Within The Times And Beyond

Ruth Baumgarte And The Development -Of Western Art

Gerhard Charles Rump
former art market editor for “Die Welt”
editor of the Art Investor

The recent row over the new hanging of the collection in the Tate Britain made it clear once more that the development of art is a series of leaps and that changes of paradigm come in the plural: The art of a certain period always contains the simultaneity of the irreconcilable. In the year Whenever artists will paint abstract as well as figurative paintings, and also expressive, lyrical, conceptual ones – and together they constitute the panorama of an artistic period.
Whether an artistic idea is in keeping with the times or not can only be determined in relation to its own kind, not in relation to others. Abstraction is one of the traditions in Modern Art, ever since Kandinsky painted the first abstract painting in 1910 1, but figurative painting existed alongside abstractionism at all times. Contemporary discourse may prefer one to the other at different times, but none is ever excluded. This is one of the many factors responsible for the variety of the history of art. “The question, which is to be master” 2 has to be decided over and over again.
Looking at the oeuvre of Ruth Baumgarte (1923–2013) leaves no doubt that she is deeply rooted in the figurative tradition. She began to paint and draw at the early age of three, and that in all aspects far beyond the usual childhood activities. When she started to paint and draw professionally in the later thirties3 the aesthetic discussion of the times found itself stuck between multiple rocks and hard places. Abstraction, Expressionism, Dada, Secession and Surrealism had dominated the discourse and continued to do so in most places outside Germany, but within the Reich the Nazi dictatorship of art reigned supreme.
“All the Third Reich substituted in the plastic arts for what was rejected as degenerate is […] deplorable. ’The works‘ […] are artistically retarding […] , glued to the photographs they copy, and are, after all, only interesting within the frame of the history of ideology.” 4
This ideology of art stuck to the late 19th century didn’t make any compromise. And counteracting it meant danger to life and limb.5 It wasn’t easy at all to fine one’s way as a young artist at these times. There is an early (1942) drawing by Ruth -Baumgarte, crayon on paper, “Zigeuner im Regen” (Gypsies in the rain), in which two simply clad male figures, street musicians obviously, seen from the back are fleeing also away from the beholder, protecting themselves from an onsetting downpour by an umbrella which is beginning to disintegrate and by pulling up the back of the jacket. They carry their musical instruments, the one farther away a violin in its box, the other a violoncello without any protective cover. The violin player (the one with the already damaged umbrella) is looking around but not at the beholder, rather his view goes to his colleague or into the stormy sky outside the image. His fearful face reminds us of historical models by LeBrun and followers. The connection to a model does not weaken the effect, on the contrary.6 A bourgeois art canon and individual power of invention form a remarkable symbiosis.
Superficially, the figurative style might have distracted the eye of evil 7, but the motif is all but risk-free and neither is the interpretation. Ruth Baumgarte has said herself that she would never have been able to show this work publicly. Gypsies8 were not deemed worthy to be a motif in art in Nazi ideology, especially when, like in this case, they were represented in human and not in any negative terms. They represent the artists at that time, and the rainy weather is a clear symbol of the menacing political circumstances. From the point of cultural politics, the artists are, so to say, left out in the rain and have only little protection, if any.
The two musicians are heading towards a railway track running from left to right through a kind of construction site, marked by two sawhorses, a triangular sand sieve and a pile of sand right at the fence closing off the middle distance. The construction site stands for the social transformation which, in 1942, still was in full swing. On the right there is a station, with a clock tower, the time being five past four in the afternoon. Does this remind us of deportations? This is, at this point in time, indeed possible, as systematic deportations had begun in 1941. There is another important element, the fence, behind which shadowy grotesque figures appear, a reminiscence of Goya’s etching ”El sueño de la razón produce monstruos“ (Capricho 43, 1799) and which supports the interpretation of the image as an apocalyptic vision. Horror lurks behind the fence, and the musicians, the artists, are heading directly towards it.
