A generation apart, German artists Rainer Fetting (b.1949, Wilhelmshaven) and Christian Schoeler (b.1978, Hagen) both work in the rarified territory of painting expressionistic figurative paintings of male nudes.
RAINER FETTING, MARLON BRANDO MIT KATZE; CHRISTIAN SCHOELER, UNTITLED, 2009.
In the 80s, Fetting was a member of provocative artistic group Junge Wilde in Berlin, and today his broad brushstrokes still evidence the rapid, gestural quality he and his peers championed. Even in the context of Germany’s turbulent Post-War Avant-Garde, Fetting incensed critics with neo-expressionist paintings of male nudes. Fetting’s work offered a blunt, homophilic nudity that revivified as it de-sublimated a type of figuration inextricably linked to the Nazi heroic. By contrast, Schoeler’s work looks more directly at classical, 19th century male portraiture à la John Singer Sargeant. His work comes at a time when the male nude is fashionable, but still bracketed with the terms of “queer.” Of course, that the work represent a type of alternative perspective or picture a resilient marginalized sexual identity wouldn’t be the worst thing you could say about a painting.
Fetting and Schoeler met for the first time when they were both included in Le Souci de Soi, a group exhibition organized by Don’t Projects at the Galerie Hélène Lamarque in Paris The show is based on an essay of the same name published in Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality (1976). “Le Souci de Soi”, the final portion of the book, literally means “the care” or “the worry” of the self. Reference the Ancient Greek belief in the unity of body and mind, Foucault explores the link between psyche and sexuality. He insists on the importance to master one’s sexual, physical and mental self, to cherish a relationship with oneself. The show looks at the use artists can make of their work, as tool of self-analysis and a conscious process of self-exploration. In this conversation, Fetting and Schoeler demonstrate a certain resistance to the show’s constraints…
ALICE PFEIFFER: Both of your paintings represent male nudes in a figurative manner, outside contemporary trends. How did you come to this style, and does it represent a kind of a recursion to a previous tradition, as you see it?
FETTING: For decades, it was impossible for German artists to paint figuratively, especially nudes, because the style was still identified with Nazi aesthetics. It was a battle for ideology, a battle against kitsch. Painters had to show in a “contemporary” way. But I always loved Van Gogh, Cézanne, Picasso, and I felt there was a discontinuity of this sensitivity in painting.
CHRISTIAN SCHOELER: Rainer paved the way for painters to represent the male figure in Germany. Until him, it was still taboo. Of course, Hockney did the same thing to a certain extent, but he was based in Britain-which didn’t have the same history of the male nude as a state-sponsored heroic. But today, the difficulties are different; the work is immediately gets simplified as “gay art.”
PFEIFFER: What are the ramifications of a queer perspective? Do you think they apply specifically to your work, or how do you work out those themes in your work?
SCHOELER: The boys I paint aren’t my boyfriends, because my paintings aren’t about the boys or about sex. It’s about masculinity, growing up-it’s more about my growing up than about someone I want to sleep with. Of course, sexuality is one part of growing up.
FETTING: It’s about the painting, not the person. You paint people you come across. The content is queer or just plain sexuality only inasmuch as it’s been in excluded from either, primarily abstract, forms. When I paint Marlon Brando, it is simply that this image appealed to me, on a visual level. If you look at Gerhard Richter’s work, sex is an excluded aspect of humans. Sexuality doesn’t seem to exist for him.
PFEIFFER: But both of your paintings favor men as subjects.
FETTING: I don’t just paint men! It’s just that for some reason, women tend to be more shy when I paint them. The men I’ve painted were more at ease posing naked.
RAINER FETTING AND CHRISTIAN SCHOELER. PHOTO BY ALICE PFEIFFER
SCHOELER: I’ve tried to paint girls, but it immediately looks like kitsch. I’m not saying male painting can’t be kitsch, but it’s definitely less mainstream. In that sense, it’s harder to paint women.
FETTING: No, it’s just different.
SCHOELER: Yeah, it’s less sexy.
PFEIFFER: Do you see queerness as presenting a type of other-ness? Do you see yourself as representing a type of vision in your paintings?
SCHOELER: I don’t want sexual orientation to be an identity. So often, in art school, I felt that I had to apologize for being gay; the gay painter or the gay student. But I like the concept of queerness, philosophically: I like the idea of coming from another side.
FETTING: The aim isn’t to show queer-ness or otherness, or an entirely different perspective. I just painted men, I don’t know why, I just did it. I wonder why no one else did it. There was Salomé, but he comes from a different approach…
PFEIFFER: If straight figuration is rarified territory, have you encountered the same thing as traditional painters on canvas?
FETTING: People thought painting was dead with the monochrome. Today, there’s still a feeling that a painting has to be sullied or cynical, that the painting has to be upside-down or portray someone shitting. Painting isn’t taken at face value. For those painters, why bother to paint? Work in some other medium.
SCHOELER: I’m interested in beauty and elegance, and I love the glamour of painting. In Berlin there’s no room for that. Everything must be very conceptual. Why can’t we mention our interest in beauty without being ironic, why can’t you be a painter and make beautiful paintings? Painting can be easy and catchy and remain a good piece of work.
FETTING: Nothing has changed. There are fashions in art: some art is successful, other other art doesn’t cooperate with what the market needs.
SCHOELER: I was once told by a teacher that there are two types of painters, the flowers and the bees. The bees buzz around and follow the crowds, but the flowers just stay there and look pretty.
LE SOUCI DE SOI IS ON VIEW THROUGH JANUARY 9. GALERIE HELENE LAMARQUE IS LOCATED AT 37 RUE VANEAU, PARIS.