Text in german, castellano and catalán.

PAINTING A DIFFERENT PICTURE

Maria Callas. The one and only Maria Callas. A “pure voice”, a “wilful woman”, a “dramatic and emotional life“. How many things have already been written about Maria Anna Sofia Cecilia Kalogeropoulos!? And always the same words, again and again. Some people seem to line up commonplaces like pearls on a necklace. Others line up clichés in the same way. And by “cliché” we understand the term in its double meaning – as a stereotyped signifier as well as a cheap reproduction of a painting. How many things have already been shown of Maria Callas: The ecstatic diva, with her fingers stretched out towards the sky; or the devotional diva, holding her fists clenched against her chest; or the beaming diva, motionless on the stage, like a goddess that had fallen from the skies. Words upon words, pictures upon pictures, the myth is kept alive. The commemoration of Maria Callas requires these words and these pictures. Since her death in 1977 an iconography of the worship of the diva has been established, which maintains the cult of Maria Callas. An iconography that arises from the mass media’s unquenchable thirst for pictures and presents the point of origin of Wolfgang Schäfer’s pictorial research.

In order to avoid possible misunderstandings from the beginning: Schäfer’s Callas portraits are not explicit worship paintings. They don’t fit so easily in the chain of dithyrambic commonplaces and clichés, which already clasp “la Divina”. The painter’s admiration for the soprano certainly is the basic condition of a work that the artist started more than fifteen years ago. Without this admiration and this respect, such a long and intensive study would not have been possible. But Schäfer’s paintings are ambivalent icons. Because the artist does not have the naivety of believing that there is an analogy between the painting and the woman. What he paints does not find its sources within the person of Maria Callas herself – but in the image of Maria Callas. Whenever Maria Callas is the motif, Schäfer’s painting is always a picture of Maria Callas’ image. The reference is the mass-media cliché that has become a sort of inherited collective property. The reference is not primary the woman. It’s the idealized, nostalgia-overloaded picture of the woman. So, Wolfgang Schäfer’s reference is already a reference. Behind this reference, behind these multiple layers of poses, phantasms and projections there might be the woman; somewhere between imagination and reality. This place is hard to determine, and Schäfer’s painting is aware of that. But an approximation is definitely worthwhile.

According to that, how could Schäfer’s attitude towards Maria Callas be described? Maybe as a kind of clear-sighted love. A serene passion. And the portraits themselves? As a distant homage. A playful and critical look at the object of his desire. These apparent paradoxes are the expression of a complexness that can be found in the whole artistic development of Wolfgang Schäfer.

At the beginning of his career, Schäfer was a decidedly abstract painter. Looking back at his early works, you discover a powerful and uncompromising battle of colours. The colours explode and leave a disrupted landscape behind. The abrupt gestures create scorch marks and craters. Rather than a weapon, the brush acts as the pen of a seismograph, which records the movements of an impetuous artist – the canvas is the black box of this battle. This was back in the 1980s, at the time of the ‘Neue Wilde’ (German for ‘new wild’, an artistic movement in Germany, Austria and Switzerland), when everywhere in western Europe a generation of young painters, armed with a glittering palette and an ‘acid’ style, set about rediscovering the raw force of expressive painting. But this generation – the generation of Wolfgang Schäfer – was a generation of decidedly figurative painters who just liberated themselves from ‘Concept Art’ and reactivated motifs, heroes, figures and narratives. Schäfer had little to do with that. He never really liked going with the flow. He rather looked for his own artistic language – and found it momentarily in the swirls and eddies of an impulsive abstraction.

Then he gradually started experimenting with figurative motifs. The first figurative elements appear amidst the lava of colours, pave their way through the jumble of traces and blurs of colours, then become more and more precise. Schäfer has not quite relaxed his nervous, nearly aggressive flow yet, but puts it into the service of this burgeoning figurativeness. This stage is documented in “Harvest" or in “Gesichter der Sehnsucht” (faces of yearning). Already then – from 1991 - Maria Callas is represented. Her delicate features hardly make their way through the colour stream. They rather merge with the other parts of the painting, or repeat and overlap each other beyond recognition. The ‘primadonna assoluta’ is a Fata Morgana – an undefined apparition on the horizon; trembling, flittering.

