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Exile in Berlin- an essay on Paul Vogeler and the New Berlin Painters by Thomas Helm

My friend in Berlin, painter Paul Vogeler, shared this wonderful essay with me, written by Thomas Helm- it is a beautiful read, and makes me miss Berlin.

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Exile in Berlin

There is a long and venerable association of art with exile. The politics of the day are rarely so perfect as to allow the artist an uncompromised position in the society he seeks to delight, and, as is often the case, criticize. One recalls how, in the wake of the execution of Socrates, Euripides fled to Sicily. It was an exile that enabled him, nonetheless, to compose his most celebrated work: The Bacchae, a brilliant meditation on the fragility of the logic of organised societies, and, at the same time, an expression of his disenchantment with the politics of the Athenian state.

He was not the only free thinker turned political dissident. When Jesus overturned the tables of the temple he was considered a threat to the established order and was later executed. But it is also true that the revolutions of today become the conservatisms of tomorrow. Sixteen centuries after the death of Christ Galileo is put under house arrest for challenging the doctrine of the Catholic Church, itself born from the ideas of a rebel.

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Exiles in recent centuries, in Western democracies, have perhaps been less under threat of persecution. Their exile has been as much spiritual alienation as political dissidence. Consider Baudelaire’s poem, ‘The Albatross’. Sailors mock the albatross, who is a king of the sky, because his wings are too cumbersome to allow him to walk elegantly on the deck of the ship. He shuffles from side to side, awkward and maladroit. Here the artist, though graceful in the skies of his imagination, is an exile in the world of men. A rather tragic and pessimistic world view, but a poignant comment, nonetheless, on the position of the artist in society.

Sometimes whole cities are taken over by artists and deemed centres of their craft, the craft of telling truth, a craft also of exile. London, New York, Paris – many great cities have at times been central to this calling. These days the most immediately obvious is Berlin. A vibrant alternative scene, a city charged with history, whose lessons have formed lasting scars (the berlin wall, for example), along with reasonable rent prices and an international community – all these factors have proved crucial in providing the foundations of an artistic city.

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I recently interviewed Paul Vogeler, an artist from a community who call themselves “The New Berlin Painters”. They are a group who are frustrated with what they perceive as the infection of late capitalism in all areas of society, in all walks of life, and especially the markets of a Warhol-centric art world. They have broken away from the norms imposed on them by the industry, an industry dominated, they say, by an obsolete trend: conceptual art.

“We are exiles. We share a feeling of disillusionment, isolation and exile in our contemporary era – not only as citizens, but as painters working amongst the hegemonic onslaught of esoteric, multimedia and subversive art.”

Thus speak Paul Vogeler and Moritz Hoffmann from their latest manifesto for the collective, “The New Berlin Painters”.

After visiting their latest exhibition, which took place in a fashionable gallery in downtown Berlin, I went for a coffee with Vogeler. I was immediately impressed by his sharp speech and zeal, which complemented the rather striking paintings I had seen in the gallery. He paints on canvases of varying size, of people and birch trees merging into fog, of wanderers and ghosts, half melancholic, half ethereal. They had left me in dreamy state, a state of rapture, sadness and wonder. A rather beautiful mood, or so I thought.

“The problem is there’s a whole network of investors and critics professionally and or financially invested in keeping the system going. But they’ve had their say. You can’t just keep on recycling the same old tired notions for centuries to come. People are getting sick of it. Is that art? No, it’s a fucking ashtray. Get over it.”

The idea, he explains, is to appeal directly to the public imagination, to bypass the galleries, to reinvest in the craft of painting, to create beautiful art charged with meaning. But for all his anger at the establishment, he is not entirely reactionary: “Both Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol had interesting points to make. But they’ve been made now. It’s time to move on. Those who go down the noisy road of subversion, and many young graduates still do, will only find themselves at a dead end. It is up to us to recreate the consciousness of our age, to make a stand. And it is working. People are joining our movement. Ideas? Everybody has good ideas. Conceptual art doesn’t say anything anymore.”

Would this mean going back to a more traditional understanding of art? No, not at all, he states, explaining that he does not like being labelled as a traditionalist or a conservative. The idea is to go forward into a new space, one that retains a remembrance of the old. One would call him a humanist, perhaps, for his mission to create meaning out of the unlimited chaos of the world, to depict a haunting beauty, one which reflects the lessons of subversive art without getting trapped in its discourse.

The art world hasn’t always been on their side. Jerry Saltz, the prominent art critic, and champion of irony, called them and their ideas “childish”.

“There’s the rub,” explains Vogeler. “People look down on us because we’re challenging their authority. It’s as if we’re not even allowed a hearing. But they had their revolution in the sixties, and now it’s our turn. Perhaps in fifty years time the young blood will be doing the same to us, and I respect that. You can’t just carry on recycling the same ideas ad nauseam.”

If Jerry Saltz called their ideas “childish”, perhaps the response of “The New Berlin Painters” would be to say it’s a child’s reaction that’s important. They above all want to create paintings that have an immediate life in the senses, whose meaning can be understood without a little plaque to the side telling you what to think.

“Of course, there is a lot of conceptual art which is excellent – I’m not denying that, but there’s even more that is terrible. The trouble is, if everything can be seen as art, then everything is also a marketing gimmick. The line has become too blurred. The project has lost is freshness.”

I return to his paintings. They maintain a presence which is difficult to define, an otherworldly feeling. “Emotions are more powerful than the intellect, the irrational more than the irrational,” he says. “One should connect first with one’s emotions, then with one’s mind.”

Needless to say “The New Berlin Painters” have survived the censure of the establishment, with their ideals intact. And their numbers are growing. What is it that they offer the world of today? A skill based, pluralistic approach, with as many meanings as there are moods of beauty. But it is above all the vitality and the immediacy of their project, as well as their emphasis on the individual talent of the painter, that makes them ones to watch out for in the future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments
2 Responses to “Exile in Berlin- an essay on Paul Vogeler and the New Berlin Painters by Thomas Helm”
  1. Alan Corn says:

    Nice article. Keep up the good work. Ad nauseam is Latin, I think?

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