Ludwig Seyfarth: Painted Disappearance.

Ludwig Seyfarth:
Painted Disappearance.
On Marc Lüders’ East Side Series.

Trompe-l’oeil painting has traditionally served the function of deceiving the eye to such an extent that painted objects are mistaken for the real depicted objects. This was also the aim of the famous ancient painting contest between Zeuxis and Parrhasios, which the latter won when he succeeded in fooling Zeuxis into wanting to draw back a painted curtain in front of the alleged painting. One of the historic climaxes of trompe-l’oeil developed as a special form of still life painting in Holland in the 17th century. Cornelius Gijsbrechts, one of the greatest virtuosos in this field created illusionary portrayals of curtains, open windows, letter trays, and even the reverse side of pictures.

Since the 19th century, painterly illusionism has become less and less significant, not least due to the development of photography, which to a large extent took over the role of depicting objects true to life. However, painting was assigned a new trompel’oeil task; that of simulating itself within another medium. Photographs were coloured and painted to look like paintings in order that they gain recognition as works of art, a status that they were long denied due to their technical production.
As a result, this position of painting and photography to one another created an extraordinary successor to the classical Paragon contest once held between painting and sculpture in the quest for the “truest« depiction of nature.
In the 60s, Gerhard Richter proclaimed: »All painters and in fact everyone should paint from photos and these pictures should be hung everywhere, in apartments, in restaurants and offices, in railway stations    and    churches, everywhere.« (1) Alongside Richter’s success in taking the blurriness of photography a step further in his paintings, around 1970 the photo-realists appeared on the scene, with their virtuoso pictures created using photographic templates. They once again gave art-historic credit to the illusionary possibilities of painting, before the potential of digital image productionand manipulation transformed the question »painting or photography« into a random selection of Photoshop menu options.

When it comes to new image techniques, artists prefer to take a step back in order to observe them better. Manet or Degas transferred the cuts made by the frame and distortions, which one was inclined to overlook in the photos, into their paintings, where they were quasi magnified by the anticipated laws of the compositional structure.
And thus it is by no means a sign of historical regression when Marc Lüdgers refrains from providing Photoshop-collages in his »photopicturen.« Instead, he adds individual painted elements to his photographs of real landscapes, wastelands or urban locations.
It is as if he were to revive the antiquated colouration techniques and other early methods of photographic deception. The curious, sausage-like shapes, which seemed to hover in Lüders’ early black-andwhite pictures could be perceived as revenants of the amorphic shapes found in the »ghost photographs« at the end of the 19th century. They were intended to prove the existence of supernatural phenomena but frequently revealed themselves to be more or less adept forgeries.

The forms, which are in some cases clearly recognisable as brushstrokes, and which at times resemble blobs or stones hovering in the air, can also be found in Lüders’ latest series of pictures. They are based on photographs taken by the artist at the »East Side Gallery»; one of the few remaining sections of the Berlin wall. Here, in 1990 more than 100 international artists painted motifs, mostly in bright colours, along a stretch of 1316 metres.
The succeeding cold winter 1990/91 caused initial damage to the paintings, which, although they have been partially restored in recent years, are still for the most part weathered, and have even flaked off in some sections, or been painted and written over with other graffiti or texts.

Against the background of the photographed sections of the East Side Gallery, Lüders’ painted »additions« seem to become a part of that which is already written or painted on the wall. The fact that another level of reality is present here is indicated above all by the painted shadows, which the elongated lines or blob-like forms on the wall or on the ground seem to cast. With this classical trompe-l’oeil effect, Marc Lüders makes an ironic reference to the historic battle between painting and sculpture: The shadow, classical proof of physical existence, causes the painted form to appear just as real as an object within a space.
The abstract shapes, which in some cases create swirling structures, and in the numbered titles of the works are always categorized as »objects«, are contrasted by a second category, entitled »figures«, which includes the »painted additions.« These figures are people who Lüders initially photographed in public places, standing at the traffic lights or in other random situations. He also painted these figures in earlier series, standing alone in a wood, on a beach, or in an industrial estate.
The »Rückenfiguren« (back figures), which Caspar David Friedrich once collaged into his landscapes in a similar way, doubled the viewer’s gaze into the landscape, which may have been rather dreamy, but was in fact directed quite purposely into the distance. Lüders’ figures are also frequently shown from behind. However, even when they are positioned sideways or frontally, their gaze is not directed at the viewer. Their faces are not clearly recognizable and they stand about in their »new« surroundings like disoriented strangers.

