War Paintings by SEO
Source:Artintern.net Author:J. Schilling Date: 2010-05-25 Size:
Although social problems, manifest collective and individual force as well as latent threat cause global worry and do not only provoke a feeling of helpless surrender within those concerned alone, artistic statements dealing with the symptoms and causes for this experience are rare. As opposed to th

Although social problems, manifest collective and individual force as well as latent threat cause global worry and do not only provoke a feeling of helpless surrender within those concerned alone, artistic statements dealing with the symptoms and causes for this experience are rare. As opposed to the past century’s 60ies and 70ies, when especially in Europe artists primarily took a stand against deplorable social circumstances, but were especially opposing any form of warlike conflicts, the contemporary art does not, as Thomas Wulffen states, “entail itself with aniconism, but with a possible restriction in subjects. The forbidden subject is the parlous picture, depicting the victims, those excluded, the precaritised.” [1]

Creative commitment is reduced – as in project art – primarily to subjective psychological aestheticised interpretations of aggressive or destructive elements, unsettling the individual socio-political environment; it avoids taking a stance and omits global conflicts. This may be rightly due to the distress of not being able to come to terms with such subjects metaphorically, and on the other hand being confronted with a hardly shockable, shoulder-shrougging audience. In addition, one is aware of works being judged by aesthetical criteria and not for the mind-set which they owe their origin to. Paintings, as Rolf Wedewer puts it, “instead of a distinct representational (…) certainty, they represent an ambiguity transported within assumption, therefore defying an exhaustive definition.” [2]

Then again, the political scientist Wolfgang Sofsky implies herein that experienced suffering can merely be disclosed with words: “Pain cannot be told, only shown. The medium of showing, though is not language, but image.”[3]

While acting up against destructive rigor of war, since the 16th century painters and in particular graphic artists have found concise expressions, after former dramatic illustrations of victories or defeats ever since ancient times had only served the propaganda purposes of the sponsor.

Multipart cycles by Jaques Callot or Francisco Goya on the other hand tell about the blows of war and a panorama of their tragic results with drastic determinacy. Between world wars it were those series, cut into wood, etched and lithographed by their successors Otto Dix, Käthe Kollwitz, Lea Grundig and Willy Jaeckel, who were zooming in on the horrors of war fiend and timelessly exhibited, in their radical demonstration of reality of war machinery, battle of material, the atrocities and misery of oppressed people.[4] Initially a volunteer to war, Otto Dix, whose lost painting ‘Schützengraben’ (Trench) was shown 1937/38, was part of the blatant show ‘Entartete Kunst’ (Degenerate Art), themed ‘gemalte Wehrsabotage’ (painted sabotage of military moral) as “servicing Marxist propaganda for conscription refusal”[5], stated he had tried to depict conditions on account of war factually since outrage can’t be painted; “the extraordinary situations show man at his full size, but also in his full depravation, and bestiality.”[6]

So far, SEO has predominantly been attracting attention with paintings that were romantically transfigured and which carried enigmatical interpositions of expressive or surreal elements. Initially, she knew to merge a thoughtful reception of worldwide valued European painters of the 19th and 20th centuries with her idiosyncratic formal vocabulary, based on the long tradition of Oriental painting.

Recently she created landscape- and figure paintings in which she – now aided by photographic templates – presents strongly coloured dream worlds, young women in their centre, their shapes embedded into phantastic water- and mountain scapes. Within these works, the cautious melancholy of earlier works is reminiscent, but here at the same time she also propagates, with effervescence of imagination, an optimistic world, and given the force of which, any doubt in positive aspects of being must be hushed bashfully. All the more surprising is the young painter’s next step, since now she, who already revealed being a pacifist with her paining ‘Augenblick’ (Trice) in 2005, chooses the topic of her new series as ‘Against The War’. Annette Pfnorr described ‘Augenblick’ shortly after its creation: “Opposite a row of uniformed and faceless soldiers, guns levelled, stands a single male figure. In his raised hands is a flower that he extends towards the soldiers. With straight but also empty gaze, the figure defies the impending danger. The outcome is ambiguous. While the rank and file appears a nonperson, the individual is given an outstanding position.”[7] While Annette Pfnorr was presuming an intention to mock the military, rethought today, we could accept this depiction of an equally brave and helpless gesture, much alike means of communicating as they are often caught on cameras in civil-warlike confrontations, as SEO’s initial statement for a more complex subject.

