lake, it’s incredible – it’s a whole orgy in madder lake. I really don’t care what’s in the picture. I only see that red paint and how it’s been applied. With Van Gogh, for example, there are so many brushstrokes, like it’s raining colors, and a motif becomes visible in the rain: a picture. Or in Nolde’s colored pulp, that colored pulp, which turns out to be a picture. There’s a sea in it, with a green-black sky. Pictures made entirely of yellow shades or reds – they thrill me. The colored light and motion on the canvas and in the mind of the beholder – the give and take. Lines or colors, drawings or oil paintings, I don’t want to decide.

We have your painting “In View of Nature” in the OeNB. You’ve one called it one of your key works or major works. Why?

Because it’s an example of an equilibrium, and the abolition of contradictions and contrasts with the means of painting. There is a figure in it, but it’s simultaneously about abstraction. The fool, or the figure, is standing at a fence. The fence represents rationale. It evokes Zen and Taoism. And that’s the conflict in art: many people believe you can think up everything. Of course, you CANNOT think painting, you can only see it. And if you look at it, then you can also experience it.

Why is it a fool that’s standing there? Do you have to be a fool to understand the world?

In view of nature, man becomes a fool. If you believe in thinking, you’re a fool. We’ve always overvalued thinking. So the fool is still leaning on the fence, he’s still thinking. There’s his eye, which is looking at us. It’s the thinnest spot in the painting, and the canvas is still visible there. Only a penciled eye on a primed, dirty background, otherwise everything is covered very thickly with paint. It’s the same with us: our brains are right behind our eyes, the thinnest spot we have. The pictures enter here and go out again. For a few moments he sees reality, the incomprehensibility of interconnectivity and interdependency. The fence disappears, and he becomes one with nature.

Another recurring theme in your work is the five freedoms. What do they mean to you?

That’s also an old concept from China, which fascinates me. There they say that human beings have five freedoms in life. The first is being born. That opens up everything, and we create our world with our senses. The second is that we begin thinking, which enables us to overcome many of our fears. The third freedom, which results from thinking, is taking action, a logical step. The fourth, love, connects all the freedoms. It doesn’t only refer to loving a partner, but to love itself: loving things, finding it wonderful to see how a plant grows, how the wind blows, and that everything is always in motion and infused with love, even fear and despair. Finally, the fifth freedom, death, which liberates you from the constraints of your body and space. Since I’ve been involved with dance, and am particularly interested in ritual dance, such as dance in Bhutan, I invented or discovered five dancing figures, which I paint repeatedly, and which portray my yearning for freedom. They always travel with me, to Ticino, or back to Japan, into the desert or the snow – like old friends in new surroundings. Their theme is metamorphosis, not repetition.

My final question is: Which projects are you currently planning?

What am I planning? That’s a good question. I’d like to go through another transformation. My painting changed as I got older. I used to plan pictures or series and then execute them. Today painting is more of an adventure. I go into my atelier and don’t exactly know what will come into being. It’s more like daydreaming. Often I’m really surprised to see what I’ve done in front of me in the evening. Sometimes I think it’s time for a late work. But I don’t know whether anything will come of it.

At the moment I’m doing pictures of metamorphosis. My META pictures. A human being turns into a plant, a plant into a human being – the human being as the seed of the world. Metamorphoses as themes, or well-known motifs. Like wanderers, or birds, which change with the seasons, though different painters’ styles. Vienna, where I’ve been painting for over thirty years, is becoming more significant. Pictures like “Hidden Vienna” or “The Bald Mountain” have come into being. But the fascinating thing, if you like, still remains the moment of creation, the act. I understand the world through drawing, painting and writing – meditation by means of color – to me that’s like communicating with it. Over the past years I’ve added something new in the form of animated films, which I’ve done monthly along with the painter Katharina Puschnig for a TV station under the title of “TAMAMU Café,” a logical development after long years of stage work. A free choice of themes, always done as live drawings. Painting and drawing as a survival strategy. A certain addictive behavior also plays a role. Some people run a marathon to surpass their limits – I paint. I abandon thinking and understanding the world, and step out of the everyday into the unknown. Painting as a way of living. Pictures as utopias.

You see, the work of each painter is of this world, as well as being otherworldly. Each painter knows that his life will continue after death, in the form of his pictures. And I think that’s a great thing we shouldn’t forget. Just like environmental issues, where tomorrow depends on today. With time, pictures may develop a completely new life under certain circumstances. Many disappear, but I think some pictures will always be saved for tomorrow.

June 23, 2008 Elisabeth Olivares Diaz