AM: Neal and Mathilde spent a few days with us in Berlin after the opening of our show “Atomkrieg” in Dresden and were easily persuaded to visit the “Alte Nationalgalerie” with me, where both of them had never been before.
NT: Shado. Schadau, Shoodoo, or is it Shadow? As in „to cast a shadow“?
AM: It’s his name. It doesn’t mean anything; it’s just like „Pankow“ – „Schadow“.
NT: Oh, ok.
MR: I want to go upstairs.
NT: Realisme and impressionisme. – Sorry, I didn’t mean to insult you by speaking badly in French.
MR: Oh! You’re practising!
Anselm Feuerbach, Zwei Frauen in einer Landschaft, 1867
NT: That’s German Romanticism.
MR: Oh, that’s lovely.
NT: It’s somehow really awkward as well, isn’t it?
NT: In a way it tries to be about nature and the relationship to nature and then becomes really plastic and…
MR: Yes, it’s all this history of romanticism, that broken link between men and nature. When you put man into nature it looks false somewhere, it doesn’t work. That gives this feeling of strangeness.
NT: It’s like her instinct is to pick the flowers – in her attempt to understand she has to kill them.
AM: So do you think the little dog tries to tell her: ‘Don’t pick the flowers!’
NT: No! ‘Please don’t walk on the grass’. (All laugh)
NT: And you can see that she… I guess this was a way of painting at that time but you can see that this figure, she was placed in afterwards. You can see, because the grass runs underneath.
AM: Do you think so? No…
Museum Guard 1: Hallo, hallo!
Museum Guard 1: Sie sind die Grenze hier. Nicht so nah dem Bild da.
NT: Sorry. Ok.
Museum Guard 1: So. Oder so. Fuffzich Zentimeter bitte.
AM: Machen wir.
NT: Ok. Well, maybe it was a way of painting then.
AM: I don’t think so; because you have white underneath this cloth, this bit, see –
NT: But isn’t this –
AM: He laid white there to have a little bit of volume. And then he put the blue on top. So I think actually he has prepared the frock from underneath.
NT: Oh. I see, ok.
AM: And also this red, I think you could never paint it this way if there was green underneath. It wouldn’t look the same.
NT: It would become brown. – (Pointing at the two ladies in the painting) But she seems much more insubstantial in a way than her. Because you feel like her clothes would just fall off.
AM: But you know, I think this could be maybe a maquette, a skizze –
MR: Esquisse –
NT: Sketch –
AM: – for a bigger painting.
NT: And also the focus of the painting really is the dog. – You can see his thumb print on the dog.
AM: Where? Oh yes! You are right! (All laugh)
Arnold Böcklin, Der Künstler und seine Frau, Rom 1863-64
MR: I like this one also. I think this is very interesting.
NT: This is also done in Rome. Northern Europeans having to come to Southern Europe to touch, or to understand… It was this kind of pilgrimage to come and look at Rafael…
AM: And in this case to marry an Italian woman.
NT: But it’s still so weird in a way. Where did I see – I have forgotten his name. A Dutch painter. There is a painting of the bay of Naples, and it’s such a Northern European painting of the bay of Naples. With this, there’s still this grisaille kind of sky and this kind of harmony of colours, which is so Northern European. Like this rusty colour in his top and… It‘s perhaps closer to Corot, much later on, with beautiful greys, blue greys, and this beautiful kind of maroon colour – it’s so not the clarity of light that you get in Italian painting at all.
MR: That’s maybe why he had to put that it was done in Rome, otherwise… (Laughs)
AM: But look, I think that it’s also a marriage portrait, because he has stressed the fact that he is wearing a marriage ring. It’s funny that he is not looking at his wife, he is looking somewhere else, as if there is something more interesting in a different direction. And she’s already a bit melancholic. ‘Oh shit; now I’m holding his hand. For the whole life, I’ll be holding his hand’.
