Art Gallery International | October 1990
West German artist, Willi Kissmer has built a solid reputation and an avid following in Europe with his quietly beautiful paintings and graphic works. He is a contemporary artist working in realism, that most uncontemporary of styles and has been described as a young master working in the style of the Old Masters. Unlike the work of many of his contemporaries, the paintings of Willi Kissmer are not abstract or expressionistic but instead are tied to a long tradition of realism in Northern European painting. The subjects of his pieces are simple still lifes, scenes from residential architecture and the female figure, each rendered with a fine eye to detail and a slightly disquieting sense of heightened observation.
The artist was born in Duisburg, West Germany in 1951 and decided as a youth that he was going to be an artist. Torn between the two loves of music and painting, Kissmer played guitar for a rock group to fund his studies in art.
Between 1971 and 1976, he studied painting and graphic arts at the Folkwang Art School in Essen. This school, now a part of the University of Essen, had courses of study in visual arts, dance, theater and music. While enrolled there, Kissmer studied graphic arts with professor Herman Schardt, the founder and director of the school, who is also a well recognized artist. Kissmer received solid training in the creation of graphics and was allowed to develop his own style of painting and choices of subject matter.
His early paintings were almost abstract compositions whose subjects were the interior walls of houses. Kissmer developed this choice of subject matter into depictions of sections of the interiors of houses or larger portions of the structures. The paintings continued to develop in the 1980s into the body of work presented in solo and group exhibitions both in America and in Europe.
His current acrylic paintings present details of interior scenes — stairways, corners of rooms, doorways — that come from his direct observation. These still life paintings are not presentations of grand floral bouquets or heaps of luscious fruit upon golden platters. Instead, Kissmer prefers to present simple everyday objects and locations while emphasizing a number of the properties of light and surface he discovers in his observations of the objects. The artist is most interested in relating qualities of light and its effects upon objects as well as the folds and creases of fabrics and drapery. As Kissmer says, "Cloths and fabrics emanate calmness, they have something meditative."
Downstairs presents the viewer with a stop on a turned staircase. The railings and wainscoting are plain and a simple white cloth unfolds as it hangs from a wooden bar. Kissmer's interest in light and drapery is obvious in this work. A strong light from the left rakes across the entire composition creating many valleys of shadows within the folds of the cloth and strong dark spaces between the treads of the stairs and the risers. This everyday scene from the artist's Studio becomes magical in the way the artist combines light and shadow and lavishes his attention upon these simple elements.
Willi Kissmer lives in an old industrial tower of a building in his home city of Duisburg. This structure is a relic from the nineteenth century and it figures prominently in a number of his paintings and aquatints as the setting for his still life and figure study paintings. For the artist, "Everything comes out of my personal living environment. That is a result of my laziness. l look around enough to find something that is worth representing." His laziness, however, is a facetious comment for Kissmer displays his fortitude by building his paintings layer upon layer and undertaking the painstaking aquatint printmaking process which is a major personal commitment of time and energy "My paintings are monochrome first, then I literally color them," says Kissmer. He builds colors by layer so that while the viewer first sees only one color, further viewing reveals a depth of hues building together to form the impression of this one color.
Kissmer's paintings begin as an observation of something he finds interesting in the way objects are arranged or the surface of a wall. He does not paint on location or make sketches. Instead, Kissmer makes photographs which he takes back to the studio, "l take black and white photographs as a reminder of what l have seen, but for the color, l depend upon what seems important to me at the time and I'm guided by the color I have seen and associated with that country," he explains.
The artist has always enjoyed traveling and learning from his experiences abroad on trips to the Soviet Union, Asia and South America and annually averages two trips abroad. On a 1987 trip to India, he photographed extensively and the painting and aquatint To the Tune of a Bamboo Flute were both based upon a Japanese man Kissmer met while in the Indian Himalayas. The man stacked his firewood in a purely aesthetic, meditative manner and this act of stacking combined with the textures and weathered qualities of the wood attracted Kissmer to the subject. While working on the painting, Kissmer recalled the songs the Japanese man would play for the artist on his bamboo flute, to which the titles of these works refer. The detailing of wood grain and texture is so fine in these pieces that the viewer can sense the feel of the wood's surface in one's fingers while examining the images.
