It is a horrible thing: wrist-slashingly lost in most of its stretches; neck-hangingly aimless in all of its moods. I hope I am not making it sound exciting, either, as car crashes are exciting. Because it isn’t that. This desperate display is as tedious as the autobahn to Hanover, as flat as the outer ring of a Silesian suburb. It’s about nothing of any consequence. Yet it seeks to claim something crucial: that painting is experiencing a renaissance.
We have before us a classic example of misdiagnosis. About 25 years ago, a terrible thing did indeed happen to painting. But not what is implied here. Painting did not lose its relevance, or stop getting done, or die, as some tremulous headline-writers have proposed. What happened to painting 25 years ago was much worse. It grew a set of quotation marks about itself. It became “painting”. And when people start tracing kiss curls in the air as they utter your name, you know you have reached a terminal position and become an artificial insertion into the natural flow of things; a self- conscious act divorced from its context; a space invader. From such an exile, there is no return.
The Saatchi Gallery’s year-long display, The Triumph of Painting, is too naive an event to have understood this development effectively. Out of the endlessly nuanced, full-colour contemporary position of painting, the Saatchi Gallery has constructed a cartoonish, black-and-white reading: that painting went away, and now it is back. It is a scarily dumb appraisal. And neither the first part of the show, which ran from the beginning of the year, nor the update that has just opened can seriously be described as a “triumph”. The title also omits the quotation marks around its second noun: The “Triumph” of “Painting” would have been ugly, but honest.
Of course, German painting has a fantastic modern track record. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was in the front line of real achievement, and can fairly claim to have invented one of the key painting tendencies: expressionism. As late as the 1980s, when the collapse of communism and the twisted complication of the wall triggered yet another bout of Teutonic nausea, expressionism has surged out of German art with the unstoppable sense of direction of vomit. It was never pretty.
But it was often mighty.
Not any more. German painting today — and although I regret this exhibition’s feebleness, I do not doubt its accuracy — no longer has a clue what to be about. It has no subject matter except its own lack of subject; no aim except aimlessness.
A generation of fiddlers is wandering slackly between figuration and abstraction, pathetically unable to declare a path. Every painting here is an abstract-figurative hybrid, cut and pasted from a gaudy and unnaturalistic palette. Most occupy a depthless flatness that owes nothing to real space. Most, as far as I can tell, began life as someone else’s image and have been downloaded from various corners of the ether: the internet, magazines, television, posters. Nothing specifically describes, everything casually evokes, in a cowardly abnegation of proper meaning.
I suppose we should tie some names to some problems. Franz Ackermann is the weakest of the litter, last among equals, a traveller from country to country, I read, whose paintings aim to capture the chaos and shimmer of faraway places. Not a chance. Ackermann’s psychedelic doodles — Kandinsky frescoes for the nursery — are entirely interchangeable. If this traveller really has moved away from his computer terminal, it doesn’t show. Not one journey here achieves real specificity or distinction.
Thomas Scheibitz is the flimsy painter representing Germany at the Venice Biennale this year. His art blurs the distinction between painting and making diagrams. And, since his usual terrain is tower-block suburbia, you get excessive use from him of the ruler, as well as glum colours and paper-thin paintwork. Albert Oehlen had his moments. But they were early in the 1990s, when his oscillation between figuration and abstraction occasionally landed him on a memorable image (even the most careless roulette player can sometimes call a winning number). Now, alas, all Oehlen’s paintings are losers: uncertain, gaseous, entirely reliant on whimsy. Kai Althoff may become something one day: from the tiny sample available here, it is impossible to tell if there’s much more going on in his work than tortuous quotation from earlier sources. The same can be said of the token Pole, Wilhelm Sasnal, who at least prettifies the images he steals from books and posters with an effective sense of design.
Which leaves us with Dirk Skreber, a thoroughly unreliable painter who veers from one kind of slickness to another in five or six directions simultaneously. There is a horrible insincerity to Skreber’s car crashes. They are clearly descended from Warhol’s Disasters, roughed up, glamorously, with Pollocky drips. Still, as Skreber expands his search for the kitsch sublime, a glimmer of proper depth is discernible here and there. And he does paint a mean train.
In most instances, however, all six seem to be wandering across the same wasteland and painting the same picture at the same spot: slumped in front of the telly in a tower block, surrounded by plastic colours, wondering where poetry went. I felt like screaming at the lot of them to get off their inert Düsseldorf arses and find something to believe in: get a hobby, find a pursuit, do some man’s work if you can’t do art. But they never will. In the stretches of wasteful art thinking celebrated, praised and collected here, ennui passes for a virtue, uncertainty for a position.
You won’t need any help getting the scale of this aesthetic disaster into perspective — it is horribly obvious. But as a tonic, a pick-me-up, a restorer of faith, I recommend an instant visit to the Anselm Kiefer exhibition at the White Cube, in Hoxton. Kiefer was one of those spectacular Germans whom the waves of history sent crashing against the rocks of madness in the 1980s. As communism began to disintegrate and the two chunks of Germany prepared for their thunderous recoupling, Kiefer was in place to record their foreplay. Blessed/cursed with the pictorial arrogance of a panzer division, his stuff was huge, portentous, ridi- culously ambitious, symphonic and so, so dark. It still is.
Kiefer’s exciting Hoxton debut makes the output of the current crop of Saatchi favourites look like the ditherings of kids. I suppose it is fair to say he hasn’t moved on. Even though he lives these days in the south of France, he is still a recorder of Germany’s hugely troubled post-war psyche. Every picture is still a huge minefield of furiously thick paint in which are buried rusty scraps of discarded weaponry. These scraps are litter from the past. But they remain dangerous in the present, like unexploded bombs.
The new show presents a fleet of battered submarines being tossed around some rough northern seas that seem to double as rubbish tips. The submarines are physically shot, rusty and crocked, but also lethal: dead wasps still sting. In the trademark German scrawls that have always festooned his pictures, Kiefer spews out some mysterious equations inspired by the ideas of a Russian constructivist called Velimir Chlebnikov, who believed he had found an infallible formula for war. Chlebnikov and his war equations get scribbled all over the place, but it is the thrilling presence of the paintings themselves, their heft and their horror, that impresses instantly.
I also like the way Kiefer emerges here as a landscapist of considerable subtlety. The mighty seascapes may have been intended primarily as symbols of immense psychic anguish, but they function rather well descriptively. The moon-filled twilight of the show’s greatest painting — the palest and pinkest of the seascapes — captures a romantic pessimism worthy of Friedrich. The show continues in a specially built, corrugated-iron annexe in Hoxton Square, where the White Cube’s space problems are not so much solved as bulldozed into insignificance. Impressive.