On Albrecht Gehse's series "CREATURES AND PHENOMENA", created between 2021 and 2024

Following his cycles "Zeitenwende", "Aufruhr - 50 Bilder über die Welt", "Transit" and "Weltfiguren", the artist surprises us with a new series: "Kreaturen und Phänomene" comprises 32 pictures and was created between 2021 and 2024. Albrecht Gehse's special art of portraiture led him to depict the greats of the time, who have become heroes of his life, in "Weltfiguren". Much has changed since then, both in the world and in the life of the artist, who has established himself as a great German painter in contemporary art with his images of society. The world has not become any safer. Gehse experiences what threatens it, wars and catastrophes, as a personal shock. His large-format allegories are committed to the theme of life in distress, over-life in distress. He entered the art scene of his country in 1982 at the IX GDR art exhibition with the three veristically painted figure paintings "Der Kohlenmann", "Kohlenträger Udo Hasenbein" and "Unterwegs" (all created in 1981). From this beginning for the artist in his mid-twenties to the present day, there is a bridge in the choice of subject, rather than in the style of painting. Gehse's view of the injured, marginalised and socially declassed remains a starting point for his visual language. With the 32 pictures in "Creatures and Phenomena", he uses the power of his paintings to attack the arrogance of the strong against the weak.

The celebration of Caspar David Friedrich's 250th birthday in 2024 will not only draw us to his paintings, but also to one or two of his artistic maxims. Friedrich wrote: "The painter should not only paint what he sees before him, but also what he sees within himself." This is the source of his surreal, fantastical pictorial inventions.

Gehse eröffnet die Serie mit einem malerischen Paukenschlag. Er kombiniert auf dem Bild „Aufstieg“ Abstraktion und Figur. Die geometrischen Formen im oberen Bildteil (darin nicht zu übersehen ein menschliches Auge) werden darunter von einem wilden Farbrausch, der die Assoziation stürzenden Wassers schafft, gekontert. Den unteren Bildteil besetzen Eva mit Apfel und Schlange und ein roter Lachs, der – um sich fortzupflanzen – den Aufstieg schaffen muss, was dem Bild den Titel gab.

As is often the case with Gehse, his art is open to different interpretations. His picture of the world is far too expansive to allow just one interpretation. It is not the first time that he “leaves” the earth when choosing a subject, as in the picture “The Apparition”. What turns the water in the pool on the moon red? Has a battle already taken place extraterrestrially? Is the woman with the pointy hat of a sorceress in the foreground responsible for this? Does the violinist at the edge of the pool, whom the painter shows us as a pale apparition, bring salvation? – The painter remains “neutral” towards his image inventions; he does not want to proselytize anyone. Nevertheless, he attacks. The next picture in the series - Gehse has decided on a carefully considered sequence - with the title “Klintholm Coast” gives the appearance of an idyllic depiction of nature, but in the lower part it shows damaged nature with a field of rubble. Caspar David Friedrich's view into the gorge of the chalk cliffs - Gehse provokes this thought - can no longer be reconstructed in reality 200 years later. – When Abdul swings the hammer on“Abdul with the Hammer”you don’t know whether he has already stopped the movement or whether he is going to deliver the blow. His raw power (and anger!) is directed against a world whose “supporters” watch world history from the balcony. It remains to be seen whether Abdul will turn the hammer against them. – Once again the artist has added a new variant to his major theme of life in distress.

What follows is “Uferlos” in the 32-part series, one of a total of four depictions of the turbulent sea. Because the painter chose the perspective so that the sea dominates the picture, it has the quality of a parable, which is also what the title of the picture “Shoreless” leads to. Once again – and this can be seen in numbers alone in his “Creatures and Phenomena” series – he makes nature the main protagonist. In the storm images he releases the power of the sea and in doing so reminds the people who are absent in these images to respect them. – How the painter, in the subsequent diptych entitled “Water on the Moon”, draws a line from America’s President Kennedy (significantly in the costume of a Russian bear) to jumping fish on the moon (to conquer the... Mondes called on Kennedy in 1962 with the words: “We are going to the moon because it is heavy”), is another look into the artist's fantastic world of images.

Gehse does not subordinate his inner echo to the external world to any picture plan when painting at the easel. He is unmistakably a realistic painter, but his realism is that of the dream, the fantasy, the unconscious. For the artist, the image is a medium of universal imagination. When he follows the unconscious as a painter, what other great artists have already discovered occurs: sometimes the picture is smarter than its creator. For this reason alone, questions that torment the artist with wishes for interpretation are prohibited. Phenomena that appear as a term in the title of the series are extraordinary phenomena. They can only perceive with their senses, but not their head. 

Gehse consistently translates thoughts and visions into fantastic images. He has an extraordinary gift for this. For example, his admiration for the former American Secretary of State prompted the creation of “Between the Blocks” and “Balance”. Here the translation stays close to the life of the real figure when he invents icebergs for the abstract term “blocks” and a tightrope walker for the idea of ​​the balance between West and East. Both pictures were taken barely ten days before Kissinger's death. They have an astonishing intensity that makes you think you can hear Kissinger's slightly hoarse voice. – The two pictures “Drummer I” and “Drummer II” with portraits of the Nobel Prize winner for literature Günter Grass use more complex metaphors. A drummer – and that doesn’t just mean his Oskar Matzerath from “Tin Drum” – was the writer inside and outside of his literature. Knowing Grass's biography, they are fish that are throated and bled as a symbol of peace for the World War II soldier Grass is a symbol of the dignity of dying. An image interpretation that assumes the presence of the past in the present. Something that probably had a strong influence on Grass's life and work.

