Til Jan. 29th, Künstlerhaus, Vienna, Austria
By DEBORAH KRIEGER, DEC. 2016
Going to an art exhibition grappling with the idea of the “Romantic” in Austria feels oddly appropriate. While not as well-known as German Romanticism, Austria also experienced a Romantic period in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, leading to new works of literature, music, drama, and other forms of art. So seeing the current exhibition at the Künstlerhaus in Vienna, a group show of contemporary artists engaging with the Romantic hallmarks of heightened emotion, spirituality, reverence for nature, and the fantastic feels both like a way to connect to the Austrian past and to examine whether the Romantic has any place in today’s world. Yet the title of the show emphasizes an “anti” lens, so upon entering the space, I found myself thinking: what is something that is anti-Romantic? What does anti-Romantic entail? Is it the opposite of the Romantic, or is it a negation of Romanticism? (The former idea, in my mind, refers more to realism as a philosophy and aesthetic, and the latter refers to the use and/or appropriation of Romantic ideas and techniques to challenge Romanticism itself.) In short, romANTIsch? aims to accomplish the latter objective, displaying a wide variety of media, including painting, photography, collage, sculpture, drawing, video, and installation; each work, or set of works by each artist, addresses and deconstructs some facet of the Romantic.
An immediate standout in romANTIsch? in this regard is a series of oil and acrylic paintings by Matthias Lautner, dating from 2014-2015, that reinterpret classic elements of the Romantic visual and combine them with more contemporary protagonists and painting techniques. In particular, “Wrong Conclusions,” from 2015 riffs on the myth of Narcissus: it depicts a seated young man gazing into what in a typical painting of Narcissus would be a reflective pond. While Narcissus is not a Romantic protagonist, the visual reference is clear. Yet instead of a tunic and sandals, this man is wearing what looks like jeans and a white shirt, and instead of a clear body of water in a landscape, the figure is situated in a murky, hazy dark setting. Instead of focusing on the story of Narcissus and his narrative, we instead must focus on trying to understand the interiority of this figure who sees something we cannot see, alluding to the Romantic traits of mystery and the dramatic—we have to do the work of imagining what is so compelling that he cannot look away, just like Narcissus couldn’t, leading to his own demise.
The other works in this series are similar in composition, palette, and evocative contexts: they are, for the most part, delicately-rendered figures dressed in simple, contemporary clothing, shining incandescently against dreary, sinister dark grounds balancing brush strokes and paint drips, creating an isolating, eerie effect—again, fully within the vein of the Romantic aesthetic. Another painting, “The Hunt” (2014) places a woman in a dark short dress and white bandanna in a blurry, hazy landscape that references both Constable and Turner. All of the figures in this series look away from us; they look deeper into the composition for the most part, refusing to engage with us, much like the classic Romantic painting “Wanderer above the sea of Fog” by Caspar David Friedrich. In this way, Matthias Lautner has taken the visual aspects of the romantic as his jumping-off point.
Yet viewing this group of works made me think about whether the Romantic can apply to the contemporary moment at all—whether the exploration evinced by this show is ultimately quixotic or not. Romanticism is so closely tied to its own historical moment that combining it with our own times feels strange, in a way, because of the implications of this juxtaposition. Does this combination suggest a connection between the conditions that led to the development of Romanticism and the present day? And if so, does that mean that we as people reacting to historical conditions will fundamentally never change, or that conditions themselves will continue to repeat ad nauseam, with no hope for progress or change for the better?
Other works in the show are far less literally influenced by the visual elements of the Romantic, but instead address themes of Romanticism using more modern-day visual techniques and media. For example, the sculpture “Erleuchtung im Angesicht des Universums” (“Enlightenment in the face of the universe”) (2016) by Kurt Strážnický engages with isolation and horror, depicting a naked man made of clear resin on a gray metallic pedestal with a circular hole cut into the base. We see only the hunched-over, nervous pose of this figure as he gazes into the hole, and we follow his gaze and feel his trepidation, but we cannot get close enough to the work to see what is in the hole. Much like with the faux-Narcissus in the Lautner painting, once again we as the viewers must meet this sculpture halfway in order for it to have meaning. Interestingly, this element of audience participation actually works to subvert the solitary aspect of the work and of the Romantic genre.
