POINTS of Contact visiting Friedel Anderson’s studio

How is it possible to capture a substance that has neither a colour nor a form of its own with an artist’s brush? And what is so attractive about a painting of the sea? Or of a glass of water?

Friedel Anderson, born in 1954, lives and works in Itzehoe. The artist has remained true to realism – which is actually somewhat old-fashioned. He likes painting water and does so quite often. And he is capable of capturing its shoals as well as its surface.

How everything started: a picture in a museum and in a catalogue

“No land in sight” hangs on a museum wall. A breath-taking view, about two metres wide, of a stretch of water, apparently seen from a ferry: the sea, grey and foaming like the North Sea, with tossing waves, touched by the first crimson reflections of sunrise – it looks as if the movement of the water had been captured with a movie camera. But it is just a picture, or more precisely, a painting. When moving one’s eyes closer to a distance of no more than the back of one’s hand, one can clearly recognize the brush strokes, which, seen close-up, are lying next to each other at random and could just as well depict a heap of dead leaves or a pig’s belly. Seen at a distance of two metres, however, there is no doubt about the waves gurgling away like in a film. Painting can work miracles if it is well done.

Then, only a few weeks later, the same picture: “no land in sight” appears in a catalogue and exposes the viewer to a considerable shock: the publisher and the artist have chosen a soft paper which is pleasant to the touch, yet one that has sucked away the whole magic of the tossing waves into its hand-flattering cellulose fibres. No sound of breakers, not even the slightest splashing is left. Is this the fault of the printer’s ink? Or of the reduction to postcard size? Disappointed, I close the book. Can water be captured in this way only on canvas? Does high-gloss paper, such as this one you have in your hands now, deprive paintings of their appeal to the senses? I decided to put this question to the artist himself.

Arrival in Itzehoe: an artist reluctant to give explanations

In a shy, almost timid manner, Friedel Anderson welcomes me at the Itzehoe railway station. We drive along a featureless road, then a bumpy track through the grounds of a former cement factory. Surrounded everywhere by the charm of dilapidated buildings, graffiti and broken window panes. Here, Anderson once had his studio, but with the increasing deterioration of the abandoned site this became too insecure. Now he has moved to a small house, which also used to belong to the cement factory and is located directly on the banks of the river Stör, a tributary of the Elbe regulated by the tide.

At his home, coffee is served in blue pottery mugs, with a view of greenery and a stack of wood, and some cake. Friedel Anderson was deeply moved by the exhibition of his works for his 50th birthday in the convent of Cismar and in Cappenberg castle: “To see all these pictures side by side has shown me that everything is really worth painting. Yes, everything.“ Landscapes as well as nudes, a plenary session as well as a sugar bowl. A view of Lübeck from above, or just a tuft of grass. An entire fish market scene or just one solitary foot.

But he does not like to explain his pictures. If there is so much that needs explaining, as is frequently the case with the works of art currently en vogue, this clearly shows that such works are mainly received via the intellect, the artist comments, and all spontaneous feelings have disappeared. What is there to explain, anyway, in pictures of a stretch of seawater or a piece of slope under snow, from which a few thawed-out tufts of grass are emerging?

Memories of former times: old school days

Friedel Anderson has always painted, at first only for his own amusement, but then he sought communication and went to the university of applied sciences in Kassel where he met his mentor Manfred Bluth, who, together with Johannes Grützke and a few others had established the “School of New Splendour” in 1973 – a passionate plea for realistic painting, thrown into the world of art precisely at a time when Joseph Beuys was setting out to initiate a fundamental change in the academic concept of art which was to persist for several decades.

The “School of New Splendour” manifesto, signed by Bluth, Grützke, Köppel and Ziegler, railed against “chequered painting”, “anchorless architecture” and “irresponsible sewing of seams without a final knot”, and then embarked on a quest for truthfulness and originality:

“The new splendour means hard work; just investigate things with dedication, and you will discover splendour even in austerity. Splendour can only be born from heightened sensibility. The new splendour is the splendour of thoughts and ideas. Join us in observing the irregularity of waysides where hen-and-chicks and plantain grow, or pine trunks illuminated by candle-light. (…) Do not call your sons Hercules but send them to the School of New Splendour to learn punctuality, perseverance in hard work, philosophic pausing, humility and a relentless study of nature. (…) Enhance the splendour of the “Europacenter” and rebuild it in its cucumber shape. Plant groves of linden trees and erect look-out towers in their midst, where tango orchestras play for you at sunset.“

“Discover splendour even in austerity”

This manifesto had something to do with respect for nature, including also human nature. And it had to do with love. Johannes Grützke is a multiple award-winner and almost considered as a type of German godfather of realism, who sometimes sounded harsh: “A painter who takes matters seriously calls himself a painter, and what he does is painting.“ No objection to that, one might add. Perhaps the revolt against a certain degree of austerity played a part in the rebellious renunciation of realistic art among Beuys’ followers. At German uni­versities, at any rate, realistic painting is hardly taught any longer, according to Friedel Anderson, in the East perhaps still a bit more than in the West. Incomprehensible for someone who considers those basic skills as so important. Anderson has taught at a university of applied sciences himself and holds the view that today’s young peo­ple are definitely eager to learn such skills once again.

