Impressions from "Moscow–Berlin"

Hans-Hendrik Grimmling

Magazine issue: 
#2 2004 (03)



The organizers of the exhibition want to prove that the art of painting starts to influence its viewers only when its display layout follows a certain plan. However, any passionate aspiration from a particular artist towards working and thinking in an almost religiously-enlightened state of mind (a state which is perceived on an emotional level, and is reflected in many different ways in the minds of people) actually leads to grave consequences.

Each artist then is like one of the Argonauts, drifting under the sails of her or his own art into the realm of imagination in a quest for some "Golden Fleece". In that sense art has always been "transcendental": it has always been an escape into some different time. It might even be a parallel world, with its own different attitudes and understanding of present day reality. Art thrives on hope that this unrestricted flight of imagination might allow it to step aside from its static starting point, in order to achieve a better and clearer point of view. The old axes of artistic gravity which influenced Europe in the first half of the 20th century were severely damaged, although their influence can still be traced today. The axis "Moscow-Paris" gave birth to a fruitful cultural exchange, which culminated in the 1920s in such trends as Constructivism, Dadaism, Expressionism and Critical Bourgeois Realism.

The second half of the 20th century made all those "-isms" look old, even ancient. The trends were mistreated; the wonderful cultural exchange was interrupted by the wars. It was impossible to revive the circulation of such a liberal and receptive spirit, as much as its flow was just as impossible to rejoin. Not only did World War II paralyze once-prolific artistic exchanges; it almost killed them entirely - having created antagonistic systems in the East and in the West. However, it was during this time of political hostility that the workings of such axes continued to influence people on an unconscious level, if with a somewhat subversive effect.

The mode of organization of society during the Cold War period deeply influenced art as well. Artists worked trying to recollect what it was exactly that had incited, and affected society in an avant-garde way in the first half of the century, but had failed to prevent things from happening in the way they did. An artist had to learn from his or her own experience that personal creative activity is so limited that it cannot either hinder, or prevent the repetition of such abnormalities as wars and destruction.

The display makes it clear what a nightmare for any particular artist might be: it is a possibility to come across the limitations of one's own creative work, one that will never acquire such loftiness as to enlighten and purify. The fate of an artist, like that of an Argonaut, will always be to leave the shore behind, to venture again and again on a new spiritual quest, since to remain stationary means to be cursed. To avoid it, an artist must either run away or charge, or start again on the move - or do something, at least.

The display demonstrates the inadequacy of all those individual aspirations, showing that only together they do constitute a subversive kind of art that opposes the officially-accepted doctrinarian ideologies. Its very style contains as much of the contrary spirit as the ideas, subjects and themes of the paintings.

This unity mentioned above tries to prove that it is not completely useless to talk about peace in the world, and to create art based on the experience of individual life: the process of going beyond the boundaries of some private territory that makes its inhabitant a prisoner, the process of making a transcendental leap beyond the restrictions of one's own existence here becomes visible as exhibits in the display. Again their main traumatizing message is, "Go West!". Every point of view, every attitude - having criticised and undermined its surroundings - is at the same time an attempt by the artist to be acclaimed in the West. And it matters very little what he or she paints, as well as what is meant by the phrase "Go West". All progressive forms rejecting ideological tendencies, even if they stem from the mainstream, manifest a nostalgic wish to embrace the Western European canons, and to move even further in that direction, across the Atlantic Ocean towards American standards. The emigrant movement was nourished not only by what dissidents brought to it, but its driving force was also a vision of Western culture - a spiritual longing to reach an overseas world created and cultivated by post-modernism, the roots of which can be found in the centre of Europe, in Paris and Berlin.

Yet there is much to criticise. The problem is still the same: a painting or any piece of art, which takes for its source the individual pathos of its creator, bears the mark of a limited individual artistic language.

An artist comes into the world addressing it with an unworldly message: ”I tell the truth.” Or, perhaps: ”I have something exceptional and outstanding to say.” Such a standpoint is a chance to claim the attention of society in order to submit one's works to its judgement. Art can allow such behaviour in one case only, that is, when an artist declares that whatever he or she shows to others is trustworthy, bearing one limitation in mind: ”that is my individual truth”, which is a communicative cliche. Each presentation of works to the public means: "Believe me, it is really true.” With so many individual positions brought together under the roof of one exhibition, there is a desire to compare whether these truth-seeking tendencies in Moscow are similar to those of Berlin or New York. Such an exhibition then becomes a demonstration of the fact that the passion of many different personal standpoints can be seen only as an experiment, one uniting all the signals and meanings and implications present in the artistic conception of each piece.

Two of my pictures are displayed in one of the halls next to works by Hans Haake, Sigmar Polke and Picasso.

They are "An Oarsman” (1981) and "Me in Leipzig” (1978). Both the works produce an impression very similar to that of Russian art. The triptych ”An Oarsman” represents a semi-figurative composition with a very austere palette (of red paints), with a graphic organization of form and colouring very much in the spirit of late Expressionism. This work already rather strongly conveys some ideological signal, a hidden metaphor (just as in my creative work of later periods). My pictures today are still about the repeated traumas of an endless, perpetual cry, the meaning of which is not completely clear. Does it express pain, or something else? Or does it imply an appeal to reach a union, a wish to belong to each other in one way or another? Modernism possesses a dynamic that separates people and societies, and twists or even ruins careers. Maybe, I have a little of what I myself call ”a Russian dream”. It might come close to a method of reasoning in art borrowed from such ”by-gone days”. There exists a community in the world that consists not only of competitors, but of figures who share a similar nostalgia, those united by their vision. Such opposite adjectives as ''strong-weak” or ''high-low” fail to describe the spirit of this brotherhood. Now, after all the walls have been destroyed and the way is free, we come to know the real limitations of our freedom and learn how the notion of freedom rules our consciousness. Freedom is not for us. We are carved in the wrong way. Freedom remains but an axiom.