NT: It looks like she is supporting the weight of his hand. She is saying: ‘Oh shit, I married an artist. Oh no.’ (All laugh) ‘His heart is elsewhere, and here I am, holding his arm.’ Because this is where he usually holds his palette. ‘I’m gonna support this man’. Really, there is a resignation. ‘This is the life, and I’ll have his children, and I’ll always be propping up his palette arm’.
MR: He looks very self-confident.
AM: And I think, what happened – if I remember it right, they went back to Germany and she became very melancholic, because of this grey sky and the fourteen children of whatever they had –
NT: This is true??
NT: Oh, my god. Shit. – It’s a lovely little… The other thing is, there’s something about the kind of attention to the clothes he’s wearing, the blue in the hat, and this kind of little buckles. There is a kind of – not Dandyism, but maybe he is showing a certain… It was Breughel, the painter of the bay of Naples.
AM: Oh, yes.
Arnold Böcklin, Selbstbildnis mit Weinglas, 1885
MR: Always the same position. Very happy with himself.
NT: He looks like an old teacher of mine, a painter.
AM: He looks like he likes his glass of wine.
MR: He holds the glass like he holds the woman. He looks elsewhere and that’s just something he can use if he wants.
AM: But you know why? I think he was actually holding his palette, so he was looking in the mirror, and with one hand he had to hold his pencil. And that’s this one, he’s right handed. So he put in the glass of wine later, and in fact he was standing in front of the mirror and painting with this…
Mathilde and Antje try to copy Böcklin.
AM: Or is it his left hand?
MR: It’s in the mirror, so it’s ok.
NT: Is it Bocklin or Böcklin?
NT: Böcklin. – I wonder what this is about. These invitations or…
AM: Well, this is just a little hint for us that he is an old master because the Flemish painters, they had these kind of carpets on their tables, you can see that in Vermeer paintings, in Rembrandt paintings – that was just the fashion of the times, to have a thick Persian carpet on your table. And also they really liked to have letters as a kind of show-off of how well they could place objects, all these trompe l’oeil things with letters. And maybe also to show that he is a man of world and he is connected to – gets letters from everywhere.
NT: Invitations to dinner.
MR: He’s invited.
NT: Champagne. (Laughs)
MR: The way the hand is painted is interesting; it looks like a glove.
NT: Yes, the skin is kind of wrinkly.
MR: Smooth. The skin is too big for the arm.
NT: It’s very flashy, though. And this colour, this green, I really associate this with Northern European painting.
AM: This was also the time when they tried to rediscover all the old pigments, like Schweinfurter Grün for example.
NT: A toxic green.
AM: Böcklin was always trying to experiment with different binding methods, pigments and stuff. For example his whites. For the mermaid paintings he used a very specific kind of – I think it was flake white, and the way he bound it wasn’t so great so it all cracked twenty years later.
MR: I wonder if the wine was like that in the 19th century, so opaque. Because the transparency on the glass is very well reproduced, so why is the wine so opaque? It looks like a soup.
NT: Because there is this kind of division, as you say, a connection to the world, there’s worldliness and intelligence and a kind of connoisseurship, and the light of the world is reflected in the glass, yes? As in Dutch…
AM: Somehow for me this painting is so incredibly naive, the way of portraying himself, that it’s nearly charming.
NT: As a classy gentleman. Yes. Because there’s the same dot of light in his eyes, so it’s the light of the world outside. Kind of enlightenment and intelligence and…
AM: But it’s also very naively painted. It’s not really well done.
NT: Yes. It’s very pompous.
Arnold Böcklin, Ackerfluren im Vorfrühling, 1884
MR: Huh! That’s special!
Mobile phone rings. Antje answers the phone..
AM: Ja. Ja. Und wo? Bei ihm? Wenn ich dich abholen soll, kannst du ja noch mal anrufen.
Museum Guard 2 approaches.
AM: Ich glaub, ich darf nicht telefonieren. Ok, ich hör auf. Tschüß.
Museum Guard 2: Draußen können Sie telefonieren, mit wem Sie wolln.
AM: Ist das hier ein Problem mit der Sicherheitsanlage?
Museum Guard 2: Nee, is nicht jestattet. Is die Hausordnung.
