L'atelier de la peintrice (2000)
Installation view taken from the Opening Exhibition
Photo: Kunstraum der Universität Lüneburg
In 1855 Gustave Courbet painted A Painter's Studio, in his words, “a real allegory” of painting. According to its concept the image aimed to break through the hermetic nature of painting with painting. Because such an enterprise cannot be successful on the basis of just the surface of the image, Courbet created a context with the painting, making it legible, i.e. 'realising' the allegory. He designed a pavilion called “Realism,” which he erected at the Paris Exposition Universelle as an anti-pavilion: anti-ideology. It was external to the painting but not to the space of the image: the whole forming an ensemble. Unlike the white cube, which provides the art with NOTHING, the Pavilion of Realism gave painting a basis that was on the one hand NOTHING, i.e. simply a white cube that belied the rumble of the world exhibition propaganda machinery. This basis, on the other hand, left no doubt that this NOTHING is not a power-free space. Courbet painted himself as the central figure in his studio, working on a landscape. A naked muse is standing behind him, a reference to the notorious dependence of male subjectivity on servile female bodies. Loose groups to the right and left populate the studio, which invites a reading as a place of production and a social arena. There are friends present, including Baudelaire, but also enemies like Minister de Persigny. The latter had started the coup d'état against Napoleon III that brought the Republic to an end and reinstated the monarchy. In the background of this global vision we also encounter proponents of various national liberation movements, including Bakunin from Russia.
Around 150 years later a certain Alice Ohneland  used the “real allegory” as a basis for mapping out the power structure of the Berlin Republic. She uses groups of people recruited from the distinctive faces of the day: the Kohls, Schilys, Tietmeyers, the Expo chief Breuel, the Henkels and Walsers. Her friend the poet Sabeth Buchmann is sitting on the edge of the painting to the right, in Baudelaire's place. In contrast to Courbet, who swings the brush, Ohneland does not paint herself as sovereign over the representation. She is wearing headphones while she scrutinises a strange illustration of the Berlin Siegessäule through a magnifying glass. It is a design with which the aesthetic subconscious of Germany was greeting the new millennium: the Siegessäule as a monument of light (in its way, a brilliant cross-fading of Speeresque 'Reichsparteitag' magic and the flak tower spotlights that scan the Berlin sky). Ohneland is looking at the light monument but a completely different monument is shown in the reflection of her own perception, the magnifying glass: the Vendôme Column toppled by the Communards in 1871. The artist deep in contemplation is obviously playing with the idea of toppling the Berlin Siegessäule, the gold-plated canons of which were a gift from the French government for the Prussian military aid in defeating the Paris Commune.
I interrupt my 'tour de force' on the political iconography with an aside to mention that Courbet, the highest administrator of Paris art treasures during the Commune, was later held responsible for the toppling of the Vendôme Column and driven into exile. Just as abstract painting is threatening to stay abstract, so referential painting threatens to remain referential. However we want the tulip leaves and the red. We want the image that frees itself from the image. We want the projection. Ohneland's image is painted on transparency film. The sections that have been left free allow light to fall, as if through a church window, onto the wall behind the image, painting a picture. This painting with light creates a small figure that conjures rabbits out of a top-hat. T.J. Clark writes, incidentally in a study on Courbet, that the world of politics is not necessarily a discursive world: "There is a politics which is wordless, in the way that hunger is, or greed. It often ends in a wordless gesture – a scythe on the shoulder, a burning rick, a barricade. And this is the kind of politics the artist thrives on; [s]he makes the distinction, as [s]he must do, between an ideology and the facts it attempts to describe." It is with a wordless, even invisible gesture that the rabbits are being conjured out of the hat. "Politique pure", painting without painting makes something of NOTHING.
 The painting by Alice Ohneland alias Alice Creischer was made for the exhibition Dinge, die wir nicht verstehen (Vienna 2000). Cf. the catalogue of the same title, edited by Roger M. Buergel and Ruth Noack, Vienna/Cologne 2000.
 T. J. Clark, Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution, London 1982, P.156.
Roger M. Buergel