In the Museum of Digital Baroque - by Ralf F. Hartmann

In the Museum of Digital Baroque
Peter Freitag’s Work with the Old Masters
by Ralf F. Hartmann
translation by Catherine Framm

Franz Peter I in vermilion robes at the height of his power: watchfully observing the viewer with a fixed gaze, he leans back in what seems to be a stately armchair of the kind to be found in the European galleries of Baroque art as an essential constituent in monarchical portraits. Peter and Eva, on the other hand, as the innocent pair before the Fall of Man, are to be found in a state of natural, relaxed togetherness: he, Narcissus, in almost ideal nudity, she, clothed stylishly and gazing self-assuredly out of the picture, both of them in unclouded harmony. In contrast, the eternal pose of introspection: the self-doubting, aging soldier, brooding, as his life passes before him within his downward gaze. Further along in this virtual museum, another diptych is governed by classical composition and harmonic balance, carefully counter-poised figures combined with elegance of color: The Four Brothers.

Regardless of whether Peter Freitag enters into dialogue with Velasquez, Cranach or Dürer, his eye for the history of European art always contains a mix of playful calculation and serious critical image analysis. In his recent digital portraiture series, Freitag, accustomed to availing himself of diverse sources of imagery, has turned his attention to some of the incontestable masterpieces of European art. Thus, out of a mélange of camouflaging caricature and seemingly disrespectful persiflage, he has compiled a subjective ancestral portrait gallery of the great cultural prototypes. This may seem unusual for a contemporary artist working with digital imagery. In an age of Cultural Studies and critical Imaging Science, the bewildering sampling of bodies and settings from fashion magazines, intentionally drawing upon a supposed Art History, has grown rare.

The younger generation of contemporary artists like Peter Freitag is far more interested in the image archives of the everyday, the collective memory of a visually determined society in which the ubiquitous presence of images demands an equal measure of decisiveness and bravado from the producers of art. Since post-modern times and the beginnings of the World Wide Web at the latest, all that was canonical has been lost. The generators of pictures have conflated, and that which was reverentially preserved is suddenly standing next to the everyday and that which has been ranked as museum-quality stands next to the trivial. There has been such a shift in significance in the visual arts that classical art history has been replaced by critical Imaging Science, thus making it both possible and necessary to draw on almost everything visual for the analysis of a perplexing reality.

Not infrequently a detailed investigation of visual systems will bring to light the complex constructedness of realities, thereby also throwing new light upon the classical topoi of art history. Portraits of rulers, legends of the saints, and the origins of the Christian world view lose their eternally valid significance and proceed to become – when Peter Freitag transplants the heroes of art history into our everyday, modern consumer world – mere objects of investigation on the virtual autopsy table of the present, on which the significances of history are without further ado amalgamated with those of the present.

The aristocratic becomes common, the sacred profane, and the ideal becomes ordinary. For the most part this still takes place in the realm of scholarship and thus within the framework of a highly sensitive abstraction, at the end of which the concrete threatens to become lost completely. Everything directly identity-related or having a subjective impact retreats into the background behind the cloak of aloof scholarly loquaciousness.

But suddenly the alter ego of the artist emerges in eerie introspection out of his metal chest armor, his modern Judith cradles the decapitated head with his mirror image in front of her, and the artists’ four brothers are recruited to supply the necessary personnel for a presentation of the Düreresque apostles. The seemingly naïve putting-yourself-in-their-place becomes a multiple artistic appropriation in which not only the characteristic personnel but also all the attributes of the representation are subjected to exacting scrutiny and submit to an adaptation that is almost fresh. Utopias, stories and dramas stand trial before the present and are subjected to a necessary analysis that will once again pose the necessary question as to the current significance of classical artworks: How can we as contemporaries of today’s world, relate to these incunabula of yesterday? Can we find any relevance in these classically treated themes? Is it even possible to find gratification in aesthetic solutions and confrontational drama before the background of openly negotiated gender issues, digital picture production, and visual imagery at our disposal on all sides? Or is it not much more the case that everything specific, political and significant in this unlimited availability has dissipated into the vague, the un-political and the meaningless?

Peter Freitag’s bold adaptation of classical artworks is a first attempt at plumbing the depths of these questions in visual form. In playful exchange with the modern flood of images, he tries to once again win back the immediacy of that which has been so respectfully musealized – and thus preserved. The great themes of art history, the painted manifestations of whole eras, receive a new interpretation through the medium of his photography which here no longer poses irrelevant questions as to authenticity and the construction of reality, but rather searches for the visual traces of canonical image history in subjective reality and in the excessive picture production of the present time. Timeless questions are at our disposal, fundamental issues are to be negotiated and artistically grappled with. The more unlimited the picture systems, the more limited do the interpretations of perhaps the portrait of the pope, of the first human couple, or of the modern Judith seem. Peter Freitag makes no bones about the fact that the images are constructions. On the contrary: the digital constructions are everywhere visible and call for new strategies in dealing with them. For this reason, his grip on the history of art is at the same time scarily subjective as well as comfortingly objective.