Irene von Neuendorff
SHORTLY AFTER COMPLETING MY STUDIES I STARTED PAINTING PORTRAITS. AT THE TIME, PORTRAITURE WAS ONE OF THE MOST UNPOPULAR THEMES. AT THE BEGINNING OF THE 80S, THE PREDOMINANT STYLE AT THE ACADEMY OF FINE ARTS IN KARLSRUHE WAS GESTURAL NEO-EXPRESSIONIST PAINTING, USED BY MOST OF THE TEACHING STAFF. SOME OF THE PROFESSORS WERE HONOURED AS HEROES BY THEIR STUDENTS, NAMELY GEORG BASELITZ AND MARKUS LÜPERTZ.
They didn’t remain long in the province of Baden, moving to Berlin or Düsseldorf. They left their Gestural Neo-Expressionist style in Karlsruhe. In the city, the style continued to be a dominant dogma across generations of future artists. I had isolated myself by dedicating my art to figurative paintings. Moreover, I had picked the drab theme of men and pugs, more on a whim than anything else. My former colleague at the Academy Michael Hübl who would go on to become an art critic once used an elegant alliteration in German to describe my work which went something like this: ‘A physiognomy plucked directly from plaster of Paris’. My teachers simply couldn’t make their minds up: Rainer Küchenmeister spoke with a tone of acknowledgement of my ‘hustle and bustle painting’ and wanted to exchange a painting with me. Horst Egon Kalinowski ran his hands through his hair: ‘if she could at least have the grace of painting the owners looking like their dogs!’ And Peter Dreher summed it up as follows: ‘She deserves a medal for her courage.’ Yet even after my studies I remained faithful to the unpopular genre of portraiture. In 1999, I painted a portrait of Adolf Hitler for the first time.
Mere curiosity guided my hand rather than a well-thought idea.
Would ‘he’ even attract any attention if inserted among a row of my other portraits, despite his high recognition factor? Would I change by painting someone like him? What had started as a whim or experiment of sorts was systemically developed. In this case, we can’t talk of historical reflections, but of collages. For example, a random Hitler head placed onto the torso of another person. After all, my atelier played the gracious host to twenty largerthanlife Hitler depictions in oil colours. My husband didn’t´trust himself, he avoided stepping across the threshold into the studio: ‘Enough! I can’t see that guy anymore!’ Michael Hübl, cultural editor at the Badischen Neuesten Nachrichten and author of the Kunstforum specialist journal wrote the following about the Hitler project: ‘The viewers aren’t stopped in their tracks upon confronting the historical figure; it’s the sheer unbearable terrible-cum-lovely human closeness which emanates from Neuendorff’s paintings that freezes them. She achieves this by painting something akin to material construction on the surface of the canvas. The artist depicts the clothing, fur coat, textiles or leather with a lascivious softness, juxtaposed to how she paints the eyes of the high-ranking murders: with cold precision, her brushes turn them into weapons, merciless stereoscopes directed onto the viewers.’
‘Von Neuendorff depicts the Führer as a seducer by painting him with soft and feminine traits, highlighting the refined textile quality of the soft shirts, leather jacket, outfits, and uniforms and, last but not least, by placing Adolf Hitler against the backdrop of a sensual floral painting created by a contemporary painter, the only one-and-a-half-year older American Georgia O’Keeffe, thus portraying a concealed, suppressed, if not even misled culprit: in von Neuendorff terror has a face – the face of the viewer.’
At the end of the project some years ago, I asked myself if Hitler had taken me over or had I taken over him? My inner sense of homelessness stirs because my family was a group of culprits and victims. Art critic Volker Bauermeister expressed himself as follows on the matter: ‘What should we make of all this? An artist who paints Hitler? A provocative game? Insolence? What we find is the opposite: an artist who surrenders all her certainties and dives into a sea of different ideas. Who imposes herself to consciously tackle this so-called Third Reich, staging the power and the most incredible scenes of violence, one more time, as far as that’s possible. She traces her journey, an agonising introspection and exposes herself to doubt. She stages breaks, creating unfamiliar scenes, and she paints her investigation: an investigation which will also prod and search into our innermost self.