African Visions

Dr Hubertus Froning
Folkwang Museum, Essen, Germany

Africa was discovered by painters in the 19th century. At first, it was of course North Africa, as Central Africa still was a white spot an the map. Delacroix, for instance, started his feverish activities after his journey to Morocco, activities which were tuned entirely to the rhythm of bright colours. The physiognomy of the country put him under a spell ever since until the end of his life. The works done by Klee, Macke and Moillet at the beginning of the 20th century in Tunis reflecting the impressions of the country are also known to be colour harmonies imbued with light. It was not until here that the artists cultivated their sensuality to base their paintings an sensory impressions and to have only colours reign as a means of impression. The intensive effect of natural colours in Central Africa must have impressed Baumgarte even more, an experience that led her to a new conception of painting, which made her forget the law of composition, sacred by tradition, and discover a law of beauty in nature pulsating in the unrefracted masses of colours. No wonder that these Africa experiences produced a decisive turning point in her works.

Landscape and people of this continent became the most important sources of her art and represent the central theme also in the visual memento until today. In Africa, Baumgarte‘s true artistic individuality ignites to a distinct style of its own, which although revealing modifications in respect of time, generally are cast off in favour of her personal style. So, seen as a whole, the subject Africa appears as a uniform complex. You may call her style expressive, but it has got nothing to do with expressionism. Even though her representations may appear realistic sometimes they have nothing to do with realism and also nothing to do with verism within the conventional meaning. We see that classification according to style does not necessarily facilitate access to her works.

Colours and light are the basic themes for Baumgarte, the real medium of her representations, however not a true manifestation of natural features, but as a guiding force of a vision and feeling and also as a point of reference from the inner to the outer world. As a matter of fact, the themes and motives which Baumgarte loves show human beings soaked up by nature, the endeavour for integration, by which they are overwhelmed. Here the artist shows in her supremacy how she masters her handicraft. Everything she Sees and everything that moves her is eagerly soaked up and processed.

No hectic search for topical relevance, no cheap showmanship for the sake of success, but persistent working through painting problems. In the Africa theme she sees variant and metamorphosis as her real tasks. Though people and places may change an account of her journeys, her art remains persistently true to itself. She does not follow any manifestations or abstract theses, as she is convinced of the necessity of her doings. The light appears in an incomparable blaze of colours. This medium has a double function: to represent things in their plastic consistency, and even more, to transpose them into an appearance in which colours come into their own. Comprehending light as colour and colour as light becomes an artistic event in the paintings, indeed a dramatic force. The channel of an unbroken colour accord of yellow, red, and blue, for instance in the painting „Rain“ from 1994, establish the basic spirit. Although the painting colour reveals the form of figures and landscape, it does limit itself at the same time not only to the function of motives, but creates Islands of colours with signalling effect in shapes stylised almost to their intrinsic value, which again create, within the context of the painting, an orderly structure in the sense of a painting (not tectonic type) structure.

No doubt also that the three basic colours mutually enhance their intensity. A structure of bright colour surfaces covers the entre background which is perceived by the observer through the contrast with the direct presence of the three-colour composition and elimination of the linear perspective as an effect of depths. Also, the spatial relation of the foreground figures to each other and their corporeality is defined oniy by means of the brightness of the colours. The three-dimensional effect therefore is not formed by a perspective structure, but results from the correlation of the colours. They stand by each other as bright and dark, warm and cold areas. Their brightness is decreased only little by shadow formation and has an appealing moment of excitement, and besides its representation value, the effect of colourful matter. This organising of the surface by colours runs as a common denominator through the entirety of the Africa paintings.

In the complex dedicated to this subject Baumgarte can let her fantasy run completely free. Here she can realise her idea of the absolute intensive effect of colours without ever losing the bond to nature which always is a premise for her work. Here she can realise her endeavour for immediacy and spontaneity by lively coloration. For before the observer recognises the object, he is engulfed by it and fascinated by the power of colours.

