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.

Forms in Sculpture: Research

Constantin Brancusi

What is real is not the external form, but the essence of things

Constantin Brancusi

After my experience with the Gained in Translation task, I was interested to learn more about how sculptors have sought to capture the essence of an object in simplified or generalised forms. This seems to be of particular importance in considering the work of the sculptor Constantin Brancusi.

He paid great attention to the material with which he worked, coming from a crafts background. This means the artwork gives a sense of being formed quite naturally, not working against the fabric with which it has been created. The fluidity of metal, the roughness of stone, and the smooth flint of granite.

What is intriguing though in particular is his depiction of the subject. He has not sought for it to resemble the subject in a physical sense, but has imbued it with an abstract sort of resemblance. The Danaide conveys a serenity and composure of the subject; the bird in space, graceful dynamism; the fish streamlined movement that in a flash would disappear from view. In a sense here he has depicted the qualia of the subject (as philosophers might term it) – that is, he has relayed the experience of witnessing the subject within his artwork: the ‘what it means to see a fish’. This is beyond simple emotional expression and onto something quite more conceptual depth.

This too can be seen in the Endless column. He is giving us the illusion of a pattern, a motif, that could be repeated ad infinitum and conveying to us what it might be like to experience that.

That he would return to several of these motifs again and again, producing unique versions sometimes with only slight nuance, is perhaps less interesting to me. But the notion of repetition on a theme and meditation is perhaps something to consider.

I think it is also noteworthy that he mostly shied away from geometric design and instead focused on smooth rounded shapes and organic-like forms.