BETWEEN ABSTRACTION AND REALITY (Regina Böker)
Reflections on the art of Stefan Bräuniger
When you look at Stefan Bräuniger’s paintings, naturally what first draws you to them is the fruit and flowers they depict. They have an ethereal quality yet at the same time they are such exact, in-your-face reproductions of nature as to seem literally ‘alive’. Gazing at them, you are captivated by the beauty ofa rose, the delicate charm ofa sweet pea, the perfect roundness of a blackcurrant – and you are almost overcome with awe äs you stand before these marvels of nature.
Only when you think a little harder about how the paintings work do you realise there is more to them than the subjects themselves. Much more than the fruits and flowers it is the choice of what is placed within the frame, the choice of perspective, the combination of colours – i.e. the elements of their composition – that give tension and feeling to the works. Bräuniger’s stll lifes testify to hisfine sense of proportion and structure but beyond all their formal qualities they show he is a painter with real passion. The themes he chooses do not really indicate that he is a fanatic for flowers and fruit but that he is an artist who hasfound the ideal subjects for displaying his genius.
The chief characteristic of the square, the formal that Bräuniger often uses for his pictures, is its equilibrium, and that makes it the natural foundation for his creativity. With great virtuosity he tums this basic shape into something with its own special dynamism, conjuring it into being with left and right-sloping diagonals, receding formations, the employment ofopposing colours, the creation of patterns and the clever use of shape and line.
Ifyou examine Citron V (p. 7), for example, you can see all these elements in play.
The three separate fields of the background correspond to those of the three lemons in the foreground and the way the lemons are arranged, each closer (orfurther away) than the next, gives an Impression of depth and volume. Yet at the same time, seen äs just two-dimensional shapes the lemons form a rough diagonal that is opposed by the diagonal of leaves running from bottom left to top right. The triangular-shaped area of background colour is matched by the similarly-shaped areaformed by the leaves near the top edge of the frame, äs is the large leafin the bottom corner by the shape on the upper right. In juxtaposition with the concave triangle on the left hand edge ofthe painting, the leafin the top left corner forms a convex triangle whose shape is echoed by a stem on the lower right. Meanwhile panicles, stalks and shadows weave a mesh oflines that contrasts with the spherical forms of the lemons. The way these corresponding, contrasting and balancing elements are handled for instance, the way the bottom right triangle contains the heavy shape of the front lemon while the triangle on the upper left contains the counter balancing mass ofthe bright green leaves — is quite masterly. Even the shamfer ofthe lemon at the right-hand edge play s a part in this composition. It prevents the right ofthe picturefrom becoming too heavy and thus enhances the construction of the painting äs a whole, pointing up its almost abstract qualities. Whichever way your eye tums there is tension and movement between the dijferent lines, shapes, weights and volumes.
The manner in which colour is used helps to emphasise these geometric elements of the painting. The dominant hue is the yellow ofthe lemons whose three-dimensional quality is further brought out by white-ish highlights. The warm, earthy-brown background contains a mixture of yellow, red and blue
that chimes with the colours ofthe leaves, stems and fruit but it also has a reddish finge that is complementary to green and therefore makes the lemons and the leaves stand out more boldly. Another sign of the refinement of the painting technique are the fine streaks of colour, tending towards red, on the outer rim of the lemons, leaves and stalks and edging the shadedparts ofthe leaves.
The distinctive feature of Stefan Bräuniger’s pictures lies in the fact that they explore all these aspects of the painter’s art yet remain true-to-life representations. They are, so to speak, a synthesis of pure painting and straight reproduction. Every pore of the lemon is depicted with painstaking care, its waxiness conveyed to the life, the radiant smoothness of the leaves and the natural thrust of tough little stalks captured so so precisely. But this too, when it comes down to it, is seen by the artist äs essentially pari of the creative process.
What predominates here is the fascination of an artist with the painter’s ‘craft’, with the act of painting äs something quite detachedfrom the thing that is being painted. Bräuniger is loving in the way he lays on the coloured ground of his pictures so that later they will have that typical ‘glow’. After that, without stopping to think about any deeper connotations, he concentrates on creating a good match with his working photograph of the chosen subject, using all his painting skills to produce a realistic image that corresponds to the object itself. The different shades ofpaint are then mixed with the utmost care and applied to the canvas in succession, working outwardsfrom one corner oftheframe. The delicacy of the sweet pea ‘s leaves, the glossiness of the blackcurrants, the silken sheen ofthe olives, the radientfullness ofthe cherries or the lacy softness of the fragrant rose – ever since the 17th Century the painters of still-lifes have striven to capture the inherent sensuality of objects using all the arts at their command.
