The Albury Wodonga Superfiction 1993
Collaboration Peter Hill and J.J. Voss (Photographer)
- Jorge Immendorf was typical of a type of artist who emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s who Peter Hill refers to as “heroic amateurs”, meaning they made between disciplines and entered the new one with great ambition – often learning to paint in public but on a grand scale. Immendorf, Sandro Chia, Stephen Campbell, and Eric Fischl are examples of artists who moved from performance art, conceptual art, or painterly abstraction into a new kind of figuration. Immendorf’s creation of a fictitious nightclub – Café Deutschland – is a prime example of a superfiction being created within the equally illusionistic framework of a painting (see Lyndell Brown and Charles Green). This on-going series of works is discussed by Peter Hill in the interview below (Artscribe No 43, 1983, London)
Peter Hill: In the catalogue to your present exhibition at the New 57 Gallery Siegfried Gohr speaks of the vehemence with which you replied to Renato Guttoso’s Caffe Greco painting and its bourgeois imagery. This conflict dates back to the 1976 Biennale in Venice where, by chance, you had been placed in adjacent rooms. What was your initial, strongly-felt, reaction to this composition, and what grew from it?
Jorg Immendorff: At that time I was involved very much in the political movement and I belonged to a Maoist group. My paintings reflected the situation in West Germany, the depressed political left movement. I then saw Guttoso’s Caffe Greco and it was an inspiration for me because I disagreed with so much in it. It should have been more complex in structure and more contemporary in subject matter.
So I started my Cafe Deutschland series based upon a place where I used to go every weekend and dance with my friends. I used this place and tried to paint a story about the situation in East and West Germany. That was the start. I showed the same big painting that Guttuso did – and the dimensions of both were identical – so it was more a conceptual thing to begin with.
PH: Would you explain the imagery in this painting? Especially regarding the portrait of Penck in front of the Brandenburg Gate both of which appear as reflections in the discotheque’s supporting metal pillar. In the foreground you reach out a hand towards him, through the wall, but he cannot respond. In the middle-distance you dance alone, flanked by ‘apathy and eroticism’.
JI: I have had quite a close friendship with Penck for a number of years. In the beginning I thought it was important to bring the different cultural movements together since it was impossible to bring the political movements closer. We were one country and we each had to do what we could to bring it together. We were painters so what could we do in this situation as painters, or artists? We visited each other, had discussions, cooperated in artpieces and made a number of books, for example the last before he had to leave East Germany. I visited him in 1979 in Dresden in winter. It was a strange situation. We found it impossible to have a dialogue with words so we decided to make small drawings instead and later published these as a book. In several ways it was a symbol for us; a symbol not to use the ideas for ideas’ sake alone; it was a symbol for us to show the people that we must work together, and it was a symbol of the friendship between Penck and myself.
PH: In the catalogue Gohr speaks of the lovers symbolising the building of a new society, and ‘the dance’ as a way of entering reality. You appear as one of the disco dancers in your first I Deutschland painting wearing both Bohemian and conventional clothing, split down the middle...
JI: Yes, my paintings are full of signs: it is a way of coming closer to the point I’m searching for. I am represented twice through the same dancing scene. I have in myself the same schizophrenic split that is found in my country and my fellow countrymen.
You see it is very important that my paintings are not just about a general political problem because within that there are various social problems: how the everyday person is split from others, how he relates to his girlfriend etc. All these problems are one. Contained within the problem of a national split we can also see what divides the world and these divisions are the biggest obstacles to peace. There are also deeper reasons for my painting, concerned with creativity. I think so long as we try to work creatively there is hope. As long as people try to bring out what they are thinking, what they are hoping, what they are believing – in a creative way – then there is hope. I mean painting, and dancing, and movies...any sort of creativity.
PH: To what extent has Beuys influenced you? You entered his class in 1964 at the Dusseldorf Academy. Do these feelings about the fitness of creativity to be the driving force behind everyday actions spring from contact with him?
JI: Yes, let me explain. I first started in the theatre class at the academy, before I started as a painter, and before the theatre class I was training as a classical dancer. But the theatre class was too authoritarian – one chief standing there telling everyone else what to do, you know. I was 17, quite young, and couldn’t accept this system. I also enjoyed drawing and painting in those days and looked for a way to bring both things together – painting and the theatre. I then decided to become a stage painter because this seemed like the answer.
For about one year in 1963 I studied with Ter Otto, a very famous stage painter who’d worked with Bertolt Brecht and Reinhardt. He was an old-fashioned man. After one year I realised I wanted to concentrate solely on painting and I was thrown out of the theatre class and had to search through the Academy for a teacher who wanted me, and every teacher I asked said “I’m sure you won’t become an artist, it’s not possible to put you in my class.” But Beuys accepted me, so I came to Beuys. It was quite simple really. And Beuys was a great teacher. He didn’t say very much.
He’d say, it’s good, it’s bad, and in this way he brought you to be able to decide for yourself what was good and important in painting and drawing. The constellation formed by the rest of our group was also important then. I think this was a good system because it forced you to be sure of yourself and make your own decisions. At this time I made a lot of performances and started on the theme of the German problems which was very emotional. I rebelled against a lot of things at this time, things that seemed unfair. That was the starting point. From the beginning painting was a way of expressing myself. It was all concerned with what was happening around me and wasn’t a purely private act.
