BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 09 SEP 98
Featured in
Issue 42

Jochen Klein

BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 09 SEP 98

These are without doubt enchanted paintings and have reawakened more than just my eyes to the potential for a rather tragically cast genre: the melancholy figure captured within a landscape of pure solace. They make me first wonder about the status of landscape. Standing before Jochen Klein's pictures the provincial reaction is to think back to Antoine Watteau and the wondrous silvery tapestry scenes of L'Embarquement pour Cythère, or even to Le Moulinet devant la charmille by Watteau's follower Nicolas Lancret. But this is short-sighted. These are not pictures of the fête galante genre - they are more Northern in their feeling. It is true they are about sensation, but they are even more a contemporary meditation on the transcendent landscape. They are also the pictures of someone who worked 'directly', and so, before taking this discussion toward the realm of Caspar David Friedrich it is useful to visit the sympathies of John Constable. In 1802 Constable, who was then 26, nearly the age of Klein who died at 30, wrote to his friend Dunthorne that he would 'endeavour to get a pure and unaffected manner of representing the scenes that may employ me'. The same applies to Jochen Klein.

Klein's own pure and unaffected manner surfaces with none of the wry scepticism of the landscape tradition that David Deutsch and others evolved a decade ago. To think of his work in relation to Deutsch and that crowd is to re-kindle the old debate between landscape and history painting. By academics, landscape was understood as subordinate to history painting because it was unqualified to depict ennobling events. Klein was beyond that. He traced the surface of visual incident and negotiated the tricky difference between what it means to be unaffected before the canvas and the process of selection and representation before his subject. These pictures have a taste for what it means to be a 'natural painter' circa 1998. And for this reason his work is captivating; not at all because he rivals Constable or Friedrich. He certainly does not. Klein's paintings magnify ponderous ideas but of a very different order.

Whatever else they are, these are Romantic paintings. When in 1802 Philipp Otto Runge said '... everything is becoming more airy and light than before... everything gravitates towards landscape' he could have been talking about Klein's paintings. Klein sets aside the oldest tradition of the classical landscape where nature exists subordinate to humankind, merely reflecting our desires, and actions upon the world. For his paintings Klein commissioned Kant's ideas found in Critiques, that tell us how awareness forms experience and that the ultimate representation of the 'thing-in-itself' is an illusion.

In Ohne Titel (Untitled, 1997), an ethereal light undulates through a thick tree canopy, glowing around an adolescent boy in blue pants and jacket, standing within a small glade. An abundant atmosphere of light leaves him secluded and lonesome and uncommonly desirous. He appears on the brink of transmogrification. Everything is quite intangible, like glimpsing an apparition but with tragic undertones. Klein's pictures give new worth to 'sentiment' without being sentimental. And he must have keenly appreciated the limits of what paintings can portray. For me his pictures invoke the words of William Hazlitt who wrote nearly two centuries ago about the romantic tradition of landscape: 'Our feelings, carried out of themselves, lose their grossness and their husk, are rarefied, expanded, melt into softness and brighten into beauty... We drink the air before us, and borrow a more refined existence from objects that hover on the brink of nothingness'.

With the boy in the glade, ambiguity reigns: could this be the moment where the voyeur is unmasked, or a private, twinkling daydream? And yet for all this instrumental subtlety the painting technique is purely vernacular, nearer illustration than anything else, filled with slurs of washes and dapples and facile scumbling and sprits of paint. Klein's gift was to liberate two worlds that seem especially orphaned in the art world: the stale history of romantic landscape painting and a pedestrian, textbook technique of cliché in order to resuscitate and then re-frame the drama of spiritual allusion and the moods of the landscape. Klein invested deeply in the potential for painting to express human emotion in the first person, fluttering on Hazlitt's brink of nothingness, but he also seems to share its limitations with us. His Romantic pockets were very deep but he seemed hardly nostalgic for an earlier and simpler life for painting. No, it is another thing entirely. I recall what Johann Dahl once said about Friedrich because it applies here so well: 'Friedrich saw in a particularly tragic way... the limits of what can be represented in painting'.

Ronald Jones is on the faculty of the Royal College of Art, London, and a regular contributor to this magazine.