Five freedoms

The fivefold ego
mirrors the five freedoms
of the world of appearance.
The first one is life,
the second the art of thinking,
from which results the third:
The fourth one combines all three:
it's love.
What remains as the fifth one is the freedom
death affords us.

"We don't see that we don't see."
Rupert Shaldrake

"There is a hole in our retinas – and not a small one at that.
In everything we perceive
with our eyes, we would have to be seeing
an empty black circular spot in the centre.
But we don't.
We don't see that, in the centre of all things,
there is blackness and emptiness."
Joachim Ernst Berendt

Nothing flows through my life quite like the stream of the images of this world.

In all walks of life, after loss or gain, in abundance or want, the art of painting has been very dear and valuable to me. I have always explored and viewed the world through it, and through my experience of it, the nature of my paintings has evolved. Ever since my infancy, I have progressed in the company of paintings. In foreign cities and countries, visiting paintings has often created in me a zone of my spiritual home.

Emanating from human nature, paintings have evolved into a language in its own right, stretching far beyond the boundaries of philosophies and cultures. A sixth-century Taoist stroke of a brush reaches us directly through Motherwell's art, as does theosophy through Mondrian or Beuys.

In the arts, there is no such thing as theft because the reservoir of images available to all of us deep down in our souls is common property while only the road to that depth is for everyone to negotiate individually.

However, that road cannot be transferred or taught; it can only be covered. Nor can it be covered in a straight line. With anyone who has covered it, it will have become second nature. To those who do not know it, it will remain hermetic and evasive.

Roman Scheidl

The Five Freedoms

A Dialogue Between Martin Adel (I) and Roman Scheidl

"Everyone will find a way to get started – at any place you begin."

Recently, the Five Freedoms have become one of your main themes. The paintings gathered around us – some two dozen new ones – clearly testify to this. But the theme is not new to you. It has been a leitmotif for a number of years. For how long actually, and how did this theme arise?

The first time I used the theme was for a square painting in 1986 or 1987. It's funny how I came to doing that. At the time, I was a student in Vienna living in a road called Taubstummengasse. Several physicians, who had their practices in the same house, kept old newspapers stored in the cellar. One day, I came across a newspaper carrying an article on Bhutan including some photographer's ethnic pictures of dancers. I was so struck by these pictures that, from that day on, I started to think with those figures on my mind.
The Five Freedoms are my first attempt at shaping a theme out of five of those dancers. By the way, the theme of the Five Freedoms is one of Asian philosophy, according to which man has five freedoms. The first one being the fact he is alive, the second that he starts to think, the third that he begins to take action as a result of thinking. The fourth one is love, that combines everything, and the fifth is death, which sends us away into a new freedom. I was deeply touched by this simple way of presenting the cycle of life. I used the Bhutan dancers to make it a theme of mine for the first time. These Five Freedoms rise above a landscape on a quest for something higher or, indeed, bigger.
Looking back, I get the feeling that those freedoms mean to me what waterlilies were for Monet, i.e. a theme so fundamental that you can repeat it forever without stripping it of its force.

This is the fascinating thing about painting: after all, I am looking for a theme to stay with. Even if that may sound inconsistent given the great variety of themes I have chosen for my paintings throughout the years.
Right now, I'm going through a working period in which I'm picking the theme of freedoms up again, not least in view of the book. At the same time, this theme will serve as a platform for my next maybe five or ten years of work. Not only can I study colour on the basis of that theme but also the way the theme varies suddenly as soon as colours are changed.

Whether I paint something in red or in blue is a completely different matter. While the silhouettes are absolutely identical, colour somehow changes everything. I find that exciting, and it will certainly keep me busy for sometime to come.
If my memory serves me well, your first attempt at painting the Five Freedoms was marked by dancers in powerful, pasty paints set against a backdrop that was painted in a comparatively finely glazed manner. And it was your typical way of combining different techniques in one single painting. Or maybe not combining them but developing them side by side in the same painting. And this actually is my question: Are these different techniques meant to fuse together in the painting, or are they designed as contrasts to give rise to different effects and messages? Granted, it is not that easy to distinguish between these two options. But which one do you prefer?

Of course, I have no preference but am intrigued by both or even everything. And I cannot help looking at the one or the other theme from different angles. Das Boot (the boat) is a case in point. It is a painting from the past two years and one that has reached a certain degree of maturity: two people standing in a boat and seemingly rowing in opposite directions. The scene is set against a very lively backdrop. I wanted to have a computer reproduction of the painting and, when I changed colours by clicking them to red/black, full surface, it made such a powerful new impression on me that I decided to paint it like that. Now, I have two quite different versions both technically and in terms of colours.

