SZENENWECHSEL XVI – MMK FRANKFURT 1999-2000
MMK – Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt
11. Juni 1999 – 9. Januar 2000
Images and the Human Image
Selected work groups on the subject of the ‘image’ and ‘the human image’ in contemporary art, in Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt/M.
Change of Scene XVI and Change of Scene XVII
As of the end of the last millenium and the beginning of the new century and millenium, artists are increasingly asking questions about the “self” and “the other”. We can attribute this above all to the fact that today we face a particularly virulent, social situation in which people search for their true identities within a specific segment of the population, search for new tasks in the community of man, and enquire as to the meaning of life, against the backdrop of progress and developments world-wide.1 This questioning involves examining and re-defining the values of life, human society, and the individual self from a variety of angles.
With respect to these questions, many contemporary artists are thus examining the complexity of the diverse manifestations of human life, not only taking into account personal surroundings or the general world in which we live, but also drawing on the psycho-physical processes which shape our inner worlds. Appearance and custom, gesture and mimicry, everyday world and private world, the representative and the intimate – they are all reflected in paintings or photographs depicting “human images”. Human identity and, by extension, individuality and intimacy, are being examined against the backdrop of a society which places ever greater emphasis on publicity and ostentation – and represented artistically from a variety of different vantage points.
In this context, artists are also exploring issues relating to the image per se and the associated importance of individual and collective memory. The phenomenology of the ‘image’ and the ‘human image’ play a central role in defining our current position in terms of natural evolution and social setting. I shall therefore study the diverse manifestations of the two in relation to several pertinent work groups by artists from the MMK’s own collection, but also from private and public collections with a view to outlining some of the general characteristics of how humans currently see their own image. A series of short texts on individual artists and their work groups will accompany the respective Change of Scene exhibitions, beginning with Change of Scene XVI (1999).
Questions about ‘image’ and the ‘human image’ are rooted in the past millennia of human intellectual and cultural history. Today, we differentiate between material and mental images; they are examined by different scholarly disciplines and under various aspects.2 German is one of the few languages in which the term ‘Bild’ (‘image’) can entail the two meanings, referring to an image in the sense of something physically tangible and visually perceptible (lat. imago), but also to an idea which evolves solely in the mind.3 In linguistics and the theory of art, but also in philosophy, material images were and are still examined for their function in the context of communicative semiotic systems or, in terms of phenomenology, as special perceptual phenomena. The discussion of mental images, by contrast, is more the domain of mnemonic psychology and philosophy. Today, the history of art concentrates primarily on the formal, aesthetic and analytical differentiation of the phenomena of visual perception, and on interpreting them. The essays presented in this context focus first and foremost on interpretative contemplation, as this reflects the positions of those contemporary artists whose work groups are presented in the Change of Scene exhibitions.
