Art History, Pop Art and Humour: A Major Retrospective of Christa Dichgan’s Paintings
The Berlin-based German artist’s highly distinctive canvases at Kestnergesellschaft, Hannover
BY KITO NEDO
Since the publication of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Italian Journey in 1816, if not before, yearning for the south has been a classic topos in German cultural production. The state-supported residency programmes at Villa Massimo, Rome, and Villa Romana, Florence, founded over a century ago and still popular with artists, are not alone in reflecting this sustained fascination with Italy’s landscape, culture and history. This time-honoured game also involves a range of productive responses to the might of Italian art history: rejection, embrace, or both at the same time.
When the Berlin-based German painter Christa Dichgans spent a year at Villa Romana in 1971, she packaged her Italian experience in highly distinctive pictures. As is illustrated by ‘No still life’, Dichgans’s retrospective at Kestnergesellschaft and her first major institutional show in Germany for over 30 years, these small-format paintings were heavily populated by salsicce, Italian sausages that have received less attention in art than in, say, pizza or pasta. Raub der Sabinerinnen (The Rape of the Sabine Women, 1971), for example, shows a snow-white figurine by the 16th-century sculptor Giambologna – one of the most enduring depictions of the titular myth – sinking into a heap of salsicce. The circular Würste vor Goldgrund (Sausages on Gold Ground, 1972) refers, in formal terms, to the tondo, making subtle links to the Italian tradition of painting saints.
This reference to Italian cuisine could be understood as an artistic allusion to the phenomena of globalization that affected western Germany in the postwar years. Firstly, the Germans’ ever-increasing appetite for travel in the period, which began during the ‘economic miracle’ of the 1950s and ’60s, was focused on Italy. Secondly, the arrival of the guest workers who helped bring about this period of commercial growth prompted the establishment of many Mediterranean restaurants across the country. While the curation of ‘Not a Still Life’ suggests that these sausage pictures were produced during a short but intense phase of the artist’s career, Dichgans’s first solo show at Galerie Rudolf Springer in Berlin in 1972 featured 40 of the works, while 30 years later she returned to the theme once more, painting pointillist sausages and a pair of frankfurters in oil on canvas
Dichgans’s early focus on the world of things that populates everyday consumerist lives made her one of the few female artists involved in the ‘German Pop’ movement of the 1960s. ‘Not a Still Life’ begins with what may be Dichgans’s best-known works from this period: paintings of heaps of toys, rendered in such a way as to make various readings possible. They could be about the forces of entropy that reign in children’s bedrooms, much to the bafflement of parents. But these arrangements, which seem ready to slide out of the frame, also exude a sense of abandonment. The ten scenarios, which include Spielzeugstilleben (New York) (Toys Still Life, New York, 1967), Stilleben mit Seepferd (Still Life with Seahorse, 1969) and Häufung mit Gummirobbe(Accumulation with Rubber Rubble, 1968), feel as if playful disorder in a home environment may subsequently have turned into a real disaster. Grown-up clothes – a pair of red boots, for instance – make puzzling appearances amongst the chaos, as do practical household items. Is this a subtle way of dealing with the challenge, one that still exists today, of combining artistic production and family life? More recent art, from Mike Kelley’s eerie plucked soft toys to the sagging population of Cosima von Bonin’s 2010 exhibition ‘Fatigue Empire’, has spoken of the dark depths that may lie behind the cutest beady eyes. You don’t need these reference points to appreciate Dichgans’s rigorously composed pictures, shaped by art-historical sensitivity, an affinity with pop art and humour. But with this knowledge, it is easy to see the pioneering quality of her oeuvre.