Signs and Narrative in Art: A R Penck – Research

I recently discovered the ArtRabbit app, which tells you about art events and exhibitions in your area. I was excited to get involved in more live art happenings, and a view into the art world outside Brookes. On here, I saw a half-day conference (free for students to attend) at the Ashmolean in Oxford related to their exhibition on A R Penck, and decided I would go along.

Curator Lena Fritsch gives us a mini tour of the A R Penck exhibition at the Ashmolean after the various talks, in front of the Edinburgh (Northern Darkness III) mural.

A R Penck was one of several pseudonyms for Ralf Winkler, which he first used in the 1960s to elude the authorities in communist East Germany (GDR), which has stuck. Self-taught, following an apprenticeship in advertising, he looked to masters such as Matisse and Picasso, prehistoric cultures, as well as popular culture comics and scifi to influence his work and style. He moved to the West in the 1980s, and lived in London for some time.

Shaped by the subversion of his early work (having to operate in secret with scant materials, smuggling his work to the West), his use of symbolism and repeated motifs is of particular interest to me, as is the fact that his work sought to communicate socially relevant narratives.

This exhibition focused on the development of his ‘Standart’ stick figures, which were used expressively as well as to form signs relating to the concept of man and social power systems. Often the Standart took on the form of a hunter, to play on the primal urges and timeless aggression of humans. Below we can see his exploration of this form expressively through various media (pencil sketch, printmaking, sculpture, paint and ink)

I think for me the more interesting executions here are the print and the painting, with the flat layering of colour accentuating this flat essentialised form that we still recognise as human.

I appreciated understanding a little more of the narrative within the Edinburgh mural from the curator Lena Fritsch, though I think a much lengthier talk would be needed to grasp all elements of this large scale work fully. She drew our attention to the elements featured which captured something of the zeitgeist from 1987 (when the painting was created on-site at the Fruit Market Gallery in Edinburgh). The middle image above shows two standarts (each holding a different letter) coming together – symbolising the softening of the cold war, with American and Russian interests meeting to discuss disarmament during this time.

The right hand figure sees a hunter, a dynamic figure covering much of the space, carrying a spear in two hands and a wheel in another (symbolising change/time?). He is breaking about a shape that hangs above the two conciliatory figures, with another letter falling out from it – perhaps to show the new phase coming?

The left hand detail was not mentioned specifically in the talk, but to me appears like figures falling out of a dinghy/life raft – perhaps a warning that this is yet still potentially unstable times?

I think in pictures before I think in speech. Before thinking in pictures I think in abstract motions. The content of such motions is abstract gesture. Such abstract gestures are what interest me.

A. R. Penck as quoted in the Ashmolean exhibition notes

I enjoyed his more abstract work, though I think it was most successful when working with a limited colour palette of only one or two, to help focus be drawn more to the gestural quality. I had not previously come across the art term ‘neo-expressionist’ but this is how his work has been described.

Helene Schjerfbeck exhibition: research/reflection

This weekend I visited the RA to see the retrospective on Helene Schjerfbeck, the first solo exhibition of her work in the UK. Born in Finland in 1862, she was an active painter until her death in 1946.

I was keen to visit this exhibition, to continue my run of women artist retrospectives in 2019, begun with Lee Krasner and Natalia Goncharova. This is motivated by various reasons for me – to do what I can to ‘vote with my feet’ and support the rewriting of art history to include women who deservedly should be included within it, in the process educating myself and reflecting on their practice, and further because something about observing depictions of female subjects devoid of the male gaze is palliative and reassuring to me in some ways. I have often felt very uncomfortable in the more historic wings of art galleries, filled with idealised and sexualised female forms, and while some women artists have continued in this convention in the hopes of subverting the narrative, I find it most interesting seeing depiction go beyond this.

The exhibition itself was divided into 5 sections, split across 3 rooms, suggesting that the curator could have filled a good number more rooms if given the space!

Dreaming does not suit me. To work, to live through work, that is my path.”

