Detail: Die Flut, 2010, Oil on canvas, 130 x 500 cm (2 parts)
The Berlin-based artist duo RÖMER+RÖMER has been demanding a great deal of attention for years now with their cooperatively achieved paintings, which are primarily devoted toward the portrayal of young people and their activities within urban, political or private settings. The two artists tend to focus on observing and depicting scenes that have been manifested outside of the general consciousness. Their paintings capture fleeting moments that take place on the fringes of demonstrations, parades and concerts; musicians performing in clubs and their audiences; flea market vistas; and snack bars and parks whose lawns are populated by young people barbecuing and otherwise amusing themselves. Nina and Torsten Römer direct their attention equally toward confrontations, joyfully energetic togetherness and quiet leisure. Their pictures, which – due to the fragmentary nature and spontaneous attitude of the pictorial narrative – often recall the immediacy of film stills, deal with the sensitivities and emotional perceptions of the couple’s own generation, whereby it is no accident that the individual is often found to have merged with the crowd.
A number of journeys undertaken by RÖMER+RÖMER have allowed them to expand their repertoire and exploit a plethora of divergent motifal worlds, as a recent series of milieu studies based on their experiences while staying in Beijing has shown. Their great curiosity and unprejudiced interest in the unaccustomed actualities, exotically picturesque environs but also trivialities, and of course their encounters with people of other cultures along with their customs and gestures have repeatedly induced the artists to reach for their cameras to document what was taking place before their eyes. Their subsequent transposition of the resulting photographic images into large-format paintings undertaken in their studio lends a new relevance to the snapshot-like recordings. Fascination experienced when encountering an unexpected event among a crowd of people can provide the driving force behind a pictorial decision just as well as situations captured incidentally in the vicinity of a celebrated monument. Nina and Torsten Römer’s working methodology is founded upon constant research, the results of which are archived, and then continuously weighed, filtered and revised. Once a motif has been found that is deemed by the artists to be worthy of representation (conforming to their concepts both in terms of content and on a formal level), the respective digital photograph is edited on a computer, and the image’s colour composition, resolution, focal qualities and density are repeatedly modified and reviewed until it meets their expectations – montage is undertaken in only a very few instances. The suitability of each motif for use in a blown up format is also carefully considered. Similarly to the way compositions of small paintings are often rendered ineffective when transferred onto a large format, enlargement of the selected photographic images can be highly problematic. After all of this has been carried out, the photographic template can finally make its way from among the collection of images and onto the canvas, whereby the oil colours – their number and hues having already been carefully selected and determined for each painting – are not applied in uniform p layers but rather with pastose daubs and points, and short strokes of the brush, in order to emulate the pixels of the original digital format. It is from the endless number of adjacent coloured flecks and spots that the final picture ultimately emerges, causing the pictorial details – having been woven into a veritable spectre of colour – to become highly abstract when viewed from up close; in terms of both their own forms and the way they interact with their neighbouring elements, the individual and unblended paint-forms applied develop an astounding vitality of their own. It is finally the beholder’s gaze that, viewing each painting from a distance, combines the smaller individual coloured forms into an optical unity. The use of this divisionist – as opposed to pointillist – technique causes the beholder to experience the surfaces of RÖMER + RÖMER paintings as though pulsating in a subtle but constant shimmer. Indeed, the painters’ application of daubs and blotches in immediate reference to the templates produces abnormalities and inconsistencies that call into question the degree of truth claimed by the substance of the original photos – or at least what is left of this after they have been edited and transformed. ‘Digital photography, especially in JPG mode, collects compressed visual information and retains a certain adjustable pixel resolution.We highlight this unique quality in our painting with a certain degree of emphasis. […] In our approach to the medium, we are reflecting on the new aspects that digital photography has brought with it – thereby enriching photography in general – and, inspired by these developments, aim to bring them into the medium of painting.’ (Nina and Torsten Römer). The manifold enlargement lays bare details engendered by various alienating elements inherent to the digital material. As an example, Nina Römer has referred to the presence of visual artifacts that are generated by common marginal losses or corruption of the digital information and – especially when enlarged – often entail tinted markings or produce a moiré pattern, the effects of which are ultimately adopted and thus influence the final result. Along with a defocusing of certain passages and occasional resort to pixel compression, these effects serve to intensify the painterly atmosphere of the captured pictorial content, to superpose the figurative borders and to reduce the importance of the ostensibly neutral and authentic precepts of the photographic medium substantially.
The approach taken by the two artists in absorbing impressions gained from the diverse visual manifestations of their own present time, first garnering them and finally fixing and preserving them, complies with certain perceptions formulated in 1863 by Charles Baudelaire in his essay on the Painter of Modern Life, which has remained so influential up into the current day: ‘For the perfect flaneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to dwell within the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, and in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite […]. [He] will be the last to linger, wherever a glow of light remains, an echo of poetry resounds, a quiver of life or a chord of music; wherever a passion can enchant his eye, wherever natural man and conventional man display themselves in strange beauty […]. He makes it his business to extract from fashion whatever element it may contain of poetry among the passing of time, to distil the eternal from the transitory.’ Baudelaire viewed the extraction and artistic preservation of impressions gained through communication with one’s own contemporary environment through creative action as an imperative duty of the artist, a consideration that finds great resonance in the pictorial and artistic thinking of Nina and Torsten Römer, which precludes any kind of static staging or conscious posing. Real and unspectacular proceedings are – in a manner comparable to that often employed by genre painting from the seventeenth century onward – documented and subjectively interpreted, whereby the distinctive term genre is, in this case, not to be understood as a form of depiction belonging to an idealized middleclass interiority but rather in the sense of an unsentimental, pathos-free and largely non-dramatic figure painting. ‘The possibility for true participation is best attained when an indiscernibly transient and modest moment is depicted, hardly elevated beyond the mere state of being. The antagonism between dramatic painting and existence painting in its entire fundamental poignancy is not what should be stressed here, however; the genre is often to be found among the borders of both.’ (Jakob Burckhardt in his piece Über die niederländische Malerei [On Dutch Painting]).
