Who invented fear?

by Günter Baumann, 2012

- german below -


O my soul is trapped in fear

(Georg Heym)


When we encounter Käthe Schönle and her works, we embark upon a walk on a knife-edge. She leads us into the shadow of confidence – a choice of location that compels the viewer to perform a linguistic balancing act: How far down could a shadow drag us, if we did not know of the glimmer of hope surrounding the peak that casts it? Or does this ambivalent image extend the existential tragedy, in the sense that confidence lies beyond the divide and is unattainable, while on the slopes away from the light, the lost generation dangles on the rope? Shadow and confidence, though generally irreconcilable, are the basic coordinates of our lives, which is to say: we cannot avoid dealing with the operetta-like dialectic of ‘the heights of ecstasy’ and ‘the depths of despair’ – with the ‘either/or’ and the ‘both one/and the other’. This pairing may seem like banal theatricality, but since real life is not just a matter of black and white, but the range of grey tones in between – not to mention the colours – the contrast promises to give rise to a flickering field of conflicting forces. "In the Shadow of Confidence" we do not necessarily find the worst half of life, however: the shadow is inherent in confidence itself (not beyond it, or opposite) and can only be cast, as we know, if there is light. Schönle herself exudes self-possessed familiarity and addresses, with confident equanimity, darkness in its most threatening guise: fear. The proverbial heights/depths passage in Goethe’s play ‘Egmont’ begins “Joyful and sorrowful, thoughtful, longing, and anxious in constant anguish” before moving on to “despair”, which in the German original rhymes with the concluding line, “Happy alone is the soul that loves”. Life is that simple, that complex.

In her drawings, Schönle conveys the tension evoked in Goethe’s lines – not in an illustrative way, but physically. She is concerned with the portrayal of anxiety and depression, and also with the rebellion against them, the attempts to break out. ‘On the way up[RT1] ’ it says – half sarcastically, half against better judgment – in a picture with a badly battered human creature shown against a blue sky: on another sheet, a similarly flailing figure falls into nothingness, beneath a phrase in emotionally charged graphic form a LiFe IS WoRth NoTHinG THERe. This is a risky artistic move, because anyone who lays out emotional coordinates as close to the surface as this will automatically polarize. Schönle avoids this danger thanks to a degree of self-confidence that is amazing in someone so young, and technical brilliance that leads the viewer to suspect an underlying Kafkaesque dimension. Nowhere does the subject get lost in therapeutic self-diagnosis; nowhere does the field of vision narrow to a mania. And yet, depths of the soul are brought to light that touch one directly, without compromising the aesthetic criteria. The figures that Schönle commits to paper are larger than life, but they testify to superb anatomical knowledge; furthermore, the artist de-forms their bodies with an almost destructive zest, while creating sheets of incredibly beautiful delicacy and fragility. In addition, there is a playful momentum that takes the drawing to the verge of caricature: an impression reinforced by the abundance of textual content. This in turn varies, encompassing poetic interjections (‘Am I my brother's keeper?’), elucidation (‘Free yourself and the rest will follow’) and laconic titles (‘God’). She also plays with mirror writing (‘Fear’) – just an ironic twist, perhaps, or is it in allusion to the two-faced and absurd nature of man, in the tradition of Camus’ metaphorical Sisyphus: a stroke of fate that is senseless, but fortunate in the self-imposed devotion to it – uphill and vice versa.

The protagonists, both the restless ones and those in agony, are classified by Schönle as the ‘noble species’, which bites its way through (‘Biterbear’, ‘Biter’) somehow ("so, and what now?'). Noble simplicity and calm grandeur have apparently been expelled from Paradise together with the human race (‘Slapcouple’), so that the linguistic exaggeration is suddenly reversed. ‘Human Behavior’, no less. The artist observes human interaction, too, with a meticulous eye and a deft hand. As if existence were not frightening enough in itself, intimate acts are mostly destined to fail – as ‘red carpet’, for instance, suggests: on the amorously red carpet, the viewpoints of the man and woman, who emanate the perplexity of jointed dolls, seem barely compatible, while the hollow-eyed ‘Tongueman[RT2] ’ does not look as though he could overcome the reservations of the naked woman next to him. In this context, Schönle achieves terrific sensual insights into the human soul (‘thoughts’), which at times seizes frankly and impulsively on erotic feelings (‘untitled / Europa’).

The proverbial phrase from Plautus, homo homini lupus, which was given broader currency by the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes (loosely translated: “Man is wolf to man”), is elaborated by the illustrator with cheeky wink, bearing a children’s canon by Karl G. Hering in mind: ‘A very hard winter is when one wolf eats another’ – the title of her exhibition at Winterthur in 2009. The Vienna-based artist leaves us in no doubt that violence is one of the driving forces in society; in her artistic treatment of it, she stands in the tradition of Austrian[RT3]  Actionism. In her treatment of the line, a direct link is discernible between the etchings of Elfriede Trautner (1925-1989) and Schönle’s pop-but-real drawings, with their ‘symbolic-scribble’ and quasi-abstract qualities. She is, incidentally, an illustrator as well as a painter and spatial artist. In the considerably larger format of many mixed media – with dimensions of up to 200 × 133 cm – she also succeeds in making the transition to a painterly style, with a sometimes rather bold, garishly colourful insistence. On the other hand, her small acrylic collage works – around 24 × 30 cm in size – achieve a monumentality of peinture that subverts the viewer’s range of expectations. To conclude with, the installations encompass a group of works that takes a literal approach to the fine line mentioned at the beginning: "A thin red line". This is the title given by Schönle to her ‘threaded’ works from 2011. The figuration suddenly picks up this red, or occasionally green, thread and plays with it – on paper as it does in the third dimension. The unwieldy figures find themselves linked by a network of powerful (one is tempted to say, cosmic) rays, which they defy by trying to influence the choreography of their trancelike and sometimes militant actions. Who is really pulling the strings, however, is left open – if it is not in fact an unsolved puzzle.

 Günter Baumann, March 2012


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