Over the years she gains more and more contours. The overlay of motifs fades and also the colour overload becomes less and less. During this process of clarification, the origin of the motifs appears in its whole clearness: they are press photos, which are projected onto the canvas. The extreme amplification shows the raster of the original picture, and Schäfer does not inhibit this new component at all. The relation to Pop-Art, in particular to Roy Lichtenstein or Andy Warhol, is evident here (on the German side the inspirers are Sigmar Polke or Achim Duchow). But Schäfer does not use just any duplication technique – serigraphy, stencils etc. – but transfers the mechanically produced picture manually onto the canvas. He is the translator who rescues the mass-media picture from its anonymity and exchangeability and upgrades it by virtue of his manual processing. His wild flow now seems to be more sedate, discreet, even calculating. With more and more precision he compasses the raster that makes the motif recognisable. The chaos of the early compositions is substituted by a calculated complexness. The multiple layers are not an inevitable result of the spontaneous creation anymore, they are dominated and controlled. The stars of the 20th century, big and small, encircle Maria Callas in “Diven der Welt” (divas of the world), and fragment and disperse the motif, like a prism that refracts the light. Sometimes letterings are integrated into the composition, and this text layer increases the complexness of the painting (“Before my end”). If you contemplate the production of the last fifteen years, trying to reduce it to a linear progression, you can observe a tendency towards a formal clarification and a thematic focusing of Schäfer’s work.

It is instructive to take part in the maturation process of an artist. It is exciting to see how a person approaches his target, becoming more and more precise. The artistic development of Wolfgang Schäfer can be exemplarily visualised in the Callas-series: from the expressive-gestural to the graphic, from the orgiastic to the sober-minded, from the spontaneous yell to the articulated discourse. At this point one could ask: But why Maria Callas? Wouldn’t a different “object” have done just as well? Is the motif an uninvolved instrument, a neutral projection screen that is registered by the maturation process of the artist but lacks relevance by itself? Yes and no. Though Maria Callas is always a representative figure, as Schäfer says, i.e. a pretence of pictorial experimentation, the soprano is particularly well suited for the – literally as well as metaphorically meant – projection games of the artist. She unifies the human and the divine, the trivial and the profane in one ambivalent figure. At the same time she is sex symbol and mother, a legend shrouded in mystery and an open book. She personifies an inapproachable ideal that meets a too human fate. So Maria Callas is a quite complex identification figure that receives dreams, wishes and yearnings. One that can be manipulated for multiple artistic experiments.

In his latest series, Wolfgang Schäfer moves noticeably away from the graphic character of the last paintings. The rasterised structure of the Callas portraits has not disappeared completely, but now it shows through more dense layers of paint. As a result the compositions seem lighter, more transparent and even more complex than before. While former paintings were impenetrable and isolated, the new pictures like “Behind the shadow” and “Callas-Madonna”, both painted in 2008, are more open and full of perspectives. In particular the latter, a triptych, turns out to be a subtle picture puzzle that does not allow a clear reading direction and that keeps the viewer’s perception in constant movement. There is no hierarchy of the motifs. Even though there is a logic interconnection between the lily, the gothic madonna and Maria Callas, all these elements of the composition are put in scene relatively loosely. But on closer examination you discover a series of formal interconnections (mainly connections of colours), which dovetail all elements of the composition with each other and produce a strong room effect.And also the technique shows a new trend: the original picture is not painted so accurately anymore; transparent effects and layers of colour are added, so that the superposed motifs don’t merge with equal intensity. Moments of indeterminacy arise and emphasise the multilayer effect. In this series, the canvases are sometimes primed with varnish and oil, and then with acrylic and gypsum. Schäfer transfers his motifs onto this rough, in part uneven surface, before he partially removes them in the next work step. When he uses wax and oil or extends matt colours onto a wax basis, striking contrasts emerge between the ground and the surface.Thanks to the enrichment with other materials, the colour gained more body. It is a skin that is injured, attacked, shaped, and then, after repeated work steps, gets its final form. For Schäfer this new quality in his works means “becoming more courageous”. Courageous, because in this playful but risky handling of a fragile material there is always the risk of destroying the picture, so that the laboriously achieved results can be undone in the twinkling of an eye. The process of creation is always a process of destruction as well.The return to rougher textures and an expressive painting style, together with the already achieved compositional clarity, suggests the artistic maturity of Wolfgang Schäfer. Former stylistic features, which were already regarded as “resolved”, are not just forgotten, but brought into the new experiments. The picture of Maria Callas’ image itself is permanently enriched by new references. Just as a battery, it is recharged by each new contemplator. Maria Callas, this extraordinary and outstanding artist, who nolens volens was turned into a media phenomenon, remains an icon, an object of desire, which is at anyone’s disposal and has something to offer to anyone. Like a cup, open, indifferent, but still so expressive. Finally it is Wolfgang Schäfer’s favourite site for his pictorial research. A place where you can retrace the artist’s personal evolution. A place where this evolution continues.

Emmanuel Mir, 2008

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