Going to an art museum may not usually seem that exciting, but when I rode my bike to the Belvedere21 yesterday, for the first time in months, since Covid-19 Lockdown measures shut down all of Vienna´s museums, I felt pretty exhilarated. The modern art venue of the venerable Belvedere Museum offered special thematic tours on ecology and society, as reflected in the two current exhibitions: Exposed to Painting — The Past Twenty Years, by Herbert Brandl ; and an installation of sculptures entitled Malady of the Infinite by Eva Grubinger. Both exhibitions loosely share a common theme: ecology and society. I was lucky to be fast enough to reserve a spot (one of ten) for the first guided tour by the marvellous art educator Markus Hübl (who professed to being equally delighted to be touring live again) after lockdown.
Born in Styria in 1959, Brandl belongs to a group of contemporary artists that came to the forefront in the early 1980s. In Austria and Germany they were labelled as “Neue Wilde”, in the anglophone area Neo-Expressionists. In response to the dry, cerebral conceptual and minimal art of the 1970s, these artists began to dedicate themselves again to colourful, subjective, and often even figurative paintings in large formats and using all kinds of materials. Some of Brandl´s landscape paintings are reminiscent of the grand landscape canvases of the Romantics. The images of that period inspired Brandl, he says, because these artists´love for nature shone through their paintings. Like him, they attempted to take humans out of the landscape.
Brandl´s work of the last twenty years is quite obviously dominated by nature motifs, ranging from abstract to quite figurative and easily recognizable landscapes and nature close-ups (a mountain peak, a detail of a waterfall, a flower meadow).
Surprisingly, although they seem taken from nature, only a few of his landscapes are based on real places — rather, he “invents” them from his imagination. The mountain stream, the forested lake that we see in his paintings is not usually a specific one, it is, as he puts it, an ideal stage set created from his fantasy, though rooted in his love of nature and Austria´s Alpine landscape.
Politics in the eye of the beholder
At first glance, Herbert Brandl´s canvases appear completely unpolitical — and really they are not meant to be overtly political posters. Brandl conceived many of his paintings as representations of a wilderness idea he acquired through hiking and walking in nature. They show a nature without humans, the way we like to imagine it, as “unspoilt”, wild and beautiful. Nevertheless, given our current context — a time when natural landscapes have become ever more fragmented by human activities and infrastructure, and where, thanks to our species, many other species find themselves on the brink of extinction — in some cases his paintings acquire a political meaning through our interpretation. As a conservation-minded lover of natural spaces, the artist is also consciously addressing some of the environmental problems of our time. And so, some of his paintings represent real natural areas, such as the Schwarze Sulm river in his home province Styria.
Although the corresponding paintings do not bear a title, they do represent this endangered river, where a fight over the construction of powerplants in one of the few remaining natural rivers of the Austrian Alps has been fought for many years now.
In an interview, Brandl tells us that his most recent artistic impulse is to move away from thinking about a landscape and focusing only on colour when painting. But he remains on message. In hist most recent work in this exhibition, a strikingly red-dominated triptych that occupies an entire wall, he addresses the catastrophic and seemingly unstoppable bush fires that devastated so much of the Australian landscape in the Australian summer of 2019/20 (186,000 square kilometres had burnt by the end of March 2020, thousands of buildings included, and an unimaginably large number of a billion animals, including endangered species, were killed). Heartbreaking events, a consequence of human-induced climatic changes, which Brandl translates into giant, thickly painted canvases in flaming hot colours.
The Austrian writer Christoph Ransmayr has selected some of his own texts to accompany the paintings in this exhibition Herbert Brandl´s paintings. They are taken from two of his novels, The Last World (1988) and The Flying Mountain (2006). Here, for example, is the text that accompanies the apocalyptic triptych.
Whatever required no more than moisture, warmth and this grey light flourished in rank growth. When a fire went out, lush weeds crept from the ashes. Firewood sprouted. At first it was only stealthy, transparent roots, then came little green fingers and deceptive blossoms, and finally sinewy arms plated with mossy bark — the wilderness was reaching out to grasp the town.Christoph Ransmayr
That infinite human malady
The Austrian sculptor Eva Grubinger (born 1970 in Salzburg) is more overtly political in her oeuvre. She works with large-scale objects that symbolize fundamental human problems. Her works are full of purposefully associations. The viewer is invited to question the way structural inequalities drive human societies, and the impact this imbalance has on us. (One need only look at current events for some examples.) Infinite human desires lead to tension, suffering, and eternal dissatisfaction. Grubinger’s approach alters familiar objects by changing their scale, context, and material. She pays attention to surfaces as they can imply certain associations.
The object in the centre of the exhibition space is a fibreglass sculpture of the cockpit chassis of a luxury yacht, with a shiny sleek surface that invites the viewer´s touch. Ownership of such a yacht implies status and power, but — because of the infinity of human desires (the Malady of Infinity) — luxury ultimately cannot provide satisfaction. The yacht is in a sense swimming in a sea of mines that could explode and destroy at any minute.
Thank you for the fabulous tour, Markus Hübl. Without being told about the background of the art on display, I would not have understood their deeper political meaning. (This is why I love going on expert-led museum tours. I need context and background, it makes art much more enjoyable to my mind when I can learn about the possible symbolism or artistic vision contained in an artwork — especially, but not only, when it comes to contemporary art.)
Now that the museums and other institutions in Vienna are reopening, I hope to share cultural topics again more frequently. But, I shall observe distancing rules and wear my masks until we can truly feel safe that this pandemic is over. And that probably will not be for a while yet.
For additional photos from the exhibition, you can have a look at the gallery below (click on an image for a slide show and to see the complete picture).
Sources: Belvedere website, exhibition tour, Wikipedia