There is also a quotation in the picture: In the lower left corner we find an empty bottle with a swing stopper and an equally empty, turned-over pot with a handle right next to some discarded material. This is a negative version of the still life up front in the lower left corner, in the matching place, in Manet’s ”Déjeuner sur l’herbe“ (Breakfast on the Grass, 1863, Musée d’Orsay, Paris). What meant the fullness of life in Manet’s painting, here is re-interpreted as sheer want.
The drawing in pen and ink, ”Arbeiter auf dem Dach“ (Workers on the roof), dates one year later. The seemingly innocuous and at first glance even ideology-affirmative subject is, however, not harmless at all. The seated Michelangelesque figure of the worker on the left sports a larger-than-life, pointing gesture of the hand, the figure on the right has adopted a rest position, keeping one hand in his pocket. The man looks into an indeterminate point in the distance (future), into the same direction the hand of the other person is pointing. As they are standing on a roof, they look at things from above, from a higher vantage point. One can restrict oneself to seeing a worker’s conversation only, but really the subject is the political circumstances of the time – there is a subversive discourse going on here. At the time, the first bombs were falling in Berlin, and the workers stand on the roof of a house hit by one of those, a completely “verboten”, forbidden subject in Nazi Germany. The sky (i. e. the future) looks gloomy, black. The two figures are the witnesses of a beginning apocalypse.
This strategy of presenting subversion in superficially harmless raiment is, in the context of European art, a traditional one. George Morland (1763–1804), just to name one artist, often used it, showing, for instance, rural people conversing in front of a country inn as, speaking in a simplified manner, talking radical politics.9 -Especially the motif of the idling worker is almost always an invitation to civil disobedience.
The works right after World War II, when Ruth Baumgarte made illustrations and other kinds of images also in order to earn money, closely match, also as individual designs, the overall longing for reconstruction of the people of post-war Germany. Beside the processes of repression and the turning to “clean” – as forbidden by the Nazis – abstractionism, there were attempts at new beginnings, also within the figurative idioms. Eduard Bargheer, Werner Gilles and Edvard Frank, for instance, tried to reanimate German culture from a Mediterranean spirit10. Werner Heldt turns the city image into forms of melancholy with a chance of hope (like in “Karfreitag” – Good Friday – painted in 1953, Wilhelm-Lehmbruck-Museum, Duisburg). Karl Hofer tries a new start based on the humanistic view of man, which lead him to melancholy. In general it can be said that much of figurative art (even in the GDR, for example in the oeuvre of Harald Metzkes) was characterized by this touch of existential melancholy which is a general ostinato in art.
There have, however, been different models, the lyrical and the serene and joyful in abstraction (Carl Buchheister, Peter Brüning, partly Walter Stöhrer, in the works of Fritz Winter and Max Ackermann) and also in figurative paintings. When Ruth -Baumgarte paints still lifes (“Atelierecke” – A corner in the studio –, 1945; “Stilleben” – Still life –, 1948) or child portraits (“Heidi”, 1949; “Kleine Tänzerin” – Little dancer –, 1950) they are partly conversions with hopes attached, partly images speaking of a positive turning towards the future within the framework of an art looking for new insights and new truths. At this point in time, and this also holds true for Ruth Baumgarte, there is a clear distinction between the newly found and the traditional formulae. Carl Buchheister saw that, but also an artist like Constant, who wrote: “As our wishes largely remain unknown to us, making experiments always has to rely on the present state of knowledge. What we know already is the base, we make deductions from.” 11 A later (May 1989) word from Ruth Baumgarte points into the same direction: “It is the times […] which steadily invite us to leave both horror and delight behind, and not to disappear within the familiar, but to open new ways using the perceptions of our lives.” 12
In the course of the 1950s Ruth Baumgarte started to undertake travels. Her wanderlust lead her to European countries, to Turkey and Persia. The visual experiences in other parts of the world, the first-hand knowledge of completely different worlds of color, lead to images, mostly in watercolor, speaking of a progressively consolidating aesthetic grasp of world. It is less about the exoticism of a motif (that would be a picture-postcard), rather it is about the giving it order and the (self-)assurance, the inner architecture of an individual artistic position, which must be seen as a method of shaping a concept of existence: Art as life technic.13
An early proof of her artistic self-assertion is the nonconformist “Frühes Selbstbildnis” (Early self portrait) of 1947. In an androgynous attire with a beret and, above all, a cigarette between the lips, she violates several codes of conduct of the times simultaneously, acting as if it’s understood. The sensible, often employed creative means of the spot-structure in the application of colors is already evident.