"My still lifes have more to do with myself than my trips. I'm just more motivated to see things on trips and have more possibilities available to me when I am traveling, but l do not paint on my trips, I paint in my studio," adds Kissmer.
The artist found the daylight in India in winter to be similar to the light he finds in Northern Europe. Thus he made a number of photographs of scenes from his Indian visit, recreated as paintings later on when he returned to Germany. These pieces have a light similar to the cold hard European light but a different mood because their environment was foreign to the artist.
A still life of almost Shaker-like simplicity can be found in Two Pots, Two casseroles rest atop a book on a bare wood table. Through a nearby window, light flows across the tabletop and its guests. This is a good example of Kissmer's use of the coldness of light. It has a particular clarity. These objects are not bathed in a warm glow. This is not necessarily an open, sunny place. This is a measured light which plays across the tabletop in specific rectangular shapes that echo the form of the window frame and opening, the rectangles of the book and tabletop, and contrasts with the softer, round forms of the covered dishes. The spareness of elements in this painting gives each object a spiritual quality that would not be present in a more busy composition.
In Dharamsala Kitchen Window, a corner of an old interior space becomes a lively subject. Window panes across the top portion of the work create a repetitive grid that is interrupted by the plaster wall underneath. The wall is mottled in color from the stains of many years of seepage and leaks and the artist pays much attention to the cracks that have appeared. The divisions of the quarry tue floor at the base of this piece complement the grid seen at the top and a gridded patch of sunlight traveling through the Windows above, falls upon the tile floor. Kissmer details the surface of this cracked wall with the same kind of loving attention to detail one might apply to the weathered hands of an elderly model. There is a great deal of personality to this interior as if the artist has closely observed it like an old friend.
In other works, the same corner of a room is painted in differing light. The walls are barren except for an electrical outlet and a wooden shelf. From this shelf, a fringed pink cloth, knots at the top and
unfurls into the air beneath. The stillness is broken only by the swatches of daylight which have passed from some unseen window to bathe the walls. Different times of day, different weather conditions are observed without seeing the exterior landscape. What the artist presents is the effect of the exterior daylight upon the objects in his studio and the changes in wall color, shadow and perceptions which differences in daylight make.
A voluminous swath of fabric spills from this same studio shelf in Sitting Cloth. The fabric turns from yellow to cream to white to peach, pink and then red as it is altered under the gaze of two patches of light that enter this room. His attention to the play of light on folded fabric reminds one of the lush satin and silk gowns of sitters in portraits by John Singer Sargentor Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. In First Monk on the Moon, the folds and stitched seams of a cloth have become the entire subject within the work. Here the cloth takes on a life of its own. Every fold, crease and line tells a story of experience like the lines in an interesting aged face. There is nothing luxurious about Kissmer's subject for the fabric is worn and torn along the bottom edge. But by filling the picture plane with this object, Kissmer causes the viewer to become fascinated with each turn, fold, seam and change in the fabric äs the eye moves across the canvas.
For Kissmer, the paintings develop with almost a life of their own. He observes and records details in these paintings which the common viewer would miss or dismiss as unappealing or unattractive. By calling attention to them, and carefully presenting details of lighting
and shadows, Kissmer creates scenes of haunting beauty, which make viewers wonder where these places are and speculate about the kinds of lives they have lived. The very detailed minglings of light and shadow and the obsessive attention to folds and textures create a sense of personality in some of these objects.
In both Sitting Cloth and First Monk on the Moon another aspect of Kissmer's paintings becomes apparent. A number of them have a subtle disquieting quality to them. This unsettled sense arises in the viewer the longer one observes these pieces. Soon, a cloth appears to be folded a little too perfectly, a door seems suspicious in the way it has opened or the fabric drapes seem to be hiding something. In First Monk on the Moon, the fabric begins to suggest other materials like flesh and the outline created by the draping begins to suggest that something could be resting, covered or hidden underneath the folds of this fabric. The aquatint Close Touch shows a walking cane propped against a staircase. White fabric drapes over the railing but also looms towards the viewer like a figure underneath a sheet at Halloween. The folds in the fabric make it fascinating and simultaneously somewhat ominous.
