In the Backlight

Klaus Hartmann's "Tanzania Paintings"

Klaus Hartmann founded his reputation with paintings about the everyday leisure activities of the Germans. His earliest works, made while he was a student, depict the after-work activities of people in Sachsen-Anhalt just after reunification, displaying both affection and irony ("Blühende Landschaften" - "Landscapes in Bloom" - would be a typical title from the period); ever since, he has continued to focus on portraying allotment gardens, fun fairs and amusement parks with big wheels, circus wagons pulled by horses, show booths and Chinese eateries that seek to appear exotic. Every object appears painstakingly sketched and painted in colors that are bright and apparently carefree, and yet are often glaring, unreal, malignant, and painful even to the least sensitive eyes. Hartmann never sells out common tastes to the arrogance of the cultivated aesthete. Nevertheless, there is a sense that he does not belong in the scenes he depicts - he is observing from the outside, a foreigner. But instead of laughing at people's attraction to kitsch, he remains sympathetic to these unsophisticated, even cheap attempts at 'making things nicer.' Indeed, he seems to share popular tastes, perhaps remembering how strongly he was attracted to colorful tat as a child - as all of us are. But he is not constantly yearning for lost times. The painted scenes are devoid of human forms; used by no one, the carousels stand as if in the aftermath of some catastrophe, pointlessly spinning. The hope of something 'nicer,' some small piece of happiness, to which these places owe their existence, is disappointed. An icy chill lies over them, and the pictures make us shiver.

With "Tanzania Paintings," Hartmann remains true to his predilection for popular ways of life, now in an African context. Europeans tend to link Africa to the wild, pristine natural world, as represented partly by the big game animals eagerly photographed by tourists on safari, or the endless beaches and mangroves by the Indian Ocean, or scuba diving on coral reefs, and partly by images of starving people, poverty-stricken slums and refugee camps, and the scorched and bloody traces of violence and war. Hartmann, who worked as a teacher at the Bagamoyo College of Arts and therefore has a closer knowledge of East Africa than many tourists and development workers, takes as his subjects two unspectacular places: Kilwa Kivinje on the Indian Ocean, once an important harbor in trade with the Swahili Coast, India and the Middle East but now a place so isolated that even backpackers rarely wander so far, and Ukalawa in the highlands, which is known in Germany for its Protestant community's links to the Congregation of St. Paul in Halle, to which Hartmann belonged in his youth - without these links it is surely unlikely he would have come across the place.

The series "Ukalawa" is mostly composed of landscapes. In some paintings, the staffage - houses, small by modern standards and with straw or corrugated metal roofs - on vegetation elements such as banana plants, betray that we are in an unspecified but certainly extra-European setting. But there's nothing that we usually associate with Africa, neither tribal round-houses nor the acacias and baobabs characteristic of the savanna. Morphologically, the landscape seems rather to be expansive, green and undulating, with right-angled fields and isolated bushes and trees. This is no foreign, exotic world; one rather has the impression that Hartmann, perhaps to his own astonishment, found himself feeling almost at home in Ukalawa. His pictures show rustic landscapes as they might be found in many parts of Europe, even in the heart of Germany. One even seems to encounter traces or at least an echo of those efforts at 'making things nicer' to which Hartmann dedicated himself in "Blühende Landschaften": long, horizontal rectangles appear in strong colors, pink or blue, peculiarly unmotivated and mysterious in the foreground. Perhaps they are vitenge, a woman's garment worn like a sarong, hung up to dry. Perhaps, despite himself, Hartmann was also reminded of the banners that were displayed everywhere in public spaces during his childhood in the GDR. Such familiarity might lead us to suspect that the painter has simply projected his inner images onto the African landscape. But this thought leads us to the fundamental differences between "Blühende Landschaften" and "Ukalawa." In the "Ukalawa" series, the colors (with the exception of "Ukalawa 7") never become glaring, unreal, malignant, and over these places lies no icy chill that makes us shiver. Perhaps in a foreign context, Hartmann wanted to stay away from the irony and distance that he freely permits himself in Germany. But I think it is rather that the absence of similarity, the 'differentness' revealed itself to him most clearly in similarities that he perceived almost without wanting to: the change in the wind, the disconcerting departure from familiar habits and indigenous flora. The landscape may seem morphologically reminiscent of home, but underneath the steep sunbeams, there is a brighter light flooding the scene, the source of deeper shadows. This is the principal motif of "Tanzania Paintings" - a light that is totally unknown to Europeans, one that is truly strange and other.

The deep shadows in "Ukalawa," despite their positioning at the bottom edge of the picture, still are effective enough to make us feel the glaring light. In the "Kilwa Kivinje" series, the same motif dominates, only engineered by different artistic means. An example would be the two-part eponymous piece "Jua Toka." The upper half shows a one-masted dhow with a characteristic trapeze sail as a black silhouette on the sea - these are apparently the fishermen of Kilwa Kivinje. Meanwhile, the lower half shows a cat, also as a black silhouette but on a monochrome yellow background. The Swahili words jua toka mean "sunrise" - on the Indian Ocean an unreal, beautiful display of color, which Hartmann wisely only hints at with the tender strokes of pink in the upper half of the picture. But this light quickly becomes so bright that all the objects - here the dhow and the cat - become black shadows. In Nos. 2 and 3 of "Kilwa Kivinje," the dhows are traced still more clearly against the brightness of the sky - like the groups of people in the shadow of a tree in "Source of Shades" or "Kilwa Kivinje 1," and the bathing people in "Ohne Titel" ("Untitled").

As a student of Werner Büttner, Klaus Hartmann has never entered into the kind of professional exhibition art pursued by belated avant-gardistes. He has gone his own way in his approach to painting - but there is no absolute break between the picture and the real world, any more than we see with his mentor. Rather than making self-indulgent gestures, he tries to say something with his pictures, something that, in Büttner's words, "surprises the eye, moves the heart and engages the intellect." The pictures communicate to us his reflections on the failed attempts at 'making things nicer' or on the source of the shadow in places like Kilwa Kivinje or Ukalawa. At the same time, he knows to exploit discreetly the possibilities of abstraction. Thus, the long, horizontal rectangles in the "Ukalawa" series can, on the one hand, be understood as vitenge or political banners, or on the other as aniconic, abstract blocks of color (especially because, unlike vitenge, they are not patterned, and, unlike banners, they contain no text). He goes even further in his individualization of form and color in the series "Babykrokodile" ("Baby Crocodiles"), in which he plays with repeated variations on a motif in a number of constellations, but without ever completely removing himself from the original perspective - the gaze on the breeding tank of a crocodile farm. But it is in the two "Shoes" paintings that Hartmann seems to me most completely at home. The pictures seem a cross between the glaring, unreal colors and bright fairy-lights of "Blühende Landschaften" and the "Tanzania Paintings," of which we find echoes both in the patterns and the abstract pictures. And yet there is no doubt that these pictures are about an African shoe-seller, lovingly but ineptly arranging his wares on view.


Text published in the catalogue "Jua Toka and The Source of Shades - The Tanzania Paintings", Textem Verlag, 2015 © Fritz W.Kramer, Klaus Hartmann, Textem Verlag

Fritz W.Kramer, born 1941, was from 1979-1983 Professor of Ethnology at the Freie Universtät Berlin and from 1989-2007 Professor of Art-related Theory at Art Academy Hamburg, fieldworks among others in the Nuba Mountains in the Sudan, in Kenya and in the art world