In the Shadows of Modernity

Michael Kunze’s labyrinthine path through Western Culture

—Jamila Adeli

Michael Kunze paints in a timelessly idiosyncratic style, creating captivating mysterious images full of references to a wide-ranging cultural history. Masterfully handling the technique, applying the oils with spatulas and brushes, his monumental canvases show a mixture of the meticulous and the irregular, from exact precision to generously ignored contours, using a colour palette that varies between pastels and sombre tones. In one of his most recent paintings, Echo Pool (2012), a romantic night scene is depicted with a sunshade put up next to a white deck chair by a swimming pool, reflecting the full moon in its pitchblack water. The pool is enclosed by monumental architecture and one side of it faces a fire in a bowl mounted on a pedestal like an eternal flame, infiltrating the peaceful atmosphere with uncanny undertones. Interestingly, the opened parasol, which feels rather unfitting for a night-time-setting, can tell us a lot about what Michael Kunze deals with in his paintings.

As a symbol, the parasol appeared most strikingly in an earlier series called Studio/Workplace (2010). In these paintings, Kunze presents different studio situations in a deconstructed, surrealistic way. We see in each of the paintings a small grate-like platform – presumably the workplace – in a space otherwise made up of massive building structures, often on the verge of decay or setup surrealistically, where the notion of the in- and outside is blurred. In these images the parasol is shown in connection with the ‘studio-platform’, a studio in which the artist is never present. It is often placed right next to a small canvas on an easel, creating a symbol for the absent painter and his work.

This leads us back to Echo Pool, where – were it not set in the middle of the night – the parasol would function as a ‘shade maker’, a role that can be read as a playful metaphor for Kunze’s sources of inspiration. He is drawn to what he calls the “shadows of modernity”, the hidden, less popular paths that go beyond the idea of a direct line in Western art history of the 20th century: from The Luncheon on the Grass (1863) by Eduard Manet to Paul Cézanne; through Cubism and the avant-gardes of the 1920s to the neo-avant-gardes of the 1960s; to Minimal and Concept Art in the 1970s leading to today’s postmodernism. There are other paths. The one Kunze is interested in starts with Arnold Böcklin and includes Giorgio de Chirico. It is the road less travelled, away from the mainstream and runs via Francis Bacon, to the films by Pier Paolo Pasolini and philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer. Each of these positions stands in its own way, strikingly aloof: although each one cannot be imagined outside its time and place. They all dodge or undermine the accepted idea of a strictly operating model of progress. Kunze’s paintings descend from euro-continental, mazy and myth-connected, often pre-modern roots of modernism that have their origin in Romanticism, creating contradictious and at times labyrinthine images that have a mesmerizing effect on the viewer.

Aegean‐Pacific (2012), Cistern (2012) and Zephyr (2012) all make references to Arnold Böcklin’s phantasmagorical visions of a solitary villa by the sea and to his famous painting The Isle of the Dead (1880–1886), a rugged and mysterious islet seen across the calming expanse of a glassy sea – one of the most beloved motifs in late nineteenth-century Germany. In addition, Kunze’s architectural visions – in his paintings often realized on high cliffs – are influenced in various ways. Some come close to Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s famous etchings of fictitious and convoluted ‘prisons’ (Carceri d’Invenzione), others refer to Villa Malaparte on the Isle of Capri – a captivating ode to solitude – or to the monumentality of 20th century totalitarian architecture. Some look like futuristic architectural visions from the times of the early avant-garde or show multiple perspective points and fragmented geometries like Zaha Hadid’s deconstructivist buildings that evoke the chaos of modern life.

Kunze’s architectural landscape paintings, despite all their cultural references, feel like ‘nonplaces’ and at times are pervaded by apocalyptic undertones. They depict places without a geographical background that cannot be found on any map, places that are devoid of a specific history or identity. In them, we encounter a mysterious dreamlike world of solitude, which operates on a typological use of architectural structures instead of creating clear references to existing buildings and sites. It is a universe, which does not show the apparent, but works on a level of signs and historical references; which addresses thoughts and feelings, a lot like Giorgio de Chirico’s absurd architectural spaces that are expressed in terms of potentialities rather than assertions. Kunze creates spaces to which only free associations of the viewer attribute a meaning, that fall short of the finite and within which possibilities rather than occurrences prevail: where time is not linear, but cyclical. Similar Kunze’s swirling figures, like the one in String Game (2012), are governed by their own logic. This painting consists of a seated portrait, but instead of a face, we see a whirlwind in which individual facial parts are floating. Frightening, and in its absurdity almost playful, Kunze creates ‘arrested movement’, a movement intense and fierce in ways similar to Francis Bacon’s portraits. It is the action of invisible forces on the body that is the profound cause of an implosion of its upper parts. What is present here, even more so than in Kunze’s architectonic landscapes is an image that is non-illustrative and does not convey a story. We encounter a Bacon-like sensation that is transmitted directly.

Thinking of Kunze’s exhibition title “Studies of the Formation of Impatience”, the primary notion of velocity in String Game comes to mind. For Kunze the word impatience is strongly linked to modernity’s underlying idea of progress, with the dynamism that projected it from one event to the next. Kunze’s idea of impatience alludes to the progress of history on which the official version of modernity relies. But in the wake of postmodernism, this everlasting cultural progress has come to an end. It is stagnating and repeating itself, there is no continuous acceleration, but moreover a steady stream. So, String Game can be seen as an ironic study about a zeitgeist and where it came to ‘halt’ – no longer moving forward, but turning around in circles like the portrayed figure. Kunze is not interested in the ever further rushing forward of the present moment, which may be the underlying critique in his “Studies of the Formation of Impatience”. In fact, most of his paintings are infiltrated with a great calm. And if somebody wants to see the parasol in Echo Pool as a simple tool for relaxation, to completely get away from all the impatience, Michael Kunze himself has no objection to such an interpretation.

published in Michael Kunze, Studies on the Formation of Impatience, Galerie ISA, Mumbai, 2012