October – November 2023
Recent Paintings of Lutz Driessen
‘I incite a cold passion for crimes at sea…’
–Álvaro de Campos (Pessoa), Naval Ode (1)
In his recent paintings of the human figure, portrayed in Romanesque spaces and Mannerist postures, Lutz Driessen recalibrates Modernism with a humanist-cartoonesque touch. Visual elements refer to icons and cartoons: the sacred and the profane. Through their appearance, a weird combination of the solemn and the raucous, his works evoke serious topics: the precarity of the body, the forces that it must abide, and the relief of the human condition by tenderness.
Is Driessen an untimely artist? His paintings prompt important ethical questions. Avoiding the main stream, he seeks new connections to painting traditions, even if this means that he must go underground. Fine art has been part of countercultures; the 16th century artist Grünewald – admired by Driessen – continued the earnest style of late medieval Central European art in his paintings, ignoring the art of his time: Renaissance classicism. Driessen’s works portray a contorted human figure. In his ‘cool’, modern, abstracted body-motif, an old idea transpires: the Pathosformel (passionate gesture language). It is an elusive maneuver: meanwhile the works introduce the deformed figure to us. When we see a person in pain, are we compassionate or indifferent? How do we meet the other? Do we see the original face?
Over the last few years, Lutz Driessen has created a cycle of paintings, under the overarching title Die Kranken. The title refers to a compelling motif, portrayed by Grünewald in the third Wandelbild (‘transformation image’) of the Isenheim Altarpiece. On the (original) right wing of this altarpiece, in the left corner of Saint Anthony Tormented by Demons, far below, we see a figure with webbed feet and a swollen, pockmarked belly (the ‘hooded man with book bag’). This deformed figure is thought to personify a man suffering from ergot poisoning; a condition accompanied by convulsive symptoms (also known as Saint Vitus’ dance) and heavy, intense hallucinations. He (or ‘she’ as Driessen suggests; scholars have made the claim too; the artist prefers to see the figure as androgynous) was probably cared for by the monks in the hospital of the Isenheim Convent – where Grünewald made his rounds, studying subjects for his work.
Driessen compares Grünewald’s figure to a contemporary clochard, a homeless person in our time. Why did he choose this motif? What does it signify? Driessen is outspoken. “When I began these works, I asked myself what is sound, what is sick, what’s the difference? I wanted to explore existential questions but through the prism of art. Disease is shown in Grünewald’s altarpiece as both a physical and mental condition: people struggle with all kinds of monsters; they literally crawl into their bodies or go out of themselves. And I was thinking of something else as well. In my paintings, I pit ‘healthy abstraction’ against ‘sick figuration’. This refers to a perception of art in our time – we find it in certain art circles. But nothing in the history of art prepared us for that juxtaposition! This tells something about the world’s perversity. It is very difficult for us to see what is sick, wrong and neurotic in our reality, and deal with it.” (2)
The cycle Die Kranken consists of iconic grotesques and soaring reveries. The main cluster of works has intense, saturated, starkly contrasting colours (yellow-brown-blue, red-black-yellow-white, green-indigo-black-orange-yellow-white). The other group of works is done in blacks and whites. The common motif is a contorted body, in fact a torso, indicated by two legs that are spread wide open (Peter Flötner’s engraving Der Menschliche Sonnenuhr (‘the human sundial’, 1534) the depiction of a defecating man with both legs wide open, resonates in the motif). It is important to say that we do not see the face and the eyes of a nude figure that must be under an immense pressure. This figure beckons and confronts us. Initially, the motif is repeated in works with strong but gradual differences. During the process the artist became interested in a total transformation. Thus, at first sight, the paintings in colour replay a deformed person’s hallucinatory visions, the ‘madness’, in iconic images that radiate psychedelic power.