PH: I first came in contact with your work when I saw a catalogue of what you had been doing in the early seventies – compositions such as ‘Wo stehst du mit deiner Kunst, Kollege?’ This work had references to Pop, Conceptualism and Realism pinned to the pictorial wall. What do you remember of this period?
JI: Just before this time I was a student in the late sixties and you may remember the student revolution in Paris in 1969, and Czechoslovakia in ’68, and the dividing of the socialist movement. There was also the clash of ideologies between China and Moscow. In the High Schools in West Germany there was a great questioning of social systems sparked off by events like the shooting of Rudi Deutschke, and the war in Vietnam. If you had any sensibility you could not be blind to this sort of reality. It was clear to me I had to respond to such things as an artist and was drawn more towards the depressed peoples than to those who caused the war: what we call US Imperialism. At this time I made, in collaboration with others at the Royal College of Art in London, an exhibition about Chile. There was a big demonstration in Trafalgar Square. As part of a greater exchange of information I put on a performance at the Goethe-Institut. At this time my political group was banned – I also worked with the group ‘Artists for Democracy’.
But it is important to remember what art is. It is a special language. We all had the problem when we came close to a political idea that we had to remember our own freedom as artists. The big danger was that one fell into the trap of becoming a designer for political art and for political ideas, but it also meant that increasingly our freedom as avant-garde artists became less. It was also a limitation upon certain formal explorations in our painting. We were also forced to say, O.K., in some situations we have no clear answers so let us look instead for new ways of expression. I wanted to disturb dogmatic lines and decided for myself it was impossible to work with dogmatic ideas and art.
PH: Are you now in a position where you can reconcile the so-called free market economy with both your art (and its sale) and your political ideas?
JI: Yes, I must say this, I have moved further towards capitalism in terms of the greater freedom of expression that the painter has under that system. There is still the bad boss in the system and things like that...
PH: Do you see more hope under this system?
JI: No, no, I don’t see hope here at all. You just have to look at our world, at the pollution, at the nuclear weapons we have pointed at all of us. There is a history now of Europe being the world’s battlefield and Germany is sitting there right on the frontier. What Hitler did was nothing, it was child’s play, compared to the evil that we are ready to unleash upon ourselves. What Hitler did was nothing compared to this.
PH: Returning to your painting, how does realism in it differ from say Courbet’s?
JI: It is impossible to make any such comparisons. We are in another age. We are sitting well above the base of the modern art movement. We’ve had Dada, nouveau realism, expressionism for example. In another way though the artist is totally alone (but still with this base) and we must find our own answers, or at least new questions. We are a mirror and must be a mirror for our time. Our act is also quite a private one and we are like a window to a shop-front. We open our window and show what is going on inside us. My position today is that I no longer believe the artist has to be a teacher to the people as was once thought, a cultural teacher. We can only offer material to the people in the hope that they will find their own way. It is no longer possible for art to tell the people what they should do. Even today, when you see a Picasso, how can you say it is important for you?
PH: Immediately below us in the Fruitmarket Gallery hang the works of Sandro Chia. Recently there has been much talk, generated more by critics than artists and therefore of less importance, that whereas for a number of years we have had this great ‘international style’ with similar artworks being produced in places as geographically different as Chicago, Melbourne or Malaysia. We now find the contemporary art world splitting up into a number of national camps with a distinct German camp and a distinct French camp. Are the critics perhaps more divisive than the artists when it comes to such things?
JI: I must say that Sandro Chia and I are great friends. Whenever we meet we exchange artworks and we enjoy each other’s work very much although there are such big differences. His paintings are sunny and he paints about sunny things and about myths or personal symbols. For many years people have been talking about an ‘international style’ and I have little sympathy with it. A Richard Long can be taken and placed down anywhere in the world and no one knows where it comes from. Everywhere it looks the same. Even the work that is popular now, like Chia’s, I see in art schools I visit in Scandinavia, Holland and Germany. Students are adopting styles that have nothing to do with their own traditions or places. They have enough myths of their own to use without taking other people’s.
PH: I see the same thing happening with students in Scottish art schools...
JI: Exactly. There was a great flatness created by the ‘international style’, and it is happening again.
PH: Many of the paintings in this exhibition at the New 57, most of which are comparatively small canvases, take ice, often frozen into the map of Germany, as a theme.
JI: Yes, this is a theme for me. I see ice as being both hard like steel, yet when the sun comes out, like it does in Chia’s paintings, there is a melting and soon this cold hard thing can disappear.
PH: I know you have a tremendous output. What are your normal working methods? Do you rework canvases much?
JI: Yes, I go back over them sometimes, I make changes. But I don’t believe in much of this ‘quick painting’ that is going on today. We did this back in the mid-sixties. But I was a school teacher for eleven years. I taught in a secondary school and worked hard on my art outside school times. We all must find a way of keeping ourselves and financing our art. It was in 1980, only three years ago, that I was able to paint full-time.
PH: We began by talking about your I Deutschland series. Could I finish by asking if it still continues and if so for how long?
JI: Oh, yes, it will continue for a long time. You see as a painter it is a theme with which I now work and there is much within that theme that is there to be explored, both in terms of the subject matter and in the painting itself. Monet worked with his water-lilies for a long time. Yes, it will go on for some time yet.