Another highlight in romANTIsche? is a series of large-scale collages by Sophie Dvořák, dating from 2013-14, called “Archeology of the Future,” which plays with the Romantic theme of the fantastical while also cleverly integrating an almost steampunk-esque, technological flair. Combining images of architectural elements, pipes and machinery, flora and fauna, and celestrial bodies has the delightful effect of almost modernizing Romanticism, since what could be more far-flung and fanciful than these surreal compositions?
However, not all of the works in romANTIsch are quite as successful or innovative. A series of mixed-media works from 2016 combining drawing, painting, and collage by Stella Bach take what is by now a clichéd approach of the effects of technology in our lives. While the Romantic context of these works is certainly fresher, the theme of technology as a distracting, isolating, negative factor that destroys human connection is hardly new. In one image, titled “Wo bist du, Licht? Nach Friedrich Hölderlin” (Where are you, light? After Friedrich Hölderlin), an elderly couple sits facing away from one another in high-backed hairs, wearing some sort of strange apparatus that encases their head and directs their attention to a screen, whose light brightens their faces. On the other side of the composition a naked woman, wearing the same screen-helmet, sits in the middle ground, nursing an infant. All of the figures are placed upon what look like dark, angry burnt-out volcanoes, and the atmosphere around them is dark and toxic and foreboding. Including people from various life stages—a baby, a young woman, and the elderly—in this composition argues that addiction to screens becoming a habit that lasts throughout one’s life and is passed on to the next generation, but again, while the rejection of technology and the mechanical works within the Romantic framework, the extremely literal way Bach makes her case is not particularly creative.
A set of images by Helmut Pokornig from 2006-2016 located on a nearby wall, however, is much more successful. Using Diasec transferred onto aluminum, Pokornig does what the Romantic era never did because of its temporality: he applies the Romantic qualities of mystery and seclusion to stereotypical suburban compositions. It’s such a clear and effective way of bringing Romanticism closer to our own time—like the film American Beauty, almost, but magnifying the discontent and stagnation in that film to something far more uneasy and dramatic here. The figures are dressed in 20th century clothes, so they feel more recognizable to us as types, but at the same time, the poses are ambiguous, the images blurred, and none of the figures are looking at us. The works include a snapshot of a couple posed for what could be pre-high school dance photographs cut off at the neck; a still, quiet, smoky indication a woman whose back faces us entirely, the colors and fog seemingly reinterpreting “Wanderer above the sea of Fog”; an aerial shot of a couple walking to their car, a 50’s style jalopy parked on what looks like a deserted, never-ending street.
One final highlight I will mention is “Panic Book” by Nemanja Nikolic, a two-part work from 2015 consisting of fifteen collaged book pages on one wall and a video animation based on those pages in the adjacent small room. “Panic Book,” builds on the quiet desperation present in other pieces in romANTIsch adeptly, its imagery of a running man rendered in ink and crayon on top of the off-white book pages almost Hitchcockian in their sense of thrill and chase and danger, but are still grounded in that Romantic icon of the solitary male figure on some grand adventure.
Because of the way the gallery space is laid out, I ended up seeing the introductory wall text as I left the show, rather than having it introduce the concept to me (and thus color whatever observations I made). Yet looking at the way the show itself is titled—explicitly contrasting our “technological society” with the Romantic—is puzzling, because only a few works even address the technological aspect of contemporary life that is presented as being in such opposition to Romantic ideals; the approach the artists seem to have overwhelmingly taken is more of a reinterpretation of Romanticism, borrowing from the present, without regards to modern technology. Ultimately, however, romANTIsch? is a well-done and multilayered exhibition, requiring perhaps more than one visit to fully absorb what it has to offer. WM
romANTIsch? Unsere technisierte Gesellschaft braucht Romantik! runs until January 29, 2017 at the temporary Künstlerhaus location at Stolberggasse 26, Wien 1050.
Deborah Krieger is a graduate of Swarthmore College in Art History, German, and Film and Media Studies. She has been published in the Northwestern Art Review, Hyperallergic, and other art and culture platforms both online and in print. She is a recipient of a Fulbright grant to Vienna, Austria, where she is teaching English, researching contemporary art, and studying at the University of Vienna.view all articles from this author