The b-w paintings have a different tonality: inquisitive and hands-on (their focus is external), mostly densely populated with forms and figures yet leaving open spaces, or instead literally erasing or blocking earlier figures. Aimed at breaking up the stasis, the palimpsest technique (layered images resulting from painting/drawing and partially carving/erasing, scraping them away) suggests where a motif might go: its potential. Here the anxious body dissolves, at times with the help of outside forces: in one work, hands are joining hands, and a new state of mind emerges! Driessen based this motif on a mural by Cocteau, of Petrus’s struggle and surrender to the Roman soldiers in the Garden of Gethsemane, made in a neo-classical style. In another b-w work, a chair is placed in front of the legs, hiding the body (or the sex) as if it were a tabu: ‘this should not be seen!’ These b-w works are volatile, they make me think of spiritual sceances to invocate a motif/form: ‘that it may transform and fare well!’
Each painting has characteristic and recurring elements. The figure (contorted body, abstract legs pried wide open) appears in an open, flat space; picture planes recall Romanesque art. A looming pillar-scaffold, or its remnants, is in the background (in reference to Saint Sebastian’s martyrdom; a motif explored by Driessen in earlier paintings). In between the legs hovers or sits a form/fleece resembling a membrane (the clear-cut contour resonates with cartoon figure Marge Simpson’s hairdo). Suggesting the entrails/belly, or the female sex, this powerful form recurs throughout the works, in red, blue, yellow, white… Finally the works feature discretely painted bodily extremities and holes. His hands and feet are endearing: these appendages are captured as they are about to make elegant movements: a fine dance, a graceful gesture. His holes and (sexual) organs are disarming: an anus has a mother of pearl-shine; a fanciful penis comes in a rainbow-spectrum. These bodily elements form a counterpoint: here is Happiness.
The Painter’s Sources
I first saw his work seven years ago. Sensing a tension between its fine and brusque elements, I thought: “Picasso, the neo-classical painter, meets Robert Crumb!” I was reminded of the Hairy Who, 1960s Chicago. I found myself thinking on oppression as an innate element in German art, on Max Ernst’s ‘scorched earth’ paintings and works of his first French Period, e.g. The Blessed Virgin Chastises the Infant Jesus (1926). Driessen is indeed interested in modern, neo-classical (and Mannerist!) forms. He is influenced by the Chicago Imagists, who opposed the New York Pop Art, and by the Chicago Surrealists: these kinds of figuration fascinate him.
Driessen’s oeuvre has deep grounds. When I ask him about starting points, he mails me three references. The first one concerns our society’s sickness. Driessen’s figures, the cut-up bodies in strange, forbidding postures, express this overall neurosis – albeit in a rather oblique way.
The artist has sent me a text from the Bible, Luke 8: 26-39, ‘Jesus Restores a Demon-Possessed Man’. It tells of Jesus’ healing of a man from the region of the Gerasenes, across the lake from Galilee, who calls himself by the name ‘Legion’, for many evil spirits live in him. The demons plead with Jesus, asking him not to send them to hell, but to permit them to go into a herd of pigs. So he does, the herd rushes down the steep bank into the lake and is drowned: the man is saved. Next the bewildered community responds with disbelief. The shepherds flee to the city to tell the people of what happened. When they go out to Jesus, they become afraid when they see the man, completely healthy again, sitting next to him. And they ask Jesus to leave… According to Marx, Jesus is getting rid of society’s monsters; the evil (social injustice) that the blind bourgeois society has created itself but is afraid to face: ‘Perseus wore a magic cap down over his eyes and ears as a make-believe that there are no monsters. We pull the fog cap low over our eyes and ears in order to be able to deny the existence of the monsters.’ (3)
Next Driessen mails modern visual sources. Here it concerns ‘the search for the figure’. He has studied many painters but is fascinated with Otto Meyer-Amden and Oskar Schlemmer (the two friends also inspired each other: ‘it was Schlemmer who elaborated Meyer-Amden’s search for something holy in the figure’s depiction by a prototypical form’) and Miyoko Ito, a singular American-Japanese painter. Miyoko Ito depicts interiors, landscapes and the human body in ‘allusive abstractions’: mysteriously translucent settings that evoke an inner dimension.
