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Martin Hentschel

Deceptive Idylls

On Stefan Kürten’s Painting, 2007

Life begins well, it starts enclosed, protected, nicely warm in the womb of the house. Gaston Bachelard


Sometimes the feelings of déjà-vu that arise while studying Stefan Kürten’s paintings are joined by a strange discomfort. It comes from the light in which the objects are bathed. Credible as the things in the paintings appear to us in their illusionism, they nevertheless seem strangely transported, as if the light had absorbed too much of their colour. And they may suddenly prompt us to ask by the bright noon of day whether that which we saw was due more to the light of the moon or to that of the sun. For the scenery in the paintings is steeped in an overall tonality that reaches from the brightest sections to the very darkest.

This phenomenon derives from the way the paint is built up. Kürten mostly begins his works with a shade of gold or silver; this defines the bottom-most layer. The representational elements, which are then applied with a draughtsmanly brush, gradually assume form while simultaneously sinking somewhat into the background. Only after applying at least two coats does the skeleton drawing in sepia shades separate out from the ground. The brightly coloured sections then require additional coats of paint, which is always applied in glazes. Yet however much paint the artist applies, it remains closely bound to the gold or silver ground. Which is why the paintings will suddenly shine out when lit from the side. Their colour seems to have been usurped by a gleaming light, which instantly gives way once more to the impression of bright colours the moment the viewer’s position or the angle of the light changes.

Moreover, the shaded sections lend scarcely any plasticity to the objects; painted in brownish to greyish shades, the shadows themselves seem curiously physical – having a physicality that develops alongside and parallel to the depicted scene. Conversely, even the palest points participate clandestinely in that unreal light that is mixed up with the shade. The picture’s coloration has the feeling of a flattened fabric, fleeting yet simultaneously untearable, that tends in one moment more to the light, in the next more to the dark, while the middle tone values hold the picture together at its heart. This affects all of the depicted objects: what is shown seems scarcely ever graspable, however illusionistic it might come across.


The houses and gardens that distinguish the painted universe of Stefan Kürten are not of this world. Although in every case they draw on a substrate of real houses and gardens that the artist takes from magazines, brochures, books or his own photographs, something happens to them in his paintings that transforms them into the stuff of daydreams. Kürten has said that for him, the notion of a house is intimately woven with his own childhood. The thought of a home of one’s own, which was his parents’ fondest wish, summoned up an equation between “home” and “happiness” that has become deeply etched into his being. So the discrepancy between that ideal and the everyday cares and worries that inevitably arose may be regarded as a decisive motivation behind his art. 1

This discrepancy is conveyed in several ways. When we look for instance at the painting Sunday, Sunday (2001), we see the garden side of a bungalow. The link between house and garden is effected by a large area paved in natural stone, which is fringed by isolated flower tubs. Adjoining this is a lawn, which itself is bordered by a dense row of pines. As charming as this domestic idyll  2  might seem on first sight, on closer inspection it comes across as strangely claustrophobic and stifling. The bottom of the garden is also the end of the world, where it becomes a “roundness”. The golden ground of the sky, worked with inconspicuous blue dots, forestalls any expectation that a horizon will appear. The little sunlight that has settled on the window frames and outside walls is muted by the uniform tonality of the whole. No life announces itself behind the house’s windows; the glass panes simply mirror the self-sufficient, sheltered realm of nature. We are inescapably reminded of those paralysing Sundays of our own childhood when the world stood still, where the bright hustle and bustle of daily life gave way to a need for rest and quiet that suited only the adults - and spelt agonising tedium for the children. With exceptional economy Kürten manages to freeze this domestic idyll into a false dream, not without keeping the ideal present as its foil.

The painting Perfect Day (2002) describes another version of this ambivalence. A typical single-family gable-roofed house from the 1960s forms the vanishing point for an extravagant garden fantasy. The head-high walls, transfixed solely by wooden gates, point to the heightened intimacy of the garden area. And truly it contains all the ingredients of an overpowering and beguiling nature scene with birds, fish pond and garden gnomes – just that they all seem curiously pieced together and synthetic. The bright cloth of the sunshade com- bines with the flagstones of the path to form a downward sloping plane. The sunny garden chair invites one to dally, but the brightly- feathered birds close by have turned out so large as to be menacing. Just one moment longer and the rest of this seemingly welcoming plot will have grown over, the garden have slipped into an enchanted hundred years’ slumber which bars any more entry. So here the ambi- valence between personal dream and nightmare is retained, with the pivotal moment lying in the garden’s exaggerated beauty.

