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Argonaut. Icarus. Gordian Knot.
A Portrait of the Artist Hans-Hendrik Grimmling

by Doris Liebermann

Translation by Mitch Cohen

“Every artist is an Argonaut who, with his art, sets off into imaginings to bring something home,” says the painter. A large room flooded with sunlight. The light falls through big windows from two sides. Everywhere large and small “Grimmlings”. Three pictures on the wall rivet one’s gaze. Yellow, blue, white, and black. The motifs move toward the viewer like sculptures: sails, wings, waves, ships’ hulls, arms clinging to a sail. Cumbersome forms. Maybe they are people lost at sea or in their yearning, or people who failed when they set off. It is hard to say whether shipwreck or succor is meant; either is possible in the play of forces. Or is the one sail a hinted vagina? The eternal feminine beckoning to the Argonauts to set off for uncertain territories? The picture allows this interpretation, as well. It is a triptych from the Argonaut series Grimmling is working on. The artist is also an Icarus and a Gordian knot,” he adds, thereby describing the three most important phases of his own artistic existence.
His Saxon character has not left him even after almost twenty years in Berlin. His studio is in the second courtyard, up the third stairwell, on the second upper storey in a large factory courtyard in Wedding district. The quarter is home to many Turkish residents; across the corridor on the same floor is the entrance to a mosque.
Grimmling’s pictorial language bears the stamp of the landscape of his childhood. Born in 1947 in Zwenkau, near Leipzig, he grows up in a Saxon brown coal region. Endless coal mines swallow up villages, fields, and forests. The coalfields are so vast that they blend into the sky at the horizon. The structures of exposed layers of soil and their ornamental rhythm shape Grimmling’s visual memory. Confused field mice, rendered homeless, can be caught with bare hands in this destroyed landscape. Black foam floats on the White Elster, the river he learns to swim in as a child. The intense, deep black in series like “nachtmahl” (“night meal”), “feuerspucker” (“fire eater”), and “schwarze egge” (“black harrow”) originates in early childhood memories. It is a late reflection on the gradual disappearance of green, the disappearance of his childhood forests and meadows. Only recently has he become fully aware that green has also disappeared from his paintings. In his early landscape paintings, it was already always mixed with a gray tone. It was the green of trees and forests that already carried death within them.
His father left the family, so Grimmling and his two sisters grow up in a children’s home. They spend the weekends with their mother. He boxes, plays soccer, and likes to watch films about Russian partisan. He tries writing short poems, copying motifs from Franz Marc, and painting in watercolors. He is fourteen years old when he rents his first own studio. This comes by coincidence. His mother, a district nurse, hears news of a sofa someone wants to give away. There is no room for it in her small apartment. A friend knows about an old, untenanted pharmacy where it can be stored. But the pharmacy is on Pegauer Straße, known as the longest and oldest trade route in Europe, connecting Leipzig and Rome. “This studio was a workshop for seeking and finding the unfamiliar, and it still is today,” says the painter. “It was a first feeling of independence, maybe even of freedom.”
Leipzig is his first big city: it becomes the site of his first emancipation and his first failure.
From Zwenkau, the bus drives fifteen kilometers to get there. In the trade fair city are streetcars, cafés, confusing shop windows, tempting big stores, and women in high heels. In Leipzig, he visits a drawing course in the “Clubhouse of Friendship”. He paints still lifes, portrays old women, draws nudes. In Leipzig, he goes to a theater for the first time and is deeply impressed by artists, painters, and actors. In this city comes the first hint of the “art fate” – of not being able to let go of art.
“under the strong tension between hope and hope-
lessness, since early childhood I have sought means of speaking of it.
what seemed most possible to me was painting and drawing
 my pictures register my communications – and they reflect
incomprehension about the steps of needed changes, until…”

he writes years later, when he already lives in West Berlin.
“the external changes characterize my wandering from
the smaller to the next-larger place – from the village of childhood to the
small town, from the small town to the big city, from the big city to
the metropolis.
every new station means lugging relationships around as
a mere legacy.
the internal changes parallel the external ones, in the chrono-
logical order of the inevitabilities of patterns of childhood.”

