Sunday Paintings


Even during my early involvement with art I had the theme “Sonntagsbilder (Sunday Paintings)” in mind, albeit still somewhat vague. The desire to capture autobiographic impressions in paintings entailed, initially, gathering together numerous family portraits. To this purpose, I sifted through a substantial amount of photographs – especially those from my grandparents, many of which were from the 1930’s and 1960’s. These typical black and white family photos appealed to me through their formal composition: instinctively, the amateur photographer placed the most important element in the centre. The technique of traditional tempera under-painting provided me with the corresponding form for the depiction of my subject matter.
Having studied history, and habitually thinking in historical terms, I developed what I call Sunday Photos, which grew out of this approach. This title was also inspired by Robert Siodmak’s film from 1930 “Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday)”; the preoccupation with a strongly autobiographical subject by my, in essence, favourite author, Thomas Mann, especially with regard to the objective of his book “The Magic Mountain”, which I cannot quote here due to its length, but which is worth reading at least once. The milieu of Mann’s early years and his background both inspired his first work “Buddenbrooks”, which did not find much favour with his family. My series of photos from the 30’s and 60’s, which, alluding to the author, are also “covered with historical patina”, have also garnered little admiration in my own family. Indeed, the Flower Power of the lived-thorough sixties is nowhere to be seen – not to mention the Afri Cola kick. Instead: conventional pleated skirts with blazers, “getting dressed up”, “not getting dirty”, etc. My work though meets with the approval of my contemporaries who, when looking at my paintings, are reminded of familiar Sunday rituals including the Sunday roast, wearing the much-hated “good” clothes, visiting grandma and grandpa, taking a walk, etc., and who think back to these times with amusement and, occasionally, with sadness.
The images from the 1930’s appear more remote and cumbersome, and are not easily accessible for the viewer. Work on this series is not yet finished, and it is to be expanded to two series: 1900 and 2000. During the research and gathering of material for the present time, it quickly becomes clear that there is no longer a Sunday culture, as so much has changed both socially and within the family. The thematic and pictorial implementation represents a challenge for the future.

The question could be posed as to why I paint this rather uncommon, Sunday-related banality. During the act of reverting back to what culturally and art historically took place before the advent of modern art, post-modern painters have turned to history during the last twenty years: often with the motivation to invoke and expound on the problems of personal memories, hopes and prevailing predicaments vis-à-vis the obstructions and conflict-potentials of mankind’s past. Examples of this are Jörg Immendorf and his “Café Deutschland”, and Gerhard Richter’s Stammheim cycle.

There are also other contemporary painters who deal with history, not necessarily having experienced it themselves, like, for example, Luc Tuymans (born 1958) and his absorption with the National Socialist era, including his paintings of gas chambers (“Die Zeit” from 1988), a back-view of Hitler and paintings that explore the colonial past of his home country Belgium (“Beautiful White Men” 2000). With the objective of establishing a relation between the process and views of these painters as well as their processing of history, and mine as well, to the various branches of history, it could be said that the aforementioned artists are occupied with political and social history and that I belong in a category that examines contemporary witness-bearing of individual, seemingly insignificant individuals.

My role models, however, can be found farther back in time than these contemporary, yet traditional painters. Having been interested in art history ever since I can remember, I have devoted quite some time and attention to Old Dutch painting, especially the Master of Flemalle and, my personal favourite, Jan van Eyck. In Jan van Eyck’s work I particularly admire the stasis, the timelessness, the “silence of his art” (Otto Pächt). That which connects me with the already mentioned artist Luc Tuymans is a fondness for “calm” paintings. With calmness, I not only allude to content. I prefer light and shadow to colour; light saturation is more important to me than colour saturation. I paint from the centre outwards, and try to isolate portrayed individuals – to freeze them, so to speak.

I don’t want to depict historical events with my paintings, or some episode of my or some other life, or simply a nice family picture. If I can capture the zeitgeist, I am satisfied – although I actually want more. For me, the power of a painting lies in the supra-temporality that overcomes individual, self-contained and solitary existence. Timelessness lies outside of historical reality.

Heike Ising-Alms