Helene Schjerfbeck

I think this artist held a deep emotional intelligence, and conveying complex emotional narratives in her work. I will highlight the works I found to be most interesting here, in the order in which they were presented in the exhibition.

Section 1.

The Bakery (1887)

For this painting, Schjerbeck had set up her easel in a working bakery but chosen not to depict the bakers who no doubt would have been present at the time. In this sense she is already subverting the conventions of naturalism. I found this painting a little unsettling, and reflected on it for some time. The scales, just off centre, are unbalanced. We see a large table filled with fresh baked buns, just laying there (the perspective of this feels like it is exaggerating the size and dominance of this in the space). There is a sense of stillness and murkiness in the room, which is contrasted by the vivid light from the furnace emanating from around a corner in the distance. It implies for me a sense of waste, empty endeavour, inequality in a land of plenty.

Shadow on a wall (Breton landscape), 1883

I was intrigued to see this painting in the exhibition, following my own thinking around depiction of shadows and impermanence. For me, this painting was interesting as she had taken great care to depict the detail of the young branches on the foregrounded tree, to a very fine degree, but the subject of the painting itself, the shadow, contrastingly feels slightly sketchy or blurred. I wondered if this could be defying the convention of the object of focus being also the main subject of a piece (as in photography for instance). The effect is such that it is as though we are only seeing the shadows in our peripheral vision, as though they are some ever-present looming darkness. I think this must be the intention, since the landscape itself is fairly sparse, and the space taken up by shadow is quite large, you cannot focus on the tree without seeing it.

Section 2.

Silence, 1907

There is an interesting quality of light in this painting, her blue dress and delicately lit face contrasting with the plain dark background. The shape of her long neck and sloping shoulders makes her look ethereally elongated, and removed. Again here a sense of stillness and reservation – even regret from the downturned eyes?

Section 3

This room was dedicated to her self-portraits, painted throughout her life. Her style became more abstracted over time, and she confronted her mortality and the deterioration of age head on, with the final works completed within a year of her death at 83.

I found it quite a challenging room to be in, and felt that not only was she exploring that physical change she was seeing over time, but also capturing perhaps her self-perception and attitude towards herself. It is not a sympathetic view of aging we see in her final works, the figure abstracted to almost not being human. I wondered if here the figure of Nosferatu from early cinema might have been an influence (the film was released 20 years prior) – if so characterising oneself as a monster is certainly suggesting a troubled internal world.

Schjerbeck’s technique involved applying paint and then scraping it off or rubbing it back. She repeatedly reworked surfaces with a brush, palette knife or cloth and even sandpaper. The layering and erasure emulate the effects of time in paint. In some cases, parts of the canvas are deliberately left bare, using this texture as part of the picture.”

RA notes – Helene Schjerbeck exhibition

I was interested to read about her techniques with paint – she used oils which I am not familiar with but if applied thickly I imagine a similar effect can be achieved with acrylic? Could be interesting to experiment with this.

Section 4

Girl with beret, 1935

In this room, we saw more of Schjerfbeck’s portraiture, and here her style has developed further. She is using a variety of source material, including the latest fashions from Marie Claire and Chanel, as well as using her own memories and imagination to influence her work. This results in something more abstract and generalised, and though here again there is a woman with downcast eyes, here it suggests a sort of melancholy or regret for me, with a sharper light being cast on the figure.

Section 5

Her still lifes are for me really interesting. The exhibition notes stated that she would work on multiple canvases at a time, doing these as a counterpoint to the many portraits she did. As such I think she may have been a little freer here and we see her particular approach to painting clearly evidenced.

I especially liked seeing the variety of marks she used for the pumpkin still life and how the intent with these marks is not to recreate/emphasise what must have been a very rounded shape.

This exploration and experimentation with abstraction did not quite take her far enough in my view, and I left feeling like if only there had been a further section to her working life we might have gotten somewhere exciting. It left me somewhat unsatisfied, having seen the broad experimentation of Lee Krasner and Natalia Goncharova. But I certainly enjoyed seeing the depths of emotion contained within her works nonetheless.