‘I like it when my art includes references to the past, to my roots. I cannot forget what my precursors have done. Even if the results look new, as far as I am concerned, as an artist I’m following an academic path. I like tracking down certain pictures, techniques and procedures. It is a way of understanding what is largely determined by tradition’ (S. Polke, quoted in M. Gayford, ‘Weird Intelligence’ Modern Painters, vol. 16, no. 4, 2003, p. 78).
‘I did not like going fabric shopping with Palermo, because that was too stupid. I always had to look for some patterns (Muster), and for me it was more about the pattern (Rapport) than only monochrome. I found that too simple, you know, I found that really dopey. And while others were toiling at I don’t know what, he sewed two pieces of fabric together and had the day off’ (S. Polke, ‘Interview with Pia Gottschaller, 2001, in P. Gottschaller, Palermo: Inside his Images, Munich 2004, p. 58).
Created using a startling combination of household dispersion paint thickly and liberally applied straight from the flask onto a raw, shimmering material surface comprised of two contrasting strips of pale yellow satin and pink Lurex®, Mondlandschaft mit Schilf is an outstanding example of Polke’s celebrated 1960s series of Stoffbilder. These pioneering works (begun in 1964) were a highly inventive and often ironic series of pictures created on unusual, often garishly coloured and decoratively patterned, commercial fabrics not meant for painting. Representing a deliberate confusing of different types of representational image, the Stoffbilder were pictures that deliberately played with, exploited and exposed the shortcomings and conventional boundaries of painterly and pictorial practice – of abstraction, illusionism and taste. Mondlandschafit mit Schilf is in many respects, a culminatory example from this celebrated series of works, being, perhaps, the last of a highly important sequence of around ten paintings that began famously, in 1966, with flamingoes, morphed into a romantic pair of herons standing by a lake, and here, has become a demonstrably artificial representation of the romantic moonlit landscape in which these birds once stood. Being also a picture that marks the final reduction of this celebrated series of paintings to its most sparse, elemental and abstract component parts, Mondlandschafit mit Schilf is also a work that emulates such famous Polke ‘abstractions’ of this period as Moderne Kunst of 1968 and Höhere Wesen befahlen: rechte obere Ecke Schwarz malen! of 1969 in which the artist questioned and mocked the then current claims of much American and West-European abstract painting to represent freedom or to be ennobling to the ‘higher’ spirit of man.
With its precise, almost morse-code-like sequence of rectangular purple dashes, strong diagonal lines (reeds), dish-like white circle (moon) and squeezed, icing-sugar-like lines and Pollock-like drips of thick, material paint (reflections) poured over a shimmering surface, Mondlandschafit mit Schilf is a sumptuous play between abstraction and figuration. In its demonstrably false invocation of abstraction, and the artifice of its own imagery as well as its supposed intimations of the Romantic sublime, the painting is, in this respect, also a work that also relates closely to, and provides a typically questioning, Polke-like, take, on the most recent contemporary paintings of the artist’s two closest friends and colleagues at this time: Blinky Palermo and Gerhard Richter. For, at the same time that Polke was working on Mondlandschaft mit Schilf, in 1969, Richter had just begun to embark on a series of Seascape paintings that, in a very similar way to Mondlandschaft mit Schilf, deliberately mocked the notion of a Romantic vista by creating a clearly artificial image of a Romantic painting’s invocation of the sublime. As with Mondlandschaft mit Schilf, Richter’s Seascapes are comprised of two contrasting strips of ‘scenery’ (one depicting the sky, the other, the sea), that have been collaged together from different photographs and then copied faithfully by the artist in paint so as to form a single, but fictitious invocation of a typically alluring Romantic vista.
It is quite possible that both Richter and Polke’s exploration of the artifice of landscape and the calming, Romantic lure of the horizon in these works was inspired by the example of Blinky Palermo’s Stoffbilder. Begun in 1966, two years after Polke’s first fabric works, Palermo’s Stoffbilder comprised solely of two or three horizontal strips of monochrome colour that the artist sewed together in abstract arrangements of pure colour so as to abstractly invoke the art and language of painting without a single drop of paint going anywhere near them.
As Polke noted of these works, they were ‘like zones of calm, the pictures weren’t legends, weren’t stories. In a room with Palermo, there was silence at first.’ (S. Polke, ‘Interview with Pia Gottschaller, 2001’, in P. Gottschaller, Palermo: Inside his Images, Munich 2004, p. 58). In the mid-‘60s, Polke and Palermo, these two pioneering practitioners of fabric-painting would sometimes hunt out fabrics together from department stores but, as Polke later noted, this proved unsuccessful because the ultimate aim of their very different Stoffbilder was fundamentally different. ‘I did not like going fabric shopping with Palermo, because that was too stupid’, Polke later said. ‘I always had to look for some patterns (Muster), and for me it was more about the pattern (Rapport) than only monochrome. I found that too simple, you know, I found that really dopey. And while others were toiling at I don’t know what, he sewed two pieces of fabric together and had the day off’ (S. Polke, ‘Interview with Pia Gottschaller, 2001’, in P. Gottschaller, Palermo: Inside his Images, Munich 2004, p. 58).
Unlike many of Polke’s early Stoffbilder, Mondlandschaft mit Schilf is a rare example of Polke adopting the simple, horizontal, monochrome format of Palermo’s Stoffbilder as a ground for his own work. This material expression, itself indicative of landscape, is further enhanced and connected to the painterly iconography of the moonlit landscape by his use here of a new reflective satin-like industrial fabric with metallic threads similar to Lurex®. Alone, these two contrasting strips of fabric would suggest a Palermo or Richter-like landscape, but the joyous and deliberately whimsical addition of a variety of simple, geometric-looking but purely abstract marks made in paint over the top of these, establishes Mondlandschaft mit Schilf as a brilliant and uniquely Polke-esque display of the illusion and the lie of picture-making.
