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Thomas Baumgärtel lives and works in Cologne
Paper of thesis for a major project concerning the Ruhr district being cultural capital in 2010:
New book available
The spray-painted banana of Cologne artist Thomas Baumgärtel is known the world over as a quality seal and unofficial logo of the arts scene, emblazoned on the best museums and galleries and thus networking over 4,000 art spaces. In parallel with his spray-painting campaigns, which he also uses to courageously and humorously take a stand on political issues, Baumgärtel has created a painting oeuvre of which this is the first comprehensive survey.
Authors: Dietmar Schuth, Dorothea Eimert, Hartwig Knack, Ingrid Raab, Stephan Mann
Hardcover, 24 x 31 cm, 256 pages, 350 color ills.
Ingrid Raab (Gallery owner, Berlin) 2007
Mary Poppins spends her day out with her friend Bert, who has two jobs:
There is a similar fairytale feel to the repeated invitations by Thomas Baumgärtel to follow his banana signs into the dream world of art. It is quite simple: Since 1986 he has spray-painted well over 4,000 bananas on the street fronts of cultural institutions behind which some greater or lesser miracle lurks. Thomas Baumgärtel is a reticent person who is very resourceful.
A man of few words, he lets his spray can do the talking. For the observer, the challenge is clear. You only have to be aware that you are letting yourself in for something special when you follow that banana. Baumgärtel has observed the effect of the banana on people – less from an explanatory than an artistic, visual perspective. He points to the effect of the banana in the way a psychologist might interpret a Rorschach Test. Different people see his bananas in their mind’s eye; some see the colour yellow beckoning like a ray of sunshine, while others see the crescent shape of the moon. Looking at the banana triggers a host of different associations and responses. Art aficionados should feel free to think of Andy Warhol.
The land that lies behind the bananas is a magical land for Baumgärtel, to be continually discovered anew, and free of everyday encumbrances. It is no accident that these bananas float atop outside walls and glass panes, as it highlights the underlying surrealism of the principle. A good dose of irony is also included, for the Baumgärtel commentary on art is by no means purely theoretical; it is both distanced and personal at the same time, and definitely emotional – idealistic in the best sense of the word, and never cynical. Not idealistic in the sense of Eugen Schönebeck either, who sang in the wee small hours of a 1960s carnival party at the art academy that: “The only idealists are the gallery owners.”
Although his spray can assaults are sometimes the subject of disapproving vendettas, Baumgärtel is simply exercising his freedom to express his own personal preferences and convictions. He speaks for himself, so one day it might be the MoMA and another day the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice that preoccupies him. Years ago he was caught spray-painting the Museum Ludwig in Cologne and had to pay a hefty fine, but now, several years later, he relishes the invitation of Dr. Gohr, the director of the museum, to spray-paint a new banana on the museum’s facade.
Baumgärtel himself recounts that it was his experience as a spray-painter that really fuelled his desire to become an artist. In his mind, the young artist saw himself initially as part of an underground movement, and rightly so, since art in its own time tends to mobilise the kind of subversive powers that are handy for any artist to have. Before he even had his own studio, the “sprayer” had gained an inkling of the power of art to do good.
Spray-painting bananas is less a political, calculating act than a reflection on the contemporary world, a moment to stop and think about where we find ourselves, and question today’s image of humanity. It is only political to the extent that the artist intervenes and voices an opinion. But the political aspect is limited by the fact that another person must be drawn into the image for the artist’s concern to be appreciated. It is therefore only natural that Baumgärtel should address his contemporaries and make suggestions to them, which can be an enlightening way of forming a view of things. The banana is the pretext for drawing viewers into the image – somewhat drastically, or at least more drastically than Baumgärtel ever could given his natural temperament. It is an entrée into a world where we can address, in an uninhibited way, the kinds of questions that may well be right in front of our noses but are often too complex or too intimidating to confront. Those who lack the courage may simply turn away. The “sprayer” had to summon up considerable courage before applying his invitation to dance to one or other of these venerable buildings. This is why we should take up his bold invitation.
Courage is also accompanied by doubt. Doubt searches for examples of confirmation or rejection. Artworks have expressed this over the centuries in allegories, similes, symbols, emblems and hieroglyphics, as a sign of the intention to encode an image. Thomas Baumgärtel’s banana is one such symbol. The result is that this symbol makes us curious, and we pursue it to try and decode its significance. This possibility is often more farreaching than we think, as it helps to expose the seemingly insuperable problems of our current age. Not everyone can or wants to read these messages, which is why they often only come to the fore a few generations later. But does Baumgärtel’s banana really have such magical powers? Perhaps a brief foray into past eras to search for any similar phenomena would help answer this question.
