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Views / Insights

About the Paintings of Franziskus Wendels
Carl Friedrich Schröer

I often have the feeling that the scenes in the paintings of Franziskus Wendels are scenes of my own memories.  The illuminated streets, the nightly cities, the nameless windows, …  Maybe this is because the world Wendels shows us appears easy to grasp and entranced at the same time - entranced like the memories we so vividly encounter in his paintings.  Its the lights, road signs, shop windows, and facades we have always known, we have grown up with.  What I had been able to see beyond my immediate neighbourhood as a child, I could only see from the back seat of my parents car.   Glances of a fast-moving world.  It was quiet.  It had a life of its own and did neither know nor care whether I happened to pass by at this or that particular point in time.  And just as the world in Wendels paintings, it did never acknowledge my glance.
The paintings obviously bring back memories by simple, very specific everyday objects, such as lamps, streets, crash barriers, rails, and windows and avoid the personal aspects and development of these suddenly appearing memories from being stopped by too many details.  Most in Wendels paintings remains in the dark anyhow.  The few light signals and certain repetitive geometric forms provoke the viewers response - more perhaps than any detailed description.  In addition to the personal memories, there is an urgent need to make up a story for each of the paintings.  The incomplete, deserted night scenes contain a narrative imperative, as if the painter wanted to seduce us to weave our own dreams.

In Heimkehr 4, we face a landscape we know from travelling in the car by night.  The next bend ahead, and then the mountains.  You look through the windscreen and see the road in front of you.  Suddenly road signs appear out of the dark.  Watch it!  Left turn!  You shift to the right to anticipate the curve.  It is already late at night.  The snow-capped hills mount up high.  No sign of homecoming.  The painting does not tell how many bends will have to be taken before you get home.  But you feel it will be a long night.  You feel the exhaustion.  And you will automatically squint when the lights of the oncoming traffic blinds you.  Here just as in other paintings, where streets and roads play a major role, there are no cars to be seen.  Nobody tells us what we see and no-one has ever been there before.  We cannot share what we experience.  It is all ours.  The experience of being excluded while travelling grows, together with a feeling of loss and temporary absence.  Road signs and the central reserve reflect the light of the headlights.  They mean danger.  We take the curve without being able to see the further run of the road.  Just as so many other scenes we notice in passing by, we are suddenly attracted by its immediate clarity, isolated for an instance from all other things and then released to travel on.  In Heimkehr, however, we do not get away so easily.  It might be too late.  No-one else is travelling any more.  The Alps pile up like an insurmountable wall, consuming most of the paintings space.  From the left-hand side, a wedge-shaped shadow looms up in the scene like an obstacle and thats for sure: the mountains will cast incredibly many shadows on the road we must follow. There is no soul to be seen.

In Heimkehr II, the road seems to be merging with the landscape and even appears as its optical climax and main attractor.  In the middle ground, a motorway bridge elegantly crosses the valley, resting on its double-pillars.  The traffic flows undisturbed in both directions.  Thats good news.  Wendels depicts the traffic in the Alps as a classical panorama view.  Foreground and background are almost completely swallowed by the surrounding darkness, only the road and the monumental bridge shine in the night.  They support the composition and give structure.  We do not sit in a car, but at a remote observation post high above the valley.  The transit route is the determining, light-flooded centre.  The purpose of the transit route is to keep the traffic flowing.  The nightly travellers want to leave the mountains behind as quickly as possible, heading off towards their unknown destinations.  What we see is not in their view or interest.  The vast landscape with the mountain panorama has always been a symbol of duration and permanence, cut through by a route of permanent mobility.  The destinations of the mobile nighthawks behind the wheels are out of view and beyond dimensions such as lingering and eternity.  In a second, they will have left the scene with high speed.  It is a snapshot of a landscape.  Speed means disintegration of landscape.  That is the misleading message of this nightly idyll.  