Despite all its obvious painterly qualities, Stefan Bräuniger’s work is inconceivable without photo-graphy. Quite literally, his art is the sum of his working methods. As already mentioned, photo-graphs serve äs the basis for his paintings. In his own home, and äs far us possible under identical lighting conditions, he takes photographs of whateverfruits andflowers come to hand, though he judges only about ten percent of the shots to be adequate for his purposes. With the aid of an adjustable frame he selects the area of the colour print that he wants to convert into paint, then it is projected onto the canvas and he sketches it in.
But it is not so much the mechanics of photography that are the deciding influence on Bräuniger’s art. It is more the photographic way ofseeing things. From the very beginnings of photography, painting and photography have influenced each other. In this context the photorealists have revealed just how abstract the medium is. From their standpoint, photography is essentially an assemblage of abstract planes, lines and dots that only the human eye can resolve into a recognisable image. Even if Bräuniger does not call himself a photorealist, because labels of this sort appear meaningless to him, he still borrows and applies their discoveries. He does not arrange his subjects artificially, nor does he show them in their entirity. The camera lens explores them for him bit by bit, one chosen section after another. It breaks the material world up into fragments, zooms right up dose – a way oflooking at things that is not concerned with the object itself but which in picking out a single leaf, for example, divides the world up into rectangles in which only a fraction ofthe object can be seen. The great value of Bräuniger’s work is that within the limits of this space he is able to capture the essence of the object. Seemingly without effort, his paintings function not only as exact reproductions of nature but also as these carefully constructed rectangular abstracts.
Unlike the painters of the past, Stefan Bräuniger is not forever striving to infuse his subjects with metaphoric or symbolic meaning. Nevertheless you cannot help reacting emotionally when you look at them. Hisfruits andflowers seem to want to say no more and no less than: “l am what I am”, a rose, a lemon or a branch ofolives. But sadly their wish is impossible to fulfil. The manner in which they are portrayed makes it abundantly clear that they are only the Image of a rose, lemon or olive, not the thing itself. Perhaps this is the origin of their profound melancholy and strong poeticism. These may be put down to the artist ‘s unforgiving gaze that does not miss a single detail, but even more to the fact that they are isolated fragments – with a living presence, yes, but lacking any surrounding context. The more clearly the image declares: “I am a picture” of a rose, a lemon or an olive branch, the more the transience of the real rose, lemon or olive becomes apparent. Their essence is preserved but their reality is gone and no longer tangible. In this sense, Stefan Bräuniger’s penchant for things of nature can be seen äs an attempt to paint life back into them and thus to inactivate their transience – yet in doing so, to activate and make tangible precisely the contradictions that this involves. An attempt in which he succeeds quite brilliantly.
An assault on reality? (Eva-Maria Schumann-Bacia)
The Flower Paintings of Stefan Bräuniger
I. Why do human beings love flowers?… whether a single blossom or a whole mass of blossoms combining as one?
Because there is something in our make-up that they cause to resonate! For instance, our sense of grace and beauty. Because they intoxicate us with their richness of colour, their perfection of form and the headiness of their perfume. And because there is a special symbolism through which they speak to us -and win our hearts.
Clearly, flowers are the embodiment of something quite elemental.