According to what we know today, the archetype of the image expresses a symbolical equation of living creature – human or animal – and its representation. This concept was later transposed in part onto depictions of gods or saints. In the area of cult and religion, the image assumed the function of representing a being which was considered real or did in fact exist. The panel painting derived from the cult image – starting with precursors in Egyptian, Greek and Roman Antiquity, in the form of murals, vase painting or the portrait-like wax painting in encaustic art – initially developed in late Classical Antiquity and up until the modern age in traditional icon painting. In 13th century Italy, it was given new, secular roots. Subsequently, up until the 17th century the image developed into the civil/quotidien style of painting in the Netherlands, where for the first time it achieved the standing of an autonomous work in its own right. This development also led to a concept being abandoned which incorporated painting and the image into the Baroque gesamtkunstwerk. This concept had persisted into the 17th century and led ultimately in the 19th century to the total autonomy of the panel painting.4 Subsequently, the image was liberated from all contextual references, in other words from architectonic or religious contexts, and has since asserted itself as an individual cosmos created by artists either modeled on, or independent off nature, expressing the external, visible reality or the inner reality concealed within people.5 In no other century was this definition of image explored, disputed, destroyed and rehabilitated again as radically as in the 20th century. Consequently, at the end of the century known as “Modernity” and on the threshold of the coming century, questions about what artists understand by image and how they personally construe it has dominated discussions.6
The complexity of the respective concepts is derived from the twofold nature of the concept of the image, i.e. a representational orientation towards the visible-material world, on the one hand, in contrast to the iconic-symbolic reflection of the invisible world, on the other. The picture as a depiction image of a lived, external reality is mirrored in works based on the photographic reproduction of events, objects, or people. Here, the artist’s work focuses on artistic forms of expression based on subjective, creative criteria with which sections of reality are metaphorically re-interpreted or filled with dense symbolic content. In this context, mention should be made of artists who were active in Expressionism, Surrealism, New Realism or Pop Art.7 In addition, in the 20th century and particularly in the immediate present we have been witnessing a strong, general interest in the portrait and the ‘human image’, in other words, an interest in the subjectively formulated creative portrayal of an individual person, or of man per se.8
The most radical formulations of images in the sphere of abstract and non-figurative art – and they symbolize the inner human world – have been put forward by artists such as Vassily Kandinski, Casimir Malevich, Alexander Rodtchenko, Piet Mondrian, Barnett Newmann, Marko Rothko or Yves Klein – to name just a few protagonists who adopted differing positions in relation to monochrome or concrete art. With respect to some of these artists’ works, one can use the expression ‘icon’, meaning an image always based on an ideal prototype, or an abstract idea.9 In the work of many young artists, an important role is played by the significance of a concept of image characterized by ‘iconic’ features.10
The issue of the significance of recollection is also to be considered within the context of what the expression ‘image’ means. Individual and collective memory provide locations for the images stored in our memory. It is these multifarious recollected images of reality as we live and experience it, which allow us to experience our world more consciously and intensively in mnemonically updated form, influenced by the concentrated metaphorical pictorial images offered by artists. And it is these images which first make us realize that our concepts of reality are complex interrelated systems of past, present and future to which we give a temporary location, creating an individual cosmos. Reality is personal in that each individual only lives that reality which relates solely to him or her. Therefore, the collective reality of society or the world, is, in fact, always a reality of many realities. Nevertheless, finding objective form for the complex, individual areas of reality can give rise to general social concepts, if people attempt to agree on generally acceptable terms and generally binding explanatory models within the different arts and sciences. This is possible to the extent that every individual cosmos by its manifestation in the self, and by the articulation of recollections in the other, contributes to the creation of collective recollection. For this reason, particular importance must be assigned to the issues of ‘image’ and ‘human image’ in relation to the complexity of collective memory.11
In retrospect, from the vantage point of the threshold of the new millennium, the ‘human image’ which underwent so much analytical interrogation, alienation and dissolution during the 20th century, has re-emerged as a projection of the future. With the power of forging identity, it is seen as updating in the present those universal laws and the inherent laws of nature. One might even talk of a philosophical-artistic response to the repeatedly propagated dominance of technology and computers. The human image and the image of the society we live in, formulated in all their complexity by numerous contemporary artists, manifests a concept of the self which, given the insecurity we experience in many respects and domains, must today be re-construed in a newly-defined world. On the one hand, we find ourselves, for the first time since the beginning of human history, in a phase in which we develop a vision of the future colored by skepticism, since the latter is more predictable in its unparalleled complexity and therefore free of utopian projection.12 On the other, individuals are attempting to find a new stance in a world increasingly controlled by technology. The growing disintegration of the family as a social institution and the burgeoning dominance of work and the world of work, give rise to a number of surrogate families and pseudo-family structures in which humans can easily lose themselves. One consequence of this development is the partial relinquishing of individual attitudes and opinions in order to survive in the group and not be excluded from it.
