BY Kito Nedo in EU Reviews , Reviews | 07 SEP 20
Featured in
Issue 214

Norbert Schwontkowski’s Colourful Sense of Humour

A touring retrospective at Kunsthalle Bremen and Gemeentemuseum Den Haag reveals the comic side of the artist’s work and its unique position in the history of German painting

BY Kito Nedo in EU Reviews , Reviews | 07 SEP 20

For Bremen-born painter Norbert Schwontkowski, cold was a driving force. As he observed in one of his undated notebooks, the point of departure for his art was ‘sensing the duality of the warmth of one’s own body and the coldness of outer space’. ‘This duality makes itself felt as pain,’ he added, ‘and the artist works on that.’ As if to shelter his viewers and himself from the cosmic chill, he made paintings with a peculiar, laconic humour in a range of warm, organic, earthy tones.

Schwontkowski’s current retrospective at Kunsthalle Bremen, ‘Some of my Secrets’, which was previously shown at Kunst Museum Bonn and will tour to Gemeentemuseum Den Haag later this year, underscores his unusually free approach to painting. He used a mixture of linseed oil, chalk, emulsion paint, iron chloride, water and old tea to create the delicate shades for his backgrounds. He poured paint onto canvases laid out on the floor before working the surface with a squeegee. He also incorporated photosensitive metal oxides, causing the image to continue developing in his absence: after a few days, for example, reds would turn a swampy green.

Norbert Schwontkowski, Alle wollen nach Hause (Everyone Wants to Go Home), 2010, oil on canvas, 2 × 1.8 m. Courtesy: The Estate of Norbert Schwontkowski and Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin; photograph: Matthias Kolb

Some of My Colors (2003) – composed of variously hued squares and circles – could be read as an homage to the early-20th-century geometric abstraction of artists such as Sophie Taeuber-Arp. But Schwontkowski breaks with the rigour of geometric abstraction by introducing a calculated insouciance into the picture. In other paintings, it seems like the sublime things are expressed through the banal. In Alle wollen nach Hause (Everyone Wants to Go Home, 2010), for instance, a huge, pastel-hued crystal towers above the bustling to-and-fro of cars and passers-by in the evening rush-hour, pairing the dramatic with the mundane.

The artist’s humour is also conveyed via the titles he gave his paintings, one example being the relatively late piece Bosch (Die Kälte des Weltalls) (Bosch, The Coldness of Outer Space, 2006). This medium-sized canvas shows a male figure, dressed only in shorts, making a night time visit to a large fridge. In the surrounding gloom, the appliance and its visitor seem to be floating in some great dark nirvana. During the economic boom of the 1950s and ’60s, fridges made by Bosch, with their trademark chrome handles, were luxurious consumer goods that symbolized West Germany’s emerging prosperity, and were usually the first home electrical appliances to be acquired by families as part of the modernization process. This nocturnal scene, which with its ambiguous title also alludes to the 15th-century Dutch master Hieronymus Bosch, is situated in an inbetween period: too late for the feeding frenzies of the postwar boom but prior to the current era of self-optimization, which is defined by a preoccupation with diet and a healthy lifestyle.

Norbert Schwontkowski, Saal 9 (Room 9), 2010, mixed media on canvas, 2 × 2 m. Courtesy: The Estate of Norbert Schwontkowski, Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin and  Kunsthalle Bremen; photograph: Jochen Littkemann

Schwontkowski jotted down his ideas for works in small, spiral-bound notebooks, which included minimalistic, sometimes very fine, graphically minimalist drawings. His estate includes more than 500 of these books, several dozen of which are displayed in vitrines at Kunsthalle Bremen, showcasing the artist’s working process and graphic mastery. Their succinctness is echoed in the majority of his paintings.

Norbert Schwontkowski, Strom (River), 2007, oil on canvas, 2 2 m. Courtesy: The Estate of Norbert Schwontkowski and Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin; photograph: Jochen Littkemann

One work in the exhibition constitutes an exception to this rule, however: the large-scale painting Unser kosmisches Leben (Our Cosmic Life), which dates from 2013, the year of the painter’s death aged 64. It depicts the entertainment district of a city at night, dominated by the numerous yellow, orange and red neon signs that have overrun the buildings to which they are affixed. The people on the street appear as small, silhouetted figures. The establishments have names like Zenith, Big Bang, Orion, Solaris and Luna, deftly integrating the work’s titular theme on a textual level. With typical wit and painterly skill, Schwontkowski connects a down-to-earth street scene with the cool sublimity of outer space.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Main image: Norbert Schwontkowski, Unser kosmisches Leben (Our Cosmic Life) (detail), 2013, oil on canvas, 2.4 × 2.0 m. Courtesy: The Estate of Norbert Schwontkowski and Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin; photograph: Jochen Littkemann 

Kito Nedo lives in Berlin where he works as contributing editor for frieze and as freelance journalist for several magazines and newspapers. In 2017, he won the ADKV-Art Cologne Award for Art Criticism.