AM: Na gut. Tut mir leid, mach ich nicht noch mal.
Museum Guard 2 walks away.
NT: What was he saying?
AM: That I’m not allowed to telephone in here.
NT: It might interfere with the audio.
AM: No, it’s just – not allowed.
MR: I was just thinking. The fact that the same brown that is going from this very intense deep concentrated brown part, and the trees are very thin lines going to the sky, you really have this impression that the trees are the forces of the ground that are –
NT: pushed up –
MR: elevated to the sky, like flames, a kind of fire. Marvellous.
NT: A connection between heaven and earth. He obviously was very interested in an idea of a symbolical and perhaps a spiritual and sacred use of colour. Like these perhaps slightly clumsy allusions to his – in this painting with the wine and the green – it’s also about the idea of the power of the artist to convey, or to make a world, or the ability, in a kind of alchemical way, to make a story about the world, a meditation on… because these colours are kind of crazy! When you say that it’s very different to how we might paint now, where we just go to a paint shop and we buy a tube of paint; you say he was really interested in this binding of his own pigments and –
AM: For example here you can see, in the cloud, that he used a bit of a different kind of white. In the upper cloud, do you see that? It’s thick.
MR + NT: Yes.
AM: I was also thinking there is this kind of softness about it. On the one hand side this green is really exploding, the way it’s exploding in springtime. I mean, now, this spring again I thought it’s so…every year I forget how –
MR: green it is –
AM: – how strange it is, that all of a sudden those plants explode! Into different shades of green.
NT: And you forget this green. It’s always a surprise.
AM: Here in Berlin the winter is so long, it’s really six months of the year. We just have bare trees. And then all of a sudden in turns into wonderland. The difference couldn’t be bigger; it’s really between life and death.
NT: And do you think this is a kind of allegory to…
AM: No, I don’t think so. I just think that it’s funny that in this green he puts in all this kind of explosive force of spring, but the sky is still very soft, a soft white glow…
MR: And the trees also, they have no leaves. It’s a winter sky and it’s a spring, or autumn, ground.
AM: So for me this is really a very lovely painting, in the sense of: he loves something here.
MR (pointing at the green and brown fields): It looks like a balloon for children, with the stripes.
NT: But this movement from left to right, do you feel he is trying to convey a sense of a season or something growing, or there is a transition in time with the eye, but also something that’s analogous to the farmer who grows things and there’s a bearing and cultivation.
AM: I think for me it’s my favourite because it doesn’t have so much meaning. Or that’s the way I see it, maybe it does have meaning for him, but for me it doesn’t, it’s more something quite-
AM: yes, silent. Whereas a lot of the other Böcklins, they are talking very much.
MR: I agree. That’s just a very good composition and it’s very original. And the fact of making a very white sky, like that – you really feel the wind and the emptiness of the air. And you even feel the emptiness of the life in the countryside. Because of this white, maybe.
NT: But it’s Italy, though, isn’t it? It is Italy.
AM: Is it?
NT: Yes, I’m sure.
AM: Oh, ‘bei Fiesole’, yes. – Oh no no, that’s where he died. It just says: ‘Ackerfluren im Vorfrühling’.
- NT. Nearly spring.
MR: It could be Italy, yes.
AM: I think the shape of the house is very Italian. It’s not Germany.
MR: Yes, and the cypresses in the back.
NT: Yes. Maybe I’m reading too much into it and I think maybe I’m going to town on it… but for me it’s a kind of marvelling about –
AM: – but would you do that with your own paintings? Would you want people to find this kind of explanations: “Oh, I think, he put this here in, because…”
NT: I would find this very painful and I would rather…
AM: For example there is this one painting that you had in the show now where you said, it might look like ruins. And when I looked at it, when it arrived, I thought: what a pity he said this word; already it occupies so much of the painting. Because for me it’s not just ruins. It could be something more delicate than just meaning ruins.
NT: Oh, right. – It was a dress.
AM: You mean –
NT: I saw it as a kind of print on a dress, like something on chiffon. I like the idea that it might be… because there are legs in the painting. There are a woman’s legs.