Privacy is thus cloaked in new shared structures, whilst intimacy on the one hand occurs more frequently within the self, and yet by way of a counter-reaction is increasingly put on public display. Artists who observe these trends therefore direct their sensors more to the self, attempt to fathom the feelings and thoughts produced in their souls, and to transform these into artistic language. One’s own or the other’s human body, his mind and soul become sound boxes for the artistic observation of the individual.
Under comparable conditions, similar questions were asked as early as the mid-20th century: The so-called ‘Darmstadt Debates’13 attempted to comprehend the consequences of the first phase of the modern age (up until World War II and shortly afterwards) and imagine the further consequences up until our future, under the topic ‘The image of man in our times’. Substantively, the thrust of thought then was social and civilian progress on the one hand, moral regression on the other. Similar topics were explored in the United States in the exhibition ‘New Images of Man’14 held 1959, in which the European avant-garde still predominated. The late 1960s and early 1970s saw the fine arts undergo a radical change owing to the explosion in the use of new media. Since then, we have witnessed a gradual turn away from the avant-garde and a belief in progress that was constantly advanced further; now linear chronological continuity was replaced by the concept of a cyclically repetitive, complex structure of time. Many interests became interested in matters concerning humans and the world, image and reality, publicity and privacy, representation and intimacy crystallized. This was no coincidence. In a world which is becoming increasingly digital in (second) nature and fragmented, whose structures increasingly shape our everyday life, ever more importance is accorded to experiences such as the slowness of human perception, the reflective power of the human mind, the power of the image to foster memories, and also the updating of the human image as a reflection of our experience of reality today, in connection with the mnemonic world and the world in which we receive images.15
To coincide with the start of Change of Scene XVI, we have started to present different forms of expression and subjects on the ‘human image’, based on several pertinent works and work groups. As with the MMK’s first large-scale special exhibition in 1997, which was entitled Views From Abroad: The Discovery of the Other. A European view of American Art and was held in both New York and Frankfurt, or the small, but pioneering show horizontal-vertical16 featuring works from several centuries, united in an ingenious multi-perspectival dialogue, every six months, for a limited period, we will be transforming the MMK into “a temporary museum of the imagination”. By changing the contents of various of the exhibition rooms and combining work groups from the museum’s collection with specifically chosen objects on loan, the MMK will periodically alter its appearance. Our aim is to foreground that special aura of the artworks and to foster interaction between them.
1 These questions also formed the basis of the television series consisting of 10 films which Gero von Boehm conceived for the ZDF in 1998 on the subject ‘Odyssey 3000’ and which the MMK showed as part of its film program in December 1999 and January 2000.
2 See the publication for a convention entitled Bildwahrnehmung – Bildverarbeitung. Interdisziplinäre Beiträge zur Bildwissenschaft, eds. Klaus Sachs-Hombach and Klaus Rehkämpfer, (Wiesbaden, 1998).
3 See on the interpretation of the term ‘idea’, Erwin Panofsky, Idea. Ein Beitrag zur Begriffsgeschichte der älteren Kunsttheorie, (Berlin, 1985).
4 See in this context the excellent text by Werner Hofmann, Von der Nachahmung zur Erfindung der Wirklichkeit, (Cologne, 1970).
5 Highly interesting in this context are comments by Quatremère de Quincy from the early 19th century, Conrad Fiedler and Maurice Denis from the later 19th century which produced a theoretical foundation for the autonomy of painting seen from different angles. See E.H. Gombrich, Kunst und Illusion, (Zurich, 1978), p. 307. Conrad Fiedler, Schriften über Kunst, ed. G. Boehm, (Munich, 1971), p. 324. Such a theory was already postulated by Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803): He interpreted painting as a ‘dream’ and sculpture as ‘truth’. See J. G. Herder, Plastik . Einige Wahrnehmungen über Form und Gestalt aus Pygmalions bildendem Träume, in: Herders Werke, five volumes, vol. 3, (Berlin and Weimar, 1964), p. 71ff. See for a general history of image: Theodor Hetzer, Zur Geschichte des Bildes von der Antike bis Cézanne, (Stuttgart, 1998).
