Gunter Christmann: The Unexplained - Art Collector

Issue 41, July - September 2007

Download PDF

Venerated as a painter's painter with a body of work that traverses abstraction and figuration, Gunter Christmann's reputation was sealed by his inclusion in the landmark 1968 NGV exhibition, The Field, and has only accumulated stature in the decades since. On the eve of his latest exhibition he spoke to Ingrid Periz about his work and the influence of his late wife, Jenny. Portrait by the artist.

Gunter Christmann doesn’t like explanations. The Berlin-born, Sydney-based painter who has been showing continuously in Australia and internationally for more than 40 years, is leery of too much talk about his work. “I’m not into explaining,” he says. “You see the picture, with a little effort. The paintings are the experience and the experience is in the viewing. You can take away something from it.” For almost all of his career Christmann’s most important viewer was his late wife Jenny: “To get her to like something was the greatest reward for me.” Christmann and Jenny interacted artistically; both of them made works which would be left on the wall or around their apartment, to be lived with, responded to, shared and worked upon. Perhaps as a consequence, when Christmann imagines an ideal viewer it is someone who spends an afternoon sitting with his paintings, cup of tea in hand.

If Christmann dislikes explanations it’s not simply because they get in the way of the kind of encounters he envisions for his work; critical explanations have occasionally misread the work, judging it by terms he’s long abandoned. A painter’s painter whose work ranges across abstraction and figuration, Christmann’s forthcoming show at Niagara in Melbourne comprises 21 paintings all related to his long relationship with Jenny and their interlinked work. Titled Portrait d’Amour: Recent and Not So Recent Paintings, it partners his Axion Jenny show held at Liverpool Street Gallery in Sydney last year, and like that exhibition it is a continuing homage to the woman who shared his life for more than four decades. In memory-laden works, Christmann acknowledges his own history as a painter as well as his and Jenny’s private life together. What results is work that bears out his belief that a painting is more than the image it bears on its surface. It is also, as he puts it, “a feeling and a place”.

Jenny’s presence registers variously throughout the exhibition. In the loosely worked urban landscapes, Bloopy and Schillerpark (both 2007), she is a coated figure walking away from the viewer. Bloopy incorporates some of Jenny’s collage and Christmann recalls, “She used to put things in paintings and drawings and she did a lot of collage. I painted it in her spirit.” In Tanzlied (2006), literally dancing song, Christmann constructed an image of a dancing Jenny from collage, working from a figure she had used in one of her works, and added to it the text of a poem she wrote in 1968. (A great dancer in her time, she had danced at the Trocadero in Sydney.) Blue Movie (1993) is a painting of a work by Jenny, whose textile pieces, specifically her knitted books, were collected by the National Gallery of Australia. Here, an opened film can shows a reel of blue “film” which she had knitted with little frame-like rectangles. The imposing Autoportrait (1993), shown in the Axion Jenny exhibition, mines similar territory by showing an enormous ball of yarn Jenny had collected and which Christmann called her “self-portrait”. Here the extremely heavy mass of wool floats free. Painted 12 years before her death in 2005, this record of another artist’s work is now an elegy.

Christmann, who has lived in Australia since 1959, has exhibited work in Germany and in 1973 spent an extended period in Berlin under the auspices of the prestigious DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service). He sees himself essentially as an Australian artist –“I lived here; my work happened here”– while hewing to an aesthetic established in Europe in the early decades of the twentieth century. “I started off as a constructivist, but my idea of art changed a couple of times,” he says. “Anyone who was good left a mark on me. All my work is twentieth century European and maybe more early twentieth century than later.”

Two works in the Niagara show exemplify this. Fumeuse or smoker (1996), a painted version of one of Jenny’s composite works, is a portrait of sorts that portrays its subject matter without exploiting likeness. A mannequin, nuts, bolts, smoke and a bicycle wheel are sufficient to conjure up the Christmann couple. (An inveterate smoker, Jenny suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and spent her later years wheelchair-bound.) The painting seems to suggest the German caricaturist George Grosz, but without his exaggeration or satire. Grosz’s brand of satire is at work in a caricature using inanimate objects called Mon onkel (1996) – the title is a play on monocle – which was inspired by Jenny’s grandfather “who looked lordly” in Christmann’s recollection. And in Eggoknees (1994), from the Axion Jenny exhibition, Christmann offered a proto-Surrealist exercise of dripping eggwhite that breaks the picture plane and runs down the painted frame. This is a quietly strange painting that puns (“agonies”), badly, on Jenny’s discomfort. Christmann is not averse to playing games with paintings. He wants, he says, “to keep them alive.”

