Dr. Peter Forster

Openness and dedication

Speech by Dr. Peter Forster, Curator of the Wiesbaden Museum (2008, Gallery Wort+Art)

Visual art has been a constant in Tom Sommerlatte’s life. In the 1960s, studying natural sciences in Berlin, New York State and Paris, he also attended classes at the local academies of fine art. Not content with academia alone, he always sought out the company of practicing artists as well. His close contacts with painters and his numerous trips through half of Europe helped shape the style of his paintings and drawings, which we see here today.

The two dominant traits of Sommerlatte’s character appear to be openness and dedication. Openness towards artistic trends, in order to attain, through painting, the ‘freedom’ of colour and form. Freedom also in terms of being able to develop a world of ideas – independent of de facto conditions – and to bring these ideas to bear on life. In the first instance, for Sommerlatte, this freedom is evidently of an inward, intellectual nature. From there, he seeks to take it outward into the material realm – concrete and idealised in equal measure. When I first looked at Sommerlatte’s works, I was moved to think how art has always and in various ways given expression to the dream of a humane world. That this dream could never come true did not bother the artists; on the contrary, it motivated them to keep trying, to disregard a history riddled with catastrophic crash landings.

Take Neoclassicism with its pretensions to the nobility of antiquity. The goal was freedom for all through education and culture. However, reality fell far short of that lofty ideal. Sommerlatte’s art, too, conveys a sense of an ideal, the ideal of harmonious coexistence, of a humane world in unison with nature. It is with great intellectual acuity rather than naivety that Sommerlatte indulges a utopia that we do not find in the work of the Jonathan Meeses and Neo Rauchs of this world. Their mysterious and brutal view of the world seems lightyears away from Sommerlatte’s. Sommerlatte’s work appears detached from worldly constraints, wholly free, open to everything and light. And I don’t mean that in a negative sense; on the contrary. This lightness is deeply cognisant of reality, so much so that it is only in the great openness of colour and form that it expresses itself on canvas as an ideal of humanity. That said, the artist’s work does by no means exclude human shortcomings and failings. One is tempted to quote Lessing: In his play Emilia Galotti of 1772, he has the painter Conti exclaim: ‘Ha! Too bad we don’t paint immediately with our eyes. How much is lost along the long way from the eye to the arm to the brush!’

Sommerlatte minimises that loss. He succeeds in translating his ideas into material form. The paintings are calm, balanced, appealing. One doesn’t get the sense of being ‘confronted’ with something. Steering clear of blatantly perturbing motifs, Sommerlatte allows the viewer to engage with his work without feeling unduly discomfited.

And it is here that the second character trait comes into play – dedication. Dedication to the handling of colour. One can feel the artist’s delight in working with colour, his pure delight in abandoning himself to the intensity and sensual experience of colour, in probing its potential and in interpreting and recombining it in ever new variations. Yet, at no point does he lose control of what he is doing. However much Sommerlatte may revel in colour, it is never allowed to run wild. What we see are balanced, carefully calibrated arrangements of colour. This chimes with Sommerlatte’s professional background – he is a natural scientist by training.

Natural scientists are duty-bound to observe systematics. They tend to share a penchant for clarity, concision, structure and tidiness. At the same time, they are constantly looking to make new discoveries – otherwise they would get stuck in the status quo.

Sommerlatte investigates and explores the potential of colour in an orderly fashion. We are struck by orderly, generously sized expanses of colour that are often structured geometrically. The colours of the individual and clearly separate two-dimensional forms correspond with each other across the canvas. Colour and form converge in an atmospheric whole that is, in turn, wholly governed by the ideal of harmony.

Stylistically, the works meander between figuration and abstraction, foregrounding either one or the other at different times. There are works that present an entirely figurative view of the world – trees, landscape, river. In other works, the passages of flat colour evoke little more than a hint of figuration as they veer towards abstract geometric shapes – circle, oval, loop, stripe, arc. Deep down, however, Sommerlatte never completely gives up on the human figure. Certain elements of it, for example a hand, can always be found. If we look longer and harder – and I would certainly recommend that we do so – we can always find references to the concrete world. This means that the works are not abstract in the sense having no source in an external visual reality; instead they are an abstracted representation of reality. Especially when seen from a distance, the individual sections of the compositions come together to form a unified whole. The overall harmony of the picture is not affected. Sommerlatte draws on abstraction to create his very own figurative style. And it is certainly a singular figurative style; at times, his figures look like surreal fantasy creatures.

The artist works in series. Each of his paintings belongs in a series and corresponds with the other paintings in that series. Each series has a title, the paintings within them, however, do not. They are identified by the year they were painted and a number, for example 2007/3. Sommerlatte diverges from this principle in his graphic work. It, too, is produced in series, but here both the series and the individual sheets have proper titles. For example, two drawings in the series To Protect Their Cause, The Lone Wolves Rally Together are titled The Emigrants No Longer Immigrate and The Children of Progress are Aging.

The artist’s graphic oeuvre is not only very large, it is also crucial to the understanding of his paintings. The twofold titling in the works on paper is relevant, because there is a certain overlap between Sommerlatte’s graphic work and his paintings, many of which are based on the same motif as his drawings and etchings.