This may be somewhat of an answer to your question. I'm simply interested in how thickness or density of paint changes the theme, or how the eye breaks through a thin spot. I don't really know what it is that is so interesting about it. But I'm always attracted by seeing the different ways. Actually, I commute between different ways of applying paint.
Currently, I'm working a great deal with large surfaces to emphasise the colours' light. You see, there are the same figures, the same contours and yet, the painting has a completely different force and effect than one of those small paintings. Of course, this also means I'm working on experimental terrain. In other words, I don't know what's going to happen, what's going to be in the evening with the light changed. Or you can draw a figure with a stroke of paint or wipe it with a piece of cloth. These are two completely different things even though the contours remain the same. Your eye doesn't really transmit this information to your brain but merely catches some input. Actually, your eyes plunge into the painting as if it were a sensation.

And we are attracted by it. After all, that's what paintings are about, isn't it?
However, the same would be true if you simply juxtaposed transparent surfaces and thick, impenetrable ones. But in these new paintings, there is a lot of non-covered space as if I made a silhouette and alternately laid the negative and the positive surfaces onto a thin, transparent layer. So, there is corporeality and impenetrability on the one hand and transparency on the other. And again, transparency alternates between the figure and the background. So, it's not only different techniques but also different surfaces. Of course, a canvas brings it out much more powerfully than a reproduction.

That's for sure. A reproduction cannot possibly replace a painting. The purpose of a reproduction actually is to help me remember an original painting once I've seen it. That's what catalogues mean to me.
But coming back to what you just said, I have the same experience out in the world. I get the feeling that I can see everything and hear everything but there is something behind all this. Sometimes, I manage to break through and reach behind this world of things or conventions on what the world looks like. That's precisely what I would like to get hold of when painting.

The old masters knew how to do it technically as much as we do. They painted very thin in the shadow and very thick and pasty in light or sunlight. But they organised it on the basis of conventions on perspective, as it were. Nowadays, there is much more freedom. You can do just about everything in painting today. And that's excellent because it gives you a great deal of options. It's like a big orchestra. Today, you have much more variety in orchestrating your paintings. And everything gets accepted. The public is accustomed to mere abstract surfaces as much as to, say, a narrative type of painting. Learning how to use all those techniques and make their products visible is a slow step-by-step process. In particular, oil is very difficult because it requires drying. For example, when I work with yellow, I cannot possibly continue with a dark paint the following day because I would end up smudging everything. Neither can I use white with a dark painting. That's not possible, I must wait. This may mean up to three weeks in the case of yellow hues since they dry off so slowly. So you need to develop some very sophisticated technique so as not to be annoyed by that. My technique is to overpaint the paintings step by step and bit by bit, for instance, paintings I made years ago but have never been satisfied with – and have never got around to throwing them away. Now, in this period of a new beginning, I simply took everything old and bad, and started overpainting it. I left some parts untouched, though. That is to say, old paintings are peering out of new ones. A person looking at those paintings wouldn't know, and indeed doesn't have to, but would still feel it. There is time in those paintings, a time you cannot possibly paint in a different manner. 1991 talking to 1999, optically speaking. And it's there! No need to analyse it. It's got its own special flair and makes itself felt in this kind of painting only. I think that's very exciting.

You said the old masters knew how to paint very thin and delicate, or atmospheric as it were, but also more forceful, pasty and dense in the foreground. In other words, expressing atmospheric impressions in a painting. But your work is somewhat different, isn't it? What you call breaking through occurs in a two-dimensional surface, after all. Though there is space to your paintings, they are devoid of perspective. As it were, they work with abstract space, atmospheric space...

...coloured space, it is...

...yes, coloured space. And, indeed, not cubic or three-dimensional space in geometric terms.

True, but this is because the picture the world presents has changed, too. What I mean is that we now also have computer-generated space and images. It often occurs to me that all I actually do is to superimpose. Perhaps, this is a result of my live narrative painting using an overhead projector. Maybe, I always superimpose one image on another. I superimpose a new painting on an old one, but leaving some of the old one untouched. Maybe, this is my way of representing the time axis or generating a course of time. Of course, this is easier to notice with hindsight than when going through the process.

