Hans Josephson in Ernst Barlach Haus, Hamburg

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On Saturday I visited an exhibition of some works of Sculptor Hans Josephson in the Ernst Barlach Haus in Hamburg. I had seen some of Josephson’s sculptures in the Kolumba museum in Cologne before. So I was exited to learn that there was an exhibition in Hamburg in that particular museum.

Having grown up and gone to school in the vicinity of the Jenischpark in which that museum is situated, it was a special pleasure for me to visit both the park and the museum, especially since the weather was nice. And I did not regret going into this exhibition.

The picture above shows one of Josephson’s “Halbfiguren” (in Berlin – unfortunately I have no pictures from the Hamburg exhibition) but you have to see one yourself to see how great this art is. To capture the real beauty of these works on photograph, one would need a lot of pictures for each of them, including close ups and macro photos of the surface. Josephson used brass but left it unpolished, covered in a kind of patina just the way they came out of the casting mold. The surfaces of these sculptures are extremely varied and rich in shapes, textures and colors. He is actually the master of the surface, almost like a painter in 3D. While in most other sculptures, the main effect is in the overal shape and the concepts triggered by it, here it is the surface. You have to look at them from a short distance. Some of the sculptures and reliefs are still figurative, but some (like the one above) look just like rocks or boulders and figurative elements have nearly or completely disappeared from these works.

Pictures like the one above do not do justice to the richness and beauty of the irregular surface structures. This might be one of the reasons why Josephson is not so well known. His works do not look so spectacular from a distance or on a picture. But I am sure his fame will grow.

If you look at on of these “boulders” from a short distance and walk around them to study them from all sides, they throw you into a state before words. It is hard to describe these sculptures and their effect, so I will not try. This is something that words cannot capture. Just go there yourself and see them.

Josephson was born in Königsberg (today Kaliningrad) but spend most of his life in Switzerland and acquired the Swiss citizenship. Besides Alberto Giacometti, he is regarded as the second great Swiss sculptor. Giacometti might have been the more versatile artist, but for my personal taste, just as a sculptor Josephson is the greater one, although he is less famous.

(The picture is from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Berlin_Josephson_30983.jpg.)

Two Views of Ebersdorf

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In 1925, Rolf Keller painted this small watercolor (ca. 10.3 cm x 15.3 cm) of Ebersdorf and its “Stiftskirche” (collegiate church). The style of this painting is similar to that of the Hafen Hamburg painted two years earlier. Rolf Keller had taken lessons from Oskar Kokoschka, probably during a stay in Hamburg in the early 1920s. Because of their style and because of Kokoshka’s influence, it appears adequate to view these two works as part of the expressionistic movement that still was an important part of the German art scene in the 1920s.

Ebersdorf is a village near Chemnitz that had been incorporated into Chemnitz in 1919. Rolf Keller’s mother was living there. She was known to his son Svend Keller as “Oma Ebersdorf” (Grandma Ebersdorf) as opposed to his other grandmother, “Oma Hamburg“. Svend Keller prepared a very different view of Stiftskirche Ebersdorf in this pencil sketch, dated May 5th, 1947:

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Bagatelle II

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Today I was in Museum Küppersmühle in Duisburg to see the big ongoing K.O. Götz retrospective. This exhibition was previously shown in Berlin and will move to Wiesbaden in June (see http://www.museum-kueppersmuehle.de/ausstellungen/aktuelle-ausstellung-ko-goetz/).

This exhibition, the largest of several exhibitions currently showing works of this artist, is really worth a visit. Friends of abstract art can take advantage here of the fact that the artists celebrated his 100th birthday in March this year, resulting in a lot of exhibition activity (see http://www.xn--ko-gtz-zxa.de/pages/texte_filme/werkverzeichnis.html).

It pays off to visit Duisburg just to see this exhibition and it pays off to visit Germany just for this purpose! The permanent collection of the museum, including works of Gerhard Richter and K.R.H. Sonderborg, among others, is also worth a trip.
One of the paintings in this exhibition is “Bagatelle II”. A small photograph like the one above can only give a faint idea of how the original is looking. The original is 380 cm wide and 100 cm high, not a bagatelle at all. Photographs like this one can also not capture the very interesting textures and microstructures of some of the paintings.