AM: I haven’t seen this.
NT: I like the idea that there might be something very sensual, and sort of float over the skin, but also that it would have this kind of, this rather unpleasant print. You know? Like the bombing of Dresden. Something really inappropriate and awful and truly kind of terrible, and something that’s very chic and alluring and sexy, even. And I wanted to paint it so it felt that the colours had that kind of slight transparency but also a vague vapidity.
AM: That’s what I sensed when I looked at it. That’s very funny because I thought: I can’t see houses in there, with solid walls.
Arnold Böcklin, Beweinung unter dem Kreuz, 1876
MR: Oh, it’s the same guy.
Neal: I’m sure they showed these two in London. At the National Gallery, they had an exhibition of particularly German painting that was influenced by journeys to Rome or spending time in Rome. I’m sure they had this.
MR: It is a bit over the top.
Museum Guard 3 approaches.
Museum Guard 3: Können Sie bitte die Jacke richtig anziehen?
MR: Qu’est-ce qu’il veut, lui?
AM: Il veut que tu met ta veste.
MR: Ah bon?
AM: Parce qu’il pense que peut-être tu…
Museum Guard 3: Hier. Lesen Sie sich das mal bitte alles durch. Das ist Reglemang hier.
AM: So you have to wear your jacket because otherwise you might touch the paintings with it.
Museum Guard 3: Sie müssen das wirklich anziehen.
AM: Aber das ist doch erlaubt, daß ich die beiden interviewe hier drin?
Museum Guard 3 (doubtful): Na ja.
AM: Wieso nicht? Das ist keine Kamera oder irgendwas, ich nehm ja nur uns auf.
Museum Guard 3: Wenns nicht kommerziell ist, ist es ok., denke ich mal.
AM: Ist nicht kommerziell. Gar nicht.
Museum Guard 3: Ich bedanke mich bei Ihnen.
NT: It was ok?
AM: He said: ‘if it’s not for commercial purposes’ and I said: ‘it’s not at all commercial what we are doing’.
- NT. No way.
AM: It’s just one of my many activities that I’m not getting paid for. (All laugh)
Arnold Böcklin, Die Toteninsel, 1883
NT: So he made lots of versions of this, didn’t he?
AM: Yes. I don’t know how many.
NT: And this seems to be quite a kitsch one.
AM: But they’re all more or less the same. Some are a bit darker and don’t have this very bright sky. And this is also quite a small version, I think.
NT: Maybe that’s what it is. The one I’m more familiar with seems darker. Much more darker in kind of mood.
AM: So now you’re disappointed, because we talked about the little field over there –
MR + NT: No.
AM: Because you said this is kitsch.
NT: It seems…
MR: Yes, it’s kitsch. But it’s good at the same time-
MR: – even if it’s kitsch I can’t help liking it. There’s something so morbide about it and so erotic somewhere. Because of this accumulation of cypresses, trees, black trees in the middle of this kind of legs.
AM: But you make very strange connections! I would never have thought about this.
MR: Well, maybe I’m obsessed. It’s my problem. (All laugh)
AM: I thought you just meant the colour of the rocks, because it’s very fleshy. Pinkish.
NT: But it’s like a big vagina.
MR: Yes, of course.
NT: And so there’s a kind of birth and a death –
MR: Absolutely. They go to death or they go back to the beginning.
NT: Returning to the womb.
AM: Oh my god, now I really start to dislike the painting.
MR: Why? That’s life.
AM: I don’t think so. Just think about it. I mean, if I die I would go back into my mother! Think about it realistically! And you’ll see it’s total nonsense.
NT: But when we looked at the earlier paintings we were quite prepared to see the idea, the symbolical laying out – the earth is the mother and it’s sustaining life.
AM: But I really like to try to see symbols as realistic things, and I think for me this symbol doesn’t work at all because the vagina is something very precise, it’s an organ. And earth doesn’t have a vagina, so for me it just doesn’t work. The earth for me is not female. At all. It’s just the earth. But that’s me. I just – I can’t deal with all these symbols because a lot of them, they don’t work for me.
