Tag Archives: Brönitz

The Art of the Branded Self

Häkschle zum 60.: Schnittpunkt III and Gerade IV in the Kunsthaus Brönitz.

Häkschle zum 60.: Schnittpunkt III and Gerade IV in the Kunsthaus Brönitz.

At the advanced age of 60 and with a name designed to be garbled, the painter Roald Häkschle has unexpectedly made it into the major museum circuit. It makes one wonder what makes a painter successful in an age in which the art of painting itself seems to be an anachronism.

The first requisite is, I guess, a simple formula. Better stick to one idea and keep repeating it. A Häkschle is easily recognized by its limited subject matter — blind walls and pavements, minutely rendered repetitive surfaces that never seem to be part of any solid construction. Subdued colours: shades of red, yellow and (occasionally) blue.

And of course we recognize a Häkschle through the omnipresent figure of the painter himself, foreshortened, with heavy legs and a little head, dressed only in a short raincoat, under a 1940s type of hat. Always gazing away from us, showing his gray ponytail (which, I’ve heard it whispered, is false).

Every Häkschle is in fact a huge selfie. In the present climate of hysterical self-promotion it will no doubt help to put yourself into everything you make, and in this ego market Häkschle seems determined to compete by size if nothing else. Too big for your living room, his canvases stake their claim to public walls.

Behind every successful artist there is a broker, and in this case his name is Ernst Bronn. “Häkschle teaches us something,” he writes in the catalogue. “The man who stands on a street corner in Schnittpunkt III, hesitating and suspicious, maybe, faces the immeasurable emptiness ahead. It may be sunny on the other side of the street, but this naive yellow light may well be the false glow of empty promises and futile hope. The nudity of his stout legs makes him look both strong and vulnerable.”

(Two visitors in front of me were arguing whether he was taking a piss. He isn’t.)

“This recurring figure may borrow some of the artist’s features, but at the same time he is Everyman (and, I dare say, every woman, transgender and bisexual), trapped, like all of us, between walls, stuck at crossroads.”

True, but trivial. Maybe superficial symbolism too may help in becoming famous.

And strong one-liners. “The whole distinction between abstract and figurative is bullshit.” (“Der ganze Unterschied, abstrakt oder figurativ, der ist ja Scheiße.”)

It is true, a figurative painting may be seen in an abstract way (think of Vermeer, the master of red, yellow and blue); but the other way round? Häkschle’s titles suggest the abstraction of mathematics: intersection, line, plane (Schnittpunkt, Gerade, Fläche), as if we should forget the man in the raincoat and focus on the composition. But in every painting there is geometry to be found — so what’s special?

Is there anything about these paintings that makes one want to call out loud: this must be seen?

They have a vaguely surrealist, disturbing atmosphere. Mostly through the false perspective, the flat surfaces, rather like the scenery of computer games (and obviously the artist has designed his pictures on the PC). But like computer games, they leave an impression of mental constriction.

Roald Häkschle, Schnittpunkt III © Lodewijk Muns 2017

Roald Häkschle, Schnittpunkt III

Häkschle likes to play with focus in a photographic way, and sometimes creates a kind of dynamics within the static composition. Here size is of the essence; you can’t have the experience through a reproduction. Walk up to Schnittpunkt 3, and the lack of focus in the brick wall may give you an uncomfortably dizzy feeling. Your gaze will be forced towards the sharply drawn human figure, far on the right.

Beyond that, a “false glow of empty promises”.

Four Funerals and No Wedding

Dust and Ashes, a new opera by composer Thomas Winstrich, was premiered last week in the State Opera of Brönitz. Those who were attracted by the production’s massive publicity and expected Gothic horrors were disappointed. For me it was the opposite. The work turned out te be more serious, subtle and ironic than its theme or title might suggest. Winstrich calls his work a “documentary opera”, not in the sense that it presents us with facts, but rather that it documents the universal human tendency to seek answers in myth, particularly concerning “this hardest-to-swallow truth: that there is an end to all of us”.

Dust and Ashes is exceptional simply because all its heroes are dead before the curtain rises. Its shows the funerals of four composers, Mozart, Paganini, Weber, and Liszt. Living protagonists there are only two: Richard Wagner, cast as baritone in the third act, and his wife, Cosima Wagner née Liszt (mezzo soprano), in the final act. Apart from a somewhat surrealist recreation of the funerary rites little happens on stage – it may be the most static and ritualistic musical drama since Parsifal. Luckily the imaginative cinematic stage design (by Voss & Tohanka) succeeds in keeping things alive.

