The Landscapes of Wieland Payer

Kai Uwe Schierz

The viewer’s gaze is drawn across densely forested slopes to a mountain ridge ascending towards the right and marking a boundary beyond which an open, atmospheric space begins – an expansive, transparent counterpoint to the close-knit structure of the mixed woodland. Dense forest and blue skies – that sounds like a typical mountain landscape of the kind that would hardly hold any particular fascination for us, if it weren’t for that strange sight in the sky. Our first impression is: a light apparition. Our second: a silhouette, two-dimensional. For the thing, whatever it is, conveys no sense of corporeality whatsoever; all there is to it is its contour. It is as white and radiant as the paper ground of this large-scale drawing whose landscape elements have otherwise been executed in charcoal and pastel chalk. Wieland Payer calls the drawing Schein (Shine), thus referring us linguistically to the atmospheric light occurrence whose outline is reminiscent of a geometric ornament, a pine cone with open scales or – likewise strongly stylized – an explosion. Unworked surfaces of this kind, reflecting the light of the surroundings with unbroken uniformity, are also found in other recent drawings by Payer, for example in Schneise (Aisle). Here we look through a densely overgrown corridor at an equally densely forested high mountain slope in the background, which blocks our view of the spatial depths and the sky. A light veil in front of the slope evokes a misty, atmospheric quality. At the bottom of the valley thus visualized, we notice three white surfaces stacked one above the other and each bordered at the top by a straight horizontal. In effect they look like calm bodies of water (or like a single body of water divided by islands or promontories). If we pursue this option of identifying the drawing as a landscape, we once again run into paradoxes. For nothing is reflected in the water’s surfaces; they are completely empty. As in Schein, they derive their luminosity from the untouched white of the paper. In both cases, a strange tension ensues between two-dimensionality and spatiality, light and dark, transparency and texture. Contrasts which sharpen our perception. Yet another large-scale drawing of the artist’s most recent phase is entitled Gewitter (Thunderstorm). This time Payer takes the viewer’s gaze from a low vantage point through a forest corridor evoking spatial depth by means of central perspective, and beyond to a sublimely beautiful natural event: a cumulonimbus rises up mightily in three levels, one above the other. Originating in impressive blackness, from one level to the next it develops an ever greater intensity of light reflection.

Not only this storm cell, but all of Wieland Payer’s drawings amaze us with the masterful handling of the graphic media and the detailed process by which the various objects of the depiction are made recognizable. Nevertheless, the works are not classical in the sense of emphasizing the line but – in the tradition of the Late Renaissance and the Baroque – painterly and atmospheric, with the emphasis on the material. For upon closer inspection we discern that the draughtsman has not faithfully reproduced the textures of clouds, vegetation, rocks or architecture down to the smallest detail, but virtually reinvented them with the drawing media. Clues to the images’ graphic origins – charcoal and chalk on the surface relief of the handmade paper – remain recognizable as their smallest visual unit. They reveal the principle by which the pictures were constructed and provide back references to the history of art. For we already find invented surface textures of this kind in the work of one of the most important protagonists of European Surrealism, Max Ernst. In 1925, Ernst began carrying out rubbings of a wide range of surfaces (e.g. the grains of leaves or wood or the silhouettes of metal objects), combining them to form natural objects (rocks, plants, animals, humans), and thus rewriting “histoire naturelle” – now drawing from the imagination and the inexhaustible source of our hallucinatory creative powers. Soon thereafter, Ernst further expanded the means of inventing textures with high associative potential by employing grattage and decalcomania. The mechanisms of human perception guarantee that we can associate artificially created structures of this kind with memories of natural objects or cultural artefacts – an important aspect of our ability to sublimate our relationship to reality with the aid of fantasy. Even if Wieland Payer does not use techniques such as frottage, the micro textures he creates with the drawing media open up similar scope for associatively transforming something into something else in Ernstesque manner.