Let us look at a third example, Beautiful People (2004 – 2005).   IMAGE

In place of a house we find a caravan, a cipher for all that is provisional and able to make itself at home everywhere in the world of beauty. It is kept in a specially designated place; a sign indicates children at play. The space is fenced off by a thick band of tropical greenery and magnificent palms, scattering the sun into warm patches about the scene. But there where the blue of the sky might give an indication of spatial breadth and depth is a finely done wallpaper pattern extending across it like a curtain. Its noblesse appears to be a perfect fit for the location, looking as it does like the extension of the unruly foliage. And it is precisely this congruence that sabotages the notion of the locus amoenus. All at once we realize that the caravan looks as though it has come to its last resting place; the trailer coupling has been covered over, the windows are dead. The dream of unlimited mobility is overtaken by the reality of an immobile property. Once again childhood memories pervade the image, thoughts of how the journeys one undertook with one’s parents, the adventures they promised were fulfilled more in the joyful anticipation of one’s imagination than at the destination itself. On arriving at the dream location, the exoticism of the place could unexpectedly switch to a never-ending, tormenting Sunday.


1  Cf. “Von Columbine bis Kaarst. An der Schwelle von Idylle und Kitsch. Oliver Zybok sprach mit dem in Düsseldorf und New York lebenden Künstler Stefan Kürten”, in Kunstforum International, vol. 179, Feb. – April 2006, p. 121 ff.

2  Compared to the original topoi of the idyll, as found in the pastorals of Theocritus and Virgil, the modern idyll of the domestic garden may be regarded as the “minimum definition of the idyll”. Cf. Rolf Wedewer, Jens Christian Jensen, ed., Die Idylle. Eine Bildform im Wandel. Zwischen Hoffnung und Wirklichkeit, Cologne, 1986, p. 28 ff.


A working day world dominated by rational expediency and the economic use of time simply calls for the idyll as a place to vanish to, whether as a brief escape in the form of a holiday trip, or more generously as a villa of one’s own. It is not by chance that Kürten’s œuvre visualises the motifs located on this side of the idyll, in the immediate vicinity of the events one is trying to escape.

Thus the two small-scale paintings Realschule and New Morning (both 2002) describe above all the inhospitality of provincial towns and their oppressive normality. Since the exemplars for these works – the black and white photos taken by Bernd and Hilla Becher’s student Volker Döhne – can be consulted, we can make com- parisons and examine the painter’s own creative procedure. Döhne’s photographs are both parts of lengthier sequences centred on landmarks within the urban perimeter. Focus and perspective change from photo to photo, and yet each of the chimneys remains manifestly a “landmark”, as the photographer terms them. In both cases Kürten changes the focus by eliminating the significant chimneys. As a result, the gap between the apartment houses in the painting Realschule becomes the central motif. But the artist also eliminates the children

playing around the Ford Fiesta, while in return he restores a portion of childhood, mentally at least, through the title Realschule [approx. Secondary School]. More than that: the title evokes that middle class sphere shown in the painting.

The true inventiveness of Kürten’s work lies, however, in the colouration. Here the artist draws on every possible means to make the scene plausible and characterise it in all its dreariness and dignity. And that is how the place is: people have settled down here, earn a livelihood, the curtains and potted plants are all in their right places, and there is enough for a garage to look after the compact car and maintain its resale value; so there are no shortages. Decisive once again is the sky, which has been developed here from a monochrome gold bronze sur- face that differs but slightly from the ochre of the firewalls. To the same degree that he deprives the actual place of breadth and air to breathe, he allows the other elements of his painting to condense into an emblem – the emblem of a wage-earner’s life that is safe and comfy in a middle-class building and now remains at a standstill for all time.

It is no different for the ensemble of middle-class buildings that are themed in New Morning. Work place and living space are immediate neighbours, all is right with the world, even if this is true only within a very tightly defined horizon. The new morning will be the same old one, with no great expectations, but also no nasty surprises: well-protected, familiar and unchanging.

The sight of these run-of-the-mill buildings prompts thoughts of that singularly run-of-the-mill house that Martin Honert described while looking back on his train journeys between Bottrop and Essen as one that “repeatedly gave me the feeling of dignity and content”. 3  Miniaturised, although significantly larger than a house in a model railway set, Honert created in his sculpture Haus (“House”) (1988) a memorial that truly reflected its times and which, as in Kürten’s work, contains all the ingredients of that middle class childhood that links the two artists. Here as there an almost chance, albeit frequently experienced ambience is released from the personal memory images it is linked with in order to save it for all time - in all of its limited beauty.