By achieving control over the formal composition, Baumgarte was no longer able to contend herself with simply making „I‘art pour I‘art“ (art for ad). Now the evocative brightness identifies itself with emotions and sensations. Baumgarte wants to communicate, and not only to reproduce but to interpret the visible. Hence she practices a subjective and ecstatic type of art which relates to form and composition besides the visible real presentation. Here a 20th century human beeng is in action for whom not only external appearance is important, but - through her emotions and sensations - also instinct and unconsciousness. It becomes important to look at her interior, the counterpart that is created by the artistic instinct as a reaction in her imagination. The subjective feel for colours and the application of paint thus form a harmonious relation. With the spaciously pouring colours with great painting richness hardly anyone would believe that a woman older than 70 is able to experience the world in such freshness, vividness and grandeur. Her paintings are neither a vision nor a dream, they are tangible existence increased by shining colours, an improvement of the present world in visible appearance and immense wealth.

Again and again, Baumgarte goes into the stimulus of the senses of the light by obscuring the surface with colourful forms which, interpreted as light values, make up in essence the surface dynamics. The materiality never hinders the kinetic momentum, the liberty and dynamic of the brush stroke. With the decision to let the suggestive force of colour work alongside the existence of the material world, the artist transforms the surface of the painting into a shimmering and vibrating painting with an intensification into arousal, without overstepping the threshold to expressive abstraction or drifting into autonomous ornament. Then let us not be fooled: with all efforts of the colours to strive for autonomy, which almost drowns out all material and addresses the observer directly as a sensual quality, the colour is still committed to the object despite any kind of liberty. Even though colour does not portray the object precisely, as we have Seen, it also does not epitomise anything eise. In no painting do lines or colour surfaces swing into a rhythm which carries itself. As soon as such a language of form starts to suggest itself, it is interrupted and casually modified to point to that which seems yet so distant in the painting: the object.

Our observations show that the African paintings emerge in fact from the perception of nature, but also that they stand distanced to reality and were made as an inner painting. The experience is translated into a structure of sound in which the painting elements appear as an inner experienced reality.

Hence the paintings do not primarily show, but make reference to reality. In the painting this comes rather more from inner consciousness. A limitation and artistic restriction to the pure concreteness would indeed contradict today‘s experience of truth, whose reality and complexity is taken away more and more from sensual comprehension. It is difficult, for instance, to incorporate into a painting the inferno of a flaming, lighted sky. From the knowledge of the inadequacy of the artistic indication, the impression can only be hinted at in an often excessive way. For the drawings it is important to point out the orientation to ad, as also the drawings are marked by a painting hand. Here again as with the paintings, it is the human being at the fore as the object of study. Here again a free unconventional rhythm determines the style of drawing.

The tactile, haptic values, such as light shaping the Body into a plastic model and giving it volume and the appearance of organic flesh and skin, are played down in favour of artistic values, putting the bodies in rhythm by alternating darkness and light rather in the form of surfaces. By abstaining from too excessive contrasts, Baumgarte creates transparent shadows of grey shades. The large-pored strokes darting over the figures let the pale paper shimmer through. The artist thus achieves not only an open structure of shapes, but also a wealth of graded Iight values. There are no differences in quality between the epidermis and the textile clothing, so that the visual perception of reality is transformed into an optical appearance of a fresh, unbroken sensory impression. Even though the figures are mostly determined by a structuring and limiting contour, the outline is besides its functional purpose also an expression of lyrical feeling. Baumgarte is not concerned about the structural recording of a human body or the analysis of motions, but about the appearance of flickering light and shadow values which appeal to the senses. The paintings and drawings of Baumgarte disclose themselves an the one hand from the motives, but even more from direct experience through the eyes, through pure sight. Technical perfection, accomplished handwriting, and the supreme application of colour reveal as a sum of perception and experience something of the essence and structure of Africa‘s nature.