Since the publication of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Italian Journey in 1816, if not before, yearning for the south has been a classic topos in German cultural production. The state-supported residency programmes at Villa Massimo in Rome and Villa Romana in Florence, founded over a century ago and still popular with artists, are not alone in reflecting this sustained fascination with Italy’s landscape, culture and history. This time-honoured interest also involves a range of productive responses to the might of Italian art history: rejection, embrace or both at the same time.
When the Berlin-based German painter Christa Dichgans spent a year at Villa Romana in 1971, she packaged her Italian experience in highly distinctive pictures. As is illustrated by ‘Not a Still Life’, Dichgans’s retrospective at Kestnergesellschaft and her first major institutional show in Germany for over 30 years, these small-format paintings are heavily populated by salsicce, Italian sausages that have received less attention in art than in, say, pizza or pasta. Raub der Sabinerinnen (The Rape of the Sabine Women, 1971), for example, shows a snow-white figurine by the 16th-century sculptor Giambologna – one of the most enduring depictions of the titular myth – sinking into a heap of salsicce. The circular Würste vor Goldgrund (Sausages on Gold Ground, 1972) echoes the round format of the tondo, making subtle links to the Italian tradition of painting saints.
This reference to Italian cuisine could be understood as an artistic allusion to globalization’s impact on West Germany in the postwar years. Firstly, the Germans’ ever-increasing appetite for travel, particularly to Italy, following the rapid development of the country’s economy in the 1950s and ’60s, referred to as the economic miracle. Secondly, the arrival of guest workers from the region who helped bring about this period of commercial growth prompted the establishment of many Mediterranean restaurants across the country. While the curation of ‘Not a Still Life’ suggests that these pictures were produced during a short but intense phase of the artist’s career, Dichgans’s first solo show, at Berlin’s Galerie Rudolf Springer in 1972, featured 40 such works; she returned to the theme once more, 30 years later, painting pointillist sausages and a pair of frankfurters in oil on canvas – both works, each titled Würste (Sausage, 2013), are on view here.
Dichgans’s early focus on the things that populate everyday consumerist life made her one of the few female artists involved in the German pop movement of the 1960s. ‘Not a Still Life’ begins with what may be her best-known works from this period: paintings of heaps of toys, their meanings in constant flux. They could be about the forces of entropy that reign in children’s bedrooms, much to the bafflement of parents. But these arrangements, which seem ready to slide out of the frame, also exude a sense of abandonment. In these ten scenarios – which include Spielzeugstilleben (New York) (Toys Still Life, New York, 1967), Stilleben mit Seepferd (Still Life with Seahorse, 1969) and Häufung mit Gummirobbe (Assemblage with Rubber Seal, 1968) – playful disorder verges on real disaster. Adult clothing – a pair of red boots, for instance – makes puzzling appearances amongst the chaos, as do practical household items. Is this a way of dealing with the challenge, which still exists today, of negotiating artistic production and family life? More recent art, from Mike Kelley’s eerie, plucked soft toys to the sagging population of Cosima von Bonin’s 2010 exhibition ‘Fatigue Empire’, has hinted at the dark depths that may lie behind the cutest beady eyes. You don’t need these reference points to appreciate Dichgans’s rigorously composed pictures, shaped by an affinity with pop art and the artist’s sense of humour. But, with this knowledge, it is easy to see the pioneering quality of her oeuvre.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
Main image: Christa Dichgans, Raub der Sabinerinnen (The Rape of the Sabine Women, detail), 1971, acrylic on canvas, 28 x 35 cm. Courtesy: © the artist; Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin; Photograph: Jochen Littkemann
First published in Issue 196