German artist's first UK exhibition for 30 years
Theresa Thompson visits an exhibition of German artist A.R. Penck, I think in Pictures, at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Only the day before I visited this exhibition, I attended an event where the speaker asked his audience when we last had really looked at a painting, spent time in front of it, given it our full attention. He urged us, as with music, to put our phones away, avoid distraction and really look or listen.
The monumental painting, Edinburgh (Northern Darkness III)(1987) by German artist A.R. Penck that forms the unmissable centrepiece of an exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, demanded exactly that. Attention, first and foremost - and time, to sit and study the details and begin to understand the backstory. And so I sat and looked, to unpick the riot of colour fields and intertwined figures, symbols and signs before me. The impact and energy of this unusual painting worked a sort of magic as my mind grappled with the multi-layered narrative I felt was there.
In the centre of the painting a stick man bends forward holding an arrow that he pokes at two cone-like forms while dragging a circle with an equilateral cross behind him. An eagle swoops above him, and he is surrounded by geometric signs, mathematical equations, small stick figures, and a robotic semi-human head. To the right of the work is a curvy naked female figure, to the left enigmatic stones, bones, symbols and a serpent, and in the top left corner a cartoon-like portrait of Mikhail Gorbachev, recognisable from the birthmark on his forehead.
The ancient sun cross symbol, the stones and skulls and so on reveal the artist’s fascination with prehistoric cultures and monuments such as Newgrange in Ireland and Stonehenge. And political overtones come across in the image of Gorbachev (who as General Secretary of the governing Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985 was to play a pivotal role in ending the Cold War) and perhaps also the dominance of red, the colour of Socialism.
A.R. Penck (1939–2017) was born as Ralf Winkler in Dresden at the beginning of the Second World War. His life and work played out against the backdrop of 20th century cataclysmic events. At the age of five he witnessed the Allied bombing of Dresden, watching in horror from the garden of his family home (a subject he later painted). All 40 works exhibited were made between 1970–90, a period when A.R. Penck moved between East and West Germany, Britain and Ireland.
A.R. Penck is a pseudonym, adopted by the artist (in reference to Ice Age geologist Albrecht Penck) in 1968 to counter difficulties with East German authorities who banned his works from public exhibition. Unlike many of his contemporaries who had already moved west, A.R. Penck continued to work ‘underground’ in East Germany. As a self-taught and anti-establishment artist he was sustained by connections with West Germany, and with the aid of friends there his works were smuggled to Cologne for exhibition from the late 1960s. In 1980 he emigrated to the West.
However, today despite international acclaim and major international collections including MoMA and Tate holding his works, A.R. Penck is relatively unknown in the UK. This is his first UK exhibition in over three decades.
Inevitably this massive work - at over nine metres wide and three metres tall - the largest work of art the Ashmolean has ever displayed - dwarfs and outshines the other works on show, but these smaller paintings, drawings and prints, and the bronze Standart-figure (1989) give a fuller picture of an artist whose interest prehistory, in cybernetics and systems theory, and the complex relationship between modern man and society’s systems of power and control inform his work.
The exhibition catalogue A.R. Penck: I think in Pictures by Dr Lena Fritsch, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Ashmolean adds hugely to understanding the man, his work, and the socio-historical background.
Lena remarked: "2019 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and it is a wonderful opportunity to mount an exhibition of A.R. Penck’s work. His extraordinary paintings, drawings and sculptures fizz with energy, appearing simultaneously primitive and postmodern, offering comment on both the issues of his day and timeless human concerns. He remains one of the most interesting and surprising artists of his generation whose prolific output is yet to be fully appreciated in this country."
A.R. Penck, I think in Pictures
Showing until: 3 November 2019
For more information see: https://www.ashmolean.org/