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Wolfgang Tillmans: 'A 21st-century Renaissance man'

Stefan Dege ss
February 16, 2017

Wolfgang Tillmans didn't exactly reinvent the art of photography, but he has managed to make it more political. The Tate Modern in London is celebrating the German photographer with a special exhibition.

Wolfgang Tillmans with one of his works at the Tate Modern in London.
Image: picture-alliance/Captital Pictures

"Tillmans does not take pictures - he makes pictures." Chris Dercon, exiting director of the Tate Modern in London and incoming director of the Volksbühne theater in Berlin, gave perhaps the most fitting description of Wolfgang Tillmans.

Indeed, the German photographer's is meticulously organized and premeditated. No single detail is left to coincidence; no image, no catalogue and no exhibit. And he has a way of connecting political themes with poetry like no other.

Dercon is one of the co-curators of the Wolfgang Tillmans exhibition at the Tate Modern, which highlights the artist's work since 2003. His successor at the Tate Modern, Frances Morris, meanwhile said that Tillmans "is one of the most exciting, interesting and important artists at the moment."

Born in the western German city of Remscheid, Wolfgang Tillmans was the first non-British artist to receive the coveted Turner Prize in 2000.

Through June 11, 2017, the Tate Modern is showcasing Tillmans' work in 14 rooms, featuring a mixture of portraits, still lifes and abstract art, and following his journey from analogue to digital photography. Video installations and music projects are also part of the multi-faceted exhibition.

The many faces of Wolfgang Tillmans

There's a lot on display, from wall-to-wall coastal landscapes to the image of a naked grown man in the fetal position. Then there's the picture of a little plant sprouting out from grooves in between moss-covered cobblestones.

Work by Wolfgang Tillmans at Tate Modern
The show presents not only Tillmans' works, but also his artistic motivation Image: picture-alliance/dpa/NOTIMEX/M. Gutiérrez Bobadilla

Another photograph shows a set of scrunched up linens against a black background imitating clouds. To round out the show, there's also a series of experiments with color and shape, which Tillmans created in his workshop in London, where he's been living for many years.

To gain some insight into Tillmans' creative genius, the Tate Modern dedicated one of the gallery rooms to exploring the things that inspire the artists, with displays highlighting a cornucopia of newspaper clippings, artistic studies and other influences.

This unusual documentation shows the level of thinking that goes into Tillmans' work; from assembly lines at IKEA kitchen factories to war crimes immediately after the invasion of Iraq, these sources trace Tillmans' concerns.

'Tilmans has an eye for the world'

He executes his political messages intelligently, always trying to hold a mirror up to the world. Even if some might consider his messages to be subjective, Tillmans makes up for it by approaching the key issues of the day in a poetic manner. Most recently, the artist got involved in UK politics by designing anti-Brexit posters. These are also featured at the Tate Modern show.

The museum does great justice to a versatile artist who is almost as recognized for his social conscience as he is for his art. In the words of co-curator Decon: "(Tillmans) has an eye for the world. He's a Renaissance man for the 21st century."


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