German Romanticism is the most German of all German art ideas. It is the expression of, and opposition to, emergent modernism, and probably the last rearguard action against the relentless advance of progress, enlightenment and industrialization. It addressed the Dialectic of Enlightenment 150 years before Horkheimer and Adorno did.
The deep connection between the art of painting and the seemingly harmonious cultural landscapes at imminent risk of destruction from the ‘blessing’ of progress first came to light when their beauty faded. And it is this pain of parting that has sustained German culture for over 200 years. It is the soul of the German soul and, in its perversity, brokenness and radicalness, it connects with any political persuasion. In his work, Friedrich Kunath cites German Romanticism as he sees it in his Californian rear-view mirror: having left his homeland for the far, far west, he views it from a place where only a surrogate Romanticism exists. In Westerns, the wilderness is threatening, a place of doom; in John Ford’s The Searchers, it provides the backdrop for a radical void, for an adventure trail in the search for meaning; its radical isolation is the sole element unifying Ethan Edwards and the lonely Monk by the Sea. So whilst the German romantic seeks refuge in nature, the Western hero is challenged by it and seeks to escape.
Friedrich Kunath has no belief in Romanticism, yet artistically he remains under its aegis. From the writings of Schlegel, he learned about irony as a fundamental aesthetic principle of Romanticism. Romantic irony is the conceptual abyss to this subjectivist art form: its meta-level or double floor—or both. In Romantic art, irony has its own characters and tricks, such as the buffo, or clown, the light-hearted deconstructor in opera; or the parabasis, a level of reflection specially introduced into a work identifying the artist, conditions, and principles of its creation and subject.
When irony switches to deep sincerity, it becomes a philosophical heavyweight. Perfect irony ceases to be irony and becomes earnest, wrote the young Schlegel. Having converted to Catholicism, Schlegel died a proud reactionary who sought a return to a hierarchical society, in much the same way as Romantic painting went into reverse—only gaudier—with the Nazarenes.
Everything is process. Nothing is true. Everything is subjective. The path is a goal. And with Kunath, there is a moment when he releases a picture to mature on its own, to finish creating itself. To him, a painting is good when the artist chose the right moment to let go. Navigating a labyrinth of false emotions, he seeks an exit from the surrogate Romanticism, often leaving his pictures to reverse out of the maze by themselves.
On this journey, Kunath sees every means as justifiable. He becomes overly saccharine, undermines, scuppers, executes, twists and exaggerates, fights and fights back. Still, the primal sense of the longing remains, outlasting everything, indestructible. And that’s the miracle: Kunath places the crash test dummy alongside Schlegel’s buffo. Time and again, he leaves his paintings to collide head-on with the same wall of naïve art-is-beauty-is-perfection-pathos. Everything remains a fragment. Only when they have documented their crash and its impact are his pictures—fragments—complete.
In the race for the autonomy of art, classic modernism fielded two philosophers
—the utterly caustic Marcel Duchamp, and Francis Picabia—in contention against the immediacy of what is sensed and thought. Picabia especially laughed, cried and dreamed in quotation marks, and in the pictures of Kunath, every false, gummed-up feeling is followed by a break that illuminates the space behind the phoniness.
With Kunath, a sequential transmission of emotional samples rattles through his pictures at breakneck speed. There is no straight route conveying what is real and/or what real feelings are any more. Our global visual culture has boiled almost every visual signal down to an emoji, and it’s into this tornado of representations that Kunath flees. He drifts—with paradoxes, sarcasm, and bar humor—from the sublime into the void. And yet every single painting, drawing, and installation suggests a pathway that began with the longing for a Romantic feeling. “Why does melancholia require exteriour infinity?” reads the brief, diary-like reflection at the bottom of the painting A Shady Paste of White (2012). None of Kunath’s works feature an intact communication landscape.
Instead, Kunath applies Schlegelian irony like a hooligan, destroying everything needed by a type of quaint, contemplative, bourgeois-idealist cultural consumption routine. He is like the beaver in his installation/sculpture that has gnawed one of the four legs of a barstool down to radical fragility. It is impossible to get comfortable in or with his works. Kunath f***s the observer with a friendly smile. After all, “not every clown belongs in the circus,” as it says beneath the image Wenn ein Mensch Lebt (When a Man Lives) (2012).
The contemporary paradigm of communication has become even more absurd than Niklas Luhmann had imagined. Mass media and a monstrous cultural-industrial complex have robbed speaking, writing, painting, and filming of their innocence. And with each cultural shift, contemporary art follows with even more abstract derivations. The first derivation were Duchamp and Picabia, the second was Warhol, the third Richter, Polke and Kippenberger, and now Kunath is daring to be the fourth. Every mathematician knows things can get complicated, often with ‘zero’ as the result. Need an example? Longing for love in total isolation and complete hopelessness. Derivation one: Illustrate the feeling with pretty clichés. Derivation two: Cite references to pop culture, e.g. by integrating a pop song into an installation as a video or audio track. Derivation three: Write in a section of the lyrics from a song by someone like Morrissey. Derivation four: Friedrich Kunath writes: Morrissey Lyrics. (Derivation five: Turn the two ‘R’s of the singer into the initials of Rolls-Royce).
I dreamed it was a dream…that you were gone. Kunath floats through derivation four, has loosened up and is dancing. When all is said and done, it really is sheer Romanticism after all. When all that other stuff—the disruptive, stupid, shitty, f***ed up, gummed up stuff—receives the absolute caustic treatment of deconstruction, all that’s left to see is simply happiness. NOW IT’S JUST YOU AND ME, reads the torn-off note from a car rental company. Or the sculpture of one burial cross lovingly embracing another.
Kunath’s big heart has his mind to use as a death strip, to keep everything safe in the heart or soul, in the ideal—and only in the ideal. But after looking at his dozens and hundreds of pictures, you see there’s quite a lot to them, behind them. And for everybody who gains an interest in this fantastic work, the art is the wall they can—and want to—climb over. That takes effort, but it’s a laugh. And after 100 years of solitude, you find yourself alone on a beautiful beach at sunset. And yes, there’s someone else there too. So simple.
© Text Ulf Poschardt