I was recently in Wolfgang Petrick’s studio at Schlesisches Tor, his present base, for the second time. The studio occupies part of an old factory building directly on the Berlin inner-city border, with a magnificent view over the River Spree and the Berlin Wall toward East Berlin. Gulls circle in the haze. When I was first here some months ago, the interior of the studio with its formal spaciousness was still recognizable as such. That has since changed. The room has become overgrown; a jungle has moved in, a jungle of paint with niches that dazzle and brood, a jungle of pictures. A transformation toward the organic has taken place. Pictures, materials, pencils, paper, canvases, wood slats, gas masks and wolf furs - everything has grown together into a kind of painter’s wilderness. The floor is an undergrowth of paint. Petrick’s pictures have sprung, as it were, from this self-generated landscape. As I was leaving, Petrick produced an old newspaper to show me. It was in fact an old magazine from the Second World War titled "The Illustrated Paper, The Frankfurt Magazine" (Das Illustrierte Blatt, Die Frankfurter Illustrierte), from August 30, 1941. The front-page photo carries the caption: "He was scattered for two days". The picture shows two soldiers from the Wehrmacht. One is wearing a helmet and the other, in the foreground, is wounded with his head bandaged, his uniform jacket dirty and crumpled. His face expresses the horror of war. This warrior deformed by war, an injured body and injured soul, exemplifies a basic motif in Petrick’s work: the wounded man, the wounded human figure, the wounded human image. Petrick is concerned here with the wounds people inflict upon themselves in the course of creating their own civilization. As for instruments for killing and maiming, mankind has been very creative. It involves deploying the hard against the soft. We ourselves, in our natural form, are the soft. We create our own hell. We carry the devil within and needn’t turn to anyone other than ourselves. This is Petrick’s theme - the hard against the soft, the deformation of the human form. In Petrick’s studio, one discovers "provocateurs" that inspire and provide the material for his associations: newspaper clippings, photos of accidents and war, and medical case photos. His bible for many years has been an old, illustrated handbook of forensic medicine.
The studio at Schlesisches Tor is not the first of Petrick’s studios I have visited. I have, in fact, come to know them all. The scene is always the same. Gradually, they become overgrown with paint, objects and pictures, and at some point he is forced to move to a larger studio. I observed Petrick’s first paintings in the gallery Grossgörschen Strasse 35. Petrick was one of the founders of the since-legendary circle of geniuses from which Berlin Nouveau Realism emerged. His early paintings are today just as fresh. In their crude enjoyment of the narrative, they belong stylistically somewhere between Ensor and Dubuffet. At that time, Petrick gave his pictures titles like "Hatted People" (Haubenleute), "Bad People" (Schlimme Leute) and "The Long Green Ones" (Die Langen Grünen).
I realized already in those early days where the effect of Petrick’s paintings was derived from. There is, namely, more to painting than being deeply affected by the world we live in, as is often said. One must also enjoy it. Petrick has always been a painter who derives great pleasure from the act of painting. It is very much this which distinguishes him from those of his colleagues trying to put forward their moral agenda, the result of which is generally misery, but little art. The point of art is not a wagging index finger. The artist is not a moralist - at least not first and foremost. He or she holds no primary moral obligation to the content of what he or she depicts; were this the case, the result would not be art, but allegory, poetic pedantry and Bread-for-the-World painting, as is readily found in the realistic genres.
Instead, the artist’s main obligation is to his desire to paint - in other words, to color, lines, and to intuition, which a color, line or brush stroke directly provokes. The inspiration of color is the painter’s reality, and this alone provides the moral intuition in his work. If he relies upon this - upon himself, that is - and follows his intuition, then the creative act will spring from this and a picture will turn out not as a dead allegory, but will retain a liveliness and assume a form of its own, a symbol of its age. It will provide us, namely, with an image and ideal of the consciousness of an epoch, drawn not from the morality on its surface but from its earthy depths, from its subconscious and unconscious sources. Images from the subconscious, from that zone just beneath the surface of our rational consciousness, are transmitted outwards. In this way, the rational is not denied, though neither is the irrational. It must be recognized that those who strive toward rationality are also dependent on irrational elements. And those who suppress these are fooling themselves. Rational and irrational elements confirm and influence each other, tending to bring about a process of reflection on our interior and exterior life. In this sense the painter is a medium. And Petrick is one such medium. With this, I am already midway through describing the secret behind the effect of Petrick’s work. But first back to my little resumé. From his earlier expressive-figurative works, Petrick shifted in the mid-60’s toward a drastic realism, with some formal slapstick interludes in the installation of pictorial limits and in the re-rendering of the wounded motif. This was never in the fullest sense "Realism", but contained, rather, various surrealist and dadaist components in the confrontation and combining of those things not belonging together. Already at that time, the background found special emphasis in Petrick’s art. His motif was the transformation of the human into object, the collision of man and machine, of the organic with the mechanical, of people and robots. Petrick discovered varied forms of disguise: the stocking-mask, soldier’s helmet, diving, astronaut and motorcycle helmets, and the pointed cap - all aggressive as well as protective masks.