But there is something else: Painters always deal with colour systems. Delacroix has always been very important to me because he was the first one to make conscious use of complementary colours. This was continued by others, including Van Gogh, and, up to this very day, you can always think in terms of opposite colours. So, when I add something red to a green painting, I will automatically get a very powerful contrast. The same goes for some orange added to a blue painting. There is a circle of colours, and colours lying opposite each other make for an extremely powerful effect. A tiny little dot will be sufficient to create that force. It's a system and, if you like, there are as many systems as there are painters. Nevertheless, you can also use a monochrome system. Let's say, you use blue hues only. But the proof of the pudding is in the seeing! There is no imagining it because everything painted always looks different from what you imagine it to look. It's also a question of having a close look because that's the only way to see all those funny coincidences. After all, nothing is conscious but everything is coincidental. As you see there, two surfaces cut into each other coincidentally and the red gets in there by chance. That was no intention. And there was something there, getting dark on the edges, and I can't avoid it because it simply is dark there and I accept it and won't try to change that. That's what I think is so fascinating: The moment we superimpose something that seems an obvious shape to identify, we accept everything else and our brains assemble everything instantly, putting together a picture. This means that I can go to my studio in the morning and start painting anything, irrespective of content or shape. And yet, what I paint will be inspired by what I'm interested in. Thus, it will be in agreement with my paintings. Or I may always take the very same theme, the very same figure, and paint it in many different moods. Either way, I can re-open the potential involved in painting. Painting has become too narrow-minded for me. It's become so specialised. So many think "small". As when peering through an electron microscope, painting is subject to such magnification that many have actually forgotten where its centre lies and how wide that centre is. What I'm doing here is absolutely independent of shape. It can also be done by somebody who paints in a totally different manner.

If I understand correctly, you are saying that interchanging components almost like building-blocks multiplies possibilities. While you choose a certain theme, your range of freedom as a painter remains tremendous. But let's stay with colours for a moment. You seem to prefer powerful, glowing primary colours.

I don't really know why but I usually start with blue on the first paintings after a substantial phase of inactivity. I seem to be naturally inclined to doing so. The same goes for bad experience or major twists of fate after which I've always resumed painting with blue. Mostly, the first five or six paintings would be in blue before I would be fed up with it. Then I would usually get some yellow, and once I've made ample use of yellow I would have to move on to red. It's funny. Then, I would return to blue paintings and continue to paint in blue. Of course, when I work with a single colour the whole day I will obviously end up in a vacuum that I won't be able to stand anymore at some stage. That's when I change colours. To an observer, this might seem capricious but it's simply necessary.

Also, I frequently start a painting in daylight and finish it in artificial light or vice versa. Or I may start painting on the easel and then lie down on the floor to continue working on some other component. The different techniques may not show in the painting but they generate suspense that you can feel. At any rate, those paintings would not be the way they are if painted otherwise.

The way you're explaining this sounds so general that one might be tempted to respond: It will not, or cannot, be substantially different for other painters. Nevertheless, your pieces of work are unmistakeable. How do those general comments you made define your specific way of painting?

I paint in different ways. For instance, an impressionist light but painted in an expressionist way. But I can hardly say what's special about me compared to other painters. I can only think the way I paint. Or vice versa.
Fair enough. But looking at your paintings...

Certainly, my great interest in motion, dance and similar things has resulted in something that has become like a theme. Choosing a figure whose very contours express a zest for life and a certain degree of spontaneity is maybe a question of time. I tend to filter out themes until I get the feeling that I've got the one with that special extra something, that suspense. Then, I go on working with it. Or I repeat paintings of mine, which is something most other painters are not interested in. It is very important to me in my work. I can re-paint every painting I made and you will hardly see which one was painted when. For example, I can use a figure you may have seen in one of my paintings three years ago and put it in a different context. And you will recognise it like an old friend of yours. It's just like the author of, say, detective stories using the same superintendent throughout a number of different stories. You will recognise that superintendent and some traits of his character but you'll meet him in a different context showing some new facets of his.

I think there is more to it. There's this blend of utter abstractness and a very high degree of concreteness, a narrative realism. Let's take these figures. They could be cut out from the picture of a dancing dervish or a dancing Bhutanese monk. The monk's contours are absolutely realistic while his body and the area around him are painted in a completely abstract manner. This creates some kind of suspense that used to be less strong in your earlier paintings. All your earlier paintings were not only more narrative but also painted in a more narrative manner.