Ever since Aby Warburg, we have used the memory of parallel worlds from bygone eras to better understand current phenomena. IfWarburg’s method is applied to Baumgärtel, someone like Gustave Courbet could come in for consideration – another artist who had a disquieting effect on his own age. Today we look upon him as a representative of the modernism of that era, who had the best answers to the questions of the time and even the time to come. This is why it puzzles us that he irritated his contemporaries, when all he was doing was putting forward such progressive thoughts as open-air painting or realism as an expression of democratic art, and ultimately of art as a public means of expression, not as a luxury item.
For us it is clear that his achievements at the time benefited the people of his era: the invention of zinc paint tubes allowed him to paint outdoors, which shortly afterwards inspired the Impressionists. The claim of the artist to be allowed to choose his own subject matter can also be seen as a democratic act of liberation. Seeing art as an aid in all walks of life goes without saying these days, but during the restoration period of Napoleon III such a notion would have been considered outrageously provocative. When you consider that in those days portraits were still primarily commissioned by kings and princes, you gain a better appreciation of how deeply disturbing it must have been to see the portraits of two lowly stone masons, which Courbet painted in the year 1849 (see ill.)
About 50 years later, the city of Dresden acquired this painting for its paintings collection – an indication of how enlightened and cosmopolitan the state of Saxony had since become in embracing the thought processes of European art. Another forty years after that, the painting was destroyed by the phosphorous fire of the bombing raids on Dresden. It still lives on today though, embodying in many schoolbooks the most progressive ideas of the past and also their failure when they came up against more reactionary times. This is how we “know” a painting like the “Stone Masons” very well, even though it no longer even exists.We sense that it can bring back the vision of Courbet to our current age, and that is the most important reason why the work still has something to say to us today.
The invention of zinc paint tubes has since been superseded by the invention of spray cans, and that is another comparable factor. Just as in Saxony it was an open-minded museum director, CarlWoermann, who in 1940 purchased Courbet’s “Les Casseurs de Pierres”, today it is museum director Gohr at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne who commissioned a spray-painted banana for his museum. Once again a progressive art connoisseur was at work who was aware of the risk associated with contemporary artists and took it anyway. Above all else, an otherwise harmless work draws attention to contemporary problems that nobody wants to face, but in fact allow us to see the present all the more clearly.
The movement that we observed, then and now, is neither linear nor progressive.
After the spray-painted banana by Baumgärtel came a series of paintings – initially in the style of banana pointillism. Once again, things happen in a multi-layered fashion. Banana pointillism could be considered a form of Impressionism, but is also quite at home in the digital world, as bananas painted in pixels.Whether referring to the Cologne rubbish or trade fair scandals, or a mayoral scandal in the suburb of Dellbrück – the style of Baumgärtel’s pointillism goes beyond faithful depiction of what actually happened to convey the circumstances in an evocative and shimmering fashion, for only when you look more closely do any contours appear. Just as Courbet recognised and captured the cobblestone worker as indicative of his time, Baumgärtel takes on distinctive, cryptic or exemplary figures of our time, less as representatives of the individuals themselves than as contemporary phenomena. The shimmering painting style shows that it is not primarily about the figures portrayed as a banana pastiche, nor is it about the banana republic, unless we want to see that as a mirror of our times – which is not the intention of Thomas Baumgärtel.
Atmospherically speaking, the style deployed indicates that Baumgärtel wants to cast a spell on people and draw them into a world that is magical – full of secrets that have to be decoded. The works on German reunification using the banana pointillism technique do not employ the symbol of the banana as a means of simplification. They incorporate dancing bananas instead to create a sense of exhilaration and joy. After all, when we look at these images, we find our thoughts dancing along with the hundreds of airborne bananas. Such successful simplification of complex subject matter transfixes us and lets us rise above our dayto- day concerns. In the same way, Mary Poppins taught us as children the same recipe for overcoming all kinds of problems. Something strange happens as a result of these flickering bananas: the negative seems to become irrelevant; surrealistic, idealistic values take on simplified contours and convey a clear message, thanks to the blurring effect of pointillism. As we know from our own experience of dealing with this topic, the method for achieving such charming simplicity is itself complex. For years, Thomas Baumgärtel and Harald Klemm worked on the subject of German Reunification before they succeeded in achieving clarity over what was an unfathomable event for everyone, so that in the end one symbol stands above all the problems: a banana.
Now and then it is important to reduce things down to a simple formula. The fact that this is also an important stylistic device of modern art is mentioned here only by way of an aside.
The simple symbol does not lose its effectiveness as a result of being repeated, because it is also the principle of order at work here. In the context of German Reunification it is a reminder of the common denominator, showing that even the most joyful moments have their dark sides which, however, it is possible to disregard when the bananas become roses. We do not find ourselves in the age of the “yellow submarine” here, but in Germany, a country that has but an uncertain grasp of its new roles. When you juxtapose the People’s Army and the soldiers armed with Kalashnikovs (see ill.)
with the joyful image of the Brandenburg Gate, you see the underlying power of our symbol. German Reunification came about without the intervention of the army; the image initially sends a little shiver down our spine but, on closer inspection, we realise immediately: no, nothing like that did happen.
