23 Aug – 01 Oct 2022
Condensed energy (Dark matter)
by Erik Steffensen
The painter Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) was forty years old when he chose to settle down in his hometown of Aix-en-Provence. From here, he painted the landscapes with the Mont Saint Victoire which, since his death, have been considered the birth of modernism. The mountain, basked in shifting light, is dissolved by brushstrokes so the picture appears almost abstract. Cézanne painted his motif again and again, sometimes it resulted in an Impressionist effect, other times a Cubist one – though this was before any of these terms existed. Not far from Cézanne’s studio there is a clear view of the mountain and here the works came to life. Cézanne chose to turn distant landscapes into motifs, when he wasn’t focusing on arrangements of apples, self-portraits or images of figures. He didn’t paint the nature right outside the doorstep in his garden. Instead, he observed what was close by in his studio and the distant mountain which created a synthesis in his art, a meditation of almost spiritual character.
The painter Helmut Federle (1944-) works with the idiom of abstract pictures. In other words, the painting is a synthesis of possibilities that pictorially, as well as in terms of motif, can be associated with Cubist, Expressionist and other stylistic features, but it also relates to totally non-figurative worlds. As such, his goal is a spiritually oriented painting inspired by Eastern as well as Western art and scopes of thinking. His method can resemble Cézanne’s. Helmut Federle, too, repeats his “motifs”. Where the French artist painted his mountain more than thirty times from more or less identical viewpoints, Helmut Federle has painted his series Basics on Composition more than twice as many times through the years. With Helmut Federle a meditation is also in question. The small painting has an ‘H’ lying down as its “motif”. As with ‘H’, his initial ‘F’ is often recurring in the Swiss-born artist’s work. In a sense, Helmut Federle’s initials have become a pictorial shape and a “place” through this gesture. The initials maintain the painting in front of us – a sign which is subject to variations in terms of emotions, colours and different brushes and spatulas, just as one paints a mountain during different hours of the day, in different lights. The initials don’t seem like branding that is supposed to direct the viewer to some kind of universe, rather they seem to be something in themselves. An abstract image holding on to something that is purely itself: a painting.
Helmut Federle moved from Basel to New York in 1979. In the image of a lying H (Liegendes H) made in that same year, he combined identity and place so that the composition appeared as a signature piece. The series of 30 drawings from this time, Black Series II, 1980, bear witness to an artist who works analytically and emotionally with his material. What is the meaning of painting? What does it mean to dedicate your life to painting? To time and again investigate the same scope of meaning, no matter if the world seems uninterested or, indeed, the contrary? Helmut Federle has lived and worked in Vienna for several years but his art seems unaffected by the art life and environment that surrounds him. Rather, he remained an abstract painter whose practice is situated in the intersection between Minimalism and icon painting and in traditions centred around Modernism and the spiritual. Shapes are solid and fluid, and the emotional aspects don’t seem excluded from the equation. Even though the secreted, rigorous, prosaic seem to be his preferred forms of expression, zen-like explosions of dissolved colour occur on the canvas as in the 2022 works Territorial Displacement (For Cormac Mc Carthy / The Road) and Informal Multitudes „Ich bin in diese Welt geworfen“ M.H. Helmut Federle uses a sparse pallet of oil and acrylic paint. Here too, meaning is condensed. Drawings can be produced with ballpoint pen and pencil. Impecunious materials seem to be the preference, but their expression appears all the more powerful. Materials, effects and impacts are not squandered here. This is perhaps why Helmut Federle is capable of both unfolding his work in the very intimate universe of drawing and in oil painting and public decorations of epic magnitude. For example, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art north of Copenhagen, holds a work in their collection, Resurrection, that measures 330 x 500 cm.
Helmut Federle splits his time between his studio near Westbahnhof in Vienna and his summer residence Casa F in Tuscany – when he is not traveling, primarily in Japan in recent years. If the artist’s words turn out to be true, he has only once produced a drawing in his Italian domicile, though space is not an issue. Helmut Federle has turned the place into a self-imposed exile from art, and yet he has arranged himself between collections of beautiful and powerful objects which, together with the park-like garden, considerately draws up the portrait of an aesthete beyond compare. A little zen garden is placed at the centre of the house. In the same way, his studio in Vienna bears witness to an artist who arranges himself and lives amongst his life choices. The two main spaces of the studio are comprised of a common room, meant for contemplation of art objects, reading and other activities, while an equally large space is devoted to painting and to his own works. Helmut Federle’s painting box doesn’t take up much space, merely a few tubes of paint in his few preferred colours. Just as in the garden in Italy, the painting is subject to a vegetative process. Things take time, the painting slowly emerges from the undisturbed order of the studio just as plants do, or like pebbles and gravel that are raked in wavy patterns. Crafts and tools and the eye of the beholder, the emotional mind creating the change – Helmut Federle’s painting method can be compared to that of Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916). This Danish painter was also vegetative and hesitant – the painting not letting the viewer inside before he or she is ready to open oneself towards the undiscernible notes and their poetic presence. Dust Motes Dancing in Sunbeams, 1900, encapsulates Hammershøi’s low-voiced enigmatic-ness, just as when Federle paints Wild Geese by a Marshy River (2008) with a poetic waft of colour on the canvas. Helmut Federle often directly celebrates his role models and inspirations, drawing their presence through the paintings’ titles. Fittingly, in 2009, Federle painted an homage in the piece The Danish Prince; Vilhelm Hammershøi. Among other pioneers, he often refers to literary works and writers as for instance in his 2022 piece, Territorial Displacement, for Cormac McCarthy, The Road. Often, the painter is preoccupied with the dark sides of society and history in that particular spot where the tragedies of existence gain some weight and volume, no matter if it’s in the realm of reality or fiction. As such, the painting can be perceived as a place outside the world, an unknown place to which we can draw closer. Something we can try to comprehend, just as Paul Cézanne who painted his mountain, or Vilhelm Hammershøi who painted his living room. Those two positions, the far and the near, are the same as those which subtly characterise Helmut Federle’s painting.
Translated by Nanna Friis.