This approach is particularly evident in a group of small drawings Payer has entitled Pionier (Pioneer). Each of them features a strange object which contrasts chromatically with its black-and-white surrounding while also dominating the pictorial space and the format of the respective work. Are these vegetable or animal individuals, or some rare type of crystal? Or perhaps even a UFO, an extraterrestrial architecture? Many of these “pioneers” settle in a barren high mountain landscape, others in valleys. In a number of cases, the objects appear huge in the context of the surrounding landscape. Their central placement in the composition and the similarity of composition from one drawing to the next invite comparison – we intuitively perceive similarities and differences. Some of the forms are clearly crystalline in nature, others quite vegetable. Ultimately, however, our efforts to categorize them are doomed to failure. For these objects really are pioneers, firstlings, newly colonizing an existing ecosystem. As we study them, our fascination is mixed with fear of the strange and unknown these “pioneers” explicitly embody.

As we have already discussed, the textures of the worlds in Wieland Payer’s drawings are to equal degrees inspired by visual reality and invented by various draughtsmanship techniques. Yet the same also applies to the representational forms en detail. They have a quality of being emotionally charged, more dramatic than their respective counterparts in the real world. Here Payer takes orientation from such artists as Albrecht Altdorfer, Wolf Huber and Augustin Hirschvogel – i.e. German artists of the sixteenth century linked with the Danube School or Style. The drawn forms correspond adequately with our own visual experiences of nature while at the same time they inflate those experiences in mannerist fashion, borne by a capricious power of imagination and a latent quality of disconcertion. Not without good reason have the artists of the so-called Danube School been associated with an exaggeratedly expressive approach, are their landscapes said to have originated more in their fantasies than in reality. Yet the drawings of Wieland Payer have nothing overtly expressive about them. What they share with the works of Payer’s artistic ancestors is their subtly artificial quality. This is apparent in the contrast between the impression of a natural scene and the geometric structure: underlying Payer’s landscapes is a geometric construction which reveals itself the most blatantly in the two-dimensional blank areas, while at the same time, formally speaking, entirely dominant in each respective work. The contradictions between forms which have grown in nature and geometrically constructed ones, between three- and two-dimensionality, void and abundance, are constitutive for the pictorial logic of these works. They evoke a certain uneasiness on the part of the viewer, and throw our usual automatisms of perception off track. They activate heightened attentiveness, for there is something here that doesn’t fit into our usual patterns of visual experience. These landscapes are not what they appear to be at first sight; there is something different about them.

These drawings ostensibly take us into a world of high mountain valleys and Mediterranean-like dense woodlands, now seen from an elevated perspective, now pointing our gaze directly into the semi-darkness beneath the treetops where vegetation sprouts from the rocky terrain. In reality, the scenery of these images has its origins in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland. Wieland Payer and his family often roam the Val Bregaglia in the Grisons canton of Switzerland. He loves the areas of the Alps which have not yet fallen victim to the tourist industry, where even today old farmsteads can be found which have remained virtually unchanged for centuries. A region with a quality of wildness and primitiveness as fascinating as it is unique, it is associated with the names of numerous artists and intellectuals. They include, for example, the painter Giovanni Segantini, the artist family of Giacometti native to Stampa, and Rainer Maria Rilke, who lived in Soglio for a time. In the neighbouring Upper Engadine region is where we find the village of Sils Maria, where Friedrich Nietzsche lodged in the home of the Durisch family for seven summer seasons from 1881 onwards – and where he wrote Part Two of his Zarathustra, among other works. Wieland Payer, however, provides us with neither topographical impressions of this part of the Alps nor with meticulous descriptions of high mountain scenery. As a human being, wanderer and artist, he is concerned with the monumental presence of natural phenomena capable of giving humans a sense of their own relativity. His own relationship is shaped by visual perception, by the absorption of various impressions, including those of an unusual kind. His relationship to the world of the high mountains is above all an aesthetic, but at the same time a romantic one.

