‘[Kippenberger] takes a dig at German artists like Markus Lüpertz and Georg Baselitz, who denied that their militaristic motifs (boots, helmets, guns, eagles) were meant to be read as anything other than empty formal supports for the practice of painting … In doing so, Kippenberger conveys an unmistakable sense of comedic timing’ (G. Williams, ‘Jokes Interrupted: Martin Kippenberger’s Receding Punch Line’ in Martin Kippenberger, exh. cat., Tate, London, 2006, p. 46).
One of the finest examples of Martin Kippenberger’s Krieg Böse series, Ohne Titel (Krieg böse) Untitled (War Wicked) erupts from the canvas with a cacophony of colour, imagery and an extraordinary painterly surface marked by a gridded division with varnish. With its monumental scale and refined composition, it is a work of both exceptional painterly and conceptual vision, simultaneously confounding and mesmerizing the viewer in its astute juxtaposition of symbolic material. Rendered in thick, expressive brush strokes and luminous colours, it demonstrates the artist’s ability to concurrently suggest and confound meaning. On one hand, Ohne Titel (Krieg Böse) comments on the German protest culture of the eighties, whilst on the other hand it hits out at the regressive, presumptuous energy of warmongers, mocking the simplifying scheme of ‘good’ and ‘evil’.
Painted in a vivid and sketchy brushstroke, the foreground of the canvas is dominated by an imposing battleship held in dark shades of browns and black. Seemingly passing through the canvas from left to right the dark colours of the ship are set against what appears to be the outline of a blue abstracted mountain scape as well as a bright orange sky. Seemingly tinted by the reflection of the sun the sea shares its luminous colour which is broken up only by dark sketchily painted waves dispersed by the ship cutting through the water. Playfully picking up these colours again in the otherwise darkly rendered ship, brushstrokes in bright blue, yellow and red grace the hull of the battleship allude to the sea’s splashing spoondrift as well as the reflection of the mountain scape. From the upper deck of the ship a diagonal canon pierces into the sky far into the upper right corner of the work. The canon seems to emerge from the body of a downward facing black and white canary bird whose white tail feathers are lushly spread. As if depicted only moments after falling, the bird’s wings are spun widely, thereby creating an elegantly shaped vertical line which reaches from the tip of the ship far into the sky.
Kippenberger introduced the canary into his work in the late 1980s, which would – together with his infamous symbols such as the egg – become central to his oeuvre. Laced with its own layers of art-historical wit, the presence of the canary within Krieg Böse is a consciously comedic subversion of Georg Baselitz’s monumental depictions of the falling eagle since the 1970s, and Kippenberger chose the canary as a means to challenge established artistic engagements as employed by his predecessor. As Gregory Williams explains, ‘[Kippenberger] takes a dig at German artists like Markus Lüpertz and Georg Baselitz, who denied that their militaristic motifs (boots, helmets, guns, eagles) were meant to be read as anything other than empty formal supports for the practice of painting… In doing so, Kippenberger conveys an unmistakable sense of comedic timing’ (G. Williams, ‘Jokes Interrupted: Martin Kippenberger’s Receding Punch Line’ in Martin Kippenberger, exh. cat., Tate, London, 2006, p. 46). Harshly opposed to the history laden significance of the eagle as a national German symbol, the canary signifies nothing of the sort. Unlike the noble bird, the canary is frail, sweet and unimposing. In an ironic effort to elevate the canary into a sphere of importance as attributed to the eagle – and perhaps playing on Baselitz’s 1975 published book Adler - Kippenberger published two books containing each 186 scribbled drawings of canaries, entitled Die Welt des gruenen Kanerienvogels (The World of the Green Canary), 1988, as well as The Canary searching for a port in the Storm, 1991.
Both title and motif, combined with Kippenberger’s naïve painterly language are harshly opposed to the brutal reality of war, which, as Kippenberger states in an infantile manner, is ‘wicked’. At first sight the painting therefore seems to obliterate any real political concern as the title War wicked omits the verb ‘is’. Without it, the title sounds like the utterance of a child. Yet by leaving out such a simple but crucial word, Kippenberger intentionally demystified and ridiculed the political events he may have been referencing, shamelessly reducing a highly complex message at the heart of global political debate. Treating politically charged subjects in a seemingly puerile manner the artist offered a new way to engage with the past, which was not confined to a set pictorial language. Instead, through the childish oversimplification of politics, Krieg Böse, as Kai Hammermeister suggested, made a ‘satirical comment on the political engagement of art’ (K. Hammermeister, ‘Romantic Globalization: Martin Kippenberger’s “Metro-Net”’ in Monatshefte 99, No. 1, 2007, p. 40). As Kippenberger himself asked in this regard, ‘Why does an artist have to be political in such apolitical times? If there is movement, like 1000 years ago – but today there is more peace, egg cake and democratic shit going on’ (H. C. Dany (ed.), Stellen Sie sich vor, ein Mond scheint am Himmel — Gespräch Mit Martin Kippenberger (first published 1991 in ARTFAN), Berlin 2010, p. 23). As becomes evident in Krieg Böse Kippenberger’s outspoken aversion to politics and its representation in art were far from a total rejection. Seen within its context of production reveals that rather than making a serious statement about his aversion to politics, Kippenberger was challenging the expectation that German post-war artists were obliged to engage with politics owing to their cultural and historical heritage. Constantly pushing the boundaries of pre-existing standards in art, Kippenberger’s statement as well as its defiance in Krieg Böse served both as a means of provocation whilst setting himself intentionally apart from a generation so deeply wounded by both the aftermath of the Second World War and the only recently resolved political situation of a divided Germany.