Driessen’s third source is old art: ‘the drama of the body.’ Grünewald is very important. The Saint Anthony Tormented by Demons and the Isenheimer Altarpiece in general: an amazingly excentric representation of ‘inner life’ (Sebald wrote that the Isenheimer Altarpiece nowhere depicts ‘life in itself’) and The Martyr Sebastian. He also mentions other ‘Sebastians’ for example depicted as a young man (Bronzino), or shot through with arrows and hanging from a tree (Odilon Redon), or as a beatific youth and a dying man, eyes aimed at the sky (Pietro Perugino; a painting from 1489-90). Returning to Grünewald, Driessen says: “Grünewald’s hands tell me that the body wants something else than the idea.” And then – while talking – Driessen professes his love for Lucinda Child’s Dance (1979, music Philip Glass, stage design Sol LeWitt) and her subsequent, later performances of the piece over the years, in which (an older) Childs is dancing with her (younger) projection: “Her work conveys the timeless humanist perspective.”
The liberation of the body is an underlying motif for Driessen. Longing for the embrace, one of his bodies has become a sex machine; another is burning red-hot ready to go up in flames. The body goes its own way. It convulses, is violently shattered. I think it was always like that: with Driessen, the limits/borders between inside and outside are undefined. In his new cycle, the bodily form doubles itself and breaks down. The fact alone that this form, at times in a single work, seems to multiply and disintegrate (or dissolve) suggests a fantastic kind of body.
Mikhail Bakhtin, the literary scholar, has made poignant observations on the meaning of the grotesque body in Renaissance folk culture (notably carnival), and literature, in Rabelais and his World (written in 1936, published in Russia 1965, English translation 1984). For Bakthin, the grotesque imagination of the great Renaissance humanist writers, the liberating laughter that they wanted to inspire through their novels, represented sound resistance against the religious authorities’ narrow view on how people should live their lives. And, in secret, Bakhtin must have also considered his theme as sound resistance opposing the political authorities’ ambition in ‘his own’ Soviet Russia, in their ideal to engineer the new human communist/socialist soul.
The body is a source of wisdom: street wisdom (panache) and sacred wisdom. Bakhtin writes: ‘The grotesque body…is a body in the act of becoming. It is never finished, never completed; it is continually built, created, and builds and creates another body…the body swallows the world and is itself swallowed by the world (let us recall the grotesque image in the episode of Gargantua’s birth on the feast of cattle-slaughtering). [MK: Gargantua the giant is born in a rather unusual way, making a fantastic voyage through the body of his mother, Gargamalle, and finally coming out by her left ear.] This is why the essential role belongs to those parts of the grotesque body, in which it concerns a new, second body: the bowels and the phallus.’ (4)
This fruitful zone is clearly indicated in Driessen’s works. The flat contour of the membrane form suggests the relevancy of Romanesque art: the artist favors its psychological perspective; ‘inner life’ rendered through art, over the spatial perspective invented in the Renaissance that came to dominated art discourse. Driessen’s bodily form always suggests the inside: the mind. Is Driessen’s grotesque body a symbol of resistance? Can we consider it that way? And if so, against what is his resistance directed? I already suggested that his body is a ‘Pathosformel’, designed/crafted to inspire empathy. In his studio, Driessen shows me his notes: ‘Veitstanz: Spastik & Tanz, gegensätzliche Kräfte, ein Körper & Der Wunsch, unbedingt abstrakt und bedingungslos zu werden. Die Unterwerfung? Der 2e Körper? Porno?’ (‘Vitus Dance: Spasm & Dance, opposing forces, one body & The desire to become absolutely abstract and unconditional. Submission? The 2nd body? Porn?’) The power of his imagination is vast. The artist wants to paint the unpaintable/unspeakable!
