Peter Henryk Blum is one of the most exciting German figurative artists of his generation. Using the Old Masters techniques of layer and glaze painting, his scenes are muted, selective with colour, like silent film reels and tinted sepia prints. Players are staged in ironically self-conscious poses where the melancholia of sad harlequins and heavily made up women is reminiscent of physical theatre. Light hearted or darkly surreal, the works are unsettling, stirring up feelings of being at odds with things- even as everything else is odd.
Gentle diffusions of light are met by the devilishly sharp details of Blum’s technical brilliance. The unreality of the real world with its desires, alienation, loneliness and illusion is presented in Blum’s deeply lyrical style. Communicating emotion without words steers us away from the rational subjective self into the strength of the collective. The characters are heartbreakingly earnest in their wordless attempts to communicate with us in pantomimic performances. These mimes verge on Theatre of the Absurd, much like the Orator’s indecipherable speaker in Ionesco’s play The Chairs.
A clownish figure recurs in Blum’s latest works, chalk faced with penciled in eyebrows and shaven head. Masked by a rubbery red nose on elastic and black-rimmed eyes, he is playing a part. His gestural quality is reminiscent of Brechtian theories, the hunch of his posture and reach of his hands expressive as any spoken word. He could be playing Baal who ‘started out as a cabaret performer and poet. Then a merry-go-round owner, woodcutter, millionairess’ lover, jailbird and pimp’. In You Again Blum shows us behind the foolish disguise, as the actor studies his own furrowed brow with great concentration. The lights fuzz and blur around him, merging their halos as though the glass bulbs melt into each other. The man is confronted by himself under the greasepaint- the face he was born with turns up again like a bad penny.
As meditations on what it is to be human, Blum’s work might be the embodiment of Goethe’s school of thought- that Truth is found by experiencing the ‘Sturm und Drang’ (Storm and Stress) of life. Taking up this Faustian view against reason, the artist paints his subjects with compassion, not flattery. As though they have created each other, the trust between Blum and the models is based on empathy; they are speaking the same language. He uncovers their humanity by placing them in peculiar poses, allowing their emotional states to be read by our own feelings. The mask of words is eliminated by the visual and so re-connection between souls is achieved.
With this in mind it feels all the more painful that Blum should have had to wilfully destroy one of these relationships. In 2004 the work Praline was torched in front of the Press and Public after the model threatened to sue Blum for publishing a painting of her. Horrified at being asked to censor himself and explain away his work, the artist said he would rather they set fire to it- and surprisingly found himself taken up on the suggestion.
Reminiscent of Faust and the devil conversing over a ‘miserable fire’ about the state of the world, Blum brought the picture to the pyre, where the woman and her lawyer set it alight. Smoke curled up through the layers, blackening until the canvas burst and was eventually consumed. After the public and the press left, Blum started to collect the cinders of his picture which he now keeps in an urn. The ashes often feature at his exhibitions, a reminder of how the loss of ‘heart to heart’ can only result in tragedy.
The meta-theatricality of Blum’s work confronts us with the contradictions of humanity. Wearing dark glasses, we long to hide away but to also be adored, to ‘know fully, even as we are fully known’. To reach wholeness, we must look through the masks and costumes, remaining open-hearted with each other. Blum’s staging of each character remains strange because it is clear they are not alone in their secret rituals. Struck dumb, there is someone watching in the wings- and that person turns out to be you.