Aris Kalaizis

Painter of the North, Painter of the South

In this text describes the ar-his­tor­i­an Prof. Dr. Michael Scholz-Haensel the paint­ing of St. Bartho­lomew by Aris Kala­izis under inclu­sion of art-his­tor­ic­al aspects. Fur­ther­more he sees in the paint­er a per­son­i­fied mer­ger of the north­ern and south­ern hemisphere

Michael Scholz-Haensel in front of Kalaizis' Bartholomew-painting (2014)
Michael Scholz-Haensel in front of Kalaizis' Bartholomew-painting (2014)

It may indeed seem strange, when a agnost­ic paint­er sud­denly works with reli­gious mater­i­al. Although, of course, we should note that it is by no means sur­pris­ing, as sec­u­lar-minded artists have always embarked on excur­sions into the realm of reli­gious mat­ter. We may, fur­ther­more, even ask if reli­gi­os­ity hadn’t hitherto been all too nat­ur­ally asso­ci­ated with expli­cit declar­a­tions of faith or a belief in God, and if striv­ing towards tran­scend­ence or look­ing for some sort of mean­ing in a sup­posed after­life isn’t really some­thing inher­ently human. Dur­ing an inter­view, Michel Houel­le­becq recently said to the Ger­man weekly news­pa­per ›DIE ZEIT‹ that »a soci­ety without reli­gion isn’t cap­able of sur­vi­ging. Laicism, crit­ic­al ration­al­ism, and the Enlight­en­ment, whose basic premise demands a depar­ture from reli­gious ideas, is without a future«.

…the church ruins in the sea

Son of Greek polit­ic­al immig­rants in the GDR, Aris Kala­izis was born in Leipzig in 1966. Like Neo Rauch, who is just eight years older, Aris Kala­izis stud­ied under Arno Rink at the renowned Academy of Visu­al Arts Leipzig (Hoch­schule für Grafik und Buch­kunst). Each of the three paints, just men­tioned, belong to a move­ment ded­ic­ated to a new approach to fig­ur­at­ive paint­ing known as the ›New Leipzig School‹. They hold in com­mon a metic­u­lous dis­play of tech­nic­al bril­liance and the rean­im­a­tion of Renais­sance-like lin­ear per­spect­ive that had ori­gin­ally been rejec­ted by the avant-garde work­ing around 1900.
But the clas­sic­al rivalry, the par­agone, chal­len­ging the Old Mas­ters is only one aspect of Kalaizis' artistry. His paint­ings rather gain their enorm­ous energy from their polit­ic­al urgency and their abil­ity to build a bridge to mod­ern­ity, for instance, by includ­ing mod­ern tech­no­lo­gies and by their affin­ity to Con­cep­tu­al Art as it will become evid­ent when con­sid­er­ing the pro­cess from which the paint­ings emerge.

The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew or the double Martyrdom | Oil on canvas | 98 x 112 in | 2014/15
The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew or the double Martyrdom | Oil on canvas | 98 x 112 in | 2014/15

The recently com­pleted paint­ing ›The Mar­tyr­dom of Saint Bartho­lomew or the double Mar­tyr­dom‹ (2014÷2015) will be the focal point of our atten­tion. With its dimen­sions stretch­ing 98 x 112 inches, it is truly a monu­ment­al piece of art. In paint­ing the new retired Pope Bene­dict XVI. in 2009, Aris Kala­izis had already touched upon sac­red mat­ter for his nar­rat­ive com­pos­i­tion ›make/​believe‹ to which he added a crit­ic­al spin. And now a ›Saint Bartho­lomew‹ fol­lowed his depic­tion of the pontiff, and it now merges icon­ic reli­gious tra­di­tions of north­ern and south­ern Europe in an aston­ish­ing way.
The Chris­ti­an mar­tyr is the pat­ron saint of Frank­furt am Main and its prin­cip­al reli­gious edi­fice, the Imper­i­al Cathed­ral, is ded­ic­ated to Saint Bartho­lomew. Until August 2015, vis­it­ors to the Cathed­ral may take a look at that paint­ing and dis­cuss ques­tions related to its unique com­pos­i­tion. The reli­gious top­ic is framed by an enorm­ous land­scape pan­or­ama, which has been divided into three equal zones that cor­rel­ate in terms of form and con­tent. The fore­ground is con­sti­tuted by a green coastal strip, upon which the fig­ur­at­ive scene takes place. It is fol­lowed by a body of water that is marked off by a thin red line along the hori­zon and cen­ters around church ruins. But sus­pen­ded above the entire com­pos­i­tion, we see a gloomy cloudy sky. Rel­at­ively cold col­ors dom­in­ate the paint­ing. They are merely coun­ter­bal­anced by specs of red and the blaz­ing batches belong­ing to a bon­fire in which books are being burned.

