On the Metaphysics of the Decline, or on the Hour of the Angelus by Michael Kunze

—gregor jansen & udo kittelmann

Someone who writes his doctoral thesis on the Greek philosopher Heraclitus and a book entitled “The Decline of the West” would not have had an easy time of it in the climes of 1920s and 1930s Germany. Oswald Spengler’s swan song to universal progress immediately triggered a dispute—and he subsequently rejected the offer of a professorship from the University of Göttingen. The political forces that made a stand against the prophesized decline at that time and then infamously nearly made this downfall of the “Old Europe” a reality, ensured a caesura in the history of modernism that still resonates today. He also turned down a number of offers made by the National Socialists in 1933 (including an appointment at Leipzig University) and even resigned his position on the board of directors of the Nietzsche Archive in 1935 because he disapproved of the one-sided interpretation of the philosopher he so highly revered. But he had already been declared persona non grata by then. Spengler died in Munich on May 8, 1936, as the result of a cardiac arrest.
       Fifty years later, Michael Kunze—a painter who is familiar with the Greeks as heroes and the Germans as the antithesis of a Europe of Spenglerian dimensions, and whose painting represents an antithesis to the expressive and capricious Nouveaux Fauves movement that defined the 1980s— studied at the Academy of Fine Arts there. And he also did not have an easy time of it. What Spengler was to the false prophets of his time, Kunze has become to trendy German painters and connoisseurs. He overlooks their cynicism and ignores their overbidding for “Bad Painting” or the despicable salon style. Trained in the philosophy and theater of classical antiquity, Kunze explores the path of a different type of Western decline, namely the one trodden by Arnold Böcklin and Giorgio de Chirico in opposition to Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso. Remarkable in this context is his “Les Messieurs d’Avignon” series, which was presented as a complete exhibition block at the Museum für Neue Kunst Karlsruhe in 2007. The small alteration of the famous painting title zeroes in on a momentous historical nuance: Two diametrically opposed approaches to art veered off in different directions in the late nineteenth century, one of which began with Cézanne and found its continuation in cubism and the roundel of subsequent avant-garde art movements, suggesting, up to and including the minimal and concept art of the 1970s, an ostensibly historical, logical and linearly understandable “progressive” modernism. This so-called “official” modernism, as Kunze has characterized it and which has been canonized by our museums, is still the textbook version of a narrative that an era full of tension and upheavals made up about itself. The “shadow line,” by contrast, began with Arnold Böcklin, continued in the pittura metafisica of a Giorgio de Chirico and in the different varieties of surrealism and finally arrived at a renewed flowering in the latter half of the twentieth century, particularly in European cinema of the 1960s and 1970s (with Antonioni, Buñuel, Pasolini, Fellini, Tarkovsky etc., for example, and with Lars von Trier today). In the fine arts it is not “directions” that dominate the field, but rather such potent individuals as Balthus, Francis Bacon or even Anselm Kiefer. A labyrinthine, historically interwoven context with a partial tendency towards the gloomy, the complicated and the politically incorrect prevails in this seemingly hidden and less catchy side of modernism, that does not offer any reliable morals or any stringent utopias—and also always contradicts pop cultural harmonization endeavors.
       The many almost forgotten references that impact this Nietzschean-inspired dark side of modernism also cast an unaccustomed light on the now trampled-down path of mutual consent that questions some of the interpretations of the past and the present which have long been taken for granted and become all too orthodox. Kunze’s investigation is deliberately targeted at this anachronistic narrative thread by means of ambiguous text-and-image constructions in which the elegiac is tied to the ideal, the surreal to the historical and the legible to the illegible.
       This artist’s book, which primarily accompanies Michael Kunze’s exhibition at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, encompasses most of the works produced by the artist since 2007. It additionally flanks his subsequent participation in a dialogical exhibition with three further contemporary positions at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin.
       The groups of pictures from this five-year period, some of which are made up of multiple parts, are closely related to each other textually and are owed, on the whole, that genealogy of a supposedly antimodernist modernity whose influence on present-day pictorial worlds—from film to the computer game—seems all the more powerful, the more concealed and hidden it becomes. Kunze’s painting stands in the tradition of Böcklin’s “Isle of the Dead,” the fifth version of which was painted in Florence, the city of the Renaissance, exactly 50 years before Spengler’s death, that late, dark and unwieldy conglomeration of a “German soul” between daybreak and nightfall. Salvador Dalí, incidentally, painted a surrealist landscape in 1932, a year before the German furor, that is entitled “The Real Picture of the Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin at the Hour of the Angelus.”
       At the Hour of the Angelus. The shadow line of modernism followed by Michael Kunze can continuously be described in this way. Since the spectacular Morgen, which was shown for the first time in 1990 at the Forum Kunst Rottweil, it has concerned itself with a reset and not a restart of modernism in the sense of a continentally determined cultural migration from the north to the south of Europe and back again. The exhibition and book title is also to be understood this way: proceeding from a mythological metaphor, it pursues an identity formation that has crossed numerous borders, which once began on Aegean coasts and now displays its global ramifications in the shape of a chided and admired Western culture.
       Together with purely construed and fantastic scenarios, the pictures also depict transformations of photographic portraits (from Gabriele D'Annunzio to Michel Houellebecq). Alongside the painterly reinterpretation of historical constellations (for example the “Spiegel Interview” between Martin Heidegger and Rudolf Augstein), we can also find film stills from the aforementioned era of European continental cinema, up to and including Peter Stein’s production of “Faust” at the EXPO 2000. The references range from Alejandro Jodorowsky’s surreal and violent 1970 Western “El Topo” and Lars von Trier’s “Riget” [The Kingdom] to “300,” the film version of the comic series that deals with the decisive battle fought by another occident, namely Sparta, that was still in its infancy and yet already threatened with downfall.
       Halcyon days. The sequence of illustrations in the present book is interrupted by brief texts written by the artist that are often compressed to the level of absurdity and are hermetically linked, all proceeding from idealistic and culture critical questions. The texts themselves, which do not stand in an explanatory or discursive relationship to the pictorial material, seem like solitary romantic fragments of system architecture that is first complete when it has fallen into ruin. The similarly interconnected photographic works were produced over the course of extensive trips to Greece. Kept mostly in black and white, they combine idealized and archaeological documentary aspects of an image that, regardless of the simultaneous disassociation from high-gloss postcards and scientific documentation photographs, trace the supposed spirit of a place. Despite, or perhaps particularly because the heyday of antiquity seems so far off, one must again track down the nesting season of the halcyon on cold Mediterranean days: the end and the beginning of Europe merge in a sharply surreal, deeply shadowed light to form a wildly configured scenario in which the abundance of a possible narrative often turns into the void of an impossible story.
       Michael Kunze “is a very strange masterpiece”—and we are particularly grateful to him for nearly 30 years of consequential straightforwardness on a very stony path! Look forward to this pilgrimage to the sacred grove without idolatry and temple servants. May painting be with you!
       Xαίρετε. Chairete! Rejoice!

Halcyon Days, Cologne 2013, p. 07