The Relevance of Generalization

by Oliver Zybok


In view of the omnipresence of images, as early as several years ago, the art theorist Hans Belting observed that because we “are dealing with a global network of unlimited image production, which we can scarcely escape from,” we are left with virtually no choice of opting for non-visual experiences. The visual representation of issues and the communication of information and knowledge via images occupies a decisive role in nearly all areas of our lives. For example, none of the numerous, increasingly complex electronic tools—whether organizers, messengers, telephones, cameras, the iPod, or game consoles—functions without images. Unlike written or spoken language, images have the great advantage that they are comprehensible independent of cultural contexts and knowledge of a specific language. For coming generations, communication and the transmission of knowledge via images and electronic media will to an increasing extent become a matter of course.

For the Bremen-based artist Norbert Bauer, images used by the mass media are the basis for his pictorial composition processes. He employs found photographs, film stills, or digital images. In order to simplify his motifs and at the same time render them more precise, thus reducing them to contours and surfaces, he applies the stylistic device of tone separation and edits his material by separating images, much like in a collage, and isolating individual elements from their surroundings. Bauer describes his technique as follows: “The palpable artificialness of the images due to tone separation is of course also meant to distinguish them from illusionistic manners of painting and representation; to express it in terms of the history of style, e.g., to distinguish it from photorealism, which likewise makes reference to an alleged reality behind what is being shown as well as to the specific aesthetic of photography.” His source material, which is later enlarged and transferred to the ground of the painting with tracing paper, consists of drawings, photocopies, and digital image processing methods. The artist assembles the remnants of what were originally highly detailed photographs in patchwork or comic-book style. This results in what from a distance appears to be a comprehensive whole, but viewed up close, the images disintegrate into abstractions that merely evoke memories of general images. A portrait is always a minimized ideal construction, a landscape always the product of the concept of a landscape individual viewers imagine. Seen thus, Bauer arranges conceptual images. This is why the motifs initially appear to be largely free of current or historical references. The painting Park (2004), for example, shows a Mercedes whose passenger doors are open. This style of painterly representation might, above all for many Germans, immediately evoke associations with a photograph from 1977 that was disseminated throughout the media. This image shows the badly damaged vehicle of Hanns Martin Schleyer, at the time president of the Employer’s Association, who was abducted by the Red Army Faction, and in front of the car the body of one of his bodyguards covered with a sheet. Bauer’s car is apparently undamaged; only a few sheets of paper lie scattered on the street. Even the model of the Mercedes, one from the eighties, does not correspond with the model of the car in the photographic source material. There are also no allusions to it in the painting’s title. Only the perspective of the representation makes reference to a momentous event in Germany’s recent history. Park demonstrates that Bauer is interested in examining the multilayered, in part very different levels of meaning in images. By removing motifs from their original media context and transferring them into the medium of painting, their original information content is altered. Bauer extends the media cycle of his photographic source material by initially generalizing motifs that are clearly connoted in terms of form and content. By means of his painting technique, he simultaneously reduces and abstracts the representations employed by the mass media.

The generalization aspect can be most easily understood by considering a series of portraits from 2007. The title alone—4-4-2: Kategoriale Reihe (4-4-2: Categorical Series)—indicates a physiognomic generalization. The series of numbers, which designates a formation in the game of soccer (four defenders, four mid-fielders, two attacking players), refers to the number of portraits, yet at the same time to dogmatic interpretations of systemic features. The term “categorical” reinforces the impression of an assertion. The series portrays personalities from public life, authors, scientists, and artists (among others). Their reduced painterly presentation in muted colors makes the portraits appear to have been combined in a meaningful way. Thus there appears to be a meaning that goes beyond what is visible even though the persons are in no way related. The only thing they share is that all of them are dead. And so the artist combined the portraits by chance. The uniformity or generalization of the personalities achieved by the color and technique is only broken by their peculiar physiognomic features. According to the physiognomist Johann Casper Lavater, Niklas Luhmann’s high forehead suggests extraordinary intelligence, and for the scientist and writer Giambattista della Porta, Susan Sontag’s full head of hair is a sign of a strong personality. These features suggest the individual distinctiveness of their respective outward appearance. Even if these attempts from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries to draw conclusions about the character of a person on the basis of their features are no longer valid, the examination of physiognomy in Bauer’s painterly, schematic generalizations of mass media images achieves new relevance through his reductive method.

One of the most important representatives of American Pop Art, Roy Lichtenstein, thematized the linear and color schematization involved in image reproduction in the print medium, among others in comics, and thus the mechanisms of reproducing image source material that occur in a multistage printing process. More intensely than is the case for Bauer, Lichtenstein produced simplifications, abstractions, which, however, can also be perceived from up close. As the formal abstraction in the printed comic serves to reduce the image to its essential features in the course of an economy of painterly means as well as simplification in terms of the recognition value of settings and figures, Lichtenstein heightened this process of abstraction. The reduction of form and color to a minimum played a major role in his work. As is the case for Lichtenstein, Bauer focuses on the issue of the pictorial efficiency of mass-media images.

Historical parallels become recognizable in the use of images that, depending on the epoch, belong to other image media and contexts. The creed “Images need to be shared,” which in the age of print and television media as well as the Internet are likewise represented and disseminated, has an early analogy in Augustus’s use of his imperial portrait, which he had distributed to the Roman people imprinted on coins, therefore making him present throughout the country. The like applies for Andy Warhol’s “Expose yourself,” which was an issue even before the sixties in order to demonstrate one’s individual role within a social context. Even Ludwig XIV had to a great extent perfected self-exposure and was thus seminal for an entire epoch. Bauer treated this theme in his two small-format portraits Spectre I + II (2007). One sees the vague portrait of one and the same person in matt black and gray. A tinge of gold has been added to the lighter areas, which causes the colors to slightly iridesce between blue-gray and red-brown. Both works are based on film material that the gunman Cho Seung-Hui shot of himself and which following his rampage at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg could be seen in numerous newspapers, television broadcasts, and in the Internet. “Besides the actual crime,” says Bauer, “it was the forcefulness of his self-portrayal and self-stylization in the media that allowed him to momentarily become a celebrity. This self-portrayal, which was charged with symbols and signs, in combination with the murders he committed and their dissemination by the media have made Seung-Hui an icon.”

A further historical parallel with respect to the “use of images” leads to early Netherlandish painting: the gaze out of the window, with which Jan van Eyck for the first time introduced a realistic look at the outside world into the world of pictures, which had previously been hermetically sealed, can today be definitely compared with the gaze out of the “window” of a television screen, which transfers the “outside” world into the closed space of the living room. Bill Gates called the operating system developed by Microsoft Windows, and in doing so transferred the apparently conventional notion of Renaissance artists that a panel painting is a window to the world to the computer screen. And when, based on contemporary video art, Felix Burda recognizes manifestations of presentation spaces in the pictorial spaces of Baroque ceiling paintings, he recalls an achievement by artists extending across all media that has grown over the course of centuries.

These kinds of historical comparisons call to mind specific meanings of media in our own time. The return to historical facts and their transfer to the present characterize the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern era and are accordingly referred to as a renaissance. Norbert Bauer consistently uses the possibilities resulting from new technologies to generate, archive, and reproduce images. Even if the motifs in the photographic sources for his paintings have been reduced to a minimum, he relieves them of their inherent fleetingness, because “Media images are quick images,” as Regina Michel remarked in a conversation with the artist. “Quickly published, quickly reproduced, but also quickly forgotten.”