When artists are in mourning | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 06.02.2020
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When artists are in mourning

Grieving is an art — in two senses of the word. An exhibition in the German city Hamburg shows how artists depict loss and change.

In the list of human emotions, grief does not have the best reputation. Whoever loses a loved one, and with it a sense of home and familiarity, is expected to deal with it. Or in the words of Sigmund Freud, to do the "Trauerarbeit" (grief work).

Brigitte Kölle, curator at the Hamburg Kunsthalle, knows that it is difficult to pinpoint the "disturbing potential" of loss, mourning and change. She wanted to know which pictures artists find for it. Her insight: "grief is difficult to portray."

Artist Anne Collier's work at the exhibition Grieving loss and change at the Hamburger Kunsthalle (Anne Collier)

Anne Colliers: Woman Crying (Weinende Frau)

Grieving is no new phenomenon in art. Throughout history, painters and sculptors, artists and artisans have focused on the subject. One could even say that the depiction of mourning and the pain of parting runs through the entire history of art and humanity in all regions of the world — from prehistoric cave paintings to today's art fresh from the studio.

Read more: Do animals mourn their dead?

Music transports feelings

Kölle has hung paintings and photographs, has erected sculptures, and videos flicker across screens. Slide projections and "sound pieces" can be experienced at the exhibition in Hamburg, and large installations fill entire rooms. The work of around 30 artists from 15 countries circles around the issue of loss as an existential, painful uncertainty and the resulting interruption of the flow of things. "Many visual artists work with music," says the curator, "probably because music transports feelings particularly well."

Artist Maria Lassnig's work at the exhibition Grieving loss and change at the Hamburger Kunsthalle (Maria Lassnig Foundation / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019 )

Maria Lassnig painted herself feeling completely insecure after the death of her mother.

"Melancholy and grief," "grief and gender," "collective grief," "grief and rebellion" or even "the inability to grieve" — the curator uses chapters like these to organize the artistic spectrum.

The Scottish Turner Prize winner Susan Philipsz, for example, revives the old tradition of keening. The Japanese artist Seiichi Furuya weaves together the loss experience after the suicide of his wife with the massive social upheval after the end of former East Germany.

In paintings, the Austrian Maria Lassnig deals with the death of her mother. In his film "I'm Too Sad to Tell You" (1970/71), the Dutch conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader (1942-1975) raises questions — about privacy and publicity, convention and embarrassment, and about the limits of language and depictability.

Anne Collier's photographs are based on comics from the 1950s and 60s and reveal the depiction of a crying, young, beautiful woman as a gender-specific image.

Read more: How shame translates into discomforting works of art

The politics of grief

Artist Aslan Goisum's work at the exhibition Grieving loss and change at the Hamburger Kunsthalle (Aslan Ġoisum)

Muslim men mourn for a deceased — film still from Aslan Goisum's film "People of No Consequence" (2016)

The exhibition ranges from the miniature coffins of Kudjoe Affutu from Ghana to Andy Warhol's iconic "Jackie" portrait (1964). The austere yet poetic works of Helen Cammock, who was awarded the Turner Prize in 2019 and combines images with words, are on show for the first time in Germany. The series of edited photographs from the Syrian War by the artist Khaled Barakeh takes up the centuries-old pictorial motif of the Pietà.

"We are not only showing how diverse the representation of grief can be," says curator Kölle. Mourning is also politically significant, because there is a hierarchy of mourning. "Who are we mourning for? And for whom not? There is a valuation in that."

The exhibition also raises questions about obvious social miseries and conditions. "How, for example, were homosexuals mourned in the 1980s when AIDS came up and yet no one really knew what it was?" asks Kölle.

The exhibition "Grieving loss and change" at the Hamburger Kunsthalle runs until June 14, 2020.

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