It is perhaps no exaggeration to perceive this as a metaphor for the random nature of the relationships between people in large cities, such as Edgar Allan Poe, Baudelaire, or the German sociologist Georg Simmel once vividly described them. An impression of mental absence can be found in many photographs of urban milieus, like a signature of modern life, for example in the »Subway Portraits«, photographs of passengers in the New York metro shot by Walker Evans between 1938 and 1940 using a hidden camera.
In a similar manner to Evans, Lüders photographs passers-by who, oblivious of this fact, also seem mentally absent. In the East Side series, the figures do not strive to relate to us as viewers, nor do they seem to pay any attention to the painted wall behind them.
The relationship between the figure and the background is of a compositional nature, created by Lüders’ positioning of the figure in the picture and by his choice of colours for the clothing, bags or other accessories. Similarities in the colours and forms create a compositional uniformity.
And the more colourfully the persons are dressed, the better they can be »concealed« in their surroundings. Someone who wants to remain invisible in the countryside or in a wood is more likely to choose dark or subdued camouflage colours or patterns similar to foliage, such as is used in traditional military camouflage clothing.
When in 1915 canons painted with camouflage were driven through Paris, Picasso allegedly said to Gertrude Stein: »We invented that.« (2)
And in fact there are many similarities between the Cubistic dissection of form with which Picasso and Braque dissolved the traditional relationships between objects in order to create a fragmentary mosaic of individual shapes, and military camouflage paintings, which aim to make an object vanish within its surroundings.
In view of this it would seem quite logical that William Wadsworth and other representatives of Vorticism, a British variety of Cubism, were given the task of overseeing the camouflage painting of 2000 ships towards the end of the First World War.

The East Side Gallery is also a kind of camouflage painting: its goal was to disguise the drab grey of the concrete slabs, just like the numerous examples of graffiti that had adorned the west side of the Berlin wall prior to 1990.
The fact that the »East Side«, once part of the wall in the former border section sheltering East Berlin from view from the west, was also painted with graffiti and other images, was perceived as a conscious and liberating comment on the political changes, and was reflected in the content of the individual graffiti artworks.
The effects of weathering and the constant painting over of the pictures transform the former clear messages into a complex jumble of colours, shapes, texts, and symbols. These would certainly have interested photographers such as Brassaï, who back in the 1930s integrated graffiti or torn posters into his works, thus modernising the picturesque aesthetic of decay, which in the 19th century had already sparked off the interest of many photographers in ruins and in derelict and weatherbeaten walls. Affichistes such as Raymond Hains or Jacques de la Villeglé took what Brassaï captured in graphic black-andwhite, and hung it as polychrome visual objects in museums around 1960. Their pictures would provide a good camouflage background against which Lüders’ figures would virtually disappear in their brightlycoloured streetwear and their T-shirts adorned with logos or text.

The opposite applies to the tourists, photographed by their friends or relatives in front of the real East Side Gallery, on the pavement along the busy Mühlenstraße between Ostbahnhof and Oberbaumbrücke. They want to show that they were here, something that was probably never the case with the people in Lüders’ pictures.
The latter have been collaged with paint into surroundings that are already a collage, one that has built up diverse layers on a remaining section of the Berlin wall over the past eighteen years.
Even if no-one could possibly succeed in determining the origins and creators of all the pictures and symbols left behind, these are traces that can be perceived physically. Marc Lüders, who in earlier works also added painted graffiti to photographed walls, adds carefully selected elements, which sometimes become relief-like, tangible, physical traces on the surface of the photos. The abstract shapes, which at times resemble spontaneous brushstrokes, are not really spontaneous, but are rather symbolic of the spontaneity of painterly gestures. One could interpret them as the illusionary depiction of a gestural brushstroke, a painted trompe-l’oeil of painting itself.

And that would lead us to quite a different theme, away from the battle between photography and painting, which Marc Lüders appears to re-enact only to once again analogically outwit the levelling of all mediums by means of their digital simulation. Lüders photographs what has been painted, paints something more, and this painted addition then casts a shadow in its real surroundings. The only case where »reality« can really be physically examined is when it comes to the sublime nature of painting. If we take the physical reality as a starting point, which is visible in the photo the work is based on, then the painted elements suggest an added layer with a lesser degree of reality. Different levels of visual representation are engaged in play with one another, which constantly questions their lack of ambiguity. The alleged interplay of painting and photography is rather a staged performance of that which quasi takes place behind the curtain of the screen, in the case of digitally-generated pictures. If painting, photography and other digital visual media only compete when simulated, then there are no longer any physical traces whose reality could be called into question. And with that, the source of friction required for the illusionary game of trompe-l’oeil, which Marc Lüders keeps alive in a manner that is both contemporary and ingenious, can be disposed of

Ludwig Seyfarth, February 2008
translation: Gillian Morris

(1)
Gerhard Richter, text for exhibition catalogue for the Galerie h, Hannover, together with Sigmar Polke [1966], in: idem., Text. Schriften und Interviews, published by HansUlrich Obrist, Frankfurt a. M./Leipzig1996, p. 42.

(2)
See also: Christoph Asendorf, Super Constellation – Flugzeug und Raumrevolution, Vienna/New York 1997, p. 217 f.
Vogel 507-1-2, Öl auf Silbergelatine-Print , 72 x 60 cm, 2001

reference: East Side Gallery. Kerber Verlag, Bielefeld, 2008, page 81-89