NT: I’m not saying I’m totally taken in by it or totally interested, but I think he certainly had this kind of interest, and certainly the surrealists were very influenced by this painting and artists like André Masson, and his evocation of the landscape as a female form…
AM: I don’t like André Masson either.
NT: No, no. But you can see the connection –
AM: The problem is that now you made me see it –
NT: – it’s a problem now.
AM: Now I just dislike the painting.
MR: Tu es si prude!
NT: You’re prude. (All laugh)
MR: I feel so emancipated now.
AM: Yes, it’s true; I’m very prudish.
MR: But maybe he did it unconsciously, not knowing.
AM: I’m quite sure he didn’t do it consciously. I don’t think he told himself: ‘I now will paint the island of death and it will be a symbolic vagina’.
NT: But maybe he saw it more innocently as an idea of – not an ending but a return.
NT: A very kind of simple return. Because in amongst the catacombs there’s something growing. Like we were talking about in the cemetery yesterday there’s something quite beautiful about this idea – oh, but you’ve had a problem with that. The idea of plants growing out from the bodies buried below and there was a rebirth in some way, or that there is never a kind of negative-
AM: And I was saying that I hated this idea. If I really think about plants sucking out nutrition from my father I don’t like these plants any more. I would rather have ash and it’s just ash. There’s an end to being useful for others. Maybe I’m very egocentrical in that way.
MR: No. But that’s in what looks the most beautiful, the purest forms of life, there is something extremely ugly or extremely frightening about it. And I think the beauty of things is coming from this ambivalence. If it’s just pretty it’s quickly boring. The fact that everything is in everything…
NT: Yes, everything is connected.
AM: Maybe it was because we didn’t talk in general about life and death, but we talked very specifically about our parents –
AM: – and I think for me, that makes a difference. You can talk in general about this idea being beautiful but I think in particular, about my father, I just feel very bad in my stomach. And I think if in a way if you don’t think about your father, then the whole thing doesn’t work. It has to work also for your father or for yourself. So maybe I’m just not – developed enough to see the beauty in this concept, because I’m still very…
MR: Yes, you’re still very much in this thing that happened to you personally, so you can’t take it from a general point of view. It’s too emotional.
NT: It’s too subjective.
MR: But maybe if you think about in ten years it will be different.
AM: We will see.
MR: You could see the beauty of it.
NT: But it also revolves about the idea of the body, as well, doesn’t it? And the thing that was problematic was the idea of the body still being there, unlike my mum, because her ashes were just dust.
AM: I like that a lot better, the way you described it, where a whole mountaintop is covered and you can’t locate it. We were talking about this problem yesterday that comes up with the word of-
MR: – human beings –
AM: – human beings in Ingo’s Text-
MR: – that you’re not a human being when you’re dead.
AM: Yes, and the problem is of course that in a way that’s right, because what remains is nothing else but nutrition for plants.
MR: From a scientific point of view.
AM: Soylent green.
NT: It’s just matter.
AM: It’s just matter and that’s what is so revolting.
MR: You can’t accept that.
NT: – When my mother died and I was with her, there was quite clearly a point where you were aware like, she wasn’t there any more. She was no longer there and that this person I had seen as my mother was now a-
NT: – a vehicle or a shell. I never- I mean this idea of a soul departing seemed corny and cheesy to me but I really recognized this. It really felt –
AM: But didn’t it frighten you?
NT: I felt it was ok, because the thing that was her body was in pain and was suffering, and I didn’t want her to be in that situation any more. And I could see that she was uncomfortable and was unhappy. And it was important to acknowledge that there had to be a way of removing her from that pain.
AM: I saw my grandma when she was in this state. It was very strange because there was nobody there, no visitor, this room was just empty, and immediately I felt it was really empty. There was this thing lying in a corner that was still warm, but that was all. It was empty of human beings. And she looked like a mummy. I mean, she was still breathing but she had no flesh any more and it looked very dark. Maybe because it was already getting dark when I came in at that day. Somehow it frightened me to death. –
MR (pointing at the figures in Charon’s boat): It’s strange; you can’t help thinking that they’re coming back somewhere.
