Anna Härtelt won this year‘s prize of the Ulla and Eberhard Jung Foundation. In an interview, she tells us why the terms „Homeland“ and „Nightmare“ are synonymous for her and what she means by the saying „form follows content“.
Ms Härtelt, must art be political?
Art is always political, because it is fundamentally viewed in the context of its time. Moreover, the decision to become an “artist” is also a political one. This life model is one based on risk, individualism, independence, proactivity, freedom of movement and decadence. One lives with the accusation of being an egoist, parasite and good-for-nothing. Had you asked if there should be more engaged art, I’d have said, „Yes.“ However, art and the artist must never be exploited in the pursuit of enlightenment, moralisation or even proselytisation. This is not its mission. Art should and must be free of external constraints. Thus it can, of course, also be apolitical, just as „abstract painting“ can also be called „absolute painting.“ This movement dealt with „painterly questions“ only, but nevertheless, after the Holocaust, it offered itself demonstratively as a progression, both politically and artistically (without a social-critical message). Today, art is valued as never before. Everyone wants to adorn themselves with it, so, they can carry out political actions through it, and also be promoted by the state. I find this absolutely legitimate, for there are more important things than art, such as nature or freedom and the integrity of the individual.
If education were better, if people were more mature and we had a more honest and constructive culture of debate in Germany and Europe, then we could speak of a reflective, intellectual, democratised society that does not need to sell social-work-as-art to be interesting.
In your series „Bloodline“, you depict various locations of right-wing terror in forty watercolour works. Sven Kroner, guest academic for free art at the Bauhaus University Weimar, writes that a concurrence of homeland and nightmare arises. How close are these two to each other?
They are synonyms. The „Bloodline“ series reproduces reflections, and is also supposed to contain repressive processes. The pictures are intended to maintain the memory of the fact that over 70 asylum-seekers‘ homes were made uninhabitable by arson incidents involving neo-Nazis in Germany in the summer of 2015, and that people will be harmed in the future.
The perpetrators, mostly not prosecuted, live among us. Often in provincial areas. Just to articulate that Saxony, where I was born and grew up, or Germany, as my homeland, forbids itself from being so for me. I never use the word homeland. I associate it with nationalism and patriotism.
For this I have the words „at home“, which merely describes the bed where I sleep. I am socialised here, and owe this society for my standard of living. However, it is clear to me that the foundation of this is repugnant.
I cannot get the thought out of my head that my hands must also be bloodstained. My prosperity, which lies only just above the German poverty limit, causes suffering in other countries and promotes the destruction of the biological balance on this earth.
The consequences of this are the flight and expulsion of currently over 60 million people worldwide. We are all involved in this, and share the blame for such complicity, especially all industrialised countries.
Now, with the upswing and increasing co-operation within right-wing movements in Europe also taking place, we find all sense and reason lost.
I have my doubts whether it makes sense for me to build up something in Germany.
No, ones „Homeland“ or „Native Land“ should be an innocent, unspoilt place, and for me here, this is nowhere.
Most of your earlier works are abstracted natural representations. What is the significance of nature for you?
I grew up in forests, in the garden of my grandparents and with animals in what was a very down-to-earth environment. My grandmother has a „green thumb“ and an absolute weakness for flowers. We cultivated vegetables and harvested lots of cherries, plums and apples every year.
At Christmas, a rabbit was slaughtered and sausages from the local farmers were often on the menu. My grandpa was a welder and decorated the garden and the house with metal ornaments. This generation and those of my mother took care of the few things that were there and built what they needed. It gave my family a little prosperity, because they knew how to deal with the resources that were at our disposal. Although I have lived in the city and in the capitalistic system for many years, I have never lost this understanding, not to waste, to be humble and to live with respect for animals.
I really feel as a part of nature, she will always be there and that calms me extraordinarily. After my first stay in Japan, 2014, where I was in Fukushima to paint the real situatıon from its origin; I painted a watercolor series on paper, 180 x 140 cm, with the content of storms and tornadoes. The working title was: „Whoever sows the wind will reap a storm.“ One of these works has now been bought by the Ulla and Eberhard Jung Foundation, entitled „Strangers Shall Swallow It Up“. „For they sow the wind, and they shall reap the storm. Their seed shall not rise; Whatever grows, does not bring flour; And if it were to bring anything, strangers shall devour it„ (Old Testament, Hosea, chapter 8, verse 7) In the painting a dark storm front is over Weimar West (a prefab housing development from GDR times) and in the background is the Ettersberg (nature reserve). The image unites German ideologies, the present and my personal concerns about the future.
Since my stay in Japan in the autumn of 2015, a year later, it has become impossible for me to focus on nature and its phenomena, or simply to paint flowers.
In view of the aggravated situation in Europe and Germany, which could be the basis for my future livelihood, this is a luxury that I just do not want to afford myself anymore. So it is an existential duty for me to reflect on political events, to interpret and thus to remember that which must not be.
You hardly use classical painting tools such as brushes, and write: „The colors must fly and flow ... Form follows content.“ What do you mean by that?
This statement refers to a painterly phase in which I painted, as you mentioned, still abstract landscapes. I applied my fingers and sponges to paint on huge paper formats. At that time, I needed a kind of bridge to get to the middle of the picture.
It was time-intensive, due to the long drying phases, and the works lived off a rigorous physical exertion. The painterly process sometimes resembled a dance or fight, a bit like mud wrestling: The colors flew and flowed through the room.
I was concerned mainly with painterly questions, such as: „What is color?“ „What is
so-called abstract painting?“, „Why actually paint abstract?“ „What would an extension of painting look like?“
„How much chance can I endure in the painterly process?“ „What is beauty?“ „What is kitsch?“ „What is an image?“
It was about the nature of the material I used. The material and method determined the content of the individual works or the series.
Acrylic paint is in some ways an artificial product and oil paint is sticky and static. I soon opted for watercolor paint. It impresses me with its jet stream fluidity; it is both irrepressible and irreversible.
Here I still see parallels with nature and life itself, for there are natural laws that govern here.
The nature of things, colors, should be made to be, to a certain extent, how they want, so that they may fly and flag. At the same time, I need constraints and limitations in the method and subject matter, since „abstract painting“ can also be quite arbitrary and banal. That annoyed me.
Two years ago, figurative moments increasingly crept into my pictures, until I returned to representational-narrative painting.
How can I imagine the formation of one of your works?
It is too early to speak about the craft of my work. I find it silly.
I need a certain concentration for painting. I can’t work hungover or over-tired. I need to know where everything is; I cannot use chaos.
I say: First, I will build or tidy my workspace.
I look for the challenge in painting, so I prefer to paint outside or directly in front of a motif. The space, the contrasts, the colors, the weather, the speed in which everything must be painted: I ascertain the reality, and then move away from it.
When I walk around outside, I often paint pictures in my head. I think about what mood I want, what kind of dramaturgy, and how I would mix the colors.
I regularly use material such as the Internet, music, film, literature and art history. In the case of the series “Bloodline”, there was no other way than to use the press photographs.
With the experience I have accumulated over the years, I no longer fear, like many painters, to be in front of the white surface. It is important to paint constantly, because having the right feel for it is like training a muscle.
When I cease painting, my skills, the directness of color application, and my intuition all begin to step a little further back.
A week’s break is enough, and then I usually need one-two pictures until I‘m back in there. Whether or not a picture exists is revealed in the weeks after.