Just go there and see them for yourself!

(The picture is from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BagatelleII.jpg).

The Creative Process of the Artist

In this article, I want to start an investigation about the creative processes of artists and the knowledge used in creating art. Let me start by introducing the concept of analytical spaces.

In a previous article I have described the concept of analytical spaces, developed by my friend Kurt Ammon, as a theory of knowledge. Amon views knowledge and the objects it refers to as developing together and he exemplifies this with an example from engineering:

If a team of engineers has developed a new product such as a car or an airplane which is put on market, weak points of such a product are recognized after some time and the product is revised and improved. This process is repeated many times. The knowledge of the engineers about the product and the product itself form analytical spaces. At any given point in time, the engineers have only incomplete knowledge about the product, which is revised and extended through experience. The product serves as the basis for the construction of new knowledge. The accumulated knowledge forms the basis for revising and improving the product. Thus, there is a coevolution of the knowledge and the product, i.e. the knowledge, the product and the interaction between the knowledge and the project run through an evolution process. This cyclic structure also applies to earlier stages of the product development process.

(from: “The Automatic Developments of Concepts and Methods“ by Kurt Ammon (University of Hamburg, 1987), p. 76.)

At any time, the knowledge we have is incomplete and the objects we are interacting with have some properties we don’t know. Parts of our knowledge that are consistent, together with the objects they refer to, form analytical spaces. Knowledge develops through processes of division and unification of analytical spaces.

This concept can be applied to art. We can look both at the creation of art by an artist and at the reception of art by the viewer.

An artist, at any point of his artistic life, has a certain body of knowledge about his or her art. This knowledge consists of different components. There is visual knowledge that enables the artist to perceive structure in what he sees, in his environment, in works of art, in his own works including the ones he or she is just working on. Only a part of this knowledge is explicit and can be verbalized. Secondly, there is knowledge of how to do things, including knowledge of crafts and procedures down to knowledge controlling movements of the body, especially the hands. A lot of this knowledge can be thought of as procedural, and probably only a small part of it can be explicitely explained and verbalized by the artist.

Then there may (or may not) be knowledge on a semantic level, connecting the artist’s work to other areas of life and the world.

Typically, artists will develop an “artistic conception” integrating these different types of knowledge, I am taking the concept from from the book “Probleme der Bildästhetik”, Concept Verlag, Düsseldorf, 1972, by Karl Otto Götz and Karin Götz (also known by her artist’s name Rissa) – Götz is writing there about “Künstlerische Konzeption” (artistic conception (on the video above, you can see Götz painting). Works of art arise by  applying this conception and the different types of special knowledge controlled by it to raw materials. In many cases, not all perceivable properties of these works are controlled by the artist’s conception. Typically, the emerging works have more properties than are described and controlled by the knowledge of the artist. They contain surprising or unexpected, new elements. The artists might eliminate these and correct the work. Another possibility, however, is to embrace these properties of the work and let them be. In perceiving them, they may alter the knowledge of the artist. His or her perceptive or procedural knowledge might be extended. The process of art can thus be described as a learning process in the Ammonian sense.

In the example with the engineers, the solutions to the technical problems are constrained. To an extent such constraints might also be there for the artist, constraints originating from economic requirements or from other aspects of society. But the artist might also be free to set his or her artistic “problem” or task without such outside pressure, as part of the artistic conception. The result is an analytical space that not only describes some objects but defines and creates them. The only constraints here are the physical constraints of the underlying material used.

The artistic conception of the artist, viewed as an analytical space, is growing with each single work, but at the same time may be modified or refined. The direction of this work is unpredictable. The artist might primarily be interested in structures themselves, in the “syntactical” aspect of the works, or he or she might be using these structures to express something and use them as a language, shifting the focus towards the semantic aspect. This depends on the artistic conception that, together with the procedural and syntactic/structural knowledge of the artist, forms the respective artistic conception. There is no rule to this. Criteria of quality emerge alongside the other parts of knowledge and are part of the developing analytical space.

