Gisela Happe

The »Erfurt Cycle« -Text by Christiane Vielhaber

‘Art is the expression of the profoundest thoughts in the simplest way.’ Albert Einstein

Gisela Happe’s ERFURT CYCLE, a contemplation.

Art never comes about without a premise; Images are always generated out of images, even if they be no more than remembered ones associated in some way with one’s own life, of pictures seen, from the stock of art history, for example, such as we have seen so often in reproduction that they have become imprinted indelibly in our collective memory. That will be especially true of images dealing with people. Malevich’s black square may have entered art history as a radical milestone and as an intellectual challenge. But the forlornness of the lone monk on the shore, painted by Caspar David Friedrich, or the mute existential screaming of the human creature abandoned to Francis Bacon’s void-space-cages, to name only two telling instances, are pictures we carry within and with us life-long, and which are automatically elicited every time we find ourselves facing similar situations. That will be no less true of artists’ experience. For, even if they take to utterly different stylistic devices in order to express comparable inner states, then at least in the viewer, these ‘pre-conceptions’, to adopt the term in a pictorial sense, automatically intervene.

There are premises that artists will create for themselves, however; which come to hand – or beg the using. They may consist of found material whose tactile appeal or recalcitrance makes it the point of departure for a composition, or whose conspicuous traces of use point both directly and metaphorically to whatever marks life has bequeathed us on our way as individuals. Sometimes it may be only a found form that then serves as a framework to constitute pictorial space by, as an element in space or as a sign or symbol of something. All this is true of the pictorial inventions of Gisela Happe; and, memorably, the diaphanous bands or strips of paper she applies suddenly stagger the pictorial space, lending the creatures of whom this artist’s pictures ultimately tell a footing on a plane or planes – or, depending on the eye of the beholder, incarcerating them. These strips can entangle her figures in some intolerably intricate, claustrophobic situations or even isolate them utterly in what is to all intents a permanently open, unbounded frame of pictorial action. And it cannot be denied that an action is unfolding there.

Before I turn to the what of this action and its pictorial location, I propose to cast a glance at how it comes about. At the risk of labouring an already worn Picasso quote, it makes a point, especially in relation to Gisela Happe’s unspoken pictorial narratives. ‘I do not seek, I find’, the boundlessly self-assured Picasso is reported to have said of himself once. Perhaps I should vary that in relation to Happe: she does not go seeking at the do-it-yourself store, but, in the rubble of the building-site, simply discovers. Artistically unpretentious but with a self-assured flair for undermining the notion of genius, she leaves no doubt that out of these discoveries, compositions are subsequently found. For, with regard to the Erfurter Zyklus in particular, she proves (I beg to be forgiven for the expression) a truffling pig of technique. That should be understood in two ways. For one, it concerns the handicraft of the roof tilers and structural driers who work with shapeable sheet lead, bitumen roof sheeting and pitch paints; secondly, there is the craft of a maker of art who avails herself of just these media to create pictorial realities of an unprecedented kind. And which don’t come easily, I might add, either for themselves or for us. For it is worth remembering that this artist’s work has manifested its more readily accessible images before now, and expansive compositions that do not deny their roots in the German New Fauve painting and figuration of the 1980s. There, too, the issue was the age-old artistic one of figure and space and the compositions could include both, violently gesticulating bodies and others self-contained or hermetically secluded; but the palette and the underlying mood of those works, in line with the Zeitgeist then and the artist’s self-image, were essentially different.

It would be misleading to claim that the Erfurter Zyklus bears no trace of all this, for these pictures, taken as a specific series out of the artist’s prior and subsequent work, of course come in turn out of other pictures. –

The term ‘cycle’ does not refer exclusively to periodic sequences, systems or regularly recurring events. It is also applied to a semantically cohesive and self-contained succession of works. The latter I find particularly significant here. Her declaring her set as concluded marks Gisela Happe’s having come to terms with an evidently incisive chapter in her life. She has not put the experience into words; rather, she has found images of powerful eloquence and, in the light of Einstein’s dictum, great simplicity for it. They tell of the encounters the artist has had the good fortune, or privilege, or has had no choice but to experience. The school at which this project was realised is named after the lane where it is situated – Erfurter Weg. It is a school for special educational needs. Not that the series of works on paper is a direct result of the often fraught work with the pupils; it is a product of the subsequent artistic confrontation with the both physically taxing and psychologically emotive experience. I mention this only as an answer to the no doubt justified question as to the title of this series of works. This is far from advocating my response as a guide as to how we as viewers should read them. The body language of the sexless beings in the pictorial spaces allocated them is reduced in too emblematic a fashion to universal human conditions, to mental and physical states of being, to allow any inference of that kind.