At the cen­ter of the green plat­eau, we are shown the flay­ing of St. Bartho­lomew. Dur­ing his mis­sion­ary work in Armenia, legend has it that he was flayed by hea­then hench­men and later was beheaded in India. But Aris Kala­izis con­sciously chose a com­pos­i­tion that is remin­is­cent of St. Peter's cru­ci­fix­ion. The apostle and founder of the pap­al church did not deem him­self equal to Christ and there­fore deman­ded to be cru­ci­fied upside down.

…to ima­gine a straight line that con­nects his feet with those of the man stand­ing on the right side

The paint­er has sub­sumed the saint and his three tor­ment­ors in an art­ful com­pos­i­tion. The male fig­ure in a sit­ting pos­ture on the left hand side not only guides us and opens the pictori­al space towards the right but also allows us to ima­gine a straight line that con­nects his feet with those of the man stand­ing on the right side. We are look­ing at two fig­ures that have been mod­elled off the same per­son who posed for the paint­ing. If we now ima­gine a second axis that pro­jects from the left figure's head to the arm of the fig­ure to the right, we may clearly real­ize how the entire com­pos­i­tion is geo­met­ric­ally framed by a con­ic form.

In addi­tion to the axi­al points of ref­er­ence in the paint­ing, the blue books strewn across the fore­ground, resem­bling the gos­pel spread by Bartho­lomew, con­nect the fig­ur­at­ive agents. Turn­ing to com­par­ing the left and right halves of the paint­ing, we quickly real­ize a cer­tain dis­pro­por­tion­al­ity. While the right side of the paint­ing is par­ti­tioned off by the rope hanging down from the upper frame, it at the same time leaves open a space for reflec­tion. The left hand side, on the oth­er hand, offers mul­tiple motifs – the fire, a vol­cano at the hori­zon, and a male fig­ure stand­ing in the shal­low cost­al water and hold­ing up a burn­ing book. That fig­ure may be of sig­ni­fic­ant import­ance in inter­pret­ing the paint­ing, as the sit­ting fig­ure, who is hold­ing a knife and – as we know – guides the behold­er towards the scene on the right to him, is also point­ing at the man in the water.

In icon­o­graph­ic­al terms, the paint­ing marks a dra­mat­ic turn­ing point with an open, unde­cided end­ing. The gloomy and agit­ated sky is remin­is­cent of apo­ca­lyptic scenes as they have dom­in­ated the sil­ver screen in recent years. Some may imme­di­ately recall Lars von Trier's ›Mel­an­cho­lia‹ (2011). Saint Bartho­lomew, how­ever, is in a long tra­di­tion that was foun­ded by Michelan­gelo who has secured his self-por­trait on the skin of the mar­tyr with­in the ›Last Judg­ment‹ in the Sis­tine Chapel. But for Aris Kala­izis, inter­pret­a­tions of the sub­ject by Jusepe de Rib­era may be more import­ant than this Roman mod­el. Rib­era emphas­ized the tem­por­al and ulti­mately more bru­tal char­ac­ter of the mar­tyr­dom, by reject­ing fea­tures in typ­ic­al depic­tions of his time in which the mar­tyr­dom was rewar­ded by angels crown­ing the saint. The church ruins in the sea, of course, invoke the Romantic tra­di­tion of, for example, Cas­par Dav­id Friedrich. Both paint­ers seem to be united, des­pite the cen­tur­ies sep­ar­at­ing them, in their pess­im­ist­ic view of his­tory in which churches no longer are mag­ni­fi­cent struc­tures but instead deser­ted places. There still may be paths lead­ing up to them, but the flood has made them inde­cipher­able. But crit­ic­al reflec­tion may still be able to access these eccle­si­ast­ic­al spaces.