Anyway, under the guidance of his teacher Manfred Bluth, Anderson did study realistic painting, which meant above all open-air painting – painting under the open sky with the easel exposed to the wind or to the sweltering heat of the sun.

The fine art of realistic painting always comes and goes like the tide, Anderson muses. There have always been phases when it was suddenly rediscovered and celebrated, in antiquity as well as during the period of photo-realism in the 1970s. But this phenomenon keeps disappearing in the same way, only to emerge again at a later date. Currently, realistic painting is not very popular. In times when abstract painting is en vogue, realistic art is automatically suspected of being kitsch. “It has already come to a point”, Manfred Bluth once complained, “where people feel the urge to slip a few cents to any painter sitting out of doors with his easel.” The advantage which Anderson sees here: if someone actually buys one of his pictures, it is because he really likes it.

Reality is always what we want to see

Friedel Anderson paints what he sees in front of, or rather within himself. These are his own interpretations of reality, translated into the language of painting. He says that sometimes friends come to visit him who want to send him to a certain spot in the fen where the trees are just bathed in such a magnificent light. But the painter has to see “the picture” in his own mind, in the same way as the viewer of a painting is either able to share the sensation of such a magic moment – or he is not.

Realism is an honest struggle to capture reality in such a way that the viewer is drawn in. Friedel Anderson is successful in this again and again. Some objects in his pictures glare, others are silhouetted against back light. Anderson, who has never conformed to the conventional artistic scene but always remained an individualist, has emerged as one of the most prominent outdoor painters in Northern Germany.

He is annoyed about the arrogance of the cultural scene, always confined to celebrating just one hype. Of course everyone should be free to do what they want, but different styles should be allowed to exist side by side. Abstract art next to realism. The painter is astonished, when all of a sudden a major German art magazine, after ignoring him for decades, comes out with the title: “Real painting is in again!”

The task of painting water

“Painting water”, says Anderson, “is always something special.” Something fundamental. In Anderson’s works it comes in many gui­ses. As the sea. With small or large boats. Waves. Snow. Clouds. The particular difficulty in painting water: you can never take a second look at the same moment you have just seen, at precisely the same wave when it is breaking. You must hold on to the memory and try to work from there.

Anderson has painted a whole series of pictures titled “water/light”, almost invariably pure “seascapes”, depicting water and nothing else. Paintings that fathom the depths of the ocean. What is it that attracts him so much to water and the sea? Anderson, normally rather taciturn, suddenly becomes extremely loquacious: “Once in a stiff breeze on Sylt, almost a gale, I suddenly started to draw many small sketches of the sea, one after the other; I was in a complete trance, but such trances suddenly come to an end and then I wake up – this is something very archaic.”

Thus every realistic painting of nothing but water is really an attempt to look into the depth of nature itself – into its very soul.

 

Above Flensburg

As an open-air artist Friedel Anderson can be found with his easel somewhere out of doors almost every day. Of course, other people also pass by every now and again:

“Are you painting here?” Somewhat at a loss for a suitable answer, I just grunt “Good day”.

“Yes, you are painting, now I can see it, but why in red? Water is blue, and the grass down there is green!”

“I have only just started, and…” here I am interrupted.

“You can’t see a thing. Over there are some sailing boats and look there – the ferry from Kollund is just coming in – can’t you see the white ship over there, on the left, very small, you haven’t painted it at all!”

“I have only just…”

“And look over there – a yacht with a gaff-topsail! You are not painting that hideous shed down there, by any chance? That is all due to be pulled down soon – and about time, too.“ The voice is getting precariously close to the cliff-edge.

“Now you are taking yellow? Ah, yes, the object over there. Well – I couldn’t do that. My aunt paints, too. Have you already been painting long? Surely this isn’t your first painting, is it.“

“…”

“A pleasant pastime! Look there – the ferry, now it’s passing the green steam ship. Well – can you get it quickly? It’ll be gone in a moment!”

100 cm still separate the voice from the abyss. The breeze has strengthened, clouds are coming up from the south-west. I want to shout “Watch out!”, but then I am again interrupted. “Does it pay you a living?” Living – this last word echoes in my mind for an amazingly long time.

“Well then, keep up the good work!”

A sudden squall puts an end to the scene. I glance over the edge. A lonely bicycle is crawling along down there, and the masts of the yachts moored at the harbour’s edge sway about like an army of white toothpicks.

Then it starts to rain, and I anchor my easel more firmly.

Abridged version of “Above Flensburg” by Friedel Anderson

(from the catalogue „Reality against back light“, published by Braus)