Friday, January 6, 2012

Arnulf Rainer/Victor Hugo, Surpeintures, Maison de Victor Hugo

Arnulf Rainer, Van Gogh Series (Enough of Overpainting says Van Gogh), 1977
I have often seen Arnulf Rainer’s paintings in my peripheral vision in museums in Germany especially, but never spent much time with them. Peter Kubelka’s film however is a different story. Annette Michelson first introduced the film to me as “the most brilliant film ever made.” Arnulf Rainer (1960) has no image recorded on its film material, but instead the light creates a flicker effect on the screen, the sort that has today has me warn students who may be prone to epilepsy. Arnulf Rainer is film at its most brilliant because it is, effectively, a phenomenological experiment that reduces the medium to its most fundamental components: light moving in time.

It may be my enthusiasm for Kubelka’s film that has always left me luke warm in front of Rainer’s paintings. But the exhibition of drawings and overpaintings at the Maison Victor Hugo new perspectives on his work were opened up, and I am now even beginning to like it. And what was perhaps most enjoyable about the exhibition was the opportunity to see Hugo’s drawings and sketches in their originals. The title of the exhibition, Victor Hugo: Arnulf Rainer, Surpeintres only indicates half of what the exhibition contains. As well as Rainer’s overpaintings of Hugo’s sketches and drawings, as I say, there are some exquisite Hugo illustrations. In addition, examples of Rainer’s other overpainting series – van Gogh, Odillon, Corot, Friedrich — are also included.

Victor Hugo, Paysage, 1850
The images that engage with Hugo’s drawings do fill the first two galleries. Typically overpainting is a visual discussion of reflections, doubled images, interstices, revisioning, crossing out. It is a form of graffiti that effaces what lies beneath it, and in so doing, turns what it over paints into a secret. Apparently, all of these issues are inherent to Hugo’s drawings. His interest in landscapes emerging from a horizon, dreamlike cities in the throes of dissolution, all become exaggerated by Rainer’s “revisioning” of them. There are also images in which Rainer is clearly inspired by Hugo, and takes off from where Hugo left off, making it difficult for us to determine where one begins and the other ends. In these images, a work of struggle between two artists, what might be understood as an obliteration of the master (Friedrich, Corot, but also Hugo) and his era, his world view, becomes a “co-authored” and there are now two masters, two eras, two world views.
Arnulf Rainer, Untitled, 1998-99   
In the first rooms, Rainer’s typically aggressive and sometimes violent aesthetic comes together with Victor Hugo’s more gentle, reflective and intricate drawings and ink illustrations. There is an anger towards the originals, but then as I wandered through, looking at more and more of the images, I found inspiration, and even a tenderness towards Hugo’s drawings. In all of them, there was a very passionate relationship between a whole series of images, reproductions of images and reproductions of reproductions.

Arnulf Rainer, Sans Titre, 2000
Victor Hugo, L'Hermitage 1855

Rainer also turns Hugo’s works upside down and back to front before he overpaints. And even before this, Rainer makes a laser copy of a reproduction of the Hugo drawing or ink wash presumably found in books. Rainer deliberately keeps the elements of his process obscure, but I did keep thinking, if only I knew where Rainer found Hugo images, then another layer of meaning would emerge. But I was left thinking about an anonymous reproduction of a reproduction, in itself a form of repetition, being transformed into a manipulation and appropriation that somehow becomes so far removed from the original. And then, when we thought level of respect for the original couldn’t sink any lower, we notice that the reproductions are crooked on their backgrounds. At times Rainer enlarges the prints, to completely distort the original. And yet, at the same time, as I say, it accentuates everything about Hugo’s drawings.
Arnulf Rainer, Serie Friedrich, 1979 
The relationship to other artists’ work is completely different, particularly, when Rainer turns his hand to overpainting Corot and Friedrich paintings. In these examples, his brush not only appears to flay all respect for the master, but it takes on ironic and satirical proportions. On one image by Friedrich, Rainer writes his initials in red like a piece of graffiti over the face of the most revered of German painters. Like any piece of graffiti, Rainer’s disfigurations are also enhancements that draw attention to that which they erase.


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