A muted colour palette, impasto brush strokes, diffuse sections of colour, blurred contours and impactful light settings help to show just how important the structure of the surface is to Axel Geis, who for decades has sought to create modern representations of classic painting. His commitment to working with the texture and volume of the paint creates distinctive visual effects that branch out as distinctive impressions of physical and sensual movements, repeatedly reminiscent of some of the pioneers of art history, such as Diego Velázquez, Francisco Goya, Édouard Manet, Édouard Vuillard and Francis Bacon.
A focal point for Geis is the human figure. A large gallery of people features in his work to date, including soldiers dressed in uniform, men in elegant clothes, beautiful women in feminine robes and individuals, young and old, wearing clown-like costumes. A typical Geis characteristic is the staging of such characters, which is well-founded and highly controlled; his characters are often seen locked in a movement or caught in a moment which may, at first glance seem insignificant, but which, on closer inspection, may become essential. Another way Geis takes command of his characters is to drain them of life, emphasising their introversion when, for example, they are depicted with their back to the beholder, with their gaze averted or with their eyes closed. And the often sketchy, indefinable or empty background helps underline the character’s isolation, which soon seems curious and enigmatic.
Geis’ characters seldom face the beholder, providing an interesting area of tension between work and beholder. As the beholder, you are often left to your own devices, as there is nothing to help explain who the characters are, and Geis repeatedly omits to tell the story that would allow you to relate in some way to the characters. So you might feel that you are looking at characters outside time and place – who are in a peculiar world, shut off from all external disturbances.
Geis’ technical prowess and aesthetic sensibility seem to be reinforced in his new series of works. Here, as so often before, Geis has drawn his inspiration from classic film history, the expressive possibilities of photography and the potential offered by reproduction. The point of departure of the series is Hans W. Geissendörfer’s film Der Zauberberg (1982), which is based on Thomas Mann’s novel of the same name (1924). Geis’ works are based on randomly selected scenes from the film. The highly subjective processing of these “moving images” is a continuation of Geis’ interest in exploring existential themes in a pictorial space where, together, technique, composition and motif form clear associations to the fundamentals of human self-understanding and understanding of the world.
In an art historical context, this leads me to think of the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864–1916), who, around the turn of the last century, painted compositions of modern man’s experience of being divided, uncertain and alienated in a changing world.
A gentleman is standing in the foreground. He is wearing a black suit. His right hand is lifted. In his left hand, a glass, which he is holding up to his mouth. Behind him is a table with a white tablecloth, where several people appear to have sat down. In the background, a glimpse of a crowd with illuminated faces and tuxedo-clad bodies. The atmosphere of the room seems strikingly graduated in the diffusion of indeterminate colours. The meticulous staging and the precise arrangement merge, supporting a common relation, i.e. the story of a young man whose educational journey is going to open up the mental and physical layers of a vulnerable existence in a time marked by upheaval. And his distant or indistinct expression expresses an emptiness and melancholy that seem so undeniable and strong.
Hammershøi was interested in the possibilities offered by photography as a means of entry to a painting. He had a particular eye for the structuring of space, which can be compared to cinematic spaces, those of Carl Th. Dreyers, for example (Annette Rosenvoldt Hvidt 2012). And in his in-depth work looking at the possibility of imbuing the painting with a sensual space, which could be explored in a number of ways, his characters are seen as bearing elements, who – like Geis’ characters – never seem superfluous.
In another work, Geis has portrayed several characters together: A couple is seen on either side of a table in the foreground, a conductor is standing with his back to us in the middle ground, and a polyphonic choir is placed in the background. The composition is well balanced in terms of its rhythm, texture and colouring. However, the relationship between the characters is complicated. What catches the eye are the two people at the table and their ambiguous body language. Whether they are together is difficult to see. They do not appear to have contact with each other. The man seems contemplative and withdrawn. The woman seems upset by something that the beholder cannot see – or hear. There seems to be something else going on here; the individual characters are more than just extras in the grand narrative: By means of their individualisation and physical appearance in the room, they draw the beholder’s attention, paving the way for other stories unrelated to Mann’s story. And, strangely, although Geis does not mediate direct contact – as the beholder is unable to become on intimate terms with the characters because they seem isolated and thus inaccessible – a certain intimacy can be felt by virtue of the somewhat fabulous atmosphere of the work.
Characteristic of all the works is the fact that they contain more than the naked eye can see. As the beholder, you are invited to use your senses in the perception process, which extends further and deeper – and which, once and for all, demonstrates that Geis’ art goes places where what you can see seems to fall short.