Reflex of the Exile
The Times Literary Supplement
John-Paul Stonard
4 March 2014

Markus Lüpertz
Michael Werner Gallery, London
Until March 15

Markus Lüpertz is one of the most enigmatic of post-war German painters, at least for a British public. At Michael Werner Gallery on Upper Brook Street, a two-part display of painting and sculpture is the first exhibition of his work in London since the show at The Whitechapel Gallery in 1979. The main part of the exhibition (a concise overview of the five decades of painting and sculpture curated by the British painter Peter Doig) presents an introduction to his work. This sets the stage for the revelation of his most recent work, among the most original and successful he has produced.

Lüpertz began making sculpture in the 1980s. He soon developed a series of full-length mythological figures culminating in 2010 in an 18-metre-high figure of Hercules, cast in aluminium, mounted on top of an office high-rise in the former mining town of Gelsen-kirchen in the Ruhr region. The single figure dominating the Michael Werner Gallery is  more modest and less emphatically titled, given the dual identity as both Odysseus and Achilles. His body, although muscular, seems cobbled together like an ersatz antiquity: one arm is missing, the other cut at the elbow; stocky legs and oversized head are attached to a compact but shrunken body. Lupertz’s garish palette animates his otherwise heavily built bronze figures, giving them the appearance of carnival effigies and pagan idols. Their bulky fullness recalls sculptures by Picasso (particularly the portraits of Marie-Therese Walter from early 1930s) and the earlier portraits by Matisse of Jeanne Vaderin that inspired Picasso. But Lüpertz has made these precedents his own, pulling off the tough trick of creating mythological figures that feel entirely contemporary. Upstairs at Michael Werner, a figure of “Apollo” (1989) draws his arm across his chest and holds his shoulder as if pantomiming a vampire’s cape.

As Lüpertz tells Doig in an interview included in the exhibition catalogue, his paintings, nowadays are made to “look like paintings, paintings that have no story,…that create only an atmosphere”. Thirteen such works surrounding “Odysseus/Achilles” do just that. In each, a nude half-length figure is seen from behind twisting to the right, sitting in a boat (based, I think, on a figure by nineteenth-century painter Hans von Marèes). A different landscape setting in each image suggests stages of a journey. A ghostly figure stands alongside with truncated limbs and a rigid staturesque stare, painted with slashes and splodges, as if to suggest a comic sidekick. Trees are single dark strokes, elsewhere the paint drips and flakes. One is painted on a panel, a piece of driftwood attached to the top. Part of a larger series, these paintings look as if they had been made in transit, with whatever materials came to hand. Lüpertz often makes his own frames for paintings (perhaps to avoid collectors putting them in status-endowing antique frames), the most common type being decorated with splodges of paint like camouflage makings, as if to disguise the works as they were being made.

Coded images and camouflaged processes: the feeling is of a tradition of painting that is still operating underground, retaining the reflex of the exile. It is a sentiment that can be traced throughout Lüpertz’s work, and draws him together with other painters of his generation, notably Georg Baselitz, A. R. Penk and Jörg Immendorff. But it is also a type of painting that was designed to climb out the hole of provincialism into which the German art had fallen during the Third Reich, and which persisted for at least a decade after the war. In 1962, Lüpertz arrived in Berlin, joining many other artists and liberals taking advantage of a government scheme to encourage young men to live in the isolated city by exempting them from national service. The mainstream of German painting in the West then, a type of abstraction that tipped easily into decorative, was often provincial both in ambition and scale. Lüpertz was not alone in being profoundly affected by an exhibition of American abstract painting that arrived in Berlin in 1958, in particular by painting of Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. “And then what happened was that about fifty percent of Berlin artists started painting like de Kooning and the other fifty percent did exact opposite”, he tells Doig. (The enduring importance of de Kooning, incidentally, who has emerged as a far more influential figure than Jackson Pollock, can be seen in a series of paintings by Georg Baselitz currently on show at the Gagosian Gallery in London, Farewell Bill). Lüpertz followed a path between the two, forging his own brand of “Dithyrambic” painting, involving a set of variations on the basis of a simple motif. Several paintings from this time are of almost abstract forms repeated across the canvas, oriented only by the title, such as “Baumstamm – dithyrambisch” (“Tree Trunk – dithyrambic”, 1996), which shows what appears to be a tree trunk cut in quarters, painted in stark colours with distemper.

Lüpertz has frequently claimed that his subjects are really just motifs, that he is essentially an abstract painter (a similar claim is made by Baselitz, who metaphorically empties his paintings of content by inverting them, like pouring water from a glass). Yet sometimes, as in the early series of paintings, using the shape of a pitched tent, the abstract pattern can seem loaded with meaning. A tent is a temporary shelter made from the same stuff, canvas, on which paintings are painted. It doesn’t seem too much of an over-interpretation to read something in this about homelessness of painting, the lack of place for artists in Germany at that time.

Lüpertz’s breakthrough came with a series of paintings made by the early 1970s, showing imagery directly evoking the Second World War: German officers’ caps, infantry helmets and symbolic motifs such as sheaves of corn. He was the first to make such direct, unfiltered reference to the war. One of the best paintings in the exhibition, “Helm I” (“Helmet I”), from 1970, shows a large green helmet above a dark green shrouded form, painted with flat distemper. The monumental heaviness of the helmet is offset by the thin, unprimed canvas on which the image floats. The cheapness of the materials (the distemper Lüpertz used was left over from decorating jobs he did during the day with other artists) offers a reminder that Lüpertz, like Baselitz was still unknown, and barely supporting himself by his work as an artist. The boldness of his subject matter was in part a means of attracting attention, but it must also have been easier to make in a context in which nobody appeared to be paying much attention.

For Lüpertz , self-confidence, and strong sense of masculinity, as well as theatrical, dandyish persona are all essential aspects of being an artist, and can be read throughout his work.

“We are too old already to die as a young genius and we are not yet old enough to die as an old genius”, he explains to Doig. The 1976 painting “Man im Anzug –dithyrambisch I” (“Man in Suit – dithyrambic I”) has a men-in-the-city quality echoed in a later series of paintings from 1990s, “Männer ohne Frauen – Parsifal” (“Men without Women -- Parsifal”), referring to Wagner‘s treatment of the Parsifal legend (none is shown in the current exhibition). These paintings show variations on a semi-abstract portrait, often overlaid with bones and other masks that combined with garish colours, reflect the moral stance against seduction and the “feminine impulse” in Wagner’s Parsifal. Lüpertz’s image-world is indeed driven by a sense of pathos and suffering intent on preserving the masculine virtues. “It’s a man’s world”, he tells Doig, referring to his time in New York, “this walking in the street and standing in a bar and drinking whisky straight. “ Lüpertz in this light appears more as a Romantic dandy in a Nietzschean cast, a revivalist with deeper, more complicated historical roots than a classical modernist. The Gelsenkirchen “Hercules” might also be a self-portrait.