Universal, but not identical: these images will elicit identification of different kinds in different viewers, one finding a hopelessly oppressive scene, another, in the same image, a token of hope; and where an image might, in one, provoke mirth at the sight of a head-shaking fidget, another will perceive a desperate struggle being fought in a Catch-22 situation. The reason for the differences being the familiar one that we do not see things as they are, but only ever as we are; and, depending on the respective scope (or not) of experience, some may be minded of the dictum that we can fall so far that we have the delusion of flying, and others of the insight of the baroque poet and physician, Johann Scheffler, he who would later turn to theology under the name of Angelus Silesius (Silesian Angel) – ‘The world does not hold you; you yourself are the world [...]’.


As for theology, in no few pieces in this series I see distinct links to Christian iconography. There is the motif of the entombment; and the artist herself has titled one picture Lagerung (prosaically, ‘storage’; a laying-down, a repositing – trans.), albeit that this body would seem still very much alive, softly cushioned in a dark bed formed out of torn roofing felt. Another figure in another work strikes me as far more moribund – the shins doubled back almost like an animal’s, the whole figure burdened nigh-excruciatingly by the crushing weight of the gravestone upon it. The slab is a sheet of zinc whose speckled patina of wear and tear recalls an abstract expressionist painting in earth colours. That relieves the plate a little of its weight; and the muscularity suggested by the scant lines simultaneously admits hope that this body, for all its burden, is still capable of breaking free of its tomb. In passing, the artist’s experience of life and her sense of humour both tell in her titling the image of a body resting upon a comparably massive zinc plate, Heisser Stein – Hot Stone. Who could avoid thinking sooner or later of those familial dining rituals that have supplanted the classical fondue, or of Turkish bathing rituals at a hamam. And isn’t there the idiom for someone’s being interrogated (in German usage – trans.) or reprimanded, that they are being given a grilling? It is that openness, the play with images and inner pictures, and above all, Happe’s consummate handling of the paltry materials, become beautiful in her art, that make for the quality of this series of works. That also includes the evocation of feelings and sensations all the way to a nigh tactile visual experience. – Passing over the sandpaper texture of some surfaces the eye may be abraded, may slip and slide off the viscous gleam of sheets of bitumen or be caught in the holes of the buckled strips of lead.

There are pictures the viewer can identify with physically, be it for like anxieties in one’s own experience or the common joys of being. For it is surely as valid, at the sight of figures curiously cocooning themselves off from their environment or curled up tight, to see sumersaults of sheer joy as it is to think of creatures seeking shelter or of repentant gestures of humility.

One specific set of pictures stands out in particular in having unmistakeably religious connotations, the focus now also being less on empathy than compassion. These are pietàs, and bear that title. The Italian term translates as a ‘pious sympathy’ - piety and pity. Mostly it is applied to medieval sculptural representations of the Virgin with the Dead Christ, which were also known as Vesperbilder (German, C14; the type spread from Germany to Italy – Trans.), in other words, images on the events of the evening after the Deposition from the Cross. Vespers also referred to the evening service with its devotions. Over the centuries, two kinds of pietà evolved. In the first, Christ’s body, borne by his Mother, is in a sitting position; later, He is shown supine as she laments Him. There are also depictions in which the Son is about to slip off his Mother’s lap, or, having done so, lies at her feet, only His head still resting in her hands, upon her lap.

Gisela Happe offers us a highly idiosyncratic interpretation of the theme, it is utterly her own. She speaks of a Pietà even where one of the two defining figures is absent. We find ourselves once again before pictures that emerge out of pictures, and that ‘expression of the profoundest thoughts in the simplest way’, albeit as readily of the profoundest fellow feeling. For even when Happe depicts the lifeless body of Christ, lain precariously only on two leaden supports, or less, nigh-afloat unsupported in space, what comes to mind immediately is the moment after the Deposition from the Cross. There is a wonderful symbolic power in these works in the way the artist plays with material and the non-material, and with the physical body and disembodiment. On occasion I cannot avoid seeing in the gentle agitation of the line and the dematerialising vision of the body, a vicinity to certain drawings of Joseph Beuys’s, for all the very different aesthetics of their respective artistic approaches. In another pietà we see a Virgin ‘embodied’ only by three small dabs of the brush as ‘Queen of Heaven’, enthroned and pale in the distant picture ground behind the opaque screen of a strip of parchment paper; while her dead Son on her lap lies in the ‘real’ picture plane in front of it all. And elsewhere the artist abstractifies the Mother’s lap into an oval opening that can simultaneously be read as a reference to the open grave, or possibly to the womb that one bore Him?

The wealth of interpretations and associations invoked by these Vesperbilder prompt the thought that Gisela Happe’s adding that set of pictures to her Erfurter Zyklus was not arbitrary – for both treat of forms of compassion; and throughout all these pictures there is a resonance of the Silesian Angel’s imperative, ‘Become essential, Man.

Dr. Christiane Vielhaber, December 2015