Speech by Prof. Dr. Dieter Ronte (Art Historian, Director of the Kunstmuseum, Bonn) at the Opening of the ArtForum Gallery Judenplatz 2 in Vienna, on October 24, 2006, with works by Adolf Frankl"Visions from the Inferno – Art Against Oblivion"
Please allow me to use the next five minutes to try to specify the artist Frankl in terms of art history more precisely. It is striking that, in the texts about the artist, no word is mentioned about art itself, only about the contents. This art, as we have heard today, is quoted from the artist's biography.
I would like to thank Thomas Frankl for today's opening and for this important and dedicated center. There are pictures here that the public should definitely have access to; I justify this by drawing attention to the quality which stems from these works. If we think about a united Europe and about what we have learnt from the history books, we see that all this has little to do with unity. But if we think about Europe's art, then we know that this is the Laocoon, the Pantheon, the Mona Lisa, the Sistine Chapel, van Gogh, Picasso, etc. Suddenly, a whole region which is defined as a European entity comes together because it has produced these cultural works. Art is the expression of our identity – not the wars that we have fought against each other. If Europe is to gain a political identity, this can only be achieved through culture – most probably not through politics. The ArtForum is part of the discovery of this identity because it processes the past. It is because of this that these pictures are so important today.
We have heard that Frankl was not an autodidact, that he graduated from an applied arts high school, and that he actually wanted to be an artist before he entered into his parents' business. So we are not dealing with naïve painting, but rather with an artist who shaped that which he left behind very precisely and consciously. He comes from a long tradition. There are emulations of Magnasco. I remember Piranesi's Carceri. I think about Goya's private paintings and etchings – he also witnessed terrible happenings. But I also think about the Austrian scene that Frankl cannot be left out of. I think Frankl is a deeply Austrian painter, and I want to illustrate this. There are pictures reminiscent of Hans Fronius, of Adolf Frohner, of Schiele. Schönberg also painted these inner visions. That is, an art scene has been created which has not been pre-envisaged as a modus operandi – and one could also include Boeckl.
That is why there is practically no abstract art in Austria, only small pieces that are quickly abandoned. There is no constructive geometric art. There is no art that has been rationally conceived in order to restructure the world. Art is, as I like to describe it, a medium of an aesthetic parallel action to truth, where one can place the visions and words of Frankl. This tradition is especially Austrian.
I repeat the words of Frankl where he regards himself as an historical artist: "I spread the colors around on the canvas with a spatula, my fingers, and a brush, without a plan or model. I am so absorbed in the work that I spatter face, hair, clothes and shoes with paint and also inadvertently sometimes put the brush into my mouth." This is the painter who loses himself totally in the action of painting. "In a fury of joy I create patches of color which – mostly subconsciously – form harmony, or the opposite. After a few hours, I have to lie down because I am completely exhausted. I sleep a little, then smoke a cigarette and think about the past, about my youth, about the women and also about the terrible image of the camp." In the evening when everyone else is asleep, he returns to the canvas and tries to draw the abstract that he painted into a thematic relationship. It is also interesting to observe the text that we already heard in which he observes them through a mirror. With this swing between abstract and realism we come exactly to the point where the qualities lie, i.e. the pictures are unintentionally painted in an abstract manner. We can see this in all pictures here.
A particularly beautiful example is a carpet of flowers that reveal themselves as a dead man on the wire, whereby Frankl again cites Mantegna, the cristo scorto. There are further citations with which Frankl works from an art historian's point of view. He swings between these abstracts and his biographic realism.
He takes up a problem that Jackson Pollock knew, and said: "One may also see faces in his abstracts." But Frankl naturally goes by his experiences. The pictures are therefore naturally authentic because they are taken from real life. Frankl is not the only painter who painted his experiences after time had elapsed.
Most of the pictures are from the 60's and 70's but are very intense. There are primarily figure pictures, not landscapes or city paintings. There are reminiscences of Bratislava showing people coming to the city. There is the Wailing Wall, almost an abstract landscape and in spite of this, faces appear in the background which rephrase this and other pictures.
Frankl is an artist who stands in this tradition, in this dialectic, where the artist has to decide whether he will stay with the abstract or continue to work in realism. There are geometric pictures in which Frankl works with the lines of Hebrew letters and narrates his life. Other pictures are more constructive. Further pictures emerge strongly from darkness. There are very, very jocund pictures with really terrible subject matter. Frankl said in the film: "This swing between joy in painting, fury of joy”, that was his perception, terrible themes which accrue only later, in order to be able to free himself from these visions. Thus a painting is a projection. It is also probably this lost Viennese characteristic towards art, which a great archeologist Alois Riegl, a contemporary of Sigmund Freud, when they started to work with psychoanalysis, described as artists going from theology to teleology. He described that from accounts of the roman art industry in the Pannonia lowlands. It depends upon whether we should pay more attention to the fact that the subjective expressions of the artist as his own personal characteristic are more important, since we live in a time where there are no more objective commissioned paintings. The individual must form his own opinion.
Perhaps we can classify Frankl in another way if we ask: "What did he not do?" For example, he had no perspective. He had no elegant canon, although he painted people. If you have lived through ruination, you don't need an elegant canon any more. But he could also have said, "In hindsight, I am trying to rearrange the world and to tell people about it". As an example, one could take the psychological path of the Viennese School of Fantastic Realism, which at the same time works here in order to stay along the lines of idiosyncratic iconography. In order to express psychological situations, Frankl was also able to work with geometrical proportions which represent a new zest for life through the renewal of order. He did not do this. He travels along this expressive path. If one looks at this work from an Italian point of view, one could say that what Frankl did the Italians call in slang, "Nordismo". Frankl loved working with elongated figures, with stark contrast, and with wild painting. It is interesting to note that in Lucio Fontana's circle, and also with Fontana himself who wrote the "Manifesto Blanco", such works also occur with a great love of abstract. For example, in Agenore Fabbri where the same themes are shown as experiences. It is clear that it no longer has anything to do with a unified style, or the formation of a unified writing, but rather to let the hand go free, to express the thoughts through the hand, which then breaks clear. There is currently a good example in Vienna, in the BAWAG Foundation. The works of Asger Jorn reflect the considerations of the Cobra Group that was formed against fascism and Nazism as a left-wing group in Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam. There is a cycle that Jorn etched in 1960 called "Occupations" and which is concerned with the occupation by the Nazis in Denmark in Copenhagen where Jorn suffered much as a young man. Here we find similar formulations that vary between darkness, vision and geometry, geometrical forms that erupt and to try to create some hope as order. When you go through the hundreds of Frankl's drawings, you find this expressive language time and again.
But you also determine that Frankl captured situations and their visages very quickly and portrayed them very well. Drawings emerge, which in part, are sketches for future pictures. Again and again he succeeds in portraying his own experiences in a different way. This is in our century – and particularly in the last – more than legitimate because the artist argues in a very personal way. That is the point of his works. He can give an account as a witness. His is an authenticity that a photograph cannot reproduce.
Strictly speaking, Frankl is a realistic painter, but he is no naturalist, he doesn't produce a trompe-l'oeil, he seeks no visual deception. He also does not idealize. For him, realism is the critical contact with himself. It is because of this that he has so much to tell us. As of today, we have here a great Austrian painter to discover. For this experience, I say a heartfelt thank you.
Translated by Imogen Lathbury