It is not uncommon, when seeing ‘important’ or celebrated artworks, to feel something like relief. The scale might be more approachable than anticipated, the materials more quotidian. A technique that once seemed an impossible achievement in reproduction might reveal itself to be little but clever, approximated brushwork. Upon seeing Raphael’s much-hyped Sistine Madonna (1512), Correggio supposedly remarked: ‘Anch’io sone pittore!’ (I’m a painter too!) – an utterance that reveals the arrogance (or ignorance) of the young artist and, more optimistically, a reminder of the urgent inspiration that can be felt upon encountering great art.
The plots and subplots of postwar German art are still being told, and Walter Dahn’s singular contribution is storied. His exhibition, ‘As Life Travels On’, at the Kestnergesellschaft in Hannover, brings together more than 80 works, including paintings, screenprints, photographs and sculptures, made across nearly four decades, that go some way towards telling that story. In his painting Die Tiroler sind Lustig (The Tyroleans are Funny, 1987), Dahn reuses Correggio’s outburst, depicting an (apparently) appropriated sketch of a figure holding the phrase up on a protest placard, the image blown up and painted a bit like a Sigmar Polke work in blackish acrylic on a background fading from lemon yellow to white(ish). I hope it’s ok to say ‘a bit like a Sigmar Polke’ when talking about Dahn, for whom sampling is a regular strategy. A neighbouring group of paintings titled ‘Die Polke Suite’ (The Polke Suite, 1984/85), which makes humorous reference to Germany’s great postwar painter, would seem to permit it. But no German painter worth their salz pays homage in earnest and, as we are dealing with someone Richard Prince described, in a 2013 catalogue essay, as ‘the coolest artist I knew’, we ought to tread carefully when deciphering intention.
The later-20th-century history of German painting is, on some level, one of butchering cows (sacred and otherwise): a determination to speak truth to any generation or, failing that, to cause a stir. Dahn first gathered attention in the early 1980s as a member of the Mülheimer Freiheit, a Cologne faction of the broader neo-expressionist movement that was gaining momentum across Germany. A mostly brilliant room of works from this period includes Untitled (Vase) (1982), a riot almost entirely in grey, with colour (banana-skin yellow) saved for the stream of piss coming from a man trapped in a vase four times his height. If Brexit popularized an adage about how best to piss in relation to tents, this painting presents a cautionary tale of pissing in confinement – if it were necessary. The energy of these paintings hasn’t dulled at all, and it remains tempting to romanticize these fabled years that saw spirited and, at times, hilarious painting being produced (almost exclusively by men) in the many different corners of Germany.
Dahn’s recent work has retreated in scale and shifted subtly in scope. Over the years, he has increasingly positioned himself, without hierarchy, as a sculptor too, a printmaker too, a musician (unexplored in this exhibition, beyond a CD in the bookshop) too and a teacher (at the Braunschweig University of Art) too. Consistent is his curiosity for, and curious handling of, the complications inherent in images, texts and the things we think we know. (Neil Young and Anne Frank stand out in this particular presentation.) Dahn is a sampler, and whilst it may not always be easy to establish his criteria, it is hard not to be sucked in by an enthusiasm that appears both cool and authentic.
Walter Dahn, 'As Life Travels On' runs at Kestnergesellschaft, Hannover, until 28 April 2019.
Main image: Walter Dahn, Die schon wieder! (Them Again!) [detail], 2014, silk screen and gouache on textile, 80 × 135 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Sprüth Magers, Berlin / London / Los Angeles
First published in Issue 204