Emulating the similar response to the inspiration of the patterned surface prompted in him in his various Mit Quadraten paintings of 1968, where the artist had painted a sequence of minimalist-looking squares over a felt-blanket-like ground – à la Joseph Beuys and Carl Andre – the geometric forms of Mondlandschaft mit Schilf are also a playful form of Minimalism that has here been brought to a peak by being used to articulate a simple, familiar and clichéd subject.
In its Romantic scene of a nocturnal landscape with a full moon reflecting over the surface of a lake, Mondlandschaft mit Schilf depicts a stereotype that is as common to the work of German painters like Adam Elsheimer and Caspar David Friedrich as it was, in the 1960s, to the album covers of Beethoven sonatas and other light classical music compilations. In addition to all the talk of moon landings and space exploration in 1969, another source of influence on Polke at this time might well have been the work of Max Ernst, whose strongly cosmological paintings were then highly visible in Cologne’s Galerie der Spiegel ‘I like it when my art includes references to the past, to my roots. I cannot forget what my precursors have done,’ Polke once said. ‘Even if the results look new, as far as I am concerned, as an artist I’m following an academic path. I like tracking down certain pictures, techniques and procedures. It is a way of understanding what is largely determined by tradition.’ (S. Polke, quoted in M. Gayford, ‘Weird Intelligence’, Modern Painters, 16, no. 4, 2003, p. 78).
Polke has however, in Mondlandschaft mit Schilf, rendered this clichéd staple of Romanticism in the form of a deliberately crude, almost ‘pretend’ abstraction that – using thick simple lines of house-paint – have been seemingly applied in the raw, instinctive and unpremeditated manner of a gestural abstractionist like Pollock. This suggestion of the painting having been created almost instantaneously, as if by instinct, without any premeditation – as in the manner of many abstract painters then still in vogue – was, no doubt deliberate on Polke’s part.
Polke’s first Stoffbilder, had been created in 1964 when the artist had painted such things as a pair of palm trees over a cloth support that comprised of an industrially-produced colourful patterned fabric. As Benjamin Buchloh has written of such a work, here the traditional ‘picture carrier’ (the canvas ground), became ‘released’ from its traditional ‘objective, anonymous function … (and) … in the light of the “happy and oppressive barbarism of the pictorial support”, Polke denied neither the pictorial support nor the barbarism’ (B.H. Buchloh, ‘Polke das grosse Triviale (mythisch oder pythisch?)’, in B.H. Buchloh (ed.), Sigmar Polke: Bilder, Tücher, Objekte, Dusselorf 1976, p. 143). Palmen, went even further than simply freeing the canvas ground to become a self-assertive character of the painting in its own right. For, in his choice of painting a pair of palm trees over such a mundane, kitsch but also manifestly familiar patterned fabric support, Polke had also painted a simple and instantly recognizable symbol of the exoticism and escapism of holiday brochures, of romantic fiction and cheap advertising. As Martin Hentschel has written of Polke’s approach in this respect, in his adoption of such faux-exotic fabric and his use of romantic and exotic motifs such as palm-trees, moonlit vistas, and lovers on a tropic isle, Polke was infusing the supposedly ‘high art’ of painting with the ‘lowbrow’ taste of the masses while at the same time aping and mocking ‘the moods used in bourgeois interiors to escape the monotony of normality’ (M. Hentschel, ‘Solve et Coagula: On Sigmar Polke’s Work’, in The Three Lies of Painting, Berlin 1997, p. 46).
The ideas first pursued in Palmen were succeeded by a series of ‘Heron’ Stoffbilder that Polke made between 1968 and 1969. These ‘fabric paintings’ had their origins in a 1966 installation in which the artist displayed a Stoffbild of two flamingoes standing, like a pair of lovers, among the reeds of a lake and which he declared had been commissioned from him by ‘higher beings’. ‘I stood before the canvas, intending to paint a bunch of flowers’, an accompanying placard stated, but ‘then from higher beings I received the command: No bunch of flowers! Paint Flamingoes! At first I intended to go on painting as before, but then I realized that they meant business.’ In claiming that his deliberately exotic and kitsch subject-matter was being dictated to him by ‘higher beings,’ Polke was both mocking modernist abstract painters’ claims to also be communing with a ‘higher’ reality and cleverly absolving himself from all responsibility towards his own work: particularly his deliberately provocative choice of clichéd, exotic or Romantic subject-matter.
Between 1968 and 1969 Polke’s flamingoes –animals that, at this time, had also given their name and image to a host of nightclubs and cocktail lounges - morphed into a more domestic image of a pair of herons. In Stoffbilder such as Reiherbild II (Heron Painting II) of 1968 Polke painted a pair of herons, standing among the reeds of a lake in such thick, rapidly-executed, icing-like lines of dispersion paint over a richly-coloured checker-patterned fabric background that, as in Mondlandschaft mit Schilf, an intentional confusion between illusionary and material reality was established. In the very last heron Stoffbilder, Reiherbild III and Sonnenuntergang mit Reihern this ambiguity was added to by the inclusion of the image of a sun and then of a sunset - in the form of a simple abstract disc. The deliberately abstract-looking Mondlandschaft mit Schilf, with its near-identical image of the moonlit lakeside landscape of reeds, wherein once the herons had stood, appears to conclude the apparent progression of these works at the same time that its empty abstract nature and its playful self-knowing artifice appear to open up an entire new world of painterly and pictorial possibility.