3  Cited in Martin Honert, Werkverzeichnis / Catalogue Raisonné 1982 – 2003, New York – Cologne 2004, unpag. (No. 12)


The possibility and the urge to trespass on the collective memory is also evident in the work African Safari Club (2003). Once again Kürten captures a striking section of urban architecture with emblematic value – a stretch of road that could equally be found in Duisburg or in Oberhausen, in Wolfsburg or Karlsruhe, paradoxically quite interchangeable while simultaneously quite unmistakable. Clearly built in the 1960s, punctuated by a hotel of more recent date, it visualizes that typical multifunctional zone made up of living spaces, shops and offices. A place we have all walked past hundreds of times, without ever stopping to look at it – that’s how much this row of buildings has become a part of the way things are for several generations. Even the travel agent’s is taken in without question. And only when the artist depicts the sign promising trips to Africa does it have a significant character - because for the most part signs point to somewhere close by. But here the words African Safari Club evoke the diametrical opposite of all that distinguishes this place. Linked by the architecture, escapism comes together with the middle class mentality on the one and the same level. As such the two conceptual opposites on which Stefan Kürten’s visual world as a whole feeds are brought together dialectically.

Kürten once related how as a child he often sat on the edge of the living room carpet where it was still warm, but where he was also close enough to the television, which commanded his attention. 4   This story grants us another horizon for interpreting the connection between ornaments and privileged places, as we saw for instance in Beautiful People (see above). And we see that the relationship between middle class mentality and escapism was always mapped out via the vehicle of the television. Even the carpet, which on the one hand can be assimilated into completely disparate living rooms, constitutes - through the way it visualises the foreign in an innocuous, ironed out and canonised form – a stronghold of exoticism within one’s own four walls that can serve as a spring- board for reveries.

Since around 2002 there has been a noticeable increase in the number of works in which Kürten covers part of the painting with ornamentation, regardless whether taken from carpet patterns or from sumptuous wallpapers. By combining ornament and image, he has arrived at a form that provides the thinking behind middle class escapism with both an external projection and an inner mood. With this, the exotic location can be brought back to the domestic refuge through the pattern, just as conversely the domestic location can be furnished with the insignia of alien beauty. 5

The latter occurs for instance in Balcony (2003) and Black Hole Sun (horizontal) (2006) (Plate p. 79), which are both covered in a layer of ornamentation running parallel to the picture surface. In Balcony the doubling of ornament and representationalism is particulary effective because the artist has unexpectedly introduced two enormous Aaron’s Rods, which transform the middle-of-the road apartment house into an exotic locale. Fittingly, the transformation is performed in the triad of colours red, yellow and blue, allowing the flowers to be harnessed with a sunshade on the balcony.


In conversation with the author, 31 January 2006

5  This is due to the double determination of the carpet pattern, for it is both homely and exotic.


But Kürten also employs ornament that is on the verge of becoming representational imagery. One of the earliest examples of this must be the painting Forever Now (2001), which shows a city street with towering buildings bathed in the light of a sunny afternoon. The blue wedge of sky left open by the lines of the street is covered by a wave of rudimentary ornamentation, whose structure is also reminiscent of a canopy of planets and stars. Van Gogh reversed this canopy, for instance, in his famous painting The Starry Night (1889) when he transformed it back into a rudimentary ornamentation and thus restored the visibility of the cosmos to the human eye. Kürten’s Forever Now likewise draws on this old identification between sky and cosmos;6 his ornamented starry sky – in the bright light of day – reconciles the city with the world, the cradle of culture with the cradle of nature.But the transition from representationalism to ornament – and vice versa – can also assume an ironic tone; this occurs for instance in the painting From Here to Eternity (2004). For this Kürten presents a veritable arsenal of country houses, derivates of that “hegemonic architecture” that once had its origins in Palladio’s villas. 7

Walter Benjamin has described the heightened experience of nature that the resident has when looking from his Italian villa when he wrote: “Yes, for him the landscape hangs in the window frame, for him alone it has been signed by God’s master hand.” 8  Kürten heightens and topples this experience by supersizing the flora in his painting and miniaturising the country houses. And he transforms untamed nature into the tamed nature of the garden: not by chance does it seem to have leapt from the pages of a botany book. Moreover, the way he makes ornamental patterns grow from the leaves and twigs of these picture book plants is nothing short of masterful. The desired equation of garden and idyll is produced in the twinkling of an eye. Even the smoke dancing above the hearth has grown an ornamental border. In this way the middle class dream of ideal living is drawn into the vortex of a Biedermeier order, which is crowned saucily by the Monarch of the Glen. The manner in which country houses and the plant world become literally groundless in their mutual entwinings is reminiscent of an ornamental grotesque. Ornamental and representational sections of the painting are brought to the one and the same level of reality, which presents itself as the projection of a “roving imagination”. 10

To all appearances this investigation of ornamental structures in Stefan Kürten’s paintings is taking us simultaneously to the very heart of his painting methods. At the beginning we noted that the paint on the canvas has the character of a flattened fabric. In point of fact the artist applies all of the coloured surfaces with the same fine brush, so that we can scarcely even talk of coloured surfaces in the concrete sense, but rather of coloured weaves. In keeping with this, Kürten stresses that every square centimetre of the painting is of equal importance to him. 11  As such the transitions between the pale and the dark sections of the paintings are never sharply delineated; the dark zones never really slip into the background but participate in the weave that spans the entire picture field, which reveals itself above all as surface structure. And it is this structure that largely determines the overall impression of the pieces; for all its illusionism, it always remains intact.

With this colour structure Kürten is in some respects taking on the old legacy we know from the paintings of artists such as Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard. Both painters were intent on finding ornamental motifs in their surroundings, so as to investigate and exemplify through them the new form of painting based on organised surfaces. 12

In Kürten’s case the ornamental structure has already left its mark on the way the brush is applied. Particularly in his numerous depictions of skies we can discern that the fabric-like, dappled structure is always on the road to ornament, even when it has yet to reach the stage of real ornamentation. Seen in this light, the use of patterns and ornamentation is already central to his way of painting.

Indeed, the way in which even large representational forms may be affected by this urge for ornament is shown for example in the paint- ing Sleepwalking (2006). There in the upper half of the painting the main section of the trees is mirrored in toto. Almost imperceptibly this allows the chance appearance of the foliage to be enmeshed in an ornamental context, such that nature becomes incorporated into the order and framework of the privileged house.


6  See Joachim Ritter, “Landschaft: Zur Funktion des Ästhetischen in der modernen Gesellschaft”, in Ritter, Subjektivität. Sechs Aufsätze, Frankfurt am Main, p. 147 ff.

See Reiner Bentmann, Michael Müller, Die Villa als Herrschaftsarchitektur. Versuch einer kunst- und sozialgeschichtlichen Analyse, Frankfurt am Main, 2nd edition 1981

8  Walter Benjamin, “Kurze Schatten”, in Benjamin, Illuminationen. Ausgewählte Schriften, Frankfurt am Main, 1969, p. 320

9  See with regard to the ornamental grotesque Friedrich Piel, Die Ornament-Grotteske in der italienischen Renaissance. Zu Ihrer kategorialen Struktur und Entstehung. (Neue Münchner Beiträge zur Kunstgeschichte, vol. 3, Berlin, 1962

10  “Grotesque is the improbable and outlandish, which ... allows one to sense the exaggeration if not artifice of the intentionally staged.... As such a roving imagination inhabits the grotesque, one that has freed itself from all serious connection with reality.” Manfred Thiel, “Die Auflösung der Komödie und die Groteske des Mythos”, in Studium Generale, vol. 8, 1955, issue 4, p. 279

11  In conversation with the author, 29 December 2006

12  One may recall here the frequently cited words of Maurice Denis, even if he was less convincing as a painter: “I think that above everything else a painting should be an ornament. The choice of subjects for scenes means nothing. It is through coloured surfaces, through the values of tones, through the harmony of the lines, that I attempt to reach the mind and arouse the emotions.” Cited in Ernst H. Gombrich, The Sense of Order, Oxford 1979, p. 58


More recently we find a number of paintings in Kürten’s œuvre in which curious additions appear scattered about the bushes and foliage, not unlike nests and seemingly without any connection to the floral structures. Only on second glance do we notice that each of the rounded shapes, which stand apart from their surroundings in colour terms, contains a fragment of a pattern. One could in fact speak of a scattered ornament. This formal repertoire is most evident in the com- position Meererbusch (John Carpenter) (2006).   IMAGE

Although the garage jutting out in front of the house, together with the small balcony, cast strong shadows on the pale white gabled facade, we are left in uncertainty as to whether this is the light of day or night. This uncertainty conveys a certain uncanniness, and the nests scattered about the branches are not unimportant in this feeling. Unprompted memories rise of those ominous flowers that feature in the film The Invasion of the Body Snatchers: flowers in houses and front gardens that create soulless doppelgangers of the residents, while literally sucking the latter dry in their sleep. 13  Kürten’s scattered ornaments seem particularly menacing because not only are they perceived as foreign objects - almost as if the canvas had been scorched at these points - but also because they assimilate themselves to some extent to their environs. The painting’s subtitle, which alludes to the old master of horror movies, further stokes this sense of something that instils fear.

At the same time Kürten manages to underscore the uncanny side of the overall topic of ‘the house’ by other means. In his painting Ghost Song 2 (2005), for instance, the uncanny is pro- duced solely through the discrepancy between the gleaming house and the darkening skies; and here as elsewhere the ornament of the skies plays a part inasmuch as it joins seamlessly with the ghostly dark tree on the right. What could be going on in this house?

And what could be going on in the house that forms the central motif for Shadowtime (2006 – 2007)? In this recent work, the artist dispenses with ornamental patterning, adding merely those mirrorings to the left and right of the house that we already know from Sleepwalking. And yet the motive behind them is quite different here: they are representational set pieces which confound the level of reality involved in the depiction, sending a slight shudder through the viewer. But the really uncanny effect results from the extremely economical use of bright colours, which emphasises the immoderate use of shade in the scene; compared to this, the sunny white surface of the house wall seems almost unreal. It is as if light and shade were two irreconcilable elements existing side by side. And in keeping with this overall impression, we find ourselves linking the gold coloured zones, which we are accustomed from other works to identify as sunny patches, with those ghostly nests in Meererbusch.

By means of the uncanny, Kürten has teased out an aspect of the house that may be regarded as a counterpart to the idyll. One that is the sub- ject of countless books and films. We have only to think of such movie classics as The Haunting by Robert Wise (1963), where to the mind of the leading character, Eleanor, the house acts like a living being, or of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), in which the eerie house rises to become the actual protagonist of the film. Sigmund Freud deduced that the uncanny occurs when something that was previously familiar and old-established in the mind becomes alienated through a process of repression. 14  This casts light on the connection between the cosy and the uncanny in the domestic sphere, which is also expressed in the polarity between cellar and garret. 15  Last but not least, Robert Louis Stevenson’s double figure Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde indicates that the idyllic and the uncanny may both be seen as forms of middle class escapism: while the ‘light’ side seeks “total happiness in limitation” 16 , the ‘dark’ side finds fulfilment in demonic excess. The former is as unaffected by social realities and constraints as the latter, both remain far removed.

Kürten has used the uncanny to tease out a particular facet of the house topos, and to such a degree that he genuinely extends the latter’s spectrum. And here the artist’s avoidance of human figures - which in any case creates a unique relationship in each work between viewer and scenario, quite independent of the subject at hand – receives a special explosiveness.

This enlargement of the theme reveals yet again that the means Kürten draws on for painting are essentially multivalent. Not only the various uses he makes of ornament point to this, also the way the light is employed in the picture assumes an exceptionally wide range of forms and is capable of evoking a great diversity of moods and mental horizons. This possibility of transformation within the same artistic means demonstrates, in turn, that “it is not a question of a visual configuration ‘being’ this or that, but rather that something or indeed something else ‘could be’.” 17  This is testified to by the productive, inventive activity of painting, its foremost concern.


11  In conversation with the author, 29 December 2006

12  One may recall here the frequently cited words of Maurice Denis, even if he was less convincing as a painter: “I think that above everything else a painting should be an ornament. The choice of subjects for scenes means nothing. It is through coloured surfaces, through the values of tones, through the harmony of the lines, that I attempt to reach the mind and arouse the emotions.” Cited in Ernst H. Gombrich, The Sense of Order, Oxford 1979, p. 58

13  The first version of the film was by Don Siegel (1956), the second, better-known version by Philip Kaufman (1978).

14  Sigmund Freud, “The ‘Uncanny’” [Das Unheimliche] (1919) in Standard Edition, Vol. XVII, trans. James Strachey, London, 1955. pp. 217-256, here p. 242

15  See Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, Boston, 1994, p. 3 ff.

16  Jean Paul, Vorschule der Ästhetik, in, Werke, vol. 5, ed. Norbert Miller, Munich 1963, p. 258

17  Reinhold Hohl, “Die heiteren Facetten des Kubismus. Über die schein- illusionistischen Bildinhalte kubistischer Gemälde”, in exhib. cat. Kubismus. Künstler – Themen – Werke, 1907–1920, Josef-Haubrich-Kunsthalle, Cologne 1982, p. 74

Martin Hentschel, 2007

(translated from German by Malcolm Green)





Texts by Martin Hentschel and Patrick T. Murphy

Catalog accompanying the exhibition  STEFAN KÜRTEN - SHADOWTIME

at the Kunstmuseen Krefeld, Museum Haus Esters, March/April 2007

and the Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin, July/August 2007

ed. by Martin Hentschel

Printed and published by Kerber Verlag, Bielefeld, 2007