Painting over the past

Thomas Brezing is one of those rare contemporary artists who forges an inner connection between art and life and “becomes answerable through and through”, as Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin once challenged artists to do. Brezing's sense of answerability extends beyond his individual actions to those of Germany, the country in which he was born. He lays bare his sense of complicity in the horrors of the Nazi era. Whether by default or blood lines, German history is under his skin. The paintings itch the sore spots, brood on areas of confusion, look for comfort and confrontation, and attempt to do the impossible – offer an apology. Brezing struggles with wanting “what one cannot not want” for himself and for Germany – namely, the implicit possibility of forgiveness.


This impossible bind does not rest with German history alone. In ‘Everyone is Displaced: Home is Outside', Brezing battles with the sense of cultural homelessness that is a familiar symptom of global immigration, yet, as the title suggests, one does not have to immigrate to lose that sense of home. In ‘A Man Comes to Germany' there is the longing for a ‘home' that no longer exists. The painting recalls writer Wolfgang Borchert's characters' sense of displacement in post-war Germany, but one senses the artist's contemporary identification with their feelings.

In interview, Brezing has suggested that an inner emigration preceded his physical emigration from Germany to Ireland in the early-1990s. Yet, with a touch of self-irony, he reflects on the fact that even penguins, the most ‘natural' inhabitants, are faced with displacement in their own home. Their unexpected appearance in ‘A Thousand years in the Cold' proposes somewhat humorously that animals may be better suited than humans to make the adaptations necessary to survive our self-imposed global warming.

By bringing repressed feelings and fears to consciousness, Brezing's paintings are cathartic in their impulse, but they do not sustain the promise of permanent relief from such symptoms. In ‘And They Sunk into a Deadly Sleep', the “Heil Hilter” gesture has been sublimated into a series of moves that are identifiable as a mass response. These gestures evoke a Mexican wave in a crowded stadium as much as a Nazi rally. In this light, every public gathering becomes suspicious – rightly or wrongly. A crowd of people walking through a landscape takes on uncertain overtones in ‘In Front of Us Hope Led the Way'. We do not know whether solidarity is a threat or a solace, an observation with repercussions for current political imaginings.

French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud suggests that “contrary to the received idea, we are not saturated with images, but subjected to the lack of certain images, which must be produced to fill the blanks of the official image of community”. In Brezing's recent paintings, the most familiar imagery is reworked in a manner that asks us to reconsider our black-and-white imagining of the past and the present. In ‘As They Separated the Healthy from the Sick', the Nazi symbol of an eagle holding an oak wreath containing a swastika has been altered. The swastika has been replaced by roses. Does the symbol now refer to the grip of Nazi power over German folk culture? Is it a reminder of the presence of the White Rose resistance group and how differently history may have unfolded? The alteration undoes the sense of unity of German culture in the picture, undoes our sense of already knowing these disturbing but hackneyed images of the past. Due to an uncanny fusing of German folk (volk) imagery with Volk (The People) in paintings like ‘Almost Fit to be Hugged' – whose title refers to the increased popularity of Germans after the last World Cup – we are asked to renegotiate the uneasy relationship between German culture and Third Reich history that extends into our own time. Like Walter Benjamin's materialist historian, Brezing “stops telling the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary. Instead, he grasps the constellation which his own era has formed with a definite earlier one. Thus he establishes a conception of the presence as the ‘time of the now' which is shot through with chips of Messianic time.” The gymnasts going through the motions like the resigned public in ‘Waiting for Lidl' (2005) return unexpectedly in ‘Nation without Friends' as the centrepiece to a Nazi rally, as if to suggest that the ennui and the hard times of the crowd in the first painting might translate to the latter. A silhouette of contemporary aircraft behind a hedge of Bavarian folk roses in ‘In The Years of the Boomerang' further pushes the scenario into our own “war on terror” era – as if, to use Benjamin's words, “seiz[ing] hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger”.

Lucy Cotter Lucy Cotter is an Irish art critic and lecturer at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy, Amsterdam Opposite page: ‘Everyone is Displaced - Home is Outside', 2006, oil on canvas, 147 x 122cm This page, top: ‘And they Sunk into a Deadly Sleep', 2006, oil on canvas, 200 x 150cm Bottom left: ‘Almost Fit to be Hugged', 2006, oil on canvas, 147 x 147cm Bottom right: ‘A Thousand Years in the Cold', 2006, oil on canvas, 147 x 147cm