The encyclopedia teils us that “from time immemorial flowers have played an important role in every civilisation; äs omament, in religious festivals and in daily life; in both gesture and metaphor.” From the burial chambers of the pharaohs to the temples of the Azteks, flowers were the chosen adornment. They were lauded in the writings ofancient Greece; in imperial Rome groves of olives and plantations of wheat were supplanted by fields of roses; and in modern times vases of flowers have been used to brighten up people’s homes since the mid-15th Century. Blossoms are the plant’s way of signalling the Start and continuance ofits reproductive period, the short phase when its pollen and seeds ripen in the anther, the Stigma are receptive and the pollinating dust is ready for release. Nature dresses not to kill but to bear fruit and bring forth life. So flowers are the supreme expression of life itself. They radiale a message that fills human beings with hope. And perhaps part of their secret is association, because they always remind us of summer, of blue skies and above all ofsunshine? Where there are flowers there is always sunlight and optimism. Yes, people really do love flowers. They give us that something extra in our daily lives, that plus of pleasure, that little bit of luxury, that icing on the cake. Quite simply, they warm our hearts. And love itself is symbolised by a rose…
II. Why does a person paintflowers? A rose, a sweet pea, a pansy, the gold-and-bronze variety of echinacea… why does he manifest them in an Image whose line and shape arefresh and new but whose form is nevertheless unmistakeable? Why does he pluck them from the ranks of their species and enlarge them into portraits with a personality of their own? And why, in what we see, is the perfection of their form captured with such extreme attention to detail and likeness to nature? Stefan Bräuniger plays with the emotions yet at the same time everything remains coolly controlled and structured.
The flower paintings he does look like photographs. Or rather, like blown-up sections of a photograph, similar to the softening-up ones we encounter in glossy sales brochures. There is no trace of any brushstrokes or other sign of the artist’s hand – in fact, isn ‘t the hand here that ofa designer rather than that ofa painter?
This impression is one that Stefan Bräuniger makes deliberate use of. His Intention is to create an air of uncertainty, something that appears at the same time both open and mysterious.
We are presented with a whole gamut ofsignals and demands on our senses. Particularly ifwe visit Stefan Bräuniger’s homepage on the internet and see all his true-to-life flower paintings flicker across the screen of the PC, looking incredibly real – exactly like colour photos! Originally a still life in oils, each flower Image on the screen also functions äs a sample r, a button that you can dick on. Then ifyou select one ofthe “noise’options – “romantic noise”, “break beat”, “space ambient”, “jazzy drive” – the music will emphasise a particular mood and you begin to wonder, especially in relation to this internet art, what exactly this is all doing to yourself. How many things inside us are being clicked on, and what moods are we being switched into? The flowers become so realistic äs to be almost tangible and the accentuation ofdetail has an almost surreal effect. Is this a case of reality being transcended? Perhaps there is also an element ofirony in the exaggeration? Spitzweg a la carte… ?
Why does Stefan Bräuniger do all this? Because he has the courage. Because he dares to enter this aesthetic minefield. Because he finds it fascinating! Because in this way he can create enough spacefor a multiplicity ofinterwoven layers ofdifferent thought constructs. Because he wants to present us with a window for observing the real world. By placing it slightly out of register with the rest of reality. Because he is mounting an assault. On reality itself! In order to understand his work better, to get closer to him so to speak, let us try to build up a picture of Stefan Bräuniger. We can Start by looking at the Position of still-life painting in the history ofart. With the idea offinding dijferences äs well äs similarities. And to distinguish what sets his own work apart.
III. Not far from his studio is the Von-der-Heydt Museum ofArt in Wuppertal where we find a large collection of unusually fine still-life paintings offruit and flowers – paintings that Bräuniger is sure to have studied.
Stepping into the room devoted to Dutch still-lifes, we are surrounded by examples of opulent decorative art, impressive tableaux setting out the rieh ingredients of nature, looking like actors with strictly defined wies who have been carefully disposed about a stage. In this case the stage is almost invariably a fable and on it are arranged: a silver salver with leraons in radiant yellow, plus a half-peeled item offruit with its spiral ofskin trailing down over the edge of the fable; ready-opened oysters tempting you with their mother-of-pearl sheen and the luscious glint of their inner parts: bunches of grapes painted with such limpid clarity that the light is reflected in their skins: velvety golden apricots so true to nature that they seem to caress your hand: and a brace ofpartridges with capes of feathers so sofi that youfeel you want to stroke them. And all of this is an act of worship, a hymn to creation and at the same time and in equal measure a glorification of the skill of the painter who is able to lift the drapery, the stage ‘s curtain, to reveal such a trompe l’oeil, real-lookingfeast! Frans Snyder’s Still-life with Boar’s Headfrom the first half of the 17th Century is one of the most imposing items in the Museum’s sumptuous collection. The way it presents its “dead things” is nothing short ofoperatic and the presence of a live, snarling cat almost lends it a tauch of drama. The wildness ofthe severed boar’s head with its bristling hide and the crunching teeth projecting from its mouth seems choreographed to function äs a completefoil to the highly civilised schooling ofthe painting technique – the exquisite taste, shall we say, ofbundled asparagus. Instead ofthe usual flowers in vases, this painting has a glorious basket offruit. One ofthe dark blue plums seems to have split open, which is äs much äs to say: “Behold, all thefullness and beauty of nature – yet decay, flies and maggots, and ultimately death, are waiting in the wings.” In other words, in this type of still-life painting we are always dealing with a symbolic content and in the broadest sense with a memento mori.
