For Malte Sartorius

From Helmut Heissenbüttel

The lyricist, essayist, novelist, and critic Helmut Heißenbüttel studied architecture, German literature, and art history. He was a member of the Gruppe 47, the German Academy for Language and Poetry, and the Academy of Arts in Berlin. In 1969, he was awarded the Georg Büchner Prize. “Pictures do not portray, they make things visible,” was one of his insights into graphic arts, and for his lyrical poetry, “Fragments on the brink of silence.” “No Job, married, left arm amputated (1941 in Russia) and means of subsistence: war veteran’s pension” – that is how he characterized himself once, and --“writing irregularly since my 15th year.” He died shortly after his 75th birthday, on which occasion his friends had dedicated a „Fastschrift“ (instead of „Festchrift“) to him.




In a conversation with Armin Schreiber in January 1976 Malte Sartorius, draughtsman and graphic artist, explained how he develops his pictures from photographic material: "When I have finally made my choice of photograph, which is only after a long process of selection, I put it under the episcope and trace the main lines on to a large sheet of drawing paper which I first colour by rubbing light coloured powder paint on to it. I also trace the lines in a very light colour, so that later they will not be visible. Then I begin to build up the actual drawing, using several layers of strokes, one upon the other; I begin, for instance, with a warm yellow over a cool yellow, then orange, green and finally cool and warm blue. This gives a texture in which I carefully increase the intensity of the colours, changing all the time from cold to warm, finally achieving virtually a monochrome effect."

Up to this point Sartorius was using documentary photographs from text-books, newspapers, reports - anonymous pictures, in other words, but pictures which have a very specific atmosphere. They reflect the observer's standpoint, coming close to the pictures retained by the memory, even if they lack its living flow. They are, so to speak, mummified recollections which reawaken what we thought was lost. The method which the artist uses matches this. Sartorius says: "By using layers of strokes I can create patterns which establish the relation to the original material. As I have pointed out, I am using photographs, which consist of a series of patterns, and my method of superimposed layers of strokes without an individual style, is virtually the adaptation of the technical process by which a photograph comes into being without being a copy of it."

As a print the photograph stands for a different way of seeing things. Reality is not what can be absolutely measured, the world, the environment, space, figures, figural relations in a spatial context. On the contrary, what is visible and can be represented appears as at the end of a corridor, as on a screen which is already structured or patterned and through which and on which the images appear. Sartorius belongs to the generation who found the traditional means of producing pictures formal or material constructivism, informal methods, the use of monochrome or the approach which takes the picture as an object - inadequate. But these young artists were still not prepared to carry on where the Impressionists, Expressionists or the artists of New Objectivity left off as if abstract painting, which once seemed such a revelation, had never existed (how else could they have become so absorbed in cobalt blue areas or slit canvases!) But if one cannot simply pass over abstraction and return to a more conservative approach, the method of presentation, the contents and formal structure of the picture, have to be re-considered, thought out afresh. Like many of his contemporaries Sartorius began with an affinity to Surrealism before he moved over, in remarkable objectivity, to exploring and re-determining the relations between the semantics and the grammar of his pictorial language.

In the conversation quoted above Sartorius commented on this: "In my method of working I follow the principle of the patterns in the photograph as far as possible by avoiding volume beyond the absolute minimum needed to make an object recognisable as such. The foreground, middle ground and background are all treated in the same way, there is only structure in the picture, no texture. A skirt is treated not differently than a tree, a tree no differently than a section of the sky. I place the individual elements in the picture so close together that the integration of detail results in a flat area. This overlaps with what we have just been saying about the contents of the picture-it is in conjunction with certain artistic aims, namely the aim to avoid depth and keep the surface flat, that is, the surface of the picture must be treated as a flat surface, it must remain a pictorial area, untouched, so to speak."

It is striking that Sartorius' ideas on the contents or subject of his picture draw on photographic experience, but his artistic principles are not so far removed from what the concrete or monochrome artists see as their problem. The evocation of images, which played such an important part in Surrealism, appears to be re-absorbed or objectivised in that irreality which photos have, that shift in the impression of reality which is so hard to explain, an experience of reality, of sensory perception in a medium which might be a dream but which can still be factually confirmed, documented. In the images which Sartorius evolved in his drawings and the corresponding screenprints of this period the compactness and consistency of the surface play a major part.

That is perhaps clearer in the screenprints than in the drawings. The technique involved in graphics makes the strokes or patterns of spots more anonymous. At the same time the surface on which these patterns are superimposed appears more resistant, almost material. The process of building up a picture of superimpositions does in fact give the drawing the character of a volume which swells and recedes, even if in a very flat area, the strokes lie closer together, they are more intimately related. In the screenprints there are places where the eye can unravel the structure and suddenly the layers become visible as layers, it is as if veils had been torn away. The surface which does indeed become extremely dense through the many superimpositions, begins as it were to vibrate. One sees both nothing but the structure and nothing but the photo which has served as model. Where changes between light and shade are important the pictures seem to be flooded with light. This is later repeated, though in quite a different way, through the structure of the strokes, in the etchings.

We should remember that the conversation between Malte Sartorius and Armin Schreiber which I have just quoted came at a time when this phase of Sartorius' art was concluded. In fact, he ceased to use anonymous or documentary photos about 1976. It was then that he also ceased to produce screenprints corresponding to his drawings and changed to etching. After that date both his drawings and his etchings derive from photos which he takes himself; the main subjects are landscape and still life. The transition came in 1976/77 with a series of drawings called "Landscape" and showing rubbish tips or corners full of waste. Parallel came etchings of broken edges, incisions, as it were, in an organic but amorphous structure.

In these transition pictures, in which Sartorius moves away from the theme of the evocation of the photographic evocation, as one might say, (there is a striking correspondence in literature, perhaps I may just point this out, in the stories by the Swedish writer Per Olof Sundmann, who uses documentary material in a similar way) the structure becomes the content. Things that have been thrown away, that have accumulated just by change, unworked terrain, these are the landscapes. They are in the most extreme state of dissipation. The horizon, generally irregular, is so clearly marked that the section appears like an incision. The technique is like an objectivised "tachisme". But the confusion in fact makes the details all the clearer, it gives them greater emphasis. The pale colours, deepening in small areas, underline this. This is not only a landscape, it is the world, the disordered sameness of each individual which cannot be arranged in any order.

The substantial disorder, which in a certain way represents a victory for the structural method over the object, is even more apparent if one sees how accents are gradually introduced, in "Corded Palms", "Fences", and new "Landscapes". At first the accentuation only serves to give one section a clearer delimitation, make it more apparent, but then it forms a complex to which the disorder orients. The later still lifes, interiors and pictures such as "Granja" and "Brocante" and the studio etchings, display a wide range of objects which can hardly be overlooked. But the objects are not spread out beside each other, they are ordered into vertical, horizontal and diagonal groups and columns. Groups of trees, features of a landscape and streets are treated similarly.

We now find a new type of drawing: several landscapes, interiors or still lifes, each a separate entity, are compiled like a collage on one sheet of paper. However, this is not collage in the usual sense, as the aim here is not to combine what is alien or irreconcilable. Sartorius is trying to combine several focal points in one picture. Like Wolfgang Schmitz, also a draughtsman, he is attempting a draft of multi-focal drawing. The main feature is that Sartorius, unlike many of the American photo-realists who include the illusionist element, does not dissolve the surface. On the contrary, he intensifies it in quite a different and very surprising way. The multi-focal principle in turn serves to accentuate what is dissipated, the detail becomes clearer and as it emerges becomes an even more indissoluble part of the whole. It only exists in this drawn and prescribed context.

The later etchings show even more clearly than the drawings how the unstructured space, the area which has been left blank, plays a part. We see shadows and reflections in a clearer context, while contrasts appear against the light or lit up against a dark ground. The subject of the etching is not of major importance, these are everyday objects or tools, dishes, things that are no longer needed, bushes, things we hardly notice. For this very reason the objects and the groups they form are all the more striking. The strokes cut deep into the etching plate, giving a structural organisation. It was Giorgio Morandi and Jacques Villon who first used superimposed strokes in etching to show volume. But Sartorius, as the comparison shows, is concerned to intensify his surface. The complete coverage of the surface with the modulation of strokes is what makes the object, which is now so clear and so much a part of the whole, something quite new and, I would suggest, gives it an incredible significance.

The vibration of the surface through this modulation, which in some of his screenprints seems to be caught in the rectangle of the mount, in these etchings radiates into the area round the edge. The image of the etching forms, as it were, an object itself. This is perhaps even more apparent in the landscapes than in the still lifes. In the landscapes it is not the structures or their superimposition which achieve the transformation of the stroke into the quality of light but individual strokes which run out into the blank space. The depth, which is apparent in both drawings and etchings for all the concentration on the surface, (especially where light and shade play a part) begins to swing out, giving the observer a strange sensation of rapture, almost enchantment. What in the earlier works seemed to be taking us into the world of photographic recollection, even into the depression which memory can bring, now leads into an objectivised present which can open anywhere into the unexpected.

It is this which marks Sartorius off from the Spanish realists, although superficially he might seem to have come close to them. What the Spaniards are concerned with is the isolated object. This is brought close to the observer and removed from him at one and the same time through its intense clarity. The bright contrasting colours the Spaniards use give an extreme isolation of detail, this is not achieved through the structure of a drawing or painting. Their famous empty curving streets mark with the utmost clarity the contours of loneliness. They work with a reproductive precision which is not like that of a photograph, it is, as it were, a photographic impression: moreover, their work is a social appeal. They are not criticising the world as it is but they are making it very plain. Sartorius' aims are different. What is clear in his works, blinding sometimes, but never injurious, is there to show what is possible, perhaps things that have received too little attention but which acquire artistic significance when appropriately handled; they are not intensified and certainly not sublimated, but they do become part of a transformation which opens up a world never seen before.