R#1, 2007, HD, projection
R#1, 2007, HD video, projection
R#2, 2007, HD, projection
R#2, 2007, HD video, projection

Cool Pathos

According to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the “objective” [1] of the paintings of Jacob van Ruisdael (1628–1682) was to “[represent] the past in the present […] by visibly uniting the living and the dead.”

Beate Gütschow has chosen two works by this revolutionary 17th-century Dutch landscape painter in order to examine their potential for re-presenting the past or “updating” history: her digital video diptych R#1 + R#2 (2007) references Van Ruisdael’s depictions of The Jewish Cemetery from 1654 and 1655 [2] . Van Ruisdael constructed both versions of this somber scene by combining fragments of reality; of these, only the tombs are presented as he found them in Beth Haim, a Jewish cemetery in Ouderkerk, near Amsterdam. The ruins shown may be those of the castles at Egmond or Bad Bentheim, while the stream and the hills are probably fictitious. By manipulating reality in this way, Van Ruisdael created an idealized image of nature: the viewer is presented with a perfect utopian scenario that resonates with allegorical significance. Both paintings evoke an atmosphere of sublimity that is meant to inspire spiritual contemplation and reflection.

In R#1 + R#2, Gütschow used digital montage to transform Van Ruisdael’s “sampled” paintings into a video installation. Having first filmed the same tombs in Ouderkerk, she sourced and filmed other corresponding elements for her own work, above all in the south of England. The ruins of Corfe Castle and dead trees in the New Forest, for example, provided suitable equivalents to the motifs in Van Ruisdael’s bleak landscapes. Gütschow’s videos adhere to the Dutch painter’s method and adapt this technique to the present day, thus also bringing the pathos of the images up to date. In her work, however, the utopian intimations are overturned: the babbling stream—a reminder of the transience of life—and the crumbling “tombstones to themselves” (Goethe) now provide the dynamic backdrop for what appears to be a post-apocalyptic present.

Place(ments), Kunsthalle im Lipsiusbau, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, 2009 © E. Estel H.P. Klut
Place(ments), Kunsthalle im Lipsiusbau, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, 2009 © E. Estel, H.P. Klut

R#1 + R#2 can be regarded as a development of Gütschow’s photographic series LS. With this new diptych, she has extended her practice to include the medium of video and for the first time focuses her artistic investigation on two specific paintings. In LS, Gütschow reconstructed and explored the pictorial conventions of 17th- and 18th-century landscape painting in general. She created digital montages of motifs she had previously photographed with an analog camera, and while the resulting large-scale prints of idyllic landscapes seem familiar, the depicted locations cannot be identified or placed in a particular temporal or geographical context. Instead, the format and composition of the works recall painted landscapes by Van Ruisdael and other artists such as Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), Claude Lorrain (1600–1682), Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788), or John Constable (1776–1837). Within each of Gütschow’s montages, however, subtly but discernibly different depths of field and angles of light reveal the constructed nature of the Arcadian scenes.

Gütschow’s next body of work, entitled S, also combined dramatically heightened compositions with the alienation effects of epic theater. In these large-format black-and-white photographs, elegant examples of contemporary urban architecture embody the ideals of modernity. On closer inspection, however, cracks and flaws can be seen not only in the depicted materials but also in the pictorial space as a whole: the concrete is crumbling and the photographic collages do not completely conceal the discrepancies between their individual components. Belief in progress and the accompanying autonomization of the subject have here produced a fragmented, disintegrating reality.

Beate Gütschow merges the traditional model of analog representation in photography (in the sense of a space-time connection between a light-sensitive surface and a real situation in front of the camera) with that of painting, which can simulate and modify reality. In doing so, she offers a contemporary interpretation of both of these historical methods and creates new systems of reference. In the context of Gütschow’s oeuvre as a whole, R#1 + R#2 marks a shift from the reconstruction of general patterns of depiction in landscape painting to the specific analysis of two works in this genre. The video diptych converts the analog still images of Van Ruisdael’s paintings into digitally assembled moving images. The dispassionate gaze through the camera lens examines how the eerily beautiful, melancholy atmosphere is created and considers its formal influence and semantic implications with respect to the mediated perception of the present day.

Gebbers, Anna-Catharina. “Cool Pathos” In Beate Gütschow: ZISLS. Heidelberg, 2016, pp. 31-33.

Translated by Jacqueline Todd.

[1] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “Ruysdael als Dichter” (1813; published in 1816); trans. John Gage as “Ruisdael the Poet” in Goethe on Art. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980, p. 212.

[2] Jacob van Ruisdael, The Jewish Cemetery, c. 1654/55, oil on canvas, 142.2 x 189.2 cm. Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit; Jacob van Ruisdael, Der jüdische Friedhof (The Jewish Cemetery), 1655, oil on canvas, 84 x 95 cm. Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden.

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