IV. However, transience is certainly not what Stefan Bräuniger is about! On the contrary. In order that flowers and blossoms “which look dijferent öfter only a few hours” should assume the pretence of being everlasting while he is painting them, he works only from photographs. In fact there is hardly anyone in painting today who can do without photos altogether. They underpin the whole of contemporary art. No one simply goes out into thefield and paints a picture of a flower: it is all done, äs a matter of course, with the help of some technical procedure. Whereas with the Dutch painter s the passing oftime was constantly inferred through the perishability and decay ofthe subject, preservation via the photograph now guarantees complete timelessness with no expiry date. As a result the symbolic content is reduced to a minimum!
So photography is an integral part of Stefan Bräuniger’s working method. The choice of subject, the decision about what to hörne in on, the light. The photographs themselves are taken indoors. Or occasionally he may venture onto the balcony when he is working on the dwarf orange tree or the kumquats… Which shows that even Bräuniger’s milieu is only the civilised side ofnature, the one that is allowed into the drawing room. Bouquets or house plants.
But Bräuniger, now in our time, no longer uses a table äs the stage on which to position his protagonists. He is no theatre director. His art is more about the embodiment of a momentary glance. With the old masters the table-top stage had a very limited depth, front to back. But it was still an area with a certain depth offocus. A realm where the real space ofthe observer’s world was extended into the virtual space ofthe painted Image. The Situation is completely dijferent with Bräuniger. His close-ups zoom in on details and he willfocus on a single blossom, a single lemon, a single olive among the leaves and branches. He takes the decision on what area to select. For our field of vision nowadays only ever encompasses fragments of the true picture. Though Bräuniger examines every inch ofthese with great intensity. In the process of painting he transforms the photograph into a large scale image. Whereas in the old still-lifes the dimensions of the observer’s surroundings were smoothly carried over into the picture, in Stefan Bräuniger’s case we are stunned by the sudden abandonment of these normal proportions. For instance, by a rosebud that is three feet across. A lemon that is a giant balloon, purple grapes the size of a basketball. This sudden break with reality makes common objects seem dijferent, though at the same time everything remains familiär. For the very reason that we are used to the photographic technique which is here being applied to painting. Thefocus is set on the foreground, on the blossom orfruit. But photographic close-ups have no depth offocus, their backgrounds are inevitably fuzzy, and because the paintings are modelled exactly on the photographic Originals, they too lack depth offocus. Aforked branch becomes just brown stripes feathering into each other, the leaves of a bush merge into the diffuse grey of the house wall. And this is exactly what we are accustomed to seeing from photography.
Nevertheless, what we are looking at is definitely painting! That becomes obvious ifwe move dose r to the image.
What places Stefan Bräuniger’s work in the mainstream of contemporary painting are the principles behind it. Because nowadays, particularly with regard to trends in representational art, the question being constantly asked is about the relationship between painting and painted surface. How does the evocation of an originally three-dimensional object actually work on a two-dimensional canvas? And how strong is the material influence ofthefact that it really is two-dimensional? When you look at it from a distance, even though it has been blown up to many times its original size, the lemon has the presence ofan object in the wund and is real enough to tauch. But if you go right up to Bräunige r’s paintings, the representational element dissolves into the purely painterly! From dose up the lemon become nothing but a coating ofpaint shaded with pigments ranging from yellow to orange and then to brown. You can gorge on all the graduations ofcolour: imperceptibly, with no trace ofbrushwork or personal flourish ofpaint, the contours gradually fade over into each other, the colours become sensual, the Impression picture-esque. We experience nothing but paint with its different shades of pigmentation: and the surface of the canvas. The medium becomes an entity. The “fine Belgian canvas”, the white cotton, begins to live, breathes life into the visual image.
That is one of the great qualities, indeed the hidden secret ofthese paintings.
