Richard Oelze is the third man of German surrealism: a shadowy creator of shadowy paintings who, after his death in 1980, fell from art-historical consciousness while his compatriots Max Ernst and Hans Bellmer became famous. Unlike them, Oelze remained mostly in Germany, and was always reclusive, spending his final decades living in an undertaker’s storage room.
In the judgement day painting “Valley of Josaphat”, disembodied human, bird and sculpted heads pile on to an eerie rock surface before a reclining white owl who stares out of the picture. A grimacing animal surges from a wavy parallelogram enveloped in fog in “Devoid of Another Party.” Flaky, fibrous and half-defined feathers, faces, ghostly masks morph into landscape elements, caves, forests, rubble and ruins – “In Lieu of Flowers and Blood”, “Green”, “No Finger Revealed in the Clouds” – where everything slips and slides in the dramas of light and semi-darkness; actual colour is rare.
Oelze destroyed most of his early works; these, dating from the 1960s, cross influences of sci-fi film, German romanticism and surrealism’s metamorphoses into ashen, apocalyptic visions. Painterly technique too is hybrid, combining Old Master exactitude with improvisatory gestures of transfer and blurring the layers of velvety marks.
These are dreamy, anxious, pessimistic paintings: Oelze served in both world wars, and although between them he lived in Paris, he never acquired residence papers, so was quickly drafted into the German army in 1940. He survived by “talking about surrealism and Kafka. They didn’t know anything about that, so I found myself alone and was left alone.” His cataclysmic interiority is memorable and compelling.