The signature is what distinguishes the artist here; it makes it possible for our thoughts to stray from the banana roses to the Kalashnikov banana, in order to come to the conclusion that an image is made up of many different aspects. It is a daring move to address love and death through the same means and, in so doing, to overcome the inherent contradiction, while allowing us to discover that the feelings the images trigger are heightened.We are surprised by the idea that we can even entertain such thoughts at opposite ends of the spectrum, with our eye straying from one image to the other and our thoughts straying with them, intensified by our emotions.
Yet, over the years, the bananas have become smaller and smaller, until they disappeared. For the past few years now – and again in a lively exchange of ideas with artist and studio neighbour Harald Klemm – the first representational non-representational paintings have emerged (Werner Spies, “I cannot for the life of me see Europe in it”, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 8 November 2007). The painting subjected to this quality assessment byWerner Spies, is a map painting by Max Ernst from the year 1933 with the title “Europa nach dem Regen” in which Ernst established a new world order.
A representational non-representational style of painting is also a way for Thomas Baumgärtel to put different phenomena and related values to the test. The new landscape paintings (see "Neue Malerei") are a testament to a longing for harmony. At the same time, there is a threat lurking in the shadows and a narrowing of the path that, paradoxically, also opens up the path to an endless number of themes that preoccupy us but are not entirely clear. The barren trees could be just as much a symbol of climate change as a sign of winter; they are an impressive image of how we see nature and at the same time the threat we humans pose to it. Our thoughts are left hanging, become ensnarled and add something to the painting, enhancing the image in the process. The power of our imagination thus becomes a constant that is characterised by contradiction.
By way of the familiar peek into mother’s pantry (see ill.),
past memories are also made to falter. The old products are gone, with today’s mass-produced items now filling the shelves of childhood with consumerism. After the initial shock of not finding the old childhood dreams intact, the image does remain the familiar one of old, but now filled with new content. The memory cannot simply be dispelled; nor can the new products unravel the place of childhood fascination. Like a children’s song, the old refrain is recalled and expressed in the classic style of a still life.
In Baumgärtel’s paintings of mass events, the sense of confusion is absolute. Shocked by the apparent Hitler salute we find on closer inspection that the familiar gesture comes from a pop festival in our own times. The viewer feels a sense of relief; a Hitler salute and a pop festival are not one and the same thing. The underlying problem of our [German] identity emerges even more ominously in our mind’s eye. The shock on first seeing the work that it could be a Hitler salute is not so easily forgotten.
This artistic development is as logical as it is dramatic. By doing without the icon, the artist has peeled off his spray-can cocoon. As long as Thomas Baumgärtel continued using the banana to voice his concerns and problems, he was able to cloak himself in the symbol as a form of self-protection, especially as it was so big in some instances that he could easily have hidden himself behind it. For viewers familiar with Baumgärtel’s artworks, the apparent loss of the symbol is nevertheless logical, because his concerns now emerge from behind the mask. In the face of our contemporary lack of orientation and consideration for others, wrapped up as we are in the world of consumerism, identity problems and the loss of nature, there is a serious tone emerging in these new works – which cannot prevent anyone from adding a banana here and there in their thoughts, if the serious tone should become too loud.
Key Experience Banana
Rheinberg on Niederrhein, 1983: Catholic hospital, crucifix that had fallen off the wall, crucification of a banana peel: a key experience which causes the civil servant Thomas Baumgärtel to study art at university. At university, given the task to paint still-life of fruits, it soon became evident to him - overcoming the academic mentality of a painter - that the banana was his one and only motif. In 1986, during a night filled with spray can activities, Baumgärtel positions his first banana graffiti on the gallery gates in the Belgian quarter in Cologne. Today, 16 years later, his banana marks close to 4000 places of art between Moscow and New York. A long-term concept described by Dr Reinhold Mißelbeck of the Museum Ludwig in Cologne as "the greatest dadaistic action in art history". In view of impending criminal charges, Thomas Baumgärtel, at first active only under the pseudonym "Banana Sprayer", has been participating since the late 1980's in international exhibitions. With ironic reference to his former professors, he still today produces "fruit paintings" in acrylic on canvass; but what looks like over-dimensioned apples, pears or lemons, is composed of many small bananas. Baumgärtel "paints" using stencils. As of 1994, in the technique described by him as "banana pointillism", the painting series "Die alten Meister und die Banane" [The Old Master and the Banana] and "Nie wieder Krieg - nur noch Bananen" [No More War - Only Bananas], or motifs such as Clinton and Kohl, Cologne Cathedral and World Trade Center (1996) are created.
Brandenburg Gate Project
The Brandenburg Gate is the building in Germany which most strikingly reflects the last 200 years of the country's history. Two symbols, the Brandenburg Gate and the banana, are now to be combined in a single work.
Costs are expected to about total EURO 600,000.-
Cologne, Oct. 2007