RÖMER+RÖMER have now added a new setting to their group portraits, which distinguish themselves in many respects from earlier works. During a journey through Korea, the artists found their way to the coast of the East Sea, also referred to by Koreans as the Sea of Friendship and by their neighbours on the sea’s opposite shores as the Sea of Japan. Along the harbour city Busan’s kilometreslong stretch of city shorelines, the couple observed the beach-life there and photographed groups of schoolgirls and teenagers as they plunged through the waters of the surging sea. Astonishingly, the young people they photographed are, almost without exception, completely clothed; they are either fully dressed in their school uniforms or in fashionable jeans and short-sleeved T-shirts, a state of affairs which (as long as one avoids assuming the presence of prudery or restrictions placed by teachers or parents) points toward the notion that they might be making use of a school recess or work break to take a quick dip, not happening to have their bathing suits at hand or perhaps being unable to swim, therefore lacking the courage to venture any further than a few meters into the water. Differences in the behaviour displayed by the girls from that of the boys are easily discernible: whereas the girls tend to enter the water with shyness and surprise, taking tentative steps and holding hands, the uninhibited mirth that the occasion provides the young men with is clearly evident. With great abandon, they wrestle with one another and, slaphappy and free of all constraint, proceed to form pyramids meant to facilitate rollicking piggyback rides. The series of paintings based on these surprising photos from Korea, depict the young people with snapshot-like immediacy primarily from behind, viewed from the beach – a fact which may explain the uncoerced behaviour of the photographed subjects. Noticeably, the contours of single forms interior to the compositions have been strengthened, thereby causing the figures to detach from the background with greater emphasis and providing the palette with greater tonality. Aside from the presence of a few sadly bobbing motor boats and the mere silhouette of a nearby high-rise that looms in one scene, the social surroundings inherent to beach amusement have been omitted. The wide backdrop of the shore and sea beneath an emotionless sky provides RÖMER+RÖMER – who have already proven in earlier works to be enthusiastic as well as virtuoso painters of water – with a welcomed opportunity to ascribe increasing importance to landscape elements. The light-infused ambiance through which their protagonists move entice toward refined games with texture, immaterial light effects and planar colour-structures. One follows the rolling of the waves onto sandy shores upon which the sea foam sputters and then gazes into the seeming endlessness of a sea, disrupted only by a few spectacular rock formations or a distant lighthouse. The notion that such suggestively loaded vistas entail not only positive thoughts in current times, however, has been well noted in discussions with RÖMER+ RÖMER, who have chosen the subject not lastly due to their great alarm at the growing evidence concerning environmental pollution and global warming, the consequences of which are certain to lead to a rise in sea levels within the foreseeable future. Viewed against this backdrop, their recourse to the beach motif is also to be understood as an attempt at preserving the memory of an idyll that threatens to be lost forever. Across time, painters and poets have been enchanted from the mythical and longingly venerated beauty of the sea just as much as they have from its more menacing qualities, and each of them has viewed and described it in a variety of ways. It has been portrayed over the centuries as both life-giving and sinister, whereby its depiction, as Dieter Asmus has noted, is to be found at the very top of the difficulty-scale: ‘It is not only by nature colourless, formless and transparent […]. The original – in its three-dimensionality, structure, movement and colour; in its smell, sound, haptic qualities and plasticity; in short: in its absolute singularity – is simply never to be attained nor ever topped. […] Through fixing the freely moving stream, time is frozen, not imitated. It is through this negation, however, that it first becomes distinctly palpable.’
When comparing these bathing scenes by RÖMER+RÖMER with the thematically related Maries de la Mer III, a beach depiction showing gypsy girls playing on the coast of the Camargue painted by the Swiss Hyperrealist Franz Gertsch in 1972 (whose portraits of the rock musician Patti Smith likewise invite comparison to the Berlin-based duo’s rock-musician paintings), the differences between the painterly approach taken by the Römers and that of the photorealist become evident. Common to the work of both parties is the transposition of the subject matter onto large-scale formats (whereby even details are imbued with planar qualities), the dependence of the depictions upon photographs taken by the artists and, in the end result, a clean style of painting that is highly convincing when viewed from both a distance as well as a close proximity.Whereas Gertsch, however, used the brush to meticulously simulate the reality-true information held within the positive slide transparency, together with the light particles engendered by its projection in all of their intensity upon an unprimed ground, and viewed the undertaking as an energetic process, RÖMER+RÖMER, in their reproduction procedure, profit from the technical singularities inherent to their departure-medium in their search for solutions – whereby they are also dealing with the problem of reaching an immediate proximity to reality while bound by the tenants of their own perceptions – without having to relinquish any decisions to modify the given visual elements as they are translated into the dappled colour structures of their painting method. They rely upon their abilities to manipulate and to intercede, allowing them to modify the overall quality and colour framework of first the whole painting but then also of its details, so that even those places on the canvas which have not been covered with paint are transformed into elements of painting.
Translation: Nathan Moore