Such is the content of the feeling that has to return to the sphere of art and to fertilize it. The question is, whether the feeling of a limited, secluded and mortal "ego" has been finished with once and for all - thanks to the possibility to travel in one's mind? Can one become free if always on the move, using as much energy as would be needed to burn the inner prisoner to ashes? How can man quench his thirst for freedom? The sphere of art seems to give us such an opportunity since it contains within itself an idea to look up to and to follow: an idea of a truly free man.

To participate in the exhibition is an honour for me. But the reasons for choosing those two particular pictures seem to be different from the subject discussed above. Their underlying concepts claim to belong to a certain moral code which needs neither to show itself in any particular form, nor reject the form as it is, but rather symbolizes the double meaning of that word - that is, restriction and contraction. When deciphered, this could also mean some closed, localized place. Such understanding is a metaphor that in its turn can be translated as "limited and locked in time". Those two pieces were created in the GDR. That was a closed, guarded territory, and the Muses born and brought up there had weak wings.

”An Oarsman” actually allows visualizing the process that led to the demolition of the Berlin Wall. The two side panels of the triptych where some red human flesh-like pieces, dripping with blood, lie on the elements of the Wall, frame a middle panel representing the vertical line. One body is depicted in motion, symbolizing a victim trying to climb over the Wall; another one lies on it as some kind of a monument.

This picture is a visual demonstration of the situation in the GDR, being at the same time both an attempt to escape from reality, and an agreement to remain its victim while cherishing the idea of freedom and the wish to run away in one's mind. Simultaneously, this canvas depicts a situation when an intention to break away and the obligation to stay, a desire to leave and the wish not to move, co-exist in a paradoxical way which forms a vicious circle, and a repeated movement within that circle. I have been following Hofer, Beckmann and Bacon - the tendency that was started by German expressionism. Artists working in Moscow have now surpassed Berlin in what they do. Their searching in the area of self-consciousness, metaphoric language and ways to convey the underlying conceptual ideas has been prompted by New York pop-culture and Pop Art.

My second work, ”Me in Leipzig”, hangs next to ”An Oarsman”. It depicts a man whose torso is muffled up in a white veil. As a straitjacket, it ties up the arms and paralyses freedom of movement: a metaphor of being captured and locked in the GDR, and a sign of personal inadequacy. The picture was painted at a time when I felt particularly trapped, under watch, and, as a result, felt pity for myself. The red bodies in ”An Oarsman” and the figure in the veil in ”Me in Leipzig” are a self-portrait in a way, but at the same time they ask if this skinless wrapped bundle of a figure turned into a pile of raw flesh is my depersonalised ''ego”? I think that portraying myself in a way that evokes biblical allusions to the beggar, Lazarus, covered in sores, is again a metaphor that contradicts the public-oriented and widely-spread opportunistic realism that leaves the viewer worried and irritated.

Thus, my pictures at the exhibition are extremely conservative. They have no connection to post-modernism; their imperfection bears the patina of the moment of their creation. And yet, those pictures are illuminated with the pathos of freedom from within. The liberated spirit makes itself visible through the interplay of the transAtlantic and trans-European influence. The conservative workings of this freedom-loving pathos affect the essence of post-modernism with its polysemantic alternatives.

Exhibitions of this kind should be organized again and again. It is interesting to watch how similar passions are depicted in different countries, how a failure acquires a certain meaning and how art inevitably fights illusions in every part of the world. I hope that this exhibition will have far-reaching consequences. It can be considered a beginning of a long process; in the future similar shows might make the world even smaller. I do not mean an illusory world, but the world of passionate dreams of action and steps leading to changes - so that in the end people might become reconciled to one another.

Recorded by Doris Liebermann

Hans-Hendrik GRIMMLING. An Oarsman. Triptych (central part). 1983
Hans-Hendrik GRIMMLING. An Oarsman. Triptych (central part). 1983
Oil on hardboard. 150 by 120
GROUP 'ROSSIYA'. Lyudmila Blok.
GROUP "ROSSIYA". Lyudmila Blok. 1997
Oil on canvas. 140 by 120
Wolf VOSTELL. Your Candidate. 1961
Wolf VOSTELL. Your Candidate. 1961
Collage. 140 by 200
Heinz MACK. White Relief. 1959
Heinz MACK. White Relief. 1959
Mixed Media. 72 by 92
Sigmar POLKE. Joint Work. Rising. The East 1991
Sigmar POLKE. Joint Work. Rising. The East 1991
Mixed media. 300 by 225
Lutz DAMMBECK. Hercules Concept. Detail. 1985 (2003)
Lutz DAMMBECK. Hercules Concept. Detail. 1985 (2003).
Istallation. 936 by 880 by 600
Igor MAKAREVICH. Burial of the Communars. 1973
Igor MAKAREVICH. Burial of the Communars. 1973
Oil on canvas. 130,5 by 169,5
Hans-Hendrik GRIMMLING. Me in Leipzig. 1978
Hans-Hendrik GRIMMLING. Me in Leipzig. 1978
Oil on hardboard. 100 by 80
Hans-Hendrik GRIMMLING. An Oarsman. Triptych. 1983
Hans-Hendrik GRIMMLING. "An Oarsman". Triptych. 1983
Oil on hardboard. 100 by 150 (2), 150 by 120
IRWIN. The Corpse of Art. 2003
IRWIN. The Corpse of Art. 2003
Installation. 300 by 200





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