Given this propensity for word play it’s not surprising that much of Christmann’s work is literature-based. “From Ovid to folklore,” is how he describes its range. In the Liverpool Street Gallery show, his large triptych Folklore (Krimhilde, Rübezahl, Rapunzel) (1967/95) transposed three figures from German myth onto hard-edged abstraction in a re-working of his own professional history. Christmann recalls that in 1967, when he was exhibiting hard-edged abstraction at Central Street Gallery, the Sydney space that helped establish the style’s viability, he already felt its limitations. Invited to participate in the National Gallery of Victoria’s important The Field exhibition one year later, he showed components of this work but in softer, washy versions. Already ahead of himself, as it were, these were dismissed at the time as “too lyrical”.

While Christmann painted many portraits of Jenny, there are very few of him. The Niagara exhibition includes three. In Morchang (1996) and Juiceharp (1997), both exhibited here for the first time, Christmann depicts himself playing a Jew’s harp, a simple musical instrument that, like didgeridoos, he has been collecting and recording since the seventies. Morchang is the Pakistani name for the instrument; juiceharp its New Guinea pidgin equivalent. Mauermaler (1989), literally wallpainter, is effectively a double portrait where a silhouetted painter – Christmann – encloses a realistic self-portrait. The title is a Berlin term for students who painted exclusively on the Berlin Wall and is an unlikely self-description for while Christmann did some performances at the Wall, he never painted on it. This uneasy fit works at the level of the image as well, for the inner self-portrait is not fully contained by the silhouetted figure surrounding it.

Christmann’s use of this silhouette derives from his occasional practice of working from projected slides, where it is difficult to avoid his own shadow. Instead of working around the shadow he painted the outline on the canvas and this became a signature motif of his paintings in the late 1980s. Eye witness (1989), from the current exhibition, shows how the superimposed graphic silhouette sets up a play of surfaces on the picture plane, here a portrait of a figure by the Brandenburg Gate, and because the silhouette is Christmann’s own, it also becomes a means of self-inscription, not unlike a graffito’s mark.

Many of the works in Portrait d’Amour and Axion Jenny show Christmann’s fondness for using these kind of signature marks or motifs. Out here and Out there (both 1989) feature his “running man” motif which was drawn from exit signs used in large public buildings in Europe. In the former, the hollowed out motif opens a door onto a facade close to Christmann’s home; its partner uses the same format to show a European woodland setting where the Christmanns spent some time. This motif, which also appears in the 1991 Poem lets Christmann play around with figure/ground relationships and, in the opened door composition, literalises the conceit of painting offering a window onto another world. Remembering that Jenny became increasingly housebound as her condition progressed, spending large amounts of time with Gunter’s paintings in their apartment, this motif is particularly poignant.

So too is the figure of Jenny herself, silhouetted at a multi-paned window. This template is inherently ambiguous – does she look out or in? – and Christmann uses it in a variety of ways. In Tanzlied it is a barely perceptible detail of Jenny’s dancing costume, while in a group of similarly composed paintings shown in the Axion Jenny exhibition, it is prominent. Helio sunroom (2005) puts the figure-at-window template over a psychedelic carpet made up of pastel repetitions of the word “OZKAR,” Christmann’s longstanding graffiti tag, the image centered by the black rectangles of blank window pane. Room 101 (2005) superimposes the deep blue template over an image of a grimacing doll marked with the “OZKAR” tag, an image drawn from another Christmann painting, SeriOZKAR (2001). Named after the central character of Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum, this little figure has been the subject of several paintings. In the 2001 painting he hangs with a gnomic, menacing shadow whose two “eyes” hold the composition. SeriOZKAR is a disturbing picture, its edginess contrived with slender means and no less effective because of it. Like the Portrait d’Amour exhibition, this most recent incarnation effectively frames Christmann’s work through Jenny, who retains a continued presence.¦

Gunter Christmann’s Portrait d’Amour: Recent and Not So Recent Paintings exhibition is at Niagara Galleries, Melbourne from 3 to 28 July 2007.

Share this page: