Opening just in time to attract the attention of all those international visitors in town for Berlin Gallery Weekend, the Berlinische Galerie presents a substantial retrospective of the acclaimed German artist Rainer Fetting showing forty works spanning four decades. It is an entirely fitting exhibition for the gallery with its role as effectively the municipal contemporary art museum for the city of Berlin itself. As such, the Berlinische Galerie focuses on both key archives and collections of work from the late nineteenth century onwards that are strongly bound up with the city as well as showcasing new works by artists currently contributing to Berlin’s vibrant visual art culture.
Rainer Fetting was one of the key members of a group of artists that set up a gallery in Kreuzberg at the end of the 1970’s to show their own, yet to be appreciated, works which later received international recognition under the umbrella term of “Neue Wilde”. With its fauvist-like colours, expressionistic style and its return to highlighting the value of painting, what was then a reaction to the dominance of minimalism and conceptual art at the time is now internationally recognised as one of the most significant schools of German art of its day.
Fetting’s work is presented in this particular exhibition under four different chapter headings that pick up on key developments within his own practice as an artist, but also provide a coincidental and impressionistic précis of the recent history of the city itself. His earlier works, made when Berlin was still a divided city, readily capture West Berlin’s vibrant underground scenes and alternative lifestyles at a time that was synonymous with political anxieties and unrest. His cityscapes in glowing, piercing colours seem to indicate a certain ambiguity towards the topography of the divided city, at once a place of sadness and division and yet, ironically, exactly the reason that those living in the west were free to develop forms of cultural expression and ways of life that would not have been as readily assimilated into the mechanisms of any other major European city. The colours and style of representation in his ‘Wall Paintings’, for example, give the cityscape itself a certain passionate animation that is so characteristic of his later paintings of rock musicians.
But, as is evident in numerous works occurring in all bodies of work and periods shown, we neglect at our own peril the strong art historic references in Fetting’s work. Deeply embedded within the wild action of the technique and the searing colours, Fetting constantly referred to art history as a means of locating his own practice in a greater context. Often this was a form of appropriating historic modes or iconography to apply them to new political or identity paradigms, as is particularly evident in many of the works on paper in which everything from nineteenth century Decadents to Orientalism is repurposed. Even if some of this now seems like rather familiar territory in contemporary art, one of the wonderful things about this exhibition is that it is a timely reminder that Rainer Fetting produced such works as a means of making what were, at the time of their production, rather bold and provocative statements about sexual identity and personal political values.
It is equally fascinating to see how these earlier works compare with much more recent works in which Fetting, who returned to Berlin in the 1990’s after a lengthy sojourn in New York, has responded to the city’s ongoing and extensive changes since Reunification.
Rainer Fetting’s exhibition ‘Berlin’ continues at the Berlinische Galerie until September 2011.