True, I may be toying with different types of recognition right now. That means we are very good at recording reality by its contours or silhouettes, and recognising it as a mirror image. Just like a hare recognises a bird of prey by contours. That's the one thing that you see instantly. Then there is the paint which you have to work with somehow. And finally, you have to find a way to cope with that inner area of the space you haven't covered. And all this happens spontaneously and simultaneously, pushing and pulling you to and fro all the time. But this also means that the painting catches you somehow. It gets you involved and draws you in. After all, that would be a suitable goal, wouldn't it?
But this has changed substantially since in earlier years...

I feel that I'm more aware now of what I actually wanted to try out at that time. Indeed, I've tried out many things in recent years. When we first met, I was very much into water, painting those blue backgrounds. That was something I was trying out. I wanted to acquire a technique I hadn't paid any attention to before, namely painting thinner. The large painting of water on the cover of the book, which I made after the fire in my studio, testifies to it particularly well. At the same time, I was experimenting with the suspense generated in a painting by a glossy or matt surface. A variety of such test series then results in groups of pieces of work. The process may have taken about a year. And now, the phase of experimenting might be over and I would like to proceed on the basis of what I've acquired. Thus, these figures give me the feeling of being more aware of where I'm headed for. I can take my time now and start implementing my intention in painting by painting.

Granted, every painting gives you an opportunity of trying out things piece by piece. However, your new paintings – the way they are assembled right here – are putting all those pieces back together by means of generating contrast among them.

In other words: You don't try to harmonise or combine the different ways of painting in a single piece of work. On the contrary, you confront them at this initial level: contours, thick surface, glazed surface. The way you painted this was not as much influenced by your stroke as it was by the contours generated where surfaces clash.
Now, these contours are no longer anything to do with the brushstrokes that used to fill more or less the entire surface, albeit in different and yet homogeneous manners. Rather, the contours are initiated through a clash of surfaces painted in different ways. It is only through the mental process of assembling the different components in your brain that unity is created. This makes your current paintings seem more experimental and less narrative.
Yes, that's what I meant to say at the outset. These are my waterlilies, as it were. This is a theme I can now dwell on in more depth. I would like to make more ample use of it as a painter rather than simply moving on with the next theme. This will be beneficial for me for later work on other themes.

Are you saying that the narrative character of your paintings is becoming less important? You did start out with a powerful narrative touch, didnt you?

I don't know. Today, with a figure, the space around it and the non-covered area, I'm able to convey as much as I tried to do with perhaps three narrative representations earlier on, demonstrating that three different levels come into play and that it's all a matter of painting. Granted, there was a narrative theme of, say, a man sitting in front of some fountain but a closer look would have shown that this fountain was painted thick and pasty while the man was painted very thin. So, it was there with nobody noticing because it was covered by a theme so dominant that everybody would say it was a man sitting in front of some fountain. And it is a romantic painting. There is a lot of painting technique in it but I think it wasn't very clear to me at the time what it meant.

Sure, but for a long period of time in your working life you did push drawing strokes rather than painting large surfaces, didn't you? The East Asian way of painting with a brush provided a very strong drawing component. This is especially true for how you have used black, almost as if a painting was a coloured pen-and-ink drawing. There's a glazed or coloured backdrop with something figurative on it, painted in very powerful, opaque colours if not black. And the brush is used almost like an etching needle, a pencil or a fountain-pen. In your most recent phase though, you've been focusing much more on painting in more general terms, thus pushing into the background what was actually your distinct style until only few years ago.

That's true if you consider my entire working life. But the painting component has always been there, and I've always been as committed to it as I am today. Only, I believe I haven't always been as clear about it. That means I used to do far too many things in painting I don't have to do anymore now. Often, I expressed myself through these things. In painting, I tried to speak about everything. The question was as to whether I was able to paint every theme that occurred to me. Was it possible in painting to represent a philosophical thought as much as a nude woman or, say, some landscape? That's why there was such a variety of themes.

