The Tamtam of Colour

Marina Pizziolo
Art historian, Milan

The two coordinates governing our experiences on the great map of life are time and space. If, however, the vertigo of time is a spiral gyrating in itself then space, the materiality of which is, after all, our first connotation, is useless because with- out effect over time, which is just a dimension of our thinking. This connotation is of heavy and direct import on us. And what is the character of the space inhab- ited by that part of mankind, which has cast itself into the flickering of the digital age? Paradoxically, it‘s emptiness, as our space is a space built from subtractions: the scent and the colour of the grass obliterated by asphalt, the horizon erased by the crazy diagram of buildings, the magic of night extinguished by the implac- able reflection of artificial light. The dimension of the metropolis is an unbearable, yet inescapable negation of nature. The quality of contemporary architecture far too often seems to be dedicated to selfish conceit, letting its own powerless wish for a stainless eternity perish in the steel, in the glass, in the concrete and in the white. Therefore it is not by chance that life moving in that scene far too often is a life pulsating in an emotional emptiness – a void accentuated by an urgent bustle which has lost its deeper reasons and is only following the necessities deemed a priori to be unavoidable. Then the myth of the body is created and its eternal youth, a fragile fortress erected only to hide the shame of a heart unable to rise to new heights. And then the myth of efficiency, with the corollaries of the negation of child- hood and old age: considered useless, as incompetent, stages of life. Here we are with a mankind seemingly mourning, with its totally black garments, the deceased joy it cannot feel any more. A joy that has been substituted by a fearful quiet, a joy based on rationality – the freedom of loneliness, the perfection of emptiness. This satin-finished vacuity has used up the warmth and the scent of the skin, the sound of laughter and the time for crying or for meeting in the dark around a fire, while the night retrieves the infinity of heaven.
Ruth Baumgarte never felt the necessity to declare emptiness or quiet as secrets of her intellectuality. She has never adopted the alibi of those who haven‘t got any titles to then get lost in the labyrinth of unspeakable semantic ways. She has never turned the painterly sketch into an aesthetic gag or a notional whim. It is true that today everything has the flattering dignity of the topical, because art cannot find an itinerary any more, as it has stopped to engage itself for ends. The artful defi- nition of Ad Reinhardt thus becomes more valid than ever: “The one thing to say about art is that it is one thing. Art is art-as-art and everything else is everything else. Art as art is nothing but art. Art is not what is not art.”1 Baumgarte, howev- er, was able to find a clear direction. She decidedly swam upstream, sailing against the course of time, in quest of the roots of a still unspoilt mankind. She has found the background to her story in far away Central Africa. Here joy still can unleash an unfettered dance, burst into the flames of a true ecstasy. Here pain can be dev- astating. Here everything is powerful and clear, in good times and in bad. And life has the forceful taste of a game to be played quickly, before the advent of the dark- ness that might last forever.
In her painting, she never indulges in superficial compassion, there isn‘t ever a sad accusation – that is not the aim of the painter‘s voyage. Baumgarte deals with Af- rica without following the paternalistic myth of a higher value of the West. On the contrary: Her painting becomes a witnessing chronicle of noteworthy events, though outside time and history – history always belongs to the winners and has always been written on white pages. The events Baumgarte is a precious witness of rather belong to a different history: the history the black people pass on in their songs, in their fairy tales and in their long narratives. A history vibrating in that dance where the rhythm gains more and more speed. That history which pulsates in a time un- folding freely from dawn to dusk, with the natural change of light and darkness. A time not only of bustle, dominated by economic logic and its unreflected rhythms, but a time to be invested in original, normal and essential activities, like fetching water or making fire.
We aren’t willing to wait any more. Waiting is an interrupting pause for life, as it is non-productive. The magic of Africa Baumgarte conveys in her various works also consists of the readiness for a trustful time of waiting, without fear. There are some verses, written in 1934 by the ingenious poet Antonia Pozzi, whose life was characterised by tragic experiences – verses, which, of all things, rediscover the sense of love in the time of waiting and readiness. “I trust you a lot. I am quiet / like the Arab, wrapped / in his white barracan / who listens to God / while He lets the barley ripen around his house.” In one of Baumgarte’s works, “African Vision”, this readiness to wait is expressed in the calm majesty of a group of women sitting un- der the endless sky of the Great African Plain. Looking at Baumgarte’s interpreting intention, one will always have to concede that the German painter always reflects on duration: the depiction of an event which is action in time – an elaborate event. The verbal coding of the titles never has, and that’s not mere chance, an aesthetic meaning, doesn’t exhaust itself in a formal note; rather, it has the duty of a lexical crowbar to crack the kernel of the painterly narrative. “Bearing a Message”, “Turn of the Fire”, “A man without livestock isn’t a man” aren’t works to be understood as colourful seduction; rather, they openly declare their interpretative intentions. In this respect, Baumgarte’s works are ideal pages of the diary of a journey into a fantastic land, populated by people who are proud of their traditions, their past and their land. Contemporary art doesn’t pay much attention to the figurative. If the spaces of the metropolises are built from subtractions, the art is the antonomasia of the urban dimension, as it is the mirror or a powerful opposite of the social power concen- trating on the city. In most cases this art appears to be a fall into the void, a void showing itself in the works as a monochrome application of paint, as abstraction, or, if it chooses the ways of reality, as the boasting of a space, which is almost al- ways uninhabited and cleaned of men. Baumgarte’s works, however, are mostly fig- urative images. Portraits, or, more often, chorus-like arrangements, in which the characters are part of an overall happening. It is interesting to see, how these fig- ures place themselves in space. The background is never an idle background, but a fluid coming, showing the same tidal waves which also go through the faces and bodies. The fusion of colour is such that the figures are almost a preliminary appa- rition, a transitory concretion that has to flow back into the waves of colour made by the earth, the rivers, the mountains and the plains. And then it is this seductive pictorial “all over”, in which the characteristics of style of Baumgarte unfold. A pain- terly, a poetic writing, presenting us with the measure for the total fusion of man and environment – a fusion still possible in those faraway lands. Additionally, it is also the expression of a sense of the powers of nature which still prevails there. A nature not tamed and humiliated by an arrogant capillary contamination, which still today is capable of overwhelming man with endless horizons, with pulsating skies, breathtaking sunsets, far away from the sad “sunset rituals” of tourism offered in “all-inclusive” holiday packages.
Baumgarte’s painting is a true bonfire of colours. The images are touched by brush- strokes alternating the main colours red, blue and yellow in a flaming contrast; the values of the clair-obscur therefore are rediscovered by the changes in the varia- tions of strong emphasis. These values of clair-obscur characterise the figures as not explored, yet vibrant units of light, holding within the whole wonderful warmth of the African land. The works disseminate a vibrant ode to joy, to a heathen lumi- nosity containing all important emotions, the wonderful warmth of life. A warmth that is laughter, rage, weeping, hate, passion and love. At these moments an ob- sessive tamtam rises from Baumgarte’s work, breaking the glass we have fallen behind – the ice-cold aquarium which allows our artificial survival as humans who have forgotten their souls.