Timm Gierig pointed this out in the catalog for the 1988 Frankfurt exhibition. Petrick’s theme is "the malformed man with his tools and devices". Weapons and artificial limbs are everywhere, and frogmen and vacuum cleaner amazons take the stage. The nom de guerre "Critical Realism", which the group bore at that time, turns out, in retrospect, to have concealed more than it revealed. During those years, Petrick acquired a name, above all, as a brilliant drawer or technical artist.
In the 80’s, Petrick’s painting underwent an explosion of color of a dimension astounding even to those familiar with his previous work. Timm Gierig describes this change as a shift from the factual to the mythical. I would like to politely modify this statement. I would suggest describing it more as an opening than a shift, more toward the visionary than the mythical, thus an opening toward the visionary. Certainly Petrick has not lost touch with the issues of our time, with the painful experience of man’s alienation from his environment through his own self-created material world. The basic problem of objectifying man remains. He now goes about painting by very different means, the vivid, picturesque handling of visions in a large format bringing about a colossal, urgent and alarming effect projected by the large canvases: a waterfall, fire, avalanche and thunderstorm, all at once. Gierig speaks of the "ceaseless flow of a late biblical flood".
The motivations in creating the exhibited paintings are manifold. Petrick was inspired by Albrecht Dürer’s celebrated copper plate etching "Knight, Death and Devil". He explained to me that he was provoked by the motif’s hierarchical conception. Each has its prescribed place in this picture - the knight, the devil and death. The knight is squeezed inside his armor. He has veiled his softness in hardness. He has transformed himself into a crustacean. He rides in this way between death and the devil, apparently shielded from all threat, hoping to avoid the onslaught of his enemies. Here is the archetypal warrior - both aggressor and victim. In fact, it is no longer this simple. The hierarchy has been destroyed. Here, I wish to draw the reader’s attention once again to the wartime photograph mentioned at the start; this picture of the vulnerable man emerging from the horror of the inferno. Here also we find man as aggressor and victim, destroyer and destroyed, together in one. This is the motif. It is the questioning of the ability to be decisive. We can no longer be sure of our own selves, even less so if we rely on given rules, be they rules of morality or of art.
Petrick pasted reproductions of Dürer’s copper plate etching into his painting. At first glance, one hardly sees this. In fact, the motif is no more than an "agent provocateur" for a plunge into the sheer pleasure of painting, an indulgence to which Petrick fully submits; a compulsive lust, an obsession, an orgy. He cannot help himself. He paints not only with brushes, but with his hands and feet, indeed with every fibre of his body. When he paints, he is totally absorbed in the picture, physically part of it, himself one with the creative act out of which the painting grows.
This intensity radiates from the paintings. Hence, we are gripped by them, by their enthusiasm and their "horror-not" paradise, but inferno. There is also an enthusiasm for hell. What is actually happening here? Next, the depiction of the human form: it appears in its physiognomic and mimic contortion. Grimaces of aggression and suffering emerge from the seething unrest, at times as if washed to the surface, like flotsam and jetsam from the ocean deep. But also appearing are odd, centauric figures with beautiful, graceful heads on massive, animal-like bodies, driven forth from the embers by hot winds and, upon finding themselves in an area of coolness - silent human forms in helpless beauty - then enveloped in demonic masks. Höllenbreughel, Bosch and Grünewald greet the scene from the distant horizon. Faust’s vision of Gretchen during the turmoil of the Walpurgis Night comes to mind: "Mephisto, do you see the pale, pretty child there in the distance? She drags herself from place to place, ever so slowly, as if her feet were bound."
Then there are the sharks. The elemental spheres play a considerable role. The elements are in a complete turmoil. These are set off by the colors - the flaming red, intensely glowing yellow, biliously radiant green and sometimes an alluring light-blue. The burning fire, the undulating water, the underwater mood in some areas, Ophelia, Undine, the airy light-blue, and then the earth’s interior - black. The falcon, the wolf, the shark.
In fact, through an irrational spatial effect, all of these spheres in Petrick’s pictures - liquid, fire, air and earth - flow constantly over and through each other. The impression of three-dimensionality is formed with anti-perspective; not crystal, but caves, caverns and gorges. He has taken away the security of our accustomed sense of orientation, our equilibrium, giving rise to a vertigo. This space works like a swirling vacuum, lending the feeling that he wants to draw us into the abyss of the picture’s depths. It is like a subcutaneous dream under the epidermis of our consciousness, just beneath the surface of the day. Above the door of Petrick’s studio is a poster of Max Beckmann’s triptych "Departure" (Abfahrt). At a Beckmann exhibition in Berlin a few years ago, it suddenly became clear to me that Beckmann had painted his dreams, including those just beneath his consciousness, his day-and-night dreams, though by his own means. He paints the dreams of desire and nightmares that our epoch dreams. What is revealed by them is the innermost of our consciousness - the essence of all. It is no longer merely reflection in the sense of a socially critical theory, but the lively convergence of our imagination between the inner and outer worlds. Pictures which we otherwise too often suppress, they represent a human projection of the devastation of our present-day reality. They are illuminated, if you will, by an inner reflector whose range is extensive enough to also shed light on their mythical origins in the depths of our consciousness, without losing sight of their immediate relevance.