But what do we mean here by “romantic”? The much-quoted chief exponent of the early German Romanticist movement in the area of art, Caspar David Friedrich, carried out meticulous studies of nature using the media of watercolour, graphite pencils, and pen and ink, as well as composite landscapes which he executed in oil paints. He devoted both of these categories to a fundamental idea according to which nature was the antithesis to man and his world, the world of culture and cities, and something far greater than everything manmade, a calculable continuum in contrast to the vicissitudes of human history, and a primeval context from which modern man had already far removed himself. At the same time, by virtue of its originality, nature was the purest manifestation of divine workings on Earth. Friedrich gave expression to these comprehensive ideas about the life cycles of nature and its divinity in pictures which assign light a special role and whose contemplation tends to become a kind of meditation. As the viewer immerses himself in these images, he finds himself capable of penetrating and transcending the world of appearances and grasping the idea underlying (or overlying) it, the structural presence of the divine – the explicitly no-longer-human. That, at least, was Caspar David Friedrich’s intention. Do we find the same portals to the natural and primeval in the work of Wieland Payer as well? Or, indeed, to the divine? The artist expressly negates such queries. At the same time, however, he affirms the complexity and depth of the works of Caspar David Friedrich – depth which can only evolve through time, through the intensive and lengthy contemplation of the world and the work. Art captivates him the more it evades that which is to be expected and thus easily deciphered, the more eccentric and sombre it is, indeed: apocalyptic, personal, peculiar and inventive in the Romanticist sense. The forest as an established symbol of the German nation in Romanticist circles and the ideas of nature mysticism as a substitute for religion likewise spark his interest.

Here I feel compelled to quote that passage from the Fragmente über Poesie (Fragments on Poetry) committed to paper by Friedrich von Hardenberg, alias Novalis, towards the end of the eighteenth century: “The world must be romanticized. In that way, its original meaning may be found again. Romanticization is nothing other than qualitative potentiation. The lowly self is identified with a better self in this operation. […] By giving the lowly a high meaning, the commonplace a mysterious appearance, the known the dignity of the unknown, the finite the aura of the infinite, I romanticize it. The operation works in reverse for the higher, the unknown, the mystical, the infinite – […] it takes on a commonplace expression. Romantic philosophy. Linqua romana. Elevation and degradation in alternation.” [1] Thus according to Novalis art emerges as a result of the reciprocal qualitative potentiation of the self and the world, the world and the transcendent. In Novalis’s writings, this famous passage is followed directly by a paradox. “Poetry is the genuine, absolute real. This is the core of my philosophy. The more poetic, the truer. The fable is virtually the canon of poetry – everything poetic must be fabulous.” And he goes on to heighten the last assertion: “The appreciation of poetry is closely related to the appreciation of mysticism. It is the appreciation of the idiosyncratic, personal, unknown, mysterious, that which merits revelation, the necessarily coincidental. It depicts the undepictable. It sees the invisible, feels the unfeelable, etc.” [2] The paradox of this argumentation can only be solved by taking a closer look at the philosophical background from which the Romanticists of Jena developed their ideas. They were followers of the philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte, who posited the reflective consciousness from the epistemological viewpoint as an absolute self – absolute in the sense that no insight can return to a location behind the subjective positing of the self and the non-self. The world as it appears to us is an expression of that relationship. In other words, it is created in processes of mental construction and interpretation, “by the self-positing and limiting power of the imagination”. [3] For the early Romanticists, the power of imagination, fantasy and poetry were central terms in the context of access to the world. More than a hundred years later, in his first Surrealist manifesto, André Breton would take up these ideas once again, demanding and decreeing the rehabilitation of the imagination and the dream as opposites to the supremacy of logic and absolute rationalism: “Surrealism is based on the belief in a higher reality, in forms of association neglected to this very day, the omnipotence of the dream, the guileless play of thought. It aims to destroy the other psychic mechanisms and replace them with the aim of solving the most important problems of life.” [4]