The artist repeatedly shows himself to be inspired by current perceptions, to which he never reacts directly, but rather in the language of metaphor. This is represented, among other things, by the pictures “On a Long Voyage” – a refugee ship with a black, red and gold flag as the destination of the escape - and “Exodus from Paradise” – the triptych , which shows the causality of destruction and flight very impressively and whose parts of the image immediately make a connection to the wars in Syria and Ukraine. The result is a three-part picture with iconographic effect. Similar to Gehse's “Victory Celebration” where bloodlust clouds the senses of the reeling victors. The answer to violence and barbarism is the picture “The Procession of People,” in which the artist expressively made expulsion the subject of the picture. Gehse’s social images cut into our times like a knife.

The artist - whose intellectual and formal spaciousness is extraordinary - translates his inner world into dreams and nightmares in many of his pictorial inventions. On the one hand, if we find the sea as well as fish and sea creatures as projection surfaces for the theme of nature, this is the case in “Dreamed”, “Meeting at the Cape” and “At the window”the sensed and unconscious that he follows in his imagery. The social images, which are heavily influenced by surreal elements, become allegories. They often appear as glimpses into a ghostly world - freed by the artist from the obligation to objectivity and image.

In order to avoid the directness of expression and a slide into messianic-political space, the artist treats the canvas as a place of dreams and nightmares. In “Traumt” he has brought together figures on the screen that cannot be connected or interpreted, as happens in a dream. He did a similar thing with “Meeting at the Cape” and “The Window,” two particularly meaningful images due to their conceptual and formal complexity. With the tableaux of his dreams, the artist releases himself from the enigma of the interconnected figures and picture elements.

It should not be overlooked that in addition to the large society pictures with "David and Goliath" and with "Hero Worship"" Gehse includes two smaller pictures that, in the selection, have more of the character of one Possess arabesque. He also included such an intimate portrait (“Woman with a Blue Blouse – Denisa”) in the series. In doing so, the painter of social images that attack shows his equally existing ability to create quiet images.

The artist uses his own imagery for his stories. In “Fear of Flying” he places a very small hang glider between two rocks. With this metaphor he comes very close to our daring life situation today. Gehse's figure sails narrowly between two rocks. It would be her end if she hit one of the rocks. This danger gives rise to a very real fear of flying for the figure, but the viewer of the picture also experiences it as a metaphor for survival in distress, a theme on which Gehse has been working on his artwork for more than forty years. – A particularly impressive example of surreal image creation can be found in “Under the Stage”. A volcanic eruption at the top, a ghostly, icy underwater world in the lower half. The painter counteracts the glow of the lava with ice. The picture only found its final top and bottom later on (only when the painter turned it upside down!). The composition was an expression of how everything is connected to everything else - the volcano with the ice block. The unity created on the screen creates a critical balance in reality. By the way: What has the fish on the right in the picture lost? The unreality that the painter creates with image inventions like these frees the image from the constraints of realism. At the same time, it complicates its interpretation. But isn't the fish beautifully painted? Who would want to miss him? Art doesn't have to adhere to logic. Gehse doesn't.

Wenn der Maler als Schlusspunkt seiner Serie „Kreaturen und Phänomene“ das Bild „Die unter Wasser sieht man doch“ setzt, dann bekräftigt er darin noch einmal das Credo seiner Kunst. Das von ihm als Metapher für entfesselte Kraft und ungezügelte Freiheit so bevorzugte Meer zeigt sich von unsympathischem Meeresgetier bevölkert, dem man besser nicht begegnen will. Auch die maritime Welt – scheint der Künstler sagen zu wollen – ist nicht so idyllisch-friedlich, wie sie auf der Oberfläche erscheint. Gehse tritt bei diesem Bild in einen Dialog mit dem Dichter Bertolt Brecht, der für seine „Dreigroschenoper“ die Schlussverse schrieb: „Denn die einen sind im Dunkeln. Und die anderen sind im Licht. Und man sieht nur die im Lichte. Die im Dunkeln sieht man nicht“. – Das Überlebensgesetz Fressen und gefressen werden gilt in Gesellschaft und Natur, also auch unter Wasser. Daraus hat der Maler das Gleichnis für eines seiner wirkmächtigsten Gesellschaftsbilder entwickelt.

Über die meisten Bilder der neuen Serie „Kreaturen und Phänomene“ legt sich eine staunenswerte surreale Phantastik, mit der er die Bildräume erweitert. Damit, aber beispielsweise auch mit den dominierenden Blautönen seiner Bildsprache, macht er sich unverwechselbar. Jedes einzelne der 32 Bilder bietet dem Betrachter, selbst da, wo es rätselhaft bleibt, die Qualität eines optischen Erlebnisses. In der Abfolge entsteht ein genau kalkulierter Rhythmus, der mit den letzten Bildern der Serie – „Treffen am Kap“, „Unter der Bühne“, „Am Fenster“ „Geträumt“ und „Die unter Wasser sieht man doch“ – eine beeindruckende Steigerung erfahren hat. Diese entsteht, weil Albrecht Gehses Gleichnisse weit greifen und unverbraucht sind. Manchmal betrachtet man die Bilder mit angehaltenem Atem. Mir geht es so.

Michael Hametner, March 2024