If the stories we make up go too far, the geometry of the painting prevents us from drifting off, and if the geometry of the painting becomes dull, there is new narrative potential.  Thus, Wendels paintings have an alternating effect and are based on commutation.  Depending on the viewers fundamental conviction, previous knowledge, form of the day, or perspective, they can be interpreted differently: concrete or abstract, conceptual or narrative, threatening or cosy, bright or dark, positive or negative.  That alone, however, is not be what you would call particularly extraordinary.  It is rather the reduced means Wendels uses to unerringly head for the different ambivalences that astonishes the viewer.  The painter halts exactly at the turning point.  Positive/negative, black/white, dynamic/static, movement/duration, and view/insight become visible at the same time.  This immanent point of return keeps the painting in an unstable balance: one step further and the suspense would have to unload.

The question as to the extent the scenes in Wendels paintings are determined by a darkness that keeps us under its spell or at least restricts us, includes the problem of our relationship to time.  What do we do with time and what does time to us?  Nothing happens in the paintings of Wendels.  There is no action, no distinct location where things happen or will happen.  Roads run off into the night, lights shine for no-one.  There is a tremendous suspense, and a change is not likely to occur.  The future has somehow fallen by the wayside.  
Feierabend is a painting consisting of three parts, showing a villa on a slope, illuminated from inside.  We see the building from below through the nightly forest.  Not a sound, nothing to be seen.  In the enlarged horizontal format, the modern residential building is only shown as a silhouette in the right half of the painting, covered by tree trunks.  The only thing that can be seen in the darkness is the light emanating from the windows, the eyes reflecting our glance.  Down the slope, we become nightly observers behind trees.  A dream-like interaction of silence and suspense creates the impression that a magical moment is extended and that we are privileged to witness this.  Our observation remains unsuccessful.  We cannot say anything about what we are so keen to find out:  What is going on in that house?  However, our privileged observer status is soon compromised, as, in the end, we ourselves are observed from behind those brightly illuminated windows.  The house on the hill is no longer the object (of homesick lingering), but rather becomes an observation post.
As observers, we have long failed.
Wendels varies a rhetoric principle:  "Actually / however". "Actually, everything is clear to see. / However, it is pretty dark." "Actually, everything can be observed. / However, there is nothing to be seen.  "Actually, we are quite familiar with the world. / However, you must be prepared for the worst.  Wendels is not an artist endorsing the contemporary relativism of polarity (on the one hand/on the other).  He demands optical, mental and emotional flexibility from his audience and increases the latent uncertainty about what we think we know.  You are only in the picture, if you think youre not. As soon as we gain foothold in Wendels paintings, we get caught and thrown out again.

The suspense emanating from his tableaux is as difficult to define as the light in his paintings.  The light is strange, hazy like in a humid South American summer night.  Artificial light, catching the eye and making pale the faces of those staring at it too long.  It generally appears a bit too bright and too artificial to be really credible.  Its brilliance fades, white colour appears on the canvas.  The painting becomes a comment on the current discussion of the state of painting.  The suggestion to understand paintings as a platform for presentation leads to a differentiation from phenomena like film and cyberspace.  Moreover, this suggestion facilitates a reassurance of the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic reality.  Cavemen are unable to see reality, as they cannot understand the shadow images presented to them as images.  According to Platos idea of language, those able to perceive images are basically immune to world blindness - even though only basically.  
There is nothing alarming about the light in Akrobaten 6.  It falls through a window on a white wall.  The black astragals cast many shadows.  That is all that happens. There is only the view through the imaginary window: Rhythmic shadows on a white wall.  Wendels Akrobaten responds to Sun in an Empty Room, painted by Edward Hopper in 1963.  It was the last big painting of Hopper, where he shows a vision of the world without us.  Unsparingly.  Not only a place which we are excluded from, but a place we have been cleared away from.  The shadows play acrobats.  The naked walls are the best friends of the artists.   
Heimkehr 4
Akrobaten 6