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The making of Johan Tahon - Dieter Roelstraete


‘Every meaningful work of art is unrealisable – it exposes the Nothing that is hidden deep inside the here and now.’

Laszlo F. Földenyi, Melancholy

When Arnold Bode organised the very first edition of Documenta in the German town of Kassel in 1955 – a double attempt to convince the world that not all of Germany had fallen prey to the siren call of National-Socialist barbarity and to make that same Germany catch up, in one great leap, with the cultural life, and specifically the artistic movements, of that time – the Hessian professor of art history and his faithful adjutant, Werner Haftmann, chose an emblematic sculpture with a long and politically highly charged history as the historic ‘logo’ for what was conceived, from the start, as a historic pan-European exhibition. In the centre of the large entrance hall of the Fridericianum, the neo-classicist museum building that has been almost synonymous with the Documenta ever since, they did not put a work by Jackson Pollock, Pablo Picasso or Henry Moore, icons of the ‘contemporary’ art of the fifties, as one may have expected – but a rather conventional and not very spectacular sculpture by the German expressionist sculptor Wilhelm Lehmbruck, who had died in 1919, long before Europe’s descent into the hell of Nazism. Lehmbruck was only one of the many sensitive souls who were unable to get over the trauma of the First World War and whose despair drove them to commit suicide shortly after it ended.

The bronze-cast sculpture itself dated from 1911, which made it by far the oldest and most ‘classical’ work of art in the entire exhibition. It was called Grosse Kniende and represented a kneeling female figure, rendered in Lehmbruck’s characteristic Spartan, languorous style, subdued, elegiac, sunk in devout meditation. In other words, miles removed from the carnivalesque excesses that were so typical of the apocalyptically disposed expressionism with which Wilhelm Lehmbruck is generally identified. And yet, paradoxically enough, precisely this sculpture, stylised with such precision, played a key role in the obsessive witch hunt conducted by the Nazis against what they termed the ‘degenerate’ art of the twenties and thirties. When Joseph Goebbels ordered the Entartete Kunst show of 1937 – a well-attended display of everything that was sick, effeminate, Jewish, corrupt and unsound in the German art of the preceding decades – Lehmbruck’s kneeling bronze (albeit alongside his lesser-known Torso) had already assumed a symbolic function that was noteworthy in every respect.1 Precisely because Lehmbruck’s Grosse Kniende had been such an unlikely target of philistine Nazi wrath – it is extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to lay the finger on what exactly could have been considered ‘degenerate’ about this statue of a kneeling young woman plunged deep in thought – Bode and Haftmann, eighteen years after the Fascist scandal show, an unrivalled low point in the history of that European culture in which Lehmbruck had believed so fervently, chose to focus once again on this distinctly laconic figurehead of innocence that had been so brutally slaughtered (even literally). Rehabilitation in this exhibition of exhibitions was Lehmbruck’s well-deserved share.