How does Stefan Bräuniger manage to suggest an object’s sculpturalform and simultaneously to negate it, i.e. to resolve everything into a single plane? From dose to, everything is suddenlyflat! Nothing remains but the painter’s art and the paint itself! This is particularly apparent in the wall of the room, where the background expresses nothing other than paint. Not even a hint ofa brush having been applied! Only ifyou squint at themfrom the side do the olives – now only bluish clouds, aery swirls, misty gleams – betray the occasional highlight in the otherwise totally matt surface. But the way the colour is washed and tempered smoothes everything out again. Perfect. Further attempts to prise out the secret never get beyond discoveries about technical details. “It’s the priming that is all-important.” The matt, evenfinish is ascribed to that. So we go back over the working process, still without managing to pinpoint what makes the whole thing tick:
First there is the photo. Then the formal ofthe canvas is chosen. Then this is given an orange-coloured wash. Then with the help of a projector the general outlines of the photograph are transferred to the working surface. And then the background is used to establish the overall tonal values. Despite this, Stefan Bräuniger still loves them. To him they are “a wonderful invention”, like the painting rest he employs when the work demands that the paint should be applied more precisely. He can support Ms hand with it. Like in the olden days. Meanwhile the photo he is translating into paint is propped up on a music stand right next to the canvas. It all looks a bit like in a laboratory. Or like at the opticians. Since it is all about seeing. Everything is neat and tidy and there are no splashes of paint on the pristine Studio floor. “Painting impetuously, there’s nothing worse!” Stefan Bräuniger’s begin-nings were in drawing. Even he had “flung it about a bit” for a time but that was “off my ehest’ now”. Bräuniger ‘s favourite format is 16 inches square, the size ofa chair cushion. He has been doing paintings offruit and flowers for about four years now and has amassed about l, 700 supporting photographs.
V. Why do we love these paintings? Why do we love paintings altogether?
It appears that what wefind good about paintings is a certain quality of readability, a quality that is absentfromfilm and video allows us time in which to absorb new way s oflooking at things. And there are many different strategies for making artefacts seem plastic on the flat surface of a painting, for giving them a presence,for “breathing life into ” dead matter. The process of conversion, the concretisation process, which hangs together with the question of the medium, is the thing that fascinates us. How, when it comes down to it, the subject-matter – such äs a pumpkin or a bunch ofgrapes – is made manifest. In Stefan Bräuniger’s timeless still-lifes offruit and flowers, all these things clearly work extremely well: the paint medium itself retires discreetly into the background so äs to allow ample space for the manifestation process. His paintings also, inci-dentally, accentuate the virtual nature of the Image by, for example, blowing up a rose to such a large size. But above all they activate a collective visual memory almost to the same extent äs storytelling or even of symbolic communication. By triggering the memory stores for flower/photograph the medium of painting gains, in this instance, the bonus of familiarity which it requires in order to reach the point at which it touches the observer emotionally. Thus the Box of Roses and the Box of.Citrus Fruits are each afabulous casketfull of recollected Images laden with positive thoughts, combining beauty and timelessness. The giant whitecurrant may look stränge because of its size but the “content” is so familiär that you cannot help loving the painting and wanting to own it.
But what about irony? Aren’t the pictures – the camelia, the pansy, the ihnumerable portraits of roses – so beautifully painted that they can no longer be taken seriously nowadays? Ifsomebody says Rob Schölte is good, frankly you suspect some kind of joke or Ironie undertone. Bräuniger himself says he loves “everything that has a tauch of irony” and adds: “It’s a pity I can’t quite get that into my own work!”
But can’t he? What about the pictures of roses seen from behind which he used to paintfor a time? The slab ofbutter, the Becel margarine, the Buco cream cheese that were all his regular subjects before the flowers andfruit? Which he showed realistically and from above. The green wild-berry-flavour jelly and Dr. Oetker’s Black Grape Whip? If you take this into consideration too, you still find in his work, with its heightened perception of the material world, this certain element that remains irritable and edgy – even, and especially, with a motif that is as basically commonplace äs flowers. Stefan Bräuniger turns it into something new. He finds a form ofexpressionfor it in hispainting that is always a balancing act, always on a knife edge between monumentally overdoing everything, getting to the core of things and observing them from a distance. His art interprets, or rather depicts, the real world yet by a hair’s breadth deliberately avoids doing only that. And that is what is so thrilling!