Horses, the mystery of shadow
Trying to talk about Winkhaus’s latest series ”Horses” it is almost impossible, not to mention her second biggest inspiration, Francisco Goya, and later, the “mature” work of Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn. And certainly not just because of the Horses’ “markenzeichen” – thick, brought almost to its extent Chiaroscuro, - Rembrandt himself was greatly inspired by Caravaggio - extensive, as is generally known, user of Camera Obscura, what in conjunction with Winkhaus’s own approach to her Hasselblad as rather painting instrument, in its turn, may present a slick, postmodernistic There and Back Again loop-exercise for easy-going art-critics. No – the ties that bind together Winkhaus and van Rijn are somewhat more intricate.Caravaggio’s greatest achievement is undoubtedly a radical, almost cinematic canvas space change; instead of formally constructed Renaissance perspective he used darkness to imply depth. And into this meaningful darkness he masterfully plunged his figures, as if snatched from reality by the camera lens – a stunning juxtaposition of light and gloom - a dichotomy which is always captivating. Rembrandt, like many others, was held hostage by that dichotomy (and Winkhaus is too); artistry tasks, as well as political issues, are solved easily on the basis of black and white. But there is something more than a rather overused “out of darkness comes light” thesis that made Rembrandt a European culture counterpoint, like Goethe, Shakespeare or Bach. Something links him to Winkhaus - an early XXI century Berlin-based female artist with an acute nerve for all the modern world inequities and a passion for all the things dark. And to find this “something” we have to search for words carefully.
To quote Max Jakob Friedländer saying: “Rembrandt’s shadow is nothing else than an escape from the banality of bright light” seems the right place to begin. Ironically, the art paradigm of today’s Germany doesn’t differ much from that of the Dutch Golden Age. Dutch art of the XVII century was intoxicated by the “national idea” of praising the self-affirmed monotony of everyday life. It definitely wasn’t easy to create a convincing equivalent for the bombastic, theatrical melancholy of the Spanish or the majestic, almost antique scenery of the French, but the Dutch absolutely succeeded with the idea that “simple entourage” of their homes is not far behind the palace feasts, or that a portrait of their self-confident middle-class contemporary doesn’t yield less significance than the one of the saint or the king. Orders for group portraits of members of the guild replaced the orders from the King’s Court or church; doesn’t that ring a bell? Rembrandt executed several such orders and Tina, almost 400 years later, created an extensive collection of “burger portraits” along with pictures of pop-bands and artists.
Like the de-heroization program where Paulus Potter in 1640 pushed the process of dispelling the image to symbolic portraits of cows and bulls, Winkhaus in 2010 presented the impressive range of “parade portraits of dogs” and later expanded further into wildlife. By praising, magnifying “the simple”, Dutch art (and contemporary German art in this regard isn’t at all different) became immensely flirtatious, not yielding to the affectation of Italian Mannerism. Lemon peel curls dangling over the edge of the table, Chinese pottery alluding to adventurous sea-journeys, cramped napkins made of fine, expensive fabrics, showing the scattered wealth of the merchants (who in reality were, of course, extremely frugal)- all this was extremely flirty and pretentious. It is important to say that both van Rijn and Winkhaus paid tribute to their corresponding art-paradigms. Rembrandt’s early self-portraits in berets with feathers, richly decorated images of the citizens, even his great “Night Watch”, as well as Winkhaus’s earlier series, which utilize extensive set and costume design and meticulous digital compositing, are rather exalted works. But even more important is to clearly understand that at some point both artists, unlike the most part of their contemporaries, consciously dropped all the Mannerisms in order to talk about universal values – inconsistent with national ambitions or affectations of the merchant. Both artists stepped away from the bright light of their national paradigms and into shadow…
It is curious that Spengler, analyzing Baroque chiaroscuro (formally Rembrandt falls under the definition of Baroque stylistic just like Winkhaus under the “neo-Baroque), called the pervasive golden-brown gloomy shadow color “Faustian”. And although Spengler didn’t distinguish chiaroscuro of Caravaggio from ones of Velasquez, Rembrandt or de La Tour, for him it was important that instead of clear green Renaissance perspective, divided into scenes, there was darkness enveloping the world – alluring, uncharted, unpredictable… “Faustian spirit” – the spirit of the West: Shadow, which contains eternity. That Faustian spirit, the dark spirit of European Baroque mystery, formative shadow – overbearing binding substance – this is what Rembrandt painted all his life, and this is what Winkhaus actually photographs. Because you don’t picture objects, but the relationship of objects. You don’t paint faces, but interplay of souls, not gestures, but the interpenetration of historical events. This is the essential unity of being which connects both artists over almost 400 years. Look at the neutral grey shadow of Rubens or the coloured shadow of Titian – it is only the designation of the part of the object which is not illuminated by the sun. In the case of Caravaggio, the shadow is a mystery, but only just. And in case of La Tour it is a theatrical curtain. Rembrandt’s shadow is a substance that binds existence, the shadow – a quintessence of life. Winkhaus’s shadow weaves space, sculpts objects and gently carries them towards our eyes; matter that connects object and storyline, or even history if you want.
It turned out that this mysterious matter is colour. – a colour of very old darkened gold. And it is a sad matter, because touching the mystery of life makes people sad.