6 See on this subject, the extensive investigation on the topic ‘picture’ ed. Gottfried Boehm, Was ist ein Bild, (Munich, 1994).
7 Relevant examples of artists and their work is incorporated into the text collection, which includes Richard Artschwager, Thomas Bayrle, John Chamberlain, Peter Fischli/David Weiss, Jochen Flinzer, Jasper Johns, Marko Lehanka, Roy Lichtenstein, Max Mohr, Robert Morris, Claes Oldenburg, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Markus Raetz, Robert Rauschenberg, Peter Roehr, Peter Rösel, James Rosenquist, Edward Ruscha, Andreas Slominski, Paul Thek, Andy Warhol, Bob Watts or Tom Wesselmann.
8 In this context, reference is made to artists such as Francis Bacon, Silvia Bächli, John Baldessari, Stephan Balkenhol, Miriam Cahn, Vija Celmins, Larry Clark, Francesco Clemente, Walter Dahn, Anke Doberauer, Marlene Dumas, Cecilia Edefalk, Eric Fischl, Lucian Freud, Katherina Fritsch, Franz Gertsch, Alberto Giacometi, Ralph Gibson, Gilbert & George, Robert Gober, Martin Honert, Alex Katz, David Hockney, Michael Kalmbach, Willem de Kooning, Stephan Melzl, Bruce Nauman, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Pipilotti Rist, Thomas Ruff, George Segal, Cindy Sherman, Stanley Spencer, Beat Streuli, Rosemarie Trockel, Jeff Wall, Franz Erhard Walther, Andy Warhol.
9 On the expression ‘iconic’ see Max Imdahl, Giotto Arenafresken. Ikonographie, Iconologie, Ikonik, (Munich, 1988), p. 84ff.
10 These artists include: Carl Andre, Walter De Maria, Dan Flavin, Günther Förg, Gotthard Graubner, Herbert Hamak, Roni Horn, Donald Judd, Yves Klein, Joseph Kosuth, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Nam June Paik, Blinky Palermo, Arnulf Rainer, Robert Ryman, Frank Stella, Manfred Stumpf, James Turrell.
11 Works to be mentioned in this context are those by: Siah Armajani, Lothar Baumgarten, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Joseph Beuys, Heiner Blum, Anna and Bernhard Blume, Alighiero e Boetti, Christian Boltanski, Hanne Darboven, Gisèle Freund, Andreas Bursky, Ilya Kabakov, On Kawara, Barbara Klemm, Mario Merz, Reinhard Mucha, Reiner Ruthenbeck, Julian Schnabel, Thomas Struth, Abisag Tüllmann, Luc Tuymans, Bill Viola or Rèmy Zaugg.
12 See on this topic the very informative book by Lucian Hölscher, Die Entdeckung der Zukunft, (Frankfurt/Main, 1999). In addition, various exhibitions on the subject ‘apocalypse’ in the immediate present are a clear indication of man’s fear of the future. For example, the show Weltuntergang & Prinzip Hoffnung organized by Harald Szeemann, (Kunsthaus Zurich, 1999), or the show The apocalypse and the shape of things to come, by Frances Carey, (British Museum, London, 1999).
13 See the series of articles Darmstädter Gespräch, vol. I-II, ed. Hans-Gerhard Evers, (Darmstadt, 1950-1975).
14 See exhibition catalog by Peter Selz, New Images of Man, (Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1959).
15 In this context, see the more recent studies on perceptive aestheticism in Lambert Wiesing, Die Sichtbarkeit des Bildes, (Reinbek nr. Hamburg, 1997).
16 See the exhibition folder horizontal-vertical Museum für Moderne Kunst, produced by the author, in the Jahrhunderthalle Hoechst gallery, (Frankfurt/Main, 1998).