She is not lacking the courage to engage in such a predisposed theme, and approaches this self-imposed task with deeply felt commitment. Again, the artist relies upon a self developed technique that is based on collaging papers onto the canvas and painting them over with acrylics.[8]

SEO confronts us with situations where content is not hedged sublimely, but presented with such impulsive force that they are hardly in need of being commented on. Her protagonists are the losers of global conflicts, who either risk their life in wars that are not theirs, who are used, or who – hopelessly inferior - are trying to raise against a superior authority. Using rocks, youngsters are attacking a tank, the martial symbol not only for radical aggressive warfare during two world wars, but as a fortress-like, all-maiming instrument to suppress dissenting thoughts. Further, child soldiers parade in a blazing firestorm – playfully and determined at the same time – with their deadly weapons in front of an instructor hardly their senior. Above this scene, a hovering cone like pile of machine guns, which do not only visualize a never ending availability of such munitions, but also leave us with the temptation to imaginarily replace this collection of weapons with skulls, as Wassilij Weretschagin stacks in his masterwork ‘Apotheosis of war’[9] into a skull pyramid, surrounded by birds, amidst an unworldly desert landscape. In two further episodes of her anti war cycle it is the obvious hopelessness, aloof of all heroism which concerns SEO. She has us watch two soldiers in full gear, supporting an injured comrade while they drag along an endless-seeming pathway between corn fields. Beneath a smoldering sky, a picture of bleakness and no protection unfolds, amidst a source of danger, presumably nearby. Empathy and pathos form the second scene: a soldier has dropped to his knees in front of a tree stump with the bayonet of an assault rifle stuck in, and on it’s shaft an aviator’s helmet. Grown over by a soddy layer, in the blood red ground beneath the roots of this cut-off tree, skulls pile up. It remains unclear what kind of victims are addressed by the humbleness of the kneeler. Full of symbols and mystical overtones these paintings are, whose harsh criticism of our times SEO underlines, employing a dramatically dissonant choice of colours.

SEO decided to construct her paintings with those terrifying messages in a way that we cannot escape them – whereupon her origin from a country “whose culture cannot be explained adequately by European aesthetic categories”[10] does not matter, but where simplicity and grace are regarded as essential categories and not wrathful taking of sides. SEO expresses her moral indignation very clearly and calls for a public with deeper insight, for whom (especially after cold wars have turned into hot ones in certain areas) a – directed – combat journalism has become daily reading. While trying to influence, with emblematic suggestions, a society which is by no means unmoved by our disasters and commotions, but stunned due to its own lack of powers and therefore reacting indifferently, art has often enough served as a blunt ‘weapon’. It does neither possess the power to unsettle dictators, nor can it prevent wars, but is capable at best by its admonishing accusation to stir up and to ignite moods. One is inclined to agree with a figure of the author Günther Kunert in his piece ‘verspätete Monologe’ (late monologues) in his resigned creed “that truly different, really new existence could only be possible after the catastrophe, at least for survivors, that is what this figure is convinced of. What sort of catastrophe? Ecological? Economic? Military? A bit of each, the figure believes, is enough to inspire people to re-think, at least those who still own a brain thereafter. This figure, enlightened by inspection and experience, thinks no one is capable to give up the old grind, everything goes on after a secretly delivered death sentence which the delinquent, us in this case, can only muse and suspect; although we fear for the worst, the guillotine, we continuously expect an amnesty since we got off with a saved bacon and a blue eye a few times already.” [11]

1 Thomas Wulffen, Wir müssen leider draußen bleiben, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 16th November 2007

2 Rolf Wedewer, On Zur Sprachlichkeit von Bildern – Ein Beitrag zur Analogie von Sprache und Kunst, Cologne 1985, p. 17

3 Wolfgang Sofsky, Traktat über die Gewalt, Frankfurt/Main 1996, cf. Ulrich Raulff, Heimweh nach der Barbarei, letztes Wort der Zivilisation, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 1st Oktober 1996

4 Cf.: Zwischen den Kriegen, Exhibition catalogue, Text by Markus Krause, Käthe-Kollwitz-Museum Berlin, Berlin 1989

5 Cf.: Exhibition Guide Degenerate Art, Berlin 1937, p.12 und 15

6 Otto Dix, cf. Fritz Löffler, Otto Dix – Leben und Werk, Dresden (1960), p. 61

7 Anette Pfnorr, Der romantische Aspekt im Werk von SEO, in SEO – Falkenrot Award 2005,exhibition catalogue, Künstlerhaus Bethanien GmbH, Berlin 2005, s.p.

8 Cf. Technique: Dorothea Eimert, SEO – eine Vision von Natur und Landschaft, in: SEO – The Cologne Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Leopold Hoesch Museum Düren c/o Papiermuseum Düren, Düren 2008, s.p.

9 Wassilij Wereschtschagin (1842 – 1904), Apotheose des Krieges, 1871/72, Tretjakow-Gallery, Moskow

10 Hwang Chi Woo, Berühren bitte – Kleiner Versuch über die koreanische Ästhetik, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 15th Oktober 2005

[1]1 Günther Kunert, Verspätete Monologe, Munich and Vienna 1961, p. 69

Catalogue Text for exhibition “Without Words” at Today Art Museum, Beijing by J. Schilling, translation J. Markgraf

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[Editor] Elemy Liu