…like the angel in ›make/​believe‹ he is call­ing for a return to the powers unseen, for repentance

It is con­ceiv­able that the unusu­al choice of a body of water hinges on a region­al ante­cedent, namely the vari­ous vil­lages that van­ished dur­ing the days of excess­ive coal min­ing in the close vicin­ity of Leipzig. These min­ing pits have later been flooded and turned into lake land­scapes that are sup­posed to attract tour­ists. Sup­port­ing this inter­pret­a­tion is the choice that Kala­izis made regard­ing the mod­el for the church ruin, which cor­res­ponds to an actu­al church ruin in a vil­lage called Wachau near Leipzig.
Viewed in this way, the fig­ure placed into the water hold­ing up a burn­ing book makes sense. Like the angel in ›make/​believe‹ he is call­ing for a return to the powers unseen, for repent­ance. The warm red tones in his skin are in oppos­i­tion to the pale skin and cold blue tones used in the oth­er fig­ures. He def­in­itely does not belong to them or at least is unlike them. As indic­ated by the picture's title, there are oth­er mar­tyr­doms behind the obvi­ous mar­tyr­dom that takes place in the fore­ground of the scene – there is a sec­ond­ary, ›double‹ sense of mar­tyr­dom in the paint­ing. »He who burns books will also burn human beings«, Hein­rich Heine once wrote, but it was also the inquis­i­tion that once burnt books, in order to test their ortho­doxy (which would sup­posedly pro­tect the books from catch­ing fire). Does this imply, con­trary to the Roman Cath­ol­ic view, Luther's ›sola scrip­tura‹? Obvi­ously the pos­sible ways of look­ing at this paint­ing get a bit more com­plic­ated at this point.

The Great Miracle | Oil on wood | 20 x 23 in | 2015
The Great Miracle | Oil on wood | 20 x 23 in | 2015

These recent ›sac­red‹ paint­ings by Aris Kala­izis came about long before the ter­ror attacks in Par­is once again stirred up a debate on the role and mean­ing of reli­gion in mod­ern soci­et­ies. In my view, we are con­fron­ted with a gen­er­al trend that is reflec­ted in the rather tra­di­tion­al por­traits of Pope Bene­dict XVI by Michael Triegel, the church win­dow art­work by Ger­hard Richter, Markus Lüpertz, Neo Rauch and oth­ers, but also in the freely inven­ted por­traits of saints by street art artists. 

But unlike Michael Triegel who recently con­ver­ted to Cath­oli­cism, the athe­ist Aris Kala­izis has main­tained a crit­ic­al stance towards reli­gion that is sim­il­ar to the atti­tude dis­played by the prot­ag­on­ist in Michel Houellebecq's nov­el ›Sub­mis­sion‹ (2015) that was pub­lished after the paint­ing had been com­pleted. In Houellebecq's story, the prot­ag­on­ist enters a cloister and thereby con­sciously emu­lates Jor­is-Karl Huys­mans, in order to reject that life­style and to live a pro­fane altern­at­ive that is full of self-irony.

