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Arnulf Rainer - The Veiling

Category: Portrait 9. August 2011

Together with Maria Lassnig he is considered the originator of Informal Art in Austria. His works are on display in the key museums all over the world. An artist’s portrait of Arnulf Rainer. This podcast was realised with the kind support of UNIQUA ArtCercles.

He visited André Breton, the writer and theoretical head of surrealism in Paris – this was the moment he turned away from surrealism. Together with Maria Lassnig, he is considered the originator of informal painting in Austria, his works are on display in the main museums on the entire globe. The road to success has at times been stony, tells Rainer, whose first solo exhibition took place in the St. Stephan gallery of Monsignore Otto Mauer in 1955. The beginning of his overpaintings for instance were not based upon any philosophical concepts, but were simply a consequence of his lack of money to buy new canvasses. Instead, the artist resorted to painted canvasses - pictures from the flea market. They were cheaper to buy.

The artist has never been indifferent to the canvas he used. This is why, from the outset, he used to communicate with the original works he overpainted – no matter if it was a painting from the flea market, the work of a colleague, facsimiles of famous predecessors or photographs of himself. In a way, says the artist, he got married to the underlying work in this symbiotic task, and always showing respect for it. A sensitivity which was painfully absent, felt the artist and professor at the academy of fine arts in Vienna, when an unknown person broke into his office in a night time burglary, destroying important paintings there. As a response to this incident and due to the lack of support by the academy regarding the investigation, he decided to retire in 1995. He has not entered the academy ever since.

The disrespect was offending. The celebrated overpaintings of his own photographic portraits, the “Face Farces” and “Body Poses” he started in the late fifties, nevertheless demonstrate that he is able to convey esprit and irony. This examination of himself has its origin in the fact that his facial expression takes on a life of its own, when he is immersed in his work – as can be observed on musicians at times. He noticed this one day and took the decision to experiment with his own physical expressivity. On a personal level, the overpainting of his own image on photographs led him to be more casual about himself; artistically he aimed to accentuate essential traits and dynamics of a picture with a few strokes.

His artistic approach is absorbed, intuitive, and quick. Usually the artist works on several pictures simultaneously. As he says, the line where painting ceases to strengthen and gets weaker itself is a very thin one, and by working only for brief periods at a time on the pictures, he avoids overstepping this line.

There have been phases where his overpaintings were more extensive, exposing only very few distinctive areas of the underlying surface. The accentuations he carries out are not aimed at unambiguous clarity, but rather at opening up the space of codifications. Art has nothing to explain, nor is it an enigma to be solved – as such it would lose its charm at once. Art has to stimulate and keep open, says Rainer, and as Karl Kraus put it: An artist is someone who can make a riddle out of an answer. (wh/ca)

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