From the point of view of the recipient, the art looks very different than from the artist’s own experience. Normally, the beholder of art only sees the finished product. In case he or she can watch the process of creation, this process is only seen from the outside. The knowledge of the artist and the complex feedback process by which this knowledge and the work create each other is invisible. So in any case, what we see are only fragments of the process and knowledge of the artist. We only get a partial or even fragmentary view. From this perspective, the artist’s works and the knowledge and attitudes of the beholder form analytical spaces as well but these might be quite different from those of the artist. The work as perceived by the beholder might be quite different from the work as perceived and created by the artist. The creative process of the artist, unpredictable and uncontrollable as it is, might have gone into a direction into which the perceiver might not be able to follow him, at least not without some effort, training and additional information.

The artistic conception of the artist might contain a consideration of the perceiver, the audience. The work might be created with the audience in mind and with some knowledge or understanding of who the intended audience is and how they will perceive the work. In other words, the work might be created deliberately as a means of communication or of creating a certain effect. However, some artists might not be so interested in this aspect.

A recipient or viewer is not necessarily part of this game. I don’t know if there are many artists working only alone or for themselves. I personally know one such case, an artist who never published or exhibited anything and produced her drawings, paintings, texts and objects just for her own personal fun. This might be more common than we think, I don’t know. Since such people remain mostly invisible, we don’t know how many there are and if they are rare exceptions. I guess that it is more common that artists will want to show their work.

When I look at art, one of the things interesting me is to try to find out about the artistic conception of the artist. It has become common for artists who have web sites or blogs to write an artist’s statement and to comment of their works in blog articles. Such communications often give clues about the thoughts that where behind the works or accompanied them. However, some of the artist’s conceptions, some of the knowledge in those analytical spaces might not be explicit.

I would like to receive comments of artists on what they think about their own art. What are the concepts and ideas behind it? How much of these concepts or ideas are explicit or can be consciously verbalized and how accurate are such conceptualizations. Do they actually describe what is there or are they constructions that maybe do not really describe what is going on? How much of the knowledge is intuitive, procedural or perceptive? Are there emotional components or do emotions not play such a big role in the creative processes? If they do, what kinds of feelings are there? How long did it take to develop the artistic conceptions used by artists? Are several conceptions used by the same artist? Do these stabilize in some way or are they constantly developing? Are they sometimes changed completely? What is the role of semantic components? In what way are the recipients taken into account during the creative process? What is the role of outside constraints (from economic pressures, the art market, buyers, critics, politics and society etc.? Are these factors perceived as outside constraints at all or are they integrated into the artistic conception? Are these even the right questions (I am not an artist myself, so my ideas are a bit hypothetical here)?

I know some of you are artists. Maybe some of you might be interested in answering or in suggesting different questions. I expect answers to be highly individual. I am pretty curious :-).

Ruins 3

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Another watercolor on cardboard by Svend Keller. The caption reads: “Ruine an der Schloßstraße” (Ruin at Schloßstraße). Signed and dated November 17th, 1948. A preparatory drawing made with a hard pencil is visible in the lower part. Schloßstraße is a street in Chemnitz, the city where Svend Keller was living at the time.

In this study, Svend Keller concentrated on a single building, or rather what remained of it. Other houses in the background are only hinted at. The style of the windows indicates that this might not have been an appartment building but rather an industrial building. Ruins like this one still formed an important part of the cityscape of many German cities at the time and continued to do so for years, in some cases even decades to come. We can take this as a historical document.

On the Role of Art Museums

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During history, the way art is embedded into society has changed several times. In medieval times, for example, most of art was religious. In Europe, it was, to a large extent, confined to churches. In early modern times, aristocrats and members of the upper middle classes became the main substrate of art in society. In the 18th and 19th centuries, museums, often funded by states or by special societies, where established to collect art while art criticism took place in the arts and culture sections of newspapers or in special journals. In many cases, especially in the 19th century, such museums where operating within theoretical frameworks that were nationalistic, but that is a topic beyond the scope of this article.

The rise of the internet is more and more pushing the traditional print media to the side. Blogs or other forms of public opinion outside editorial media, where people publish directly without the filter of an editor of editorial department between them and their readers, more and more replace the traditional system of printed papers. And the role of museums, I think, is changing as well.