And now I notice that I'm back to essential things such as a certain light or colour, or a specific type of motion because I think we are very much beings in motion. We hardly ever come to rest, we're always on the move somehow, even if it's only with our eyes. So I wanted my paintings to be like the times we're living in. Today, I sometimes try to counteract this, slowing down the pace by means of the large surfaces. But the restlessness persists because of the magic about how the figure arises from the contours.
Of course, I've learnt to see those contours as a result of thousands of brush drawings in which two strokes suffice to produce some contours, and a few strokes are all there is to the figure's life. I've seen so much that it's no problem for me to identify, or leave non-covered, things in a painting if I want to. Of course, everything is interrelated somehow. But the fundamental themes have always been the same: the human figure, a landscape, and abstract space.
Sure, but my impression is that you are moving in a different direction now. If I consider these figures as derived from the dancers, from the "Five Freedoms", then they are like two paintings superimposed on each other with the contours of a dancer cut ouf of one of the paintings. The dancer wasn't really painted as a dancer but becomes one as a result of something the shape of a dancer being put on it. As if I were cutting a figure out of a window shutter and then seeing the shutter in front and something completely different behind it. Actually, both things are abstract. There is a figure only because of the contours which you see through...
...which was different in your earlier paintings. Those were still painted in a rather concrete fashion. Probably, that's where overpainting and the palette play important roles.

Quite right. Originally, I was inspired to overpaint by Beuys. He once told me that you always had to have the freedom of destroying a painting. I thought about that for a long time before I started to overpaint paintings after exhibitions. So I did it with paintings I had exhibited and I wasn't happy with. And there was something else: Whenever I was going to leave, I would quickly scrape off all the palettes and make some abstract paintings, which I then left so as not to memorise them. And when I returned, these would usually be very interesting combinations of colour. This led me to using small canvasses, rather than wooden palettes, to mix the paints on. I was left with some very nice pieces, which I started to collect. Maybe two to three years later, I began to make small paintings on them. That's to say I left some parts of the coarse palette as they were, and simply inserted some themes. With time, it became a genuine technique of mine. At least half of the paintings around us are former palettes with three or four layers of themes that weren't right. So, that's how my overpainting developed.

Today, I'm very much aware of this. I'm using it differently now or have a different approach to researching it. Earlier on, I used to do a lot of things much more in a hurry. I used to have too little time to dwell on this technique. In the meantime, what used to be a sideline has become my main way. That's an experience painters have time and again: An atypical painting may be heralding an entirely new period four or five years in advance but you don't understand it yet. Indeed, you may find it very bad and suddenly, ten years on, it'll be the only way you work and all the other paintings are gone.

As far as the format is concerned, I also get the feeling that the small pieces are only heralding large paintings. I would like to try and do this in a large way, with large figures and large surfaces. It's kind of a beginning for me. Actually, it's back to what the palettes used to be. It's palettes for large paintings. And maybe I've come to a certain point: I get the impression of having much more control over my capabilities now. The basic skills of painting are no longer such an impediment. They're at my fingertips now. It's pleasant, and I have no trouble with oil. Oil paint is opening up, releasing its full beauty because I've struggled with it for so long.

How do you choose paints?

That's difficult to tell. You just go on trying until it's right. And being right means you can't see the effort or any reasoning behind it. This brings us back to the old masters. In the academy in Venice, there's an old painting by Titian. Standing very close to it, you will see nothing but paint wiped up with some piece of cloth. It's terrible! But stepping back a little bit, you'll discover a wonderfully painted scene showing Mary with Jesus Christ dying. And it's painted most painstakingly. You'll move forward again and start to think that this is just impossible. There's nothing there except some smears. It's tremendous! That's what I find so terrific about painting, when you can create a new painting between you and the painting, another painting that actually isn't there.

Are you saying that the figures you paint are no longer your first priority but have actually become a pretext to generate a dialogue between the viewer and the painting?

Yes and no. If everything was merely abstract, you would be watching quite differently and would never discover what I actually mean. The point really is that I need the figures to lead you to getting this impression. The same applies to me, after all. I'm clear about the figure, so I can focus on the process of painting.
This means that the figures are keyholes, as it were, or shapes allowing you to look through, which would make the beginning meet neatly with the end (for the time being).

Absolutely! And the opposite is true, too. Through the figures, you tend to see those figures better whereas they somehow used to be so evasive. Now you see: "Aha, that's a freedom." You can still decide whether it's the third, the fifth or the fourth freedom but it's a freedom anyhow. If I then say that it's the fourth freedom, everybody will know it's about love. It's a nice metaphor my paintings gave me, isn't it? I may also think about what it would look like if I painted the fifth freedom, that is death, only. What would the same thing look like with death as a theme. I've never tried that. It would certainly be very interesting. I would have to deal with it. Actually, I even dumped the fifth one. I've painted four and skipped the fifth. That's one way of not having it in the same painting. So you see, it's an intricate system based on some underlying philosophical idea. Painting is an attempt at philosophising in its own right, but using colour, light and motion in space.