Dying is the name that Driessen has given his solo exhibition at the JUBG Contemporary Art Gallery in Cologne. “That title refers to my visual language, the fact that an earlier motif, the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, elaborated in my Sebastian paintings, has come full circle. Here it peters out. It is only daily practice.” With that explanation, Driessen downplays his title a bit. It gives me food for thought! Interestingly, Driessen collected his ‘Sebastians’ in an earlier show titled Living (Gallery Khoshbakht, Cologne, 2022). The paintings embody hallucinatory visions as well: shards of bodies are scattered across the space, like debris in the Milky Way, or meat in a blender. These works are aggressive: their glaring, high-pitched colours shoot you in the face. I am struck by Driessen’s representation of space. In the ‘Sebastians’, the space is torn apart, cut up in sections: centrifugal forces have free play (whereas in Die Kranken, on the contrary, space thickens and the sections coalesce: here, centripetal forces reign). Living is an interesting title: I think it refered to Sebastian’s agony/exaltation, the fact that he – I imagine – was so much alive at the moment of his death. The paintings reveal and evoke this ecstasy.
Returning to his cycle, Die Kranken, dedicated to the sick person: in its bodily form and glowing colours I detect exotic landscapes: the desert; a seascape (the black pillar/scaffold-form recalls the funnel on a steamship). Fernando Pessoa, the Portuguese poet, wrote a lenghty ode to the sea. I mention it because it contains an archaic (pagan, barbarian) element that makes itself felt in Driessen’s paintings too. As a highly relevant instance of Futurism, Pessoa’s Naval Ode (1915) was written at a specific moment in (art) history. We also find this archaic element in Boccioni’s sculpture Fusion of a Head and a Window (1912-13) that features a countenance, like that of a grimacing pirate. In Russia, in 1913, Matyushin, Khlebnikov and Malevich’s opera Victory Over the Sun premiered: a large, abstract, motley eye appears on stage, after the sun has been captured by strong, futurist men. In Paris, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring unleashed a scandal.
Two years later, Pessoa published his Naval Ode under the heteronym Álvaro de Campos. De Campos is a wildly passionate poet. In his poem, Álvaro sits daydreaming on the banks of the Tagus, reflecting upon his solitude. A mail boat sails on the river, life on the quay gradually warms up, and the poet is sated with impressions; the entire surroundings force their way into his imagination when the poem transforms into an orchestrated delirium. The poet becomes a pirate who does gruesome things to others, but also a man who offers up his own body to the pirates and allows himself to be eaten in a voluntary game of lust, a cannibalistic ritual/orgy:
‘Oh barbarians of the ancient sea!
Tear me apart and maim me!
Going from east to west of my body,
Scratch bloody trails through my flesh!’ (5)
The poet’s offering is unconditional. The artist has portrayed the sick figure in the same vein. We could associate this body with his. In his paintings, Driessen depicts the human condition. His bodies are absolutely free and lonely. A big thought… Driessen also professes his love for cartoons. They are a source of joy. The cartoonish image of the puff of air elates him, as the form lingers for a fraction, after Road Runner has crashed into the abyss. On Friday morning, September 8, as we walk to his studio, Driessen notices a drawing in the street. Lutz points to a shutter painted by Epoc. “This is one of his last graffiti to be seen in Cologne. It makes me happy”, says Lutz, “but they won’t be around much longer.” A kick scooter is spread over the entire surface; in the space between handlebar, deck and wheels, there is a face. It belongs to a hooded figure.
(1) Fernando Pessoa, “Ode Marítima” (dedicated to the futurist painter Santa-Rita), published in Orpheu no. 2 (Lisbon, April-June 1915) under his heteronym Álvaro de Campos.
(2) Artist quotations and information in e-mail exchanges, phonecalls, and conversations in Cologne, Sept. 2023.
(3) Karl Marx, Das Kapital, ‘Preface to the First German Edition 1967’.
(4) Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and his World, trans. Helen Iswolsky (Bloomington, Indiana Un. Press, 1984), p. 317.
(5) Fernando Pessoa, Naval Ode, English trans. in Internet Source.
Mark Kremer, September 2023