The Art of the Branded Self

Häkschle zum 60.: Schnittpunkt III and Gerade IV in the Kunsthaus Brönitz.
Häkschle zum 60.: Schnittpunkt III and Gerade IV in the Kunsthaus Brönitz.

At the advanced age of 60 and with a name designed to be garbled, the painter Roald Häkschle has unexpectedly made it into the major museum circuit. It makes one wonder what makes a painter successful in an age in which the art of painting itself seems to be an anachronism.

The first requisite is, I guess, a simple formula. Better stick to one idea and keep repeating it. A Häkschle is easily recognized by its limited subject matter — blind walls and pavements, minutely rendered repetitive surfaces that never seem to be part of any solid construction. Subdued colours: shades of red, yellow and (occasionally) blue.

And of course we recognize a Häkschle through the omnipresent figure of the painter himself, foreshortened, with heavy legs and a little head, dressed only in a short raincoat, under a 1940s type of hat. Always gazing away from us, showing his gray ponytail (which, I’ve heard it whispered, is false).

Every Häkschle is in fact a huge selfie. In the present climate of hysterical self-promotion it will no doubt help to put yourself into everything you make, and in this ego market Häkschle seems determined to compete by size if nothing else. Too big for your living room, his canvases stake their claim to public walls.

Behind every successful artist there is a broker, and in this case his name is Ernst Bronn. “Häkschle teaches us something,” he writes in the catalogue. “The man who stands on a street corner in Schnittpunkt III, hesitating and suspicious, maybe, faces the immeasurable emptiness ahead. It may be sunny on the other side of the street, but this naive yellow light may well be the false glow of empty promises and futile hope. The nudity of his stout legs makes him look both strong and vulnerable.”

(Two visitors in front of me were arguing whether he was taking a piss. He isn’t.)

“This recurring figure may borrow some of the artist’s features, but at the same time he is Everyman (and, I dare say, every woman, transgender and bisexual), trapped, like all of us, between walls, stuck at crossroads.”

True, but trivial. Maybe superficial symbolism too may help in becoming famous.

And strong one-liners. “The whole distinction between abstract and figurative is bullshit.” (“Der ganze Unterschied, abstrakt oder figurativ, der ist ja Scheiße.”)

It is true, a figurative painting may be seen in an abstract way (think of Vermeer, the master of red, yellow and blue); but the other way round? Häkschle’s titles suggest the abstraction of mathematics: intersection, line, plane (Schnittpunkt, Gerade, Fläche), as if we should forget the man in the raincoat and focus on the composition. But in every painting there is geometry to be found — so what’s special?

Is there anything about these paintings that makes one want to call out loud: this must be seen?

They have a vaguely surrealist, disturbing atmosphere. Mostly through the false perspective, the flat surfaces, rather like the scenery of computer games (and obviously the artist has designed his pictures on the PC). But like computer games, they leave an impression of mental constriction.

Roald Häkschle, Schnittpunkt III © Lodewijk Muns 2017
Roald Häkschle, Schnittpunkt III

Häkschle likes to play with focus in a photographic way, and sometimes creates a kind of dynamics within the static composition. Here size is of the essence; you can’t have the experience through a reproduction. Walk up to Schnittpunkt III, and the lack of focus in the brick wall may give you an uncomfortably dizzy feeling. Your gaze will be forced towards the sharply drawn human figure, far on the right.

Beyond that, a “false glow of empty promises”.