This issue contains:
>> A Conversation with Elvira Bach
>> The Dresden woman painter Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler

In our archives:
>> A conversation between Darius James and Kara Walker
>> Reunion in New York
>> Man in the Middle - "In Fantastic Company"
>> The Ironic Masquerades of Kara Walker

 

”Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman…” –
A Conversation with Elvira Bach


In the midst of its world tour, the exhibition ”Il Ritorno dei Giganti” can currently be seen in Monterrey, Mexico before continuing its trip throughout the rest of Latin America. With ”The Return of the Giants,” the collection of the Deutsche Bank is showing a selection of works that enjoyed a spectacular triumph in the art world at the beginning of the eighties under the collective title Heftige Malerei or fierce painting. With tremendous formats and expressive gestures, ”real painters” such as Georg Baselitz, Jörg Immendorff, or Markus Lüpertz represented a decidedly male posture. As one of the few women artists successful in establishing herself in the circle of the fierce painters and Neue Wilden, the works of Elvira Bach are also being introduced in ”Il Ritorno dei Giganti.” Brigitte Werneburg visited the painter in her Berlin studio and asked her about her memories of the eighties.



Elvira Bach

Question: Over the years, the ratio of women making up the student body at the art academies has risen to two-thirds. According to the latest edition of the ”Zeit,” the greatest increase has occurred in the area of painting. This was certainly not the case in your time, was it?



Brigitte Werneburg and Elvira Bach (right)

Elvira Bach: No, no. Back then, the classes were definitely fifty-fifty, and sometimes there were even more women than men.

But then, when all the talk was of fierce painting and its tremendously sized canvases, it became this big celebration of potency and masculinity. In the group of the Neue Wilden in Berlin, you were the only lady in the group portrait. Did you feel you belonged to this group around Rainer Fetting, Bernd Zimmer, Salomé, and Helmut Middendorf?

I studied at the same time at the Hochschule der Künste as Middendorf, Fetting, and Salomé did, although I was in Hann Trier’s class, not Karl Horst Hödicke’s. Sure, we met here or there, usually in ”Exil,” Oswald Wiener’s restaurant in Kreuzberg, or later in the ”Paris Bar.” There was definitely an exchange of ideas going on, and the others were there, as well. Lüpertz, Baselitz, Koberling, and Hödicke were sitting at the other tables. Fetting, Zimmer, Salomé, and Middendorf, they basically belonged to Moritzplatz. That group was bigger. The four became known very quickly through the 1980 exhibition ”Heftige Malerei” at Berlin’s Haus am Waldsee. I was often wrongly ascribed to this group, but I was never a part of it.



Nacht unter Palmen - aus Serie mit 7 Blättern, 1983, gouache on paper

But you became successful very quickly, as well. In 1978, even before you finished at the HdK, you had your first one-person exhibition, which was called ”Various Things in a Butcher’s Shop.” Three years later, you were in one of the most important exhibitions of the time, ”Bildwechsel” at the Akademie der Künste. And one year later, in 1982, you were invited to documenta 7. On the other hand, you were missing at other important exhibitions such as ”A New Spirit in Painting” in London or ”Von hier aus” in Düsseldorf. So you weren’t considered a part of the scene, after all?

I just painted and didn’t worry about the others all that much. Actually, I reject the idea of the group. It’s not really my thing. But it helps people get known. Before I studied painting at the HdK, I’d gained some insight into theater work, doing scenic painting at the Schaubühne from 1972 to 1979 as well as prompting or just working in the foyer. That’s where I realized that team work can be something really great. You need the director, the set designer, the dramatic advisor, and the costume designer. At the same time, though, I knew that I’d rather be doing something I could do alone, that nobody else could influence. In my studio, I close the door behind me and do what I want. In retrospect, when I think about it, it becomes clear that it’s good to have a lobby. I never had that. These male networks: when it comes down to it, men are brought up to form teams.

And women aren’t accepted all that easily?

Well, Ina Barfuß was a part of it, for instance, through Thomas Wachweger, who she worked together with. You had to be able to keep up somehow. And above all drink along with the rest. And although I can hold my liquor pretty well, I still would have had to up the ante even more. And I definitely think that plays a role, too.



Ohne Titel – aus der Serie Aufstehen, 1980-82, gouache on paper

And so you stood out with your painting. What I find interesting is that Heinrich Klotz, the former founding director of the ZKM in Karlsruhe, wrote in his book ”The Neue Wilden in Berlin” (1987): ”Elvira Bach is too good to assume the role of the alibi woman as opposed to the ‘pure male hegemony’ in this book.” And that was that with you in his book; he simply got rid of you in this way – because you’re too good.

I just painted. Another part of it was that no one could say they’d discovered me. Nobody came to my studio. At least not early enough. And so no one can say: we discovered her, and we’re to thank for the fact that she’s well known. But people need that. Even at the Berlinische Galerie – who collected everyone else, but never came to me. They have one work of mine, and only because it was donated.



Ohne Titel – aus der Serie Aufstehen, 1980-82, gouache on paper

At your first one-person exhibition, ”Various Things in a Butcher’s Shop,” what were the various things?