…neither the Prot­est­ant art of north­ern Europe (e.g. Cas­par Dav­id Friedrich) nor the Cath­ol­ic altern­at­ives in south­ern Europe (e.g. Michelan­gelo, Rib­era etc.) will lead us out of the cur­rent crisis that isn’t just cre­ated by press­ing eco­nom­ic ques­tions, but is also a spir­itu­al crisis

Aris Kala­izis, of course, is aware that his con­cep­tu­al paint­ing will not lead any­body back onto the path of faith, and his inten­tion is by no means offer­ing a return to the roots of occi­dent­al civil­iz­a­tion. Chris­tian­ity lay in ruins and has failed to draw mean­ing­ful con­clu­sions from its inher­ent viol­ence. This is what we are shown here. Neither the Prot­est­ant art of north­ern Europe (e.g. Cas­par Dav­id Friedrich) nor the Cath­ol­ic altern­at­ives in south­ern Europe (e.g. Michelan­gelo, Rib­era etc.) will lead us out of the cur­rent crisis that isn’t just cre­ated by press­ing eco­nom­ic ques­tions, but is also a spir­itu­al crisis.

It is there­fore no sur­prise that there are less sim­il­ar­it­ies between the work of Aris Kala­izis and his New Leipzig School com­pet­it­or Michael Triegel and more sim­il­ar­it­ies between Aris Kala­izis and Gregory Crewd­son who cur­rently is one of the most suc­cess­ful pro­ponents of staged pho­to­graphy. There is a lot of over­lap with regard to the mood and atmo­sphere, but also with regard to the pro­cess that brings about a pic­ture. Both artists work in mul­tiple steps and make use of the medi­um pho­to­graphy, in order to gen­er­ate space for reflec­tion. Aris Kala­izis ini­tially choses spe­cif­ic loc­a­tions – this may be an aban­doned build­ing in the vicin­ity of Leipzig or a fully con­struc­ted scene in his atelier. At this loc­a­tion, Aris Kala­izis then brings togeth­er the vari­ous mod­els and objects that he plans to depict in the paint­ing. Hav­ing devised an art­ful sta­ging, in which light­ing is as cent­ral an ele­ment as in the work of Crewd­son, Aris Kala­izis then enters a pro­cess of com­plex and tedi­ous pho­to­graph­ic doc­u­ment­a­tion. This gives pho­to­graph­ic images that he may use when final­iz­ing the com­pos­i­tion in his atelier, before he begins paint­ing the pic­ture onto the canvas.

Kala­izis and Crewd­son offer the spec­tat­or an aug­men­ted sense of real­ity that opens up space for phant­asy and spec­u­la­tion – that is, it opens up a space that most artists seek to elim­in­ate by offer­ing more and more con­cise and unam­bigu­ous arrange­ments. With Aris Kalaizis' approach in view, the Amer­ic­an art his­tor­i­an Car­ol Strick­land inven­ted the term ›Sot­toreal­ism‹. But the reli­gious paint­ings by Aris Kala­izis go one step fur­ther. On the one hand, they accuse tra­di­tion­al reli­gious estab­lish­ments of hav­ing lost any sense of spir­itu­al­ity; on the oth­er hand, they offer an icon­ic vocab­u­lary of Chris­ti­an imagery that seems to be increas­ingly van­ish­ing from our col­lect­ive memory. This then is tied to the demand that we are ought to finally put new life into these things, now. In order to open up this philo­soph­ic­al dis­course, the paint­er cites two seem­ingly ant­ag­on­ist tra­di­tions, the north­ern European tra­di­tion of Roman­ti­cism and the south­ern European tra­di­tion of Baroque paint­ing as exem­pli­fied by Rib­era and El Greco. This is a won­der­ful offer, espe­cially when con­sid­er­ing the cur­rent struggle for European unity.

Trans­lated by Paul-Henri Campbell

Prof. Dr. Michael Scholz-Hän­sel was born in 1955 and is pro­fess­or for art his­tory at the Uni­ver­sity of Leipzig. His research is con­cen­trated on Ibero-Amer­ic­an art. In addi­tion to mono­graphs on El Greco and Jusepe de Rib­era, he pub­lished »Inquis­i­tion und Kunst ›Con­viven­cia‹ in Zeiten der Intol­er­anz« (2009) and was co-edit­or of »Armut in der Kunst der Mod­erne« (2011) as well as »El Greco und die Mod­erne« (2012).

©2014 Michael Scholz-Haensel | Aris Kalaizis

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