Arnulf Rainer

Baden Austria 1929, lives and works in Enzenkirchen

In his early years Rainer was very much influenced by surrealism, a movement that attracted artists and intellectuals particularly before World War ii. The ideas concerning the direct expression of dream images and depictions from the subconscious had considerable appeal for Rainer as well. But he soon found the spontaneity of the ‘écriture automatique’ to be too noncommittal and the whimsical figuration of surrealism to be too contrived. An encounter with the leading theoretician André Breton in 1951 proved to be a disappointment.

Rainer goes his own way from this point on, painting monochromes and his Übermalungen (‘paintings over’), done on existing works by himself and other artists. This painting on top of existing paintings is a destructive but also an emotional act, a desperate attempt to complement the image and to intensify it. For these works he generally uses the emotionally charged colors red and black. And often a few corners or edges of the original work are left uncovered, whereby the underlying image remains present behind the barrier of the overlying painting.

Rainer’s search for new realms of experience and for a notion of art that goes beyond the restrictive intellectualist context leads him to a great appreciation of the drawings and paintings of the mentally ill and to experiments with drugs and alcohol, which are meant to expand his own artistic capacities. He takes his work, as it were, to the brink of madness. During the sixties his experiments yield such works as the public Selbstbemalungen and Selbstdarstellungen (‘self paintings’ and ‘self representations’), carried out on the prim and proper streets of Vienna. And in 1968 the first Face Farces are produced: black-and-white photographs of himself, his face contorted into grimaces and his body forced into awkward poses, on which he thickens, ‘paints over’ and accentuates the twisted lines and contours with pen and crayon.

A great number of Rainer’s works have the form of a cross. They have an unmistakably religious tone. Although these are actually not ‘paintings over’ and the paint is applied in expressive and flowing colors directly onto the unprepared linen, the cross-shape is so distinguishing that the canvases nonetheless come across as ‘paintings over’: as violations, honorings and manipulations of the sacred form that the cross happens to be. It is possible that Rainer’s Catholic background emerges in this veiled, but no less extreme form of ‘painting over’, though Rainer himself refrains from specific commentary on this theme. He does regard the artist as a ‘believer’, whose creativity is essentially a quest for inner peace, though he can only create after having destroyed.

This pursuit of tranquility could be related to his fascination with death, which has become evident in various ways. In his early years, on different occasions, Rainer had already portrayed himself as being dead. But the most famous of these are probably the Toten-Übermalungen, which came about during the seventies: drawings and ‘paintings over’ on the (photographed) death masks of historical figures. A concern for death is also expressed in the monumental series Hiroshima from 1982, for which Rainer used the shocking Japanese photographs of devastation as a point of departure for expressive ‘paintings over’. With all of these works, however, one can say the same as with Rainer’s earliest surrealistic drawings, which he once compared to ‘the dark depths of a vast ocean’ – into which he descended and discovered sheer madness.