Paintings like “Später Winter” (Late winter) with an expressive, demonic cat carrying a dead bird between her fangs (1975), “Entschluss” (Resolution), of which there is also a preparatory drawing in charcoal (1978), showing a man in different states of psychic intensity and despair, quite obviously at a turning point of his life (there is a written comment like, amongst others, “Ausweg” – Way out –), or the series of works “Wintertod” (Winter death, 1982) with the blending of individual and landscape and the symbolical identification of winter as the death of nature and the dying of a human being, have at all times been important for Ruth Baumgarte and embody insights into the workings of the world and into fate. They prove that art, for her, as an aesthetic dialogue with reality never was a practice of formalistic settings, rather an existential effort in emotional projection finding its form in the image.
This is also true for landscape paintings, like, for instance, the 1955 watercolor “Blick auf Vesuv” and “Istanbul” (1960). In “View of Vesuvius” pictorial depth clearly materializes in the correspondence of the balustrade at the bottom (equaling in front) and the volcano above (equaling in the back). The motifs in the image are reduced in number, and there are hardly any simplifications of details, rather painterly traces stand for whole complexes and arrays of objects. The image visualizes an aesthetic order corresponding to the motif without depiction. Vesuvius remains Vesuvius, but above all: painting.
“Istanbul” is similar but it shows, and that is a purely descriptive way of putting it, more of a game with densification (trees, minarets) and dissolution (mist, flow of colors). This provides aesthetic tension, the wise restriction to restrained, but typical elements leading to a largely non-descriptive parallel world of the image aiming at aesthetic autonomy. The motif is the spur of the image, not its raison d’être. In the words of Martin Bodenstein: “Landscapes of sensibility avoid any kitsch, there isn’t anything maudlin about them, nor touristic charisma.” 13a This hasn’t got anything to do with a denial of the emotional, only with keeping emotions within the bounds of the appropriate, as only then the equation of the image can be solved.
Lately attention to this complex, the relations between art and emotion, has risen. The focus mainly is on so-called “knowledge emotions”, like interest, confusion, surprise. These are matched by hostility (denial), the sublime and the aesthetic stimulus.14 The necessary subjectivity both of the artist and the beholder appears to be conserved and respected as a primary impulse; any further processing isn’t to be regarded as something emotional. One will have to see, though, that knowledge emotions and other categories of emotion are based on norms of cultural tradition and / or the beholders’ biographies, which themselves are changeable. Just think of the antagonism between liking and disliking of representations of the nude. In all this, emotion has an accepted role, but within limits. If certain triggering key stimuli are exaggerated or focalized too strongly it will lead to kitsch production.15
In Ruth Baumgarte’s oeuvre emotion is always appropriate, although it can, quite naturally, be strong. Important stages here are marked by images and series of works like the “Mädchenakt” (Girl nude; watercolor on colored paper, 1972) or “Kirche in der Grafschaft Killarney” (Church in Killarney, 1969). The nude steers around cliffs and shoals. The larger-than-life flowers in the background take on the role of distributors of emotions and they also are echoes of old and venerable pictorial strategies like the combination of flowers with women. The girl is, as a contemporary pictorial interpretation, a reconstructing variant of the Madonna in the Rose Bower. The background of flowers also appears to incorporate a certain orientalism. It also constitutes an early manifestation of the strong colors coming later, in a somewhat subdued form, although precursors can be found in the 1940s (Portrait Margret Keller-Conrady, 1946, 1946; Portrait E. B., 1946). As to the colors, it is also true for the somewhat earlier image of the church in Killarney (Ireland), where layers of pictorial depth have been left transparent, where everything blends into each other and the figurative pictorial inventory is completely born from color. That is similar to the pictures of labor, which were mostly conceived in southern regions of Europe (“In den Vorstädten” – In the suburbs –, 1966) and which often operate with strong luminescence and powerful contrasts.