Whoever browses through the catalogue of that infamous show in the Munich Haus der Kunst – excellently documented in Stephanie Barron’s Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany2 – cannot help being surprised at the obstinacy with which the Nazis portrayed Wilhelm Lehmbruck as a prominent standard-bearer of artistic degeneration and aesthetic corruption, certainly on seeing how his graceful figures, sunk in monastic silence, were trotted out amongst and alongside the burlesque, monstrous hybrids of German expressionism (which could not be accused of overdoing its expressive subtlety at any time: ‘degeneration’ happened to be precisely what the expressionism of the German inter-war years wanted to depict). It is hardly surprising that the notoriously reactionary, middle-class artistic sensibilities of the Nazi elite took such exception to the obscene curiosity cabinets of an Otto Dix or a George Grosz (for let us not forget that Hitler, by his own account, would rather have made his living as a Sunday painter in Vienna, if the predominantly ‘Jewish’ cultural elite of that city had not decided otherwise). But the sculptures of Wilhelm Lehmbruck? Why on earth would anyone think these highly subtle figures, tending towards idealised abstraction – with echoes, of various intensity, of pre-classical Greek sculpture, the late Michelangelo, Bourdelle and Rodin – these pious monuments of heroic concentration, introspection and solid virtue, were so ‘Volksfremd’ (meaning ‘alien to the people’), degenerate and corrupt? Surely the Grosse Kniende has at least a few of the expressive and artistic qualities that could have made it pass for an example (although admittedly, a somewhat contaminated one) of robust, authentic ‘Germanic’ sculpture? What was it in Lehmbruck’s work that was so repugnant to the Nazis that they decided to condemn his kneeling female figure to the humiliation of a star part in the Entartete Kunst show? The answer to this question probably has little to do with the aesthetics of Lehmbruck’s sculptures as such, and all the more with their ethics – i.e., less with their ‘form’ but all the more with their ‘content’ – and it is precisely the ‘problem’ posed by that ethics, i.e., the ‘problem’ that made Lehmbruck’s oeuvre unacceptable to the Nazi authorities, that makes his work fit in retrospectively with that of Johan Tahon. That is the reason why I started this ‘philosophical’ reflection on Tahon’s work with such an elaborate discussion of the fate of Lehmbruck’s Grosse Kniende.3 In my view, what the sculptures of Lehmbruck and Tahon have in common is precisely what disturbed and scandalised the Nazis so deeply and irreversibly in Lehmbruck’s case, and what appeals to me, seventy (eighty? ninety?) years later, so singularly in Tahon’s case, and this common ground is precisely what makes the work of these two artists equally stubbornly ‘anachronistic’ and inexhaustibly ‘topical’: both oeuvres express, each in their own way, the ‘sad’ science of the eternal Deficiency and the universal Imperfection, which is by definition depressing. They ‘show’ unfinished, downcast man, humiliated and abandoned, but determined to survive; they embody the tragicomical fate of Baudelaire’s albatross4 and Nietzsche’s ‘noch nicht festgestellte Tier’, the drama of (modern) humanity and (modern) artisthood as a monotonous round dance of insatiable desires, high-flown aspirations and inevitable frustration and disenchantment. They represent the theatre of eternal, endless Becoming, of transition, of being on the way to a state of grace and perfection and divine completion, which they will be denied by definition (as they are ‘merely’ works of art, and their makers are ‘only’ human). It is a drama of all time, just as valid in 1911, when Lehmbruck entrusted it to the bronze-casters, as in 1937, when it no longer seemed opportune to those in power to let the blinded masses partake of this dramatic artistic statement; as valid in 1955, when Arnold Bode bravely decided to save Lehmbruck’s Grosse Kniende from the oblivion of the great German shame, as it is today, now that Lehmbruck’s distant heir, Johan Tahon, has been entrusted with the supervision over (and the care of) this honourable tradition. Thanks to him, through his work, we can now still be the privileged witnesses of the abject ‘spectacle’ of this tragic struggle, a spectacle that is, perhaps, just as difficult to witness today as in the thirties in Germany, and which we must ‘learn’ to undergo in its full intensity precisely for that reason.5

Lehmbruck’s sculptures in particular express a sense of desperation and hopelessness, the abysmal doubt and crushing soul-searching that force themselves onto the desperate man immediately after Defeat – and these, of course, were states of mind for which there was no longer any sympathy in the tyrannically ‘optimistic’ and hysterical views on man and the world upheld by Nazi Germany. This range of feelings did not deserve a place in the vast landscape of modern military mentalities, except as a pathology, as evidence of mental putrefaction and yes, ‘degeneration’. The idea of defeat as such was almost anathema in thirties Germany, that was totally intoxicated by the flush of victory. In the eyes of Hitler and his henchmen, any art that, in any way whatsoever, depicted man as a vulnerable, dispirited and doubt-stricken animal, was guilty, by definition, of mental treason, of the criminal corruption of collective German mental hygiene.6 Instead of the triumphant warrior, the Teutonic titan towering above everything and everyone, Lehmbruck ‘preferred’ to depict man in all his despondency, deliberate, (metaphorically ) small, consumed by remorse and despair, and fundamentally unfinished, unfulfilled, broken off – that is, closer to the unpleasant truth of what it meant, in the second decade of the twentieth century, to be ‘human’: not exactly something to be proud of, so soon after the apocalyptic massacre of the First World War. [In that respect, of course, it is no accident that the oeuvre of Alberto Giacometti, another artist whose long shadow falls over my encounter with the work of Johan Tahon, evokes so many reminiscences of Lehmbruck’s. In the same way that Lehmbruck’s most poignant works were born from an attempt, doomed to failure, to come to grips with the madness of the First World War and to formally ‘understand’ it, Giacometti’s emblematic emaciated figures would be simply unthinkable without the deep existential despair that seized the European Geist – or better, what was left of it – in the hungry years immediately after the Second World War.] Analogously, Johan Tahon’s sculptures also strike me as ironic monuments of introspection and quiet, doubt, despair, soundless panic, paralysed by a strange incapacity to be ‘something’ or ‘someone’, constantly solidifying and brought to a halt in the maelstrom of an endless becoming; they appear monumental, are often larger than life-sized, yet paradoxically enough, unutterably vulnerable at the same time, apparently shrivelled down to far past the bounds of human insignificance. In a certain sense, that is why, in all their amorphous ambivalence, they often also have a certain ‘animal’ quality. They appear to be alive, to have life and breath – this applies all the more to the sculptures he makes in polyester instead of the traditional plaster – but they are so only in the simulacral sense: they are shadows that are too little rather than too much, sentences that are stopped short, embodiments, both literally and metaphorically, of despair and doubt at the crossroads. Because most important of all – and here Tahon’s best works cross the path of Lehmbruck’s mastery – seems, to me, the fundamentally unfinished character of Tahon’s work: that which is open, incomplete, abandoned halfway, and which seems to continuously frustrate every will to completion. Johan Tahon’s sculptures embody the ‘classic’ modern (and modernist) pathos of the unfinished masterpiece, in which every mastery – the ultimate control over form – inevitably turns to failure – watching resignedly how the form seems to rebel against this imperiousness – and this painful failure, the awareness of impotence and finiteness, then once again merges into the ecstasy of creation, the mysticism of perfectionism.