It was an evening I’d organized myself. I just nailed my works up on the wall and had a party. There used to be a place where you could get 200 marks every six months after you showed them your work. That was the only time I exploited something like that. I even sent someone else, too, with my portfolio. We went shopping with the 400 marks, invited the punk band ”PVC,” who played there, and then everybody came, theater and film people too, Ulrike Ottinger, Tabea Blumenschein. It was a very intense time back then. With music, punk in SO 36. On Moritzplatz, too, those were the best parties.



Elvira Bach



Ohne Titel - aus der Serie Aufstehen", 1980-82, gouache on paper

”Various things,” though, didn’t refer to your artistic method. Women in particular enjoyed taking on other media during this time, photography or video. You painted. Why painting?

That was a really old notion of mine. I’d already wanted to be a painter when I was a child. The move to Berlin was totally logical. I’d always wanted to do something with color, become a painter. At the HdK I realized pretty quickly that I had to give my fantasy space, my colors and forms. I’ve accepted the fact that painting comes from me, that it’s my gesture. That was completely subjective. And then there was this ”hunger for pictures,” as Wolfgang Max Faust said. That was picked up on by the viewers, as well. Color, figures, and spontaneous gestures were tremendously appreciated.

But when you take the figure, at the same time Cindy Sherman was becoming known with her film stills. Suddenly, the figure was there again, via photography. As well as a criticism of feminine roles. Back then, you decided to address the female figure. But more in the sense of a celebration of the strong woman?

I wanted to show the woman as an individual, not imbedded in the group or together with other people. That was my experience, anyway. By exhibiting myself, just like my paintings. Observing myself. How are the reactions. Can you do that, are you allowed to do that, as a woman, stand at the bar like that, beautifully dressed? The women figures developed out of these experiences. I was interested in that, without a man, without a girlfriend, to just go somewhere alone, unprotected.



Nacht unter Palmen – aus Serie mit 7 Blättern, 1983, gouache on paper

But then where were you located?

I think in my work. I’ve always worked a lot. The time passed so quickly, I didn’t even notice it. First the seven years at the Hochschule der Künste, and then I took on the studio in Kreuzberg, and then people already started coming. I never would have dreamed it could happen. I thought I’d get by somehow, but I never would have thought that I could live off it. I think that’s wonderful, that my dream as a young girl has become reality and that I’ve become a painter and can make my living doing it. Sometimes I even think: my God!

Who represented you on the art market, who brought you to New York, to the galleries there?

For many years, that was Ingrid Raab. She took me to the art fairs: to Chicago, to Basel, to Cologne. For me, the Raab Gallery was the most important gallery in Berlin in the seventies and eighties. The situation was really good there. The other artists dropped by, on their way to the studio. That was where people met; it was a great time.



Nacht unter Palmen – aus Serie mit 7 Blättern, 1983, gouache on paper

Your paintings emit something of that nature. They look like paintings from a time when women felt good and strong.

People probably noticed me because I placed the female figures in the foreground, painted them larger than life, right at the front of the stage, frontally. Without a background, without perspective. I paint the urban woman.

Your woman, though, is also a kind of Robinson. So independent, so alone. Isn’t she a little anti-social, too?

Anti-social?

Yes, your women could easily be decoded as the urban variety – through the clothing, the jewelry, the pose. But you don’t find out anything more about them.

Well, when it comes to the clothes, the make-up: it takes a huge amount of energy to do yourself up like that. To look like the role models in the media and the newspapers. The demands that are placed on women are of course extremely problematic.



Weibliche stehende Figur, 1989, c-print on paper

But aren’t you painting these role models, too? Real women, the way we should try to be?

I can’t do without dressing the woman up, making her beautiful. That’s just got to be. It’s a matter of showing a bit of skin. Showing skin is difficult. This vulnerability. You can do that when you’re feeling good. But you don’t always feel good. It’s much easier to shut down.

I’m looking at the potato peeler behind you – wasn’t that painted ten years ago? Is that a game with Immendorff in there? Art has to take on the function of the potato?

Yes, maybe. In any case, I couldn’t paint the strawberries that always used to turn up in my paintings, I couldn’t paint this beautiful, sweet fruit anymore. And so I dug the potato out of the ground and placed it in the woman’s hand, together with a sharp knife.



Kartoffelschälerin

And your women of today?

What’s very important is keeping a continuity in the work and sticking to it. It’s often really difficult to organize everything. Women artists are confronted with their biological clock in an entirely different way and are faced with different problems than their male colleagues are. Having children early, for example – and it’s the same for many women in many different areas – makes things particularly difficult. I always thought art meant renouncing things. But art is just the opposite. For a long time, my paintings were something like my children. But then, when I really became a mother, it was an overwhelming experience of an entirely different kind. I only took the plunge, though, after I was already able to live off my work (see Elvira Bach's catalogue "Kinder, Küche, Kunst").

The art market has its own laws. In my case, success turned up unexpectedly and I wasn’t prepared for it. It’s a real challenge, both in a positive and negative sense, standing up to all this pressure of success that one is constantly being subjected to. It costs a huge amount of energy and belief, and above all else, you realize that you have to motivate yourself.


Brigitte Werneburg is cultural editor at the taz in Berlin

© VG Bild Kunst, Bonn 2002