Such reconstructions, very much in the sense of symbolical processing, are frequently to be found in the images. The pastel “Do Not Pass This Point”, caught between Edward Kienholz and James Dean, showing a young couple with a green apple in the middle of vintage cars, accompanied in the background by a tree, a serpent and a warning sign, is, of course, a contrafacture, but mainly a reconstruction of the representations of the Fall of Man. A very special quality is given to the image both regarding the composition as a whole and also the individual figures by the easy, transparent and expressive flow, and it refers to the permanent dualism between visualization and embodiment, too. This is always a tension between one’s own and claims coming from outside, too.
Ruth Baumgarte also plays with traditional poses and pictorial formulae every once in a while. The watercolor “Arbeiter” (Laborers), painted in 1962, shows a young man and an older one. The younger wears a natural, inartificial face – a self-assured, even class-conscious young man. He gazes at the beholder, the blue of his collar worn like a medal, as it is only to be seen right there, unico loco. He alone would make a perfect picture, but there is a subtext of generation problems. The young laborer doesn’t have much in common with his older colleague. His companion, in whose face the records of life show, is posing: His little pipe in his hand, a proud gaze directed towards the upper left corner, meaning heaven-bent, with a good helping of self-satisfaction and a pinch of the “salt-of-the-earth”-consciousness.
In this way, historical, social and individual change become a subject. Development, change, life. There is a steel-mill type background. It is almost as if Ruth Baumgarte had entered Menzel’s “Eisenwalzwerk” (Steel rolling mill, 1872–1875, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin) and had asked two figures to pause to paint them extra. This representation of laborers in her painting shows them, like in practically all her images of workers, as self-confident individuals, sure of their abilities and conscious of the value of their accomplishments. This is, indeed, a subject of the times, as rebuilding Europe after World War II wasn’t finished yet. The older laborer already looks back on a lot that has been achieved; the younger will continue this, but also reclaim more for himself.
Some images, thematically related with this, take up the futuristic penetrating composition,16 in which also semantic perspective receives new honors, like in “In den Vorstädten” (In the suburbs, 1966) on the subject of rebuilding (and progress, too). Ruth Baumgarte puts it forth in glowing and warm colors, but not with progress-patriotism and proclamation of salvation like usually in the case of the art of the GDR. Just think of Otto Nagel’s “Junger Maurer vor der Stalin-Allee” (Young mason in front of the Stalin-Allee, 1953; Märkisches Museum, Berlin), where the young working-class hero, seen from below and clad in white, practically appears as the New Messiah. Ruth Baumgarte marks her own position, strongly contrasting it to the patriotically designed art of the GDR. Her position differs also fundamentally, by her gripping realism,17 from the rather few works mostly critical of capitalism and culture by Alfred Hrdlicka, or the later ironic and slightly surrealistic paintings produced in the period (like those by Hellmuth Eichner, Rainer Gross or Andreas Leißner).
The development of Ruth Baumgarte’s colorism18 is noteworthy. There are some practically monochrome paintings (Camaieu, grisaille, brunaille), like the 1984 “Lebensabend” (The final years), in which an old dog represents old age. But since the eighties, with precursors in the sixties, there are also false-color images like, for instance, “Der Freund” (The friend, 1985), which is painted in predominantly green hues. This development isn’t coincidental, as rather early the color scheme of her figures contained hues which were independent of natural occurrence in the depictive sense and were deployed in order to achieve a harmonious image and a sounding colorism.