NT: Coming back?
MR: They’re not going there for the first time. They’re going back.
NT: But to me, it’s also this Brother Grimm’s story, about the candle and the snuffing out. It’s like the figure of death here, is like a candle. It’s also – we go with a kind of – it’s also phallic.
NT: And there’s something very comical in a way. The thing is that now we have this kind of very loaded…
MR: That’s so English.
MR: To find that –
NT: – comical? What I mean by comical is that it seems quite loaded of readings. This kind of idea of life and death.
AM: But I can see it, too. The comical part in it. I can see it in all the Böcklins.
NT: Maybe comical in it’s way of playing out light and dark, presence and absence, and life and death, but then also like… in a way now we can’t help but see it with all the Hollywood kind of horror films like ‘The Mummy’ and ‘Frankenstein’… because the symbolism is being taken through so much of popular culture. Now it seems like a parody of a kind of gothic mentality.
AM: But on the other hand it’s quite cute. Cute is maybe a strange word here, but what I mean is ‘tender’. Somehow it’s so small. And if you think about Hollywood movies they would have made a far bigger island because they would make it really big and overwhelming, whereas this is very personal. It can maybe house only one family in the end. So there is also something homely about it.
MR: Yes, yes. There’s no idea of show off, it’s something personal behind. And it’s interesting that he did this painting several times.
AM: I think that’s also because it was a big success, and he could sell it several times. But I’m not sure. Maybe it was also sticking to his mind and he wanted to redo it. As you can see with his self-portraits, he was also someone who could be touched by, impressed by success.
NT: Who wanted to believe in himself in this way and feel…
MR: But it’s strange that he gets success and he gets the satisfaction of his vanity with this kind of subject. That’s the irony of the thing.
NT: There all seem both – in some way have a humility, a humble kind of nature, but there’s also something very pompous about them as well, very self consciously aggrandizing. So it’s both. It’s very filmic. Christ. I’m sure so many filmmakers have been – you know. Kevin Costner.
AM: Do you mean ‘Water World’ or what?
NT: Or ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau’… it was a very important painting for the surrealists and for people like De Chirico. De Chirico thought Böcklin was, you know, Mister Business and really loved this enigma of the light.
MR: Hitchcock very much.
NT: And Hitchcock. Totally. Yes, it’s made for Hollywood, this… Isn’t it also – thinking about representations of death, I mean any kind now, any kind of representations of death seem kitsch and seem overblown.
AM: You mean like when we yesterday talked about the scull and the candle of Gerhard Richter.
NT: Yeah. I mean he clearly enjoys treading on that kind of – he sees himself treading on that fine line between being both meaningful and kitsch and sentimental…
AM: A long time I didn’t think about Picasso but in Paris I went to the Musée Picasso, and there’s some things in there that I really love. He has done a series of sculls, and they are very good. What do you think?
MR (laughs): You want to say that Picasso is a good artist?
AM: Not all the times, but sometimes.
MR: Sometimes. Oh yes. I agree.
NT: I think we should go and find Courbet. Sorry, I was speaking for all of us.
Eugène Delacroix, Sitzender weiblicher Akt (Mademoiselle Rose), um 1820
MR: I love it. I love the treatment of the flesh. She looks like an oyster or like a pearl.
AM: I think she looks dead.
MR: Yes, we can see that he used to work with–
MR: Yes, cadavers.
AM: Oh, he did?
MR: Yes, Géricault did, so maybe he as well.
Alarm bell starts to ring.
Museum Guard 4: Bitte dreißig Zentimeter Abstand halten.
AM: Is gut, machen wir. Danke.
NT: Ok, sorry.
MR: And he was fascinated by all the colours that arrive caused by the decomposition of the flesh. You have all this colours that arrive. Purple, green, yellow…
AM: Do you think this is actually a dead person and he hung her hand on a piece of string? Like a marionette. That is already dead.
MR: But I like the fact that the body is becoming like a mineral. The kind of transparency.
Neue Review No. 2, July 2003, p. 44 – 46