In the paragraph above, I have touched upon a whole series of themes and motifs which each merit the study of a monographic essay, ranging from the object character and the tension between the human and the in-human or animal in the work of Johan Tahon and the problems of simulacrum and embodiment to the dialectics of form and ‘in-form’ or formlessness. Each of these tropes contains the unfolding potential of an art-historical continuum in which Tahon’s work, if required, could be genealogically traced. From this continuum, several possible roads lead to the more or less ‘related’ work of artists such as Francis Bacon, Joseph Beuys, Hans Bellmer, Edvard Munch, Juan Munoz, Bruce Nauman or Thomas Schütte. Johan Tahon’s oeuvre allows for a broad range of conflicting and/or complementary interpretations. His work is ‘about’ Everything and/or Nothing. It presents itself as a profusion of (art-historical) references, or not – a lot depends on the eye of the beholder, what else – and that is, of course, precisely what qualifies this ‘work’ partially as ‘art’. But still, in my interpretation, I hold onto this one central fact, this one motif and theme that seems to underlie all other motifs and themes: the absolute tension between the finished and ‘perfect’ and the unfinished and ‘imperfect’ image, between the desire for the ultimate Image on the one hand and the feverish allaying of that same ghostly desire on the other hand, of this power-drunk nightmare that must imply nothing else than the end of art itself. The pure will, implicit in every authentic act of creation, of breathing a quasi-divine breath of life into the image, and the insuppressible inclination to ‘call back’ that same sovereign image just before its dramatic completion, to make it stop somewhere halfway, even to sabotage it. The image must – at least, that is how the artist ‘wills’ it – remain categorically and self-consciously unfinished, a little like human life itself, perhaps. Johan Tahon’s sculptures start their life with visibly great expectations: they are large, sometimes disproportionate (‘Universus’, ‘V.M.Z.’), inordinate, the product of epic gestures and heroic desires; they stand authoritatively erect, head high, staring ahead or sometimes down at the spectator. In short, they are charged by the power dream of the master’s hand, the demiurge. They speak the bold language of grandeur characteristic of the idea of the ‘masterpiece’ as such. They desire the completion that will give them life itself, and will correspondingly prove the artist’s mastery. [By way of parenthesis, we could even add this: the artistic practice of Johan Tahon displays not so much a preoccupation with the artwork as such, as with the idea of the artwork. The great number of ‘unfinished’ sculptures, all very much alike, that are lined up in Tahon’s studio are not simply artworks in themselves, but laboriously delineated gestures with which the artist surrounds the idea of ‘the’ work of art.] But then they are suddenly stopped in their tracks, stuck in a paralysing doubt that seems to force them down on their half-finished knees. Halfway between the rough, formless mass from which they were created and the perfect, ideal-typical form for which they seem headed with such self-assurance (‘masterpiece’), the pipe dream of mastery and its finished product falls to pieces and they petrify into the somewhat sinister hybrids – iconic figurations of what Sigmund Freud would have called ‘das Unheimliche’ – we finally come upon in the gallery. Ideas, fragments, scraps – scabrous memories of the doomed idealism of totality and of the tragic fate of the ‘deficiency’ and the ‘imperfection’ that must pursue every work of art like a Mosaic curse.

