When one thinks of the great tradition of German painters, the works of Gerhard Richter, Georg Baselitz or Martin Kippenberger promptly come to mind. Less mentioned, yet equally grand is the production of Markus Lüpertz, who has been active in the fields of painting, sculpture, poetry, editing, education and piano playing for over fifty years. The first two aspects of his prolific practice were recently the subject of a major retrospective at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.
The exhibition started with Arcadias, an ongoing series of paintings initiated in 2013. This unusual decision by curator Julia Garimorth empowered the show with great freshness, enabling the viewer to take the artist’s most recent production as a reference point. The Arcadias are large-scale canvases – as becomes clear in the next few rooms, the artist has a taste for immersive formats – depicting open-air landscapes inhabited by human figures. The grace of their pose and the absence of their limbs suggest a link with Greek and Roman sculptures as we now know them, whereas the paintings’ motifs further allude to the rich mythology which inspired art-making in antiquity. Arcadia is a utopian place which epitomises the ideal of living in harmony with nature – a somehow precursor of the myth of the noble savage. Lüpertz’s Arcadias evoke mythological scenes by juxtaposing this bucolic ideal with darker elements such as helmets and body armour, introducing the viewer to his dense half-figurative, half-abstract style and – as it also becomes evident in the rest of the show – his persistent interest in ancient mythology.
Markus Lüpertz’s practice is grouped under thematic umbrellas, each of which contains a similar set of motifs that the artist was interested in the time he created them. In the subsequent rooms, the viewer is presented with a selection of sculptures and paintings conceived with various materials, from tempera to gouache and oil, stone to bronze. In series like Men Without women. Parsifal ( 1993 – 1997 ) and The Mycenaean Smile ( 1985 ), the artist continues to express his interest in art history and mythology, whereas War ( 1992 ) brings the subject of violence – which permeates most of his production – to the forefront. This group is formed by four paintings titled Massacre, Dictatorship, Theatre of the Front and Heroic Death, shamelessly alluding to the darkest periods of history. Like most of the works, whether historic or contemporary, that depict moments of war, the topicality of their subject matter is uncanny. Lüpertz is often is noted as being among the first artists in the postwar period to expose the horrors of the recent history of his native Germany. Notably, his personal trajectory can hardly be dissociated from that of his country, as he was born in 1941 in Reichenberg (now Liberec, Czech Republic ), then occupied by the Nazis. It is ironic that the ideal of beauty endorsed by the Nazis, influential in the works of ‘official’ artists from the regime such as Josef Thorak or Arno Breker, happens to reference the same ancient aesthetics that is so dear to Lüpertz.
If horrors are portrayed as images in the graphic compositions of War and German Motifs ( 1970 – 1976 ), the artist finds a way of evoking them even in his most abstract works. Such is the case of Congo ( 1981 – 1982 ), a rather geometric series of paintings prompted by an invitation to partake in an exhibition at Brussels’ Palais des Beaux-Arts in 1981. Curiously, it was during this less-figurative period that the artist took on sculpting. His three-dimensional works seems to be born from his canvases, addressing mostly the human body – or fragments of it – in a non-human scale and deformed way; they are often heavily painted in shiny, non-realistic colours.
After Poussin ( 1989 – 1990 ) offers some relief from his denser works. Here Lüpertz alludes to a different kind of mythology, borrowing elements from well-known paintings to create outlandish compositions. Joining Poussin, this affective plagiarism includes references to Goya, Courbet and Picasso, fragments of whose work are either collaged or added in a quite different palette of colours then the one the artist generally uses, as if to highlight the appropriation process. The poor lighting of this room did not diminish the greatness of its content, and it’s interesting to imagine Lüpertz assembling these quasi-figurative canvases, putting himself in other artists’ shoes while reinterpreting their masterpieces in his own style. At this point, the narrative of the show was interrupted by the presentation of a documentary film, greeting the viewer with a glimpse of Lüpertz’s flamboyant persona and eccentric artistic process.
The exhibition ends with a single work from his earliest series, Donald Duck ( 1963 ), where we see an abstract interpretation of the popular character in vibrant colours. At the time he painted it, Lüpertz was 22 years old, rehearsing ways in which to shape his artistic style in opposition to Abstract Expressionist and Pop trends – hence the appropriation of the duck – that were fashionable in the 1960s. It was probably not long until he found what was to become his signature style, since his early Dithyrambic Painting series were conceived in that same year. It felt slightly random to end an exhibition with over 140 pieces from various periods with a single work from a given series, but it was somehow another brave move by the curators to finish the narrative at the actual beginning rather than the notorious one. Never boring, the retrospective includes high and low moments from the artist’s career with equal honesty. The visitor is left to construct a personal narrative of the show, perhaps attempting to regroup the works in a cause and effect system, where an interest or motif is directly linked to a subsequent one. What could have been a disastrous anti-climax proved itself to be a delightful approach to how to tell a story. And the artist’s trajectory continues.