Wieland Payer does not go quite to such extremes in his art. Nevertheless, the proximity of his imagery to Romanticist and Surrealist ideas is evident. His high mountain sceneries glow and gleam mysteriously throughout. Here a peculiar light seen from the window of a mobile home, there glowing dots before a dark grove of spruces, glistening specks of light on the floor of the forest, a reddish object in the shadows by the wayside and, on the wooded horizon, a strange geometric apparition like a frozen flash of light – thus and similarly transformed are the Val Bregaglia landscapes the artist presents us with. In his works as well, the mysterious merges with the fantastical, the imagination’s free ramblings. Utopias and science fiction also belong to this realm. And in Payer’s drawings we can encounter set pieces of utopian architecture embedded in primordial – and sometimes quite inhospitable-looking – landscapes reminiscent of the visions sketched by various architects and artists who joined at the end of World War I to form the so-called “Glass Chain”, domiciled somewhere between a temple of light and a UFO. Bruno Taut initiated these fantastical designs for a new human being in a new world, and artists such as Hans and Wassili Luckhardt and Wenzel Hablik enthusiastically followed suit. With his print portfolio Alpine Architecture published in 1919, Taut had also provided the topographical specifications. His crystalline towers and cities characteristically colonized high mountain settings – i.e. those regions from which Nietzsche had his prophet and übermensch Zarathustra descend to the lowlands of common human existence. In the early 1970s, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky once again united the fantastical with the utopian when they published their science-fiction novel Roadside Picnic. The screenplay based on it, entitled The Wish Machine, in turn formed the basis of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 milestone of film history, Stalker. Both the novel and the film inspired Wieland Payer and played a role in shaping his vision of the Val Bregaglia scenery. When we look at a drawing such as Rest, for example – a scrutinizing close-up view of a stony forest floor encompassing not only a (boy-scout) hiker’s shoe but also a green figurine that could be a lost Martian’s toy – we are inadvertently reminded of the shots in which the Stalker roams the terrain of the enchanted zone. Here, however, the existentialist severity of the film has been replaced by a humour-tinged optical effect. Apart from direct sources of inspiration, it is also worthwhile mentioning affinities with regard to approach and style. Particularly the precisely captured, atmospheric high mountain scenes produced by Hayao Miyazaki in the famous Japanese animation studio Ghibli, for example in Howl’s Moving Castle – but also Miyazaki’s graphic visions of fabulous creatures and transformations – bear resemblance to many of Wieland Payer’s drawings. This similarity to Manga and the animated film is to be attributed not least of all to the medium of drawing, which Wieland Payer uses even to develop his motifs in large-scale formats.

Again and again, the artist combines the familiar with the unfamiliar, really experienced things with imagination and dream, i.e. a romantically/ surrealistically inspired surplus. As Novalis proclaimed more than two hundred years ago, the world must be romanticized. What he meant, of course, was our relationship to the world. An astonishing number of artists follow this creed to the very present, and that number even seems to be increasing. Exhibitions such as “Ernste Spiele” (1995) and “Ideal Worlds” (2005) have already been devoted to this phenomenon. [5] Indeed, in this context Martina Weinhart even established that modern art – and with it contemporary art – owes a substantial part of its conception to Romanticism. [6] It was the expression of an outlook on life which took hold after the shockwaves of the French Revolution (and the radical reversal of all values it brought about) in conjunction with the urbanization, industrialization and rationalization of all areas of life as well as unsatisfied social expectations, an outlook which celebrated the freedom of the individual and his creative potential and conceived of primeval nature as the counter-image to the spurned society of the then present. It is the diagnosis of modernity, which has remained fundamentally unchanged to this day. Even today, individual mobility – topographically as well as biographically – and a growing ecological awareness (of the world as an organism) go hand in hand with uncertainties with regard to roles and apocalyptic forebodings. Nothing is certain and little seems to be what it is – a state of affairs allowing plenty of scope for a frame of mind also reflected aesthetically – in already established and well-known works such as those by Peter Doig, David Thorpe and Neo Rauch, but also in works presently on their way to carving out a place for themselves in the art world. Wieland Payer’s drawings are among them.

[1] Novalis, “Novalis. Fragmente und Studien 1797-1798”, in Novalis. Werke, edited and annotated by Gerhard Schulz (Munich, 2001), pp. 384-85.
[2]  Ibid.
[3]  Kurth Rothmann, Kleine Geschichte der deutschen Literatur (Stuttgart, 1985), p. 135.
[4] André Breton, Die Manifeste des Surrealismus, translated into German and annotated by Ruth Henry (Hamburg, 1996), pp. 26-27.
[5] See Christoph Vitali (ed.), Ernste Spiele. Der Geist der Romantik in der deutschen Kunst 1790–1990 (Stuttgart, 1995) and Max Hollein and Martina Weinhart (eds.), Ideal Worlds: New Romanticism in Contemporary Art (Ostfildern-Ruit, 2005).
[6] See Martina Weinhart, “The World Must Be Made Romantic (On the Rediscovery of an Attitude)”, in Hollein and Weinhart 2005 (see note 5).