These compositions have a combination of both concealment and revelation. The viewer sees every object more clearly than before but still feels as if something might be hidden or held back. Kissmer has an ability to make the commonplace seem extraordinary and slightly strange for he includes details the casual observer of objects does not recall, making the familiar appear different. These pieces can remind one of the works of the Belgian Surrealist Rene Magritte who delighted in confounding the viewer with compositions of everyday scenes and objects juxtaposed in a dream-like way.
Kissmer maintains that the surrealistic quality of these works is not intentional on his part, "I paint the fabrics harder and put folds where only small creases stood, as I am more interested in the folds and creases than in the fabric itself," says Kissmer, and sometimes he over-emphasizes the folds to make them clearer to the viewer. However, it is this over-emphasis on some of the details that creates an unusual quality to the pieces, making them even more intriguing.
While instilling a sense of life into the inanimate objects he selects for still life paintings, Kissmer does the opposite when presenting the female figure in his many nude figure studies. In paintings like In the Gallery, the artist does not reveal the face of the model. By doing this she becomes both every woman and also another still life object to be positioned in an interior. The same attention is paid to the folds of her slip as to a fabric drape and the difference between the model's flesh and the surface of the wall behind her becomes a study in the effect of light and shadow upon the cold wall and the warm flesh. Kissmer uses his interest in folds of fabric and drapery as a means of encouraging the viewer to develop his or her own feeling about his works.
He adds, "I am more interested in a section of the body, how it sits in the picture and how it works with the background." The sensual quality of the figures is a part of his interest but not a major concern on the part of the artist in creating these works. In these pieces, Kissmer treats the figure as an object, not a personality. These are not portraits, but still lifes in which the human figure is another object to be arranged within an interior. This is similar to the approach taken by the American Philip Pearlstein whose nudes suggest architectural forms or portions of the landscape by the way they are rendered in his paintings.
When working with the figure, Kissmer assumes an almost Japanese attitude towards revealing only a portion of the subject's anatomy. He says, "I like to see portions of the body The viewer can fill in or imagine what l have not shown. This provides a possibility for the viewer to develop his own feeling from the work. Like a surgeon who only works on one part of the body, I only paint the part I have in mind."
Half Nude, both a painting and an aquatint, presents Kissmer's favorite illustration of this line of thought in his work to date. The face and legs of the figure are cropped off at top and bottom. This focuses the eye upon the torso but also creates a strong feeling of
tension and mystery as to the identity of the woman. The act of eliminating her head from the field of vision is somehow disturbing as if it were almost an act of aggression. There is a contrast between that which is revealed by the model lifting her blouse to expose her torso and that which is suggested under the detailed folds of her clothing. Kissmer's sense of the surreal is readily apparent in this piece when the viewer begins to ask where is the hem of the blouse. Is it being held aloft? If so, by what? The model's arms are obviously at her side. The thought that she could be holding the hem in her mouth creates an air of mystery and sexuality that is slightly jarring, like the image of a courtesan clasping fabric between her teeth in a Japanese print.
Just as Kissmer exaggerates the folds of his cloth and the attention to details in some of the still life pieces, he presents these figures in ways that make their arms and torsos seem elongated. Their backbones protrude or create interesting shapes and textures, not unlike the artist's treatment of fabric folds in the shadows they cast.
When asked whether he has a plan for the development of each piece or a direction for his body of work Kissmer maintains, "Paintings always tell you a lot about yourself that you didn't know before you made them. I don't have any plans other than the next piece. Of course I am always, in my mind, working on things that I have not done yet and I usually do not think about pieces that l have finished anymore, but l have no long-term plans."
Kissmer's work is enticing in its realism and attention to detail. At the same time, his evocation of mood and personal interpretation adds an exciting, jarring edge to these pieces. Kissmer's limited palette and simple subjects create moving works that are not conventionally pretty. They are compelling and somewhat confrontational.
He is receiving increasing international exhibition coverage and has shown his work extensively in galleries and museums in West Germany including the Lehmbruck Museum in Duisburg; the Kunsthalle Ehrenhof in Düsseldorf; the international art expositions, Art Cologne in West Germany and Art Basel in Switzerland; and the City Art Museum in Portsmouth, Great Britain.
Bruce W. Pepich is Director of the Charles A. Wustum Museum of Fine Arts in Racine, Wisconsin and a regular contributing writer for Art Gallery International.
OCTOBER 1990 ART GALLERY INTERNATIONAL