'We must create a world of free and equal phenomena, a world in which things are finally allowed to form relationships once again, relationships liberated from the bonds of servile text-book causality and narrow-minded, finger-pointing consecution...(for) only in these relationships is it possible to find the true meaning and the true order of things...' (S. Polke, 'Early Influences, Later Consequences', reproduced in Sigmar Polke -The Three Lies of Painting, exh. cat., Berlin, 1997, p. 290).
Executed in 1979 Carnival is a multiple-layered oil painting made up of a sequence of separate overlaid graphic images appropriated from contemporary media and Charles Addams' work, and rendered in the simplistic and monochrome style of a cartoon. Echoing equally an hallucinatory world of multiple perspectives and the graphic elegance of Francis Picabia's Transparency' paintings of the 1920s, Polke's playful and inventive take on the image-laden nature of the late Twentieth Century world, is often a mixture of humour and social critique.
As its title suggests, in this painting, Polke has mixed the playful and the macabre in a strange, highly Germanic and ultimately sinister take on the theme of carnival. Traditionally 'Carnival' - often distinguished by a masquerading parade - represents a temporary subversion and an overturning of the everyday. This 'irrational' overturning of the supposedly 'normal' conventions of life, is of course something that Polke's art has repeatedly practiced.
The 'Uncertainty Principle' that physicist Werner Heisenberg first established in the 1920s, asserts that the more precisely that the position of an entity is determined, the less precisely its momentum is known'. Among the wider repercussions of this principle is the realisation that reality, as we perceive or understand it, is neither a fixed nor stable phenomenon, but one that reveals itself only in a series of shifting contexts. Sigmar Polke, who came to appreciate Heisenberg's principle through his exploratory use of psychedelic drugs in the 1960s and 1970s, was not only one of the first artists to recognise this but also to build an art based upon simultaneous and multiple views of reality collided within the fixed environment of the picture plane. Polke even insisted that his own apparently intuitive, light-hearted and deliberately anti-rational aesthetic was also a 'progressive scientific' method for exploring reality. It was a 'scientific' method, he wryly noted, which can 'no longer concern itself with boorish causalities or self-satisfied reasons but must focus instead upon relationships, since without relationships, even causality itself might just as well pack up and leave, and every reason would be without consequence'. (S. Polke, op. cit., pp. 289-290.)
In Carnival, Polke presents his overturned world through a sequence of multiple and permutated juxtapositions. The base of the painting, its ground so to speak, is the graphic image of a soldier being decorated with a medal, almost in the manner of an embrace, from a man in glasses. Washed over partially in white, so as to fade it into the background, this image is repeated four times throughout, twice at the top and twice, in reversed format, at the bottom of the painting. Such silkscreen-like reversing of his imagery both echoes and perhaps reflects on the very similar use of a 'reversal' technique that Andy Warhol was also adopting at this time. Over this repeated pattern background, is the terrifying image of a crazed wild-haired man pointing a knife at the throat of a blank-faced woman. His mad staring eyes, stuck-out tongue and leering grin a disturbing parody of a carnival mask. At the forefront of the painting, the comedy of carnival is invoked with the reappearance of the soldier with his companion, here dressed in a Pierrot-style hat, part clown outfit, part dunces hat and from the point of which hangs a half-eaten sausage. Like the image of a carrot hanging before a donkey, this bizarre and humorous image is a trademark image in Polkes art. Harking back to his first ironical 'Pop' paintings of the 1960s where the somewhat comic forms of the German "Würst" were celebrated in his art as a kind of down-to-earth German parallel of the glamour of American Pop artists' Coke bottles, Pepsi Cola signs and Soup cans, it is here rendered in careful graphic detail.
This collation of bizarre and contrasting multiple layering of ambiguous imagery is completed in the painting with a real cartoon image of an audience of wide-eyed figures nervously turning towards the viewer with worried looks on their faces. Seeming to include the viewer into the strange ambiguous space of the picture, these final images add several additional pictorial layers of meaning to this already unstable image of seemingly partially connected thematic imagery.