The demonic “Relikte” (Relics, 1987) belongs here just as well as “Afrika I” (1986). The latter clearly shows that Ruth Baumgarte is embedding her motifs, for example a male head, as an autonomous color event which activates correspondences with the image as a whole: All is painting. This, however, isn’t just l’art pour l’art – there are always overtones of both political and cultural discourse.
The aesthetic predominance of painting can, however, be judged in and by the series of the African paintings begun in 1986. Africa as an influence and a subject of art originally was a matter of Modernism, especially connected to Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’Avignon”, the breakthrough, and iconic group nude of the members of staff of the Barcelona house of pleasure in the Calle Avinyó.19 The specific forms and shapes of African Art found their way into Western Art and fostered interest in Africa. The black continent has remained in the focus of attention ever since, also by way of the news coverage on bloody uprisings and revolutions. All that wasn’t just connected to the abolishment of colonialism, but also, especially relevant for the experiences of Ruth Baumgarte, who visited an African country almost every year, to the rivalries amongst the African cultures themselves.
The adoption of African configurations, however, almost was just a one-time affair, as neither Leni Riefenstahl (photos of the Nuba) nor Ruth Baumgarte nor other artists (with the exception of sometimes in sculpture) took over the world of African forms, but they changed the fascination of Africa into Western Art; in photography and painting. Jake and Dinos Chapman did that in ironically reconstructive form in their series of works of “The Chapman Family Collection”, exhibited among other places in the Museum Kunstpalast in Dusseldorf in 2003.
The Africa paintings by Ruth Baumgarte possess a double relevance for her: On the one hand as aesthetic events, on the other as a position in the political and social area. Martin Zimmerhof wrote in 1994: “Her images belong without any doubt to that kind of a class of symbolically explosive art which shakes one up and carries one away, and which successfully prevents glances slipping off on its surface by all available artistic means.” 20 This is of course true, but Ruth Baumgarte doesn’t communicate bold and simple messages like it is the case in such a lot of new political art. There is critical potential in the paintings, but it acts like a catalyst and demands active, reflective further processing of the subject by the beholder. The expressive beauty made subject stands there as the precarious in danger of being lost should the exploitation of the Third World by the First World not come to an end. Or the self-destructive fights of the ethnic groups. Knowledge about the political problems is a prerogative for the understanding of the images just like a strong empathy and learning about African culture.
Influenced, naturally, by the unfamiliar, demonic, surreal and unreal colors of the African world Europeans are not accustomed to, also the series of the Africa paintings shows luminescent colors, explosively radiant and expressive, almost in rapture and luxuriating. But she continues what has been begun in earlier works: A self-autonomizing colorism often denying depiction. The energetic response of the spot structure, the foundations of which were laid in early works, has its breakthrough, the color shades of people and objects constitute pictorial worlds. This leads to aesthetically relevant breaks between color and form up to renouncing identity of color and form altogether. This produces relevant aesthetic events. Faces and parts of the body are understood as luminescent elements of color, representing light in different shades. The figures are created, so to say, from within of the colors, from within the process of painting which presents figures and objects and landscapes in close entanglement. Figures and objects appear to be -self-illuminating rather than illuminated parts of the picture. This, again, presents them to be sacral, just like Grunewald created his resurrected Christ using transcendental self-radiant light. Self-radiant light in images of European Art represents, following Wolfgang Schöne, the transcendental, Paradise.21 The paintings of Ruth Baumgarte’s Africa series show this Paradise in present rather than lost, show that there is a competing design, however in danger, and she lets it prove itself by the effect of color as an emotional category. What’s aesthetic, anything that doesn’t carry meaning, is full of emotion, strewn over a large bandwidth according to the needs of the image. This doesn’t obey logic and rationality, rather it activates experience and empirical knowledge, leading, like all non-logical judgments, to new insights.22
A painting epitomizing all this very clearly is “The African”, painted in 2000. In small format, just 50 × 60 cm (19.7 × 23.6 in) it still is monumental in effect, as it possesses a dense, compact pictorial layout in darkly glowing to flaming color. The African woman gazes at the beholder and dominates the whole image, which seems quite astonishing as her head only takes one sixth of the surface. Die division of the surface into parts directed towards autonomy in color and into traces of painted color unifies the outer appearance in the sense of an all-over scheme without really following the concept.23 Rather the image combines an all-over structure (like we know from Mark Tobey or Jackson Pollock) with a central motif. The distribution of light and shade just follows pictorial needs, not natural laws. This is less of a portrait than a painting in which color happens.