The main action however is in the music. Though it is basically a pastiche from the four dead composers’ oeuvres, the complexity of its many levels of quotations and allusions exceeds familiar postmodernist pasting practices. Music is piled up layer upon layer in a score which demands a huge orchestra, a strong choir, and in acts 3 and 4 a wind band on stage. Despite the intensive use of borrowed materials, there is great inventiveness in the ways these are structured in waves of increasing and decreasing density. And if I can trust my ears and memory, there are quite a few original ideas hidden in between the stolen notes.

The opera’s first act is the shortest and maybe the most effective. Whether or not Mozart’s “third class” burial in a shared grave was disgraceful by the standards of the time, it remains a shocking idea to us that no ceremony took place at the graveyard and that no permanent marker was erected to identify the spot. Winstrich fills the void with a grimly humorous, Shakespearean dialogue between grave diggers, undertakers, coach drivers and a drunken priest, interspersed with fragments from Mozart’s Requiem and other works, which sound like they’re carried by the wind from a distant place.

The second act is maybe the weakest, due to the lack of any great mournful music by its deceased hero, Niccolò Paganini (1824). It also has the weakest foundation in known facts. The truth seems to be that the devil’s own fiddler died without absolution, and therefore was denied a religious burial. The body remained above ground for more than a year, then was moved from one temporary grave to another, and found its present resting place only in 1896. Legend has it that Paganini’s son Achille sailed the coffin from one port to another in despair, until he set foot on an uninhabited rock in the Mediterranean where he secretly dug a grave. With its maritime scenery, this act most heavily depends upon cinematic effects. Musically it works more or less like a grim symphonic scherzo, the apotheosis of demonic virtuosity, with an orchestra of ghostly violins in the air (playing in the pit and and projected above the stage). It refers, I suppose, to the burden of virtuosity (or eternal restlessness) carried by all post-romantic musicians.

Following chronology, the opera puts Carl Maria von Weber (1826) after Paganini, because what it shows is Weber’s second burial in Dresden, 1844. Already gravely ill, Weber had traveled to London, were he died without his family soon after the premiere of Oberon. His grave was neglected and nearly forgotten, according to Richard Wagner, who, 31 years old and an ambitious second conductor at the Dresden opera, took lead in an initiative to bring home the remains of his predecessor. For the occasion Wagner arranged fragments from Weber’s Euryanthe for winds, and at the graveside held the speech which is the basis for the first extended vocal solo in this opera (sung more securely than sensitively by Claus Sikurny).

“It happened to me (Wagner writes in Mein Leben), as I had started my speech with clarity and great sonority, that for a moment the sound of my own voice had such an almost frightening effect upon myself, that I was completely carried away and imagined not only hearing myself, but watching myself before the breathless crowd. This self-objectification created in me an intense expectation of the fascinating event which was about to happen before me, as if it was not I myself standing here, ready to speak. […] Only my own prolonged silence and the quietude around me reminded me of the fact that I had to speak, not to listen.”

His first inspiration for this work, Thomas Winstrich says, has come from this episode, at the heart of which is an astonished, self-reflective silence, a kind of Doppelgänger experience. Similar (yet differently motivated) silences are the core of each of the four acts, as a kind of “white hole” around which the musical waves “keep rotating”.

Act 4 is the weightiest, weirdest and saddest. Franz Liszt died in 1886, three years after his son-in-law Richard Wagner, during his visit to the Bayreuth festival. The focus is on his daughter Cosima, Wagner’s widow (intelligently interpreted by Angela Berger), whose monologue is set on an extratemporal plane outside the action, a reflection on life, death and pain drawn from her diaries and childhood letters to her father.

Not a note written by Liszt himself sounded during the real event, an omission redressed in this operatic recreation, which includes parts of the Requiem Liszt supposedly composed for himself (a little known, austere composition for male voices, organ and winds), as well as fragments from his many other funerary compositions. These are overlaid with a thick carpet of allusions which remind the spectator of the many directions the Liszt Nachfolge has taken in the 20th Century.

Musical density increases as the opera progresses, reflecting (according to the composer) “music history’s ever growing burden of riches”, as “a tribute to the presentness of the past”. This explains something of the haunting quality of this work. Never have there been so many auditory ghosts in my already overstuffed head.