After the curtain rises on Vaslav Nijinsky's ballet L'Après-midi d'un faune (1912), a sleeping faun on a rocky ledge in the middle of a forest painted by artist Léon Bakst awakes to the sound of a Claude Debussy prelude.
The ballet, choreographed by Sergei Nijinsky with the help of his sister for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, caused a scandal when it was premièred, mainly because it culminates in an auto-erotic scene in which the lonely, horny faun gyrates on a veil lost by a bathing nymph, but also because of its radically flat and angular movement style, inspired by Egyptian and Grecian artefacts. One of Monika Baer's most recent paintings, Ohne Titel (Untitled, 2003), recalls the autumn-toned staging and dreamy sexually charged atmosphere of the ballet, although in Baer's composition it is a female nymph, rather than a faun, who takes centre stage.
Naked and sitting in profile in a rocky grotto penetrated by a broad shaft of white light, the figure peers with her classically quarter-turned head into the surrounding scenery, rendered by Baer in an evocative manner, like a backdrop. The protagonist in this tableau vivant seems calm and oblivious to everything outside her painted world. Figures in paintings, like people on stage, are part puppet and part projection. They are out-of-reach surfaces that nevertheless have the capacity to engage you in a way that the stranger next to you might not, except that in a painting the stilled performance is non-stop. If they could sing, it might be one of my friend's favourite song lyrics: 'It's only a paper moon/Sailing over a cardboard sea/But it wouldn't be make believe/If you believed in me' (Harold Arlen, Billy Rose and E. Y. 'Yip' Harburg, 1932).
Back in the mid-1990s Baer addressed the painted stage directly in a series of strange bright canvases based on images from the famous Salzburg Mozart Marionette Theatre, which at the time seemed peculiar and therefore memorable. An interest in stage effects or staged figures - as opposed to the usual candidates, film and photography - can also be seen in the works of other contemporary figurative painters, such as Lukas Duwenhögger and Katharina Wulff. The edge of Baer's painting can be seen as functioning more like a proscenium arch than a window or mirror frame. Beyond it the dictates of realism, spatial logic and the laws of physics can easily be dispensed with through painterly special effects. In the case of the aforementioned untitled painting, the foreground dissolves into pastel washes as if blasted by footlights. Meanwhile the coquettish nubile star of this one-woman show (perhaps a motionless dancer) has her back permanently to the audience. You will only ever be able to imagine her face. Around her neck and running down her spine is what might be interpreted as a thin dark strap. Curiously, the artist painted this ornament directly on to her youthful model's body during a preparatory photo session. A photocopy of one of the photographs made at this shooting appears as part of the collage Ohne Titel (Untitled, 2003), behind a decorative paper cut-out screen. The strap is a delicate intimate piece of trompe l'oeil akin to drawing lines down the calves of stockingless legs to ape seams, or pencilling in symmetrical arches on a plucked brow. Knowing this somehow enhances its erotic quality. But despite what could be described as a certain blonde-with-a-black-accessory sexiness, the figure seems too innocent, self-composed and self-sufficient to require either master or mistress à la O. She is, however, not completely alone. Hovering nearby are transparent spheres, some bearing flowers and others sprouting locks of wavy hair. Maybe they are thought bubbles (speech becomes unnecessary when you have no human companion) or magical presences or both.
Spheres feature prominently in a new series of large oil paintings that Baer exhibited in her most recent solo show. All three paintings - Jäger (Hunter), Jäger im Regen (Hunter in the Rain) and Huntress in a Snow Storm (all 2003) - are composed around an ominous central floating orb. The palettes of the pictures suggest a change of seasons from a bubblegum-pink late summer to a soggy brown-green autumn and, finally, a brilliant white winter blizzard respectively. Over the course of this series the mysterious featureless head- or planet-shaped entity loses its floppy hunter's hat and its composure and, most importantly, undergoes an Orlando-like male-to-female sexual metamorphosis. The latter is reflected by the titles and even more dramatically by increasingly unruly hair. In the first painting the hunter has a rather straggly, rough fringe, whereas in the snowstorm picture the huntress' wind-tossed mane is lavish and exuberant. This is all rather weird, of course, and doesn't even begin to account for many other details in the paintings, which include a skull, loads of flowers, suspended rocks and ribbon-like strips of road. Principal among Baer's other pictorial elements, though, is the hunters' and the huntress' pipe; an elegantly formed piece decorated like fine bone china. In the rain picture Baer has painted it multiple times, giving the impression the hunter is swivelling or spinning around and that we can see simultaneously many single frames of this fast movement. Bubbles and pipes might make you think of Jean-Siméon Chardin's bubble-blowing children, but Baer's paintings seem to have little in common with their stillness or vanitas theme.
Helpfully, another friend shoved the first volume of Peter Sloterdijk's philosophical work Sphären I (Spheres I, 1998) into my hands. Sloterdijk suggests that people are intrinsically sphere-building and sphere-dependent beings, and in doing so makes plenty of references to art. According to him, the fact that we found out that we are dots on a globe and unprotected by a series of heavenly spheres left us in a real state. On the positive side, the intimate spheres we create between each other - and the foam this generates en masse, with all of its shared permeable membranes - is the basis for socio-political optimism. 'Burst bubbles are sites of new hopes', writes Sloterdijk, and in Baer's paintings her ample use of painting mishaps such as splotches, stains, drips and erasure suggests a similar thing. Baer obviously isn't trying to illustrate Sloterdijk's ideas, although she told me she knew the book, and standing before her hunter paintings it's impossible to not relate to their central figure and get a kind of bubble-to-bubble tête-à-tête going.
But what to make of the hunter cum huntress? Baer said she had in mind, among other things, the title of Carson McCullers' novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940), but also a feeling of revulsion for the idea of the hunter - which incidentally is also expressed in Franz Schubert's song 'Der Jäger' (The Hunter, 1823), a setting of a poem by Wilhelm Müller, which admonishes a hunter to stay clear of the singer's tamed deer and get a shave. At the same time these paintings suggest quite unromantically that we are all hunters, as no other professional pursuit is on offer in the images. Hunters can be wanderers, however, and in these works and others, such as her map drawings (Map No.6: Land's End, 2003), Baer plays up to our visual Wanderlust by inviting us into the endless expanse of her fantastic scenic topographies.