The attentive and well-versed reader with a sense of historical perspective will already have descried the contours of a tenacious myth in this succession of somewhat tired clichés. It is of course the myth of the sculptor Pygmalion, which, in this modern age, has been reconfigured by no-one with greater pregnancy than Honoré de Balzac in his memorable novella ‘Une chef-d’oeuvre inconnue’ (1845), the portrait of the ‘fictional’ artist Frenhofer whose appeal to the imagination remains undiminished to this day. Balzac’s classic story is set in seventeenth-century Paris, in an artist’s studio on rue des Grandes-Augustins that belongs to the painter Frenhofer (‘the greatest artist of his generation’).7 Two of his most devoted admirers, the historically accurate figures of Frans Pourbus and Nicolas Poussin, are privileged to learn of Frenhofer’s secret, the unknown masterpiece of the title: a mysterious painting of a ravishing beauty that he has been working on for more than ten years in greatest secrecy. The painter talks about the untitled work of art as if she were a woman of flesh and blood. After much insisting (the young Poussin eventually even has to give up his own mistress, the beautiful model for his own paintings), Pourbus and Poussin finally persuade the old master to show them his painting. But when, at last, they enter Frenhofer’s sanctum sanctorum on rue des Grandes-Augustins, they cannot see the object of the master’s obscure lyrical fantasy anywhere. They look about in dismay, until Frenhofer calls their attention to one particular painting in the corner of the studio, only adding to their consternation. The enigmatic canvas that inspired the old master to his endless eulogies appears, to them (‘in their eyes’), as no more than an amorphous jumble of aimless lines and thick layers of coloured paint. Before them emerges nothing but ‘a high wall of paint’. Only one detail buoys up the hope of the speechless young admirers that old Frenhofer has not gone completely out of his mind: right at the bottom, in the right-hand corner of the canvas, they recognise a perfectly painted naked foot – so perfect that they are grudgingly forced to conclude that this painting could indeed have passed for the Ultimate Masterpiece, namely, unknowable life itself. That is to say, it the artist himself had not, in his feverish quest for absolute, unapproachable perfection, had kept on working on his painting for so long that it had turned into an irretrievably lost mess of pure paint...

In the past century and a half, Balzac’s prophetic story has earned much uneasy admiration from artists who identified with Frenhofer’s fate. In the nineteen thirties, none other than Pablo Picasso actually took a studio in the building on rue des Grandes-Augustines that was rumoured to be the setting of the drama of the ‘unknown masterpiece’. Ironically, it was here that Picasso painted his Guernica in 1937, the painting that, of all twentieth-century artworks, perhaps came closest to the classic idea of the ‘masterpiece’. In a certain sense, Balzac’s novella, which is set in 1612 (!), ‘predicts’ the famous Shock of the New that would shake the world only much later, in the early years of the twentieth century, in the form of so-called ‘abstract’ art. Considered in that light, Frenhofer may have been not simply a raving old madman, who, like so many mythical artists before him, had fallen prey to the Pygmalion syndrome, but, in fact, the creator of the very first abstract painting. What else are the canvases of the high priest of American abstract painting, Mark Rothko, to give only one example, but ‘high walls of paint’? Actually, I have a second reason for giving the example of Rothko, the figurehead of the American avant-garde: Balzac originally published his novella in 1845, and that is, tellingly, the year when the avant-garde concept as we know and use it today was mentioned for the first time. That is one more reason to read ‘Une chef-d’oeuvre inconnue’ as a literary manifesto of the modern artistic condition, and to designate the ‘Frenhofer syndrome’ as the definition of modern artisthood itself. As the German art historian Hans Belting astutely remarked in his richly documented standard book The Invisible Masterpiece: ‘the hell of art’ described to graphically by Balzac is precisely that ‘curse’ that makes the artist modern, that sentences him to modernity and elevates him to the status of the prototype of modern man tout court – ‘for the self-deluding Frenhofer, the act of creation had become more important than the product. [My italics.] So the long-hidden work was not, after all, Frenhofer’s masterpiece, but a failed attempt to make art itself visible in an authoritative and defining epiphany.’8 It is probably not necessary to remind the reader that here, Balzac/Belting articulate, in the proverbial nutshell, the plain naked truth of modern artisthood as such. The drama of modern art comes about in the primacy of the ‘project’ instead of the ‘product’, in the pre-eminence of the process as a goal in itself, in the idea of the artwork instead of the artwork (as object, ‘thing’, dead matter) an sich. The unknown masterpiece is no longer one single (‘absolute’) artwork, but the by definition unknowable project of art as such, the daily ritual of endless creation, destruction and starting again – precisely the acts in which Frenhofer proved himself such a visionary (but misunderstood) master, and Johan Tahon one of his most dedicated and consistent pupils.