For a long time, art museums, aided by galleries, where the main place where people from the general public could get into contact with art. This gave the curators of the museums as well as the gallery owners, a relatively important role in determining which artists became important and what art became visible to the interested public. Together with the art critics who had access to the arts and culture sections of the papers, these people had, to some extent, a monopoly to decide what art mattered.

The way art is embedded into society is currently changing again. I got the impression that this old system of news-paper-based arts critics, museum curators and gallery owners is losing its influence. While it was very difficult before for artists to reach people and while it was difficult for the public to get into contact with art and artists outside this system, the internet increasingly seems to be changing this situation. Many artists now make their art accessible through the internet both for people who just want to see it – at least in the form of digital images – as well as for people who want to buy it. Many artists now have blogs and online shops and are represented on different social media. People interested in art can get access to it through the net, get into direct contact with artists and learn about artists and exhibitions they would never have known about before.

As a result, the traditional go-betweens of art are losing their monopoly. One consequence of this is that the entire variety of art that is produced becomes visible and accessible. No longer is a group of critics and curators able to decide which movements in art will be dominating at a time. The art lover now has to select by himself or by herself what he or she likes or wants to see, there is no expert in between who will filter things, at least not necessarily. The art critic is still there, but no longer does he have a monopoly of interpretation or a monopoly to decide what counts as quality. The responsibility is shifted to the art lover. While this opens up chances for mediocrity and kitsch, art of high quality is still produced and even to a larger extent than before and in many parallel movements and directions at once.

What will be the role of art museums if they lose their function as trend setters in the arts landscape? The internet has made visible the tremendous variety of contemporary art. I suggest that museums redefine their role from a prescriptive or normative to a descriptive role. I suggest that they widen their scope and start collecting not only the works of a few established (and often very expensive) artists but instead start sampling the wide spectrum of art that is there. I suggest that museums redefine themselves to become archives of the true plurality and multiplicity of art by buying and collecting works of art that are representative of the art scene of the time, even if many of the artists whose works are collected are little known and many of them might never rise to prominence. Where today millions are spent to acquire a few works of renowned artists, the same amount of money could be used to buy a representative sample of thousands of works of different artists. There are hundreds of art schools and arts departments worldwide where students study and become artists and there are also a lot of extremely interesting “amateur” artists who do great art and who are amateurs only in the sense that they do not have a university degree. Only a few of these artists ever make it into museums with their works. I think this is a mistake. The collections of the museums would be much more interesting for future generations of art lovers and art historians if the museums would buy a greater variety of works.

Of course we need the traditional art museums to preserve the works that we have inherited from the past. But we also need a new type of art museum or art archive that has a wider scope, more fitting to the more public, more democratic art scene that the internet has helped to create.

(The picture is from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hamburg.Kunsthalle.Kuppel.wmt.jpg.)

Sheaves

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A torn out page from one of Rolf Keller’s sketch books. Pencil, undated and unsigned.

Another sketch providing a glimpse of a world of agricultural techniques that have disappeared since. Harvested grain was bundled into sheaves and left on the fields for some time to dry, before being brought to the threshing floor.

Like in some of Rolf Keller’s other sketches I have posted here before, we see here a world in a time of change. The old things are still there but a new time is approaching. The sheaves still look like they used to look thousands of years before, but the arrival of combine harvesters caused this sight to disappear soon after. The houses in the background look like relatively modern residential houses, not like farmhouses. The old agricultural world is about to disappear and a new urban world is approaching.

I don’t know where this sketch was made, it might be somewhere arround Chemnitz, maybe Grüna again, where Rolf Keller was living for some time, but it might also have been somewhere else, during a trip. I guess this sketch was made in the 1920s or 1930s.

This sketch is unsigned but it was obviously made by Rolf Keller. The way he captures trees, houses or other things with a single continuous winding line is quite typical for his sketches. Even some of the hatchures consist of a single continuous line not leaving the paper.

I find this sketch quite beautiful. This little piece of paper seems to emanate the athmosphere of a hot late summer day, captured in a few lines…