Despite all expressiveness and the luminescent gesture of color, very often the subject of Ruth Baumgarte’s paintings is meditative expanse and quietude. This is deliberately not achieved in an intellectual fashion, rather it expressively incorporates a spiritual, a sensual, a meditative category. Some paintings point at people and their actions and needs. They never become literary or narrative, though. The primacy of the pictorial remains untouched. Extra-pictorial aspects remain outside the image. Examples we find for instance in “On the Riverbank” (1987), “Deserted Estate in Pretoria” (1994), and “African Landscape II”, painted in 1991.
So “Morning I” commands an internal architecture synthesizing many layers: the world of plants as a symbol of what’s powerfully alive in the front left, the world of objects in front of it on the right, father and son as cattle herders in the upper third of the picture, above (equals in front of) the small figure of a woman balancing a basket on her head. The size-dependent spatial distance matches the time lapse: The woman has been on her way for some time already; the flowers we explicitly see right on the spot in front of us. The traceable course of actions corresponds to the lapse of time. Time usually was represented by timepieces (hourglasses), allegories (the ravages of time, the blind Chronos nibbling away at everything), various stages of decay (still lifes by Juan Sanchez-Cotán for example) or, in the 19th Century, geological formations (William Dyce, Pegwell Bay, 1858; Tate Britain, London). The direct tracing of the course of time by dripping, running colors is a 20th Century phenomenon. Both speed and slowness confronted the beholder in classical art as frozen, arrested, as gestures to be reconstructed (very clearly in Botticelli’s Ariadne) – all symbolical representations. In Ruth Baumgarte’s painting the lapse of time is accessible through the observation of the painting’s structures, without being caged in specific symbolical complexes.
This kind of painting seems to be unique – there are hardly any parallels. The figures of Rainer Fetting show more blending and don’t have any self-radiant light. Hartmut Neumann produces similarly strong contrasts but within a more reduces palette. Angela Hampel drifts farther away from the real image of man. A painterly position like that of Ruth Baumgarte, with such a logic development, is something special in the development of European Art.
Also the studies and drawings, especially those connected to the Africa series, show a special design. Taking in impulses from earlier solutions and developing them further, they play with a free line, swinging in Hogarthian manner and clewing for density in order to wrest a figure from the ground of the sheet. Gaining this compactness from shading and hatching, it stands in the sheet like Rembrandt’s “Three Trees”: sketchy, but not finishable, perfect in its pictorial being, because optical in the highest degree.24
This appears to be the artistic credo. And it represents a position, which is deeply meaningful within the panorama of art after 1945. Western Art developed into a great and heterogeneous manifold from the late fifties onwards at the latest. And since the 1960s, we see that almost every cutting-edge position of the past is being revived. Robert Suckale wrote: “This all is so confusing, manifold and also contradictory that you cannot do justice to it in a short survey.” 25 This is largely true, but one might well ask if such a want of harmony, the wish for consistency, is legitimate. Is there, in art, at all a possibility of epistemic, categorical contradiction? Art thrives on the spirit of contradiction, in the sense of opposition, otherwise there will be boredom. That was never attractive to Ruth Baumgarte. Her art has always shown the character of self-assertion, also formulated in the interest of the beholder: creativity as life technic, art as life design. With the times and beyond.