This approach – as playful as it is thoughtful – accords the works on paper a high degree of autonomy. The different ways of handling a motif lead to radically different results. Sommerlatte plays through a motif in both media, but painting and graphic techniques have a life and a dynamic of their own that draw more on the inherent qualities of the medium than on the motif.

The exhibition presents two large paintings (2007/1 and 2007/2) from the series The Thousand and One Nights. In Europe, The Thousand and One Nights are often mistakenly thought of as fairy tales for children, which does the role of the originals as a collection of distinctly adult and often erotic tales a grave disservice. Sommerlatte draws on the yearning for exotic worlds, which is as prevalent today as it was when the tales were first introduced to Europe. At the heart of his engagement with the subject are the erotic components, but he does not present them as undisguised eroticism, preferring instead to fragment his figures. The source is only apparent in the title of the series; the paintings themselves provide no clues to as which individual tale they might be based on. The bodies are fragmented into separate parts that are held together, even fused, by colour. And although colour allows the viewer to recognise the human figure, the component parts of those figures are highly abstracted.

We can make out clear hints of figuration, but they tend to blend into abstract forms. Standing in front of the painting, we get the sense of recognising something, but we don’t really know what it is. The borders between figuration and abstraction are open and fluid. But we sense the artist’s delight in colour in his combination of abstracted form and colours. The paintings are a feast of blue or red and orange. The colours are applied in flat layers and blend into one another to link individual forms.

Sommerlatte avoids all visual depth, everything is right on the picture plane. At the heart of the composition is the arrangement of colour. The artist shows us the effect of colours and, as he puts it, ‘how stunning they really are.’ He is not so much interested in conveying the beauty of a female nude as in the beauty of colour. And it is through colour that he creates an atmosphere, a mood, that also tinges the tales of The Thousand and One Nights.

The recent works, created in France in the summer (2008/1 and 2008/2) are infused with the same spirit. The strong colours and atmospheric light conjure a sense of the French Atlantic coast, where they were painted. Overall, the billowing luminous forms are more generously spaced than in earlier series, and Sommerlatte avoids nesting them, preferring instead to arrange them side by side. By the same token, he has reined in the fragmentation and given greater prominence to his silhouette-like human figures. The colours seem to be bathed in radiant light. Even in paintings that capture an evening mood, the colours have an intense luminosity. Colour becomes light, becomes a breathing, expanding chromatic tide. This use of colour is not entirely unrelated to the ideas developed by the painter Otto Ritschl (1885-1976), with whom Sommerlatte has a special bond. He chairs the Otto Ritschl Museum Association at the Museum Wiesbaden.

Another work, (2008/3), also painted in the summer of 2008, picks up on the earlier series The Discovery of a New Continent Between Luxembourg and Belgium. Begun in 1975 and gradually expanded through the 1970s, this series flashed up again briefly in the 1980s and now finds its continuation in 2008.

The most recent work of the series is a variation of 1968/12 which, in turn, is inspired by Henri Rousseau’s painting Sleeping Gypsy of 1897. But, let us stay for the moment with the series The Discovery of a New Continent Between Luxembourg and Belgium, which is rooted in a series of etchings of the same name.

Sommerlatte miraculously succeeds in finding a new continent in a place where most certainly none is to be found. What does that mean? Here somebody discovers something new at a time when the globe is thoroughly mapped and explored. The playful title is a metaphor for people who are still willing to discover new terrain for themselves, an homage to people who are still willing to give free rein to their imagination. In painting, where everything has already been done, and epigones noisily clamour for recognition as originators, Sommerlatte comes up with this real challenge to add yet another artistic position, even at the risk of being pigeonholed into some narrowly circumscribed category.

This is all the more interesting in view of the fact that Sommerlatte chooses to reference one of his own earlier works, which in turn was inspired by a painting from the early days of modern art.

Rousseau’s painting of the sleeping gypsy shows a sleeping woman in a desert landscape and a lion picking up her scent. When we turn to look at Sommerlatte’s works, we sense the development. The discovery is much to do with the way Rousseau painted his daydream full of beauty and tranquillity. There is no radical break with history; instead, Sommerlatte picks up on his own work, creating transitions and further formulations. Rousseau’s sleeping gypsy inhabits a dream world, in which man and beast are at peace with each other. Dream and reality converge in a timeless in-between realm. This fantastical world comes very close to the discovery of a new continent.

This is where the final work by Tom Sommerlatte that I am going to talk about picks up. It belongs in the series Memories, and, unlike his other works, it is figurative. We see a timeless, peaceful landscape park, its trees reflected by an expanse of water. The silhouetted trees are steeped in pure colour and delineated by white outlines. A picture of harmony. It belongs to the Memories series, and what Sommerlatte remembered is the park at Wörlitz. He was there as a small boy, evacuated with his family from his bombed-out home town of Dessau. It is a memory of a peaceful, beautiful landscape at a time when the Russians were approaching. A time when shot-down pilots fell from the sky on parachutes. The villagers hurried to get to them and cut up the parachutes to turn them into shirts. The thought of war at the back of one’s head colours one’s perception of the painting 2008/3. At first glance, it gives expression to the dichotomy between ideal and reality I referred to at the beginning. Sommerlatte pursues the ideal of harmony, but he is only too aware of reality.