After he finishes high school and his compulsory military service, his application to the College of Graphic Arts and Book Art in Leipzig is initially rejected. He makes his way as a transport worker, stage worker, and stage design assistant. In 1969, he is admitted to the College of Visual Arts in Dresden, transferring a year later to the trade fair city.
He is 23 years old and already has a family. Art students can earn good money at the trade fair, which also speaks in favor of the move. But above all, the “Leipzig School” is regarded as the promise of a liberalized socialist East German art. Teaching at the Leipzig art college are Werner Tübke, Wolfgang Mattheuer, and Bernhard Heisig; the studios and workshops are generously equipped. Art at the Leipzig college is not as obviously oriented toward Party policy as it is for a Willi Sitte in Halle, a Gerhard Bondzin in Dresden, or a Walter Womacka in Berlin. At the Leipzig college, people dare to develop signatures that seem to undermine the diktat of Socialist Realism.
Since the Bitterfeld Conference at the end of 1959, artists have been sworn to the class struggle. They are expected to go into the factories and depict the workers at work, thereby supporting them in building socialism. At the center of artistic creation stands the person – the “socialist person”. Although the dogmatic phase of this period has already faded, the Leipzig Art College, too, produces images of construction sites, heroes of labor, and blissful soldiers. But Grimmling paints self-portraits and nudes and works on graphic series and oppressive bird allegories that sometimes seem like scenes of medieval torture. The motifs have little to do with the gloss East German “existing socialism” puts on things. “The bird was the first figuration to replace the human figure. At that time, they were still very realistic birds that I painted perching on a line,” says the painter. “But the bird was actually a political metaphor for me.” His models are the Expressionists, Karl Hofer, and Max Beckmann. His opposition takes shape in his formal grappling with father figures, the teachers at the college. Painting differently leads to thinking differently.

The venerable, but gray and decaying university town Leipzig is also developing an alternative scene. It is influenced by graduates from the art college who rebel against letting the State make their decisions for them and against socialist confines. Grimmling is one of them.
Wild Carnival parties are celebrated, duels are fought with wooden slats¹ on the day the student stipends are paid out, and plenty of beer is drunk for 40 Pfennigs a glass in the “Swallow’s Nest”. But the artists are not content just to have fun and be jolly; they conduct heated debates on artistic freedom and seek ways to carry these polemics into the public realm.
It is almost a sport to steal books from Western publishers at the book fair. They are passed from hand to hand clandestinely. Among them are expensive art volumes, for example one on Francis Bacon. Grimmling devours the language of David Sylvester on Francis Bacon, yearns for the Realists of the London School, is addicted to other form languages and greedy for information from outside. He illustrates the Russian symbolist poet Alexander Blok and makes woodcuts of the 1968 student revolts in France. He reads Peter Weiss, Solzhenitsyn, Babel, Bulgakov, Faulkner, and Peter Hille. In Leipzig’s little studio cinema “Casino”, he watches the subversive films of Zanussi, Mészáros, Menzel, Wajda, Andrej Tarkovsky. The aesthetics and metaphorics of these films – for example of Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” – correspond with the iconography of his own pictures.
In his fourth year of college, he paints the religious-seeming triptych “in the name of the sanctified means”. People crouch with burning candles in black pits. Their bodies have black wings. The side panels show the same figures without wings. On the left, they distribute knives among themselves; on the right, they stab at a red human body that is nailed to a board fence. Asked to explain what he meant with this triptych, Grimmling answered, “conditions in society.”
Because his pictures radiate a “completely alien imagination” and “lack any relation to the working class”, he is threatened with exmatriculation in his graduation year. Later, the accusation is “influence from imperialistic decadence”. Grimmling is ordered to portray two work brigadiers in the open pits of the Espenhain mine, if he wants to complete his course of studies. It is winter when he begins going to the mine every morning. The black mining landscape covered in white snow seems vast and surreal. Despite the dreariness, Grimmling feels poetry, distance, and longing for distance. He gets along well with the miners. He paints one with a red head and red hands with open wounds, the other sitting, falling wearily asleep. Not as heroes of socialist labor. He submits as his examination piece the panel painting “Murder of the Muse”, dedicated to the murdered Chilean singer Victor Jara, and the graphic print portfolio “Cloudburst”, with lithographs to his own verses. The portraits of workers secure him the examination result “very good”. He also receives a money bonus.
For three years beginning in 1974, he is a master student under Gerhard Kettner, the Rector of the College of Visual Arts in Dresden. He feels torn between praise and punishment, carrot and stick. He is involved in being patient, in patiently enduring. The black winged figures are also a metaphor for the desire to break out and flee from a blindness. But the clipped wings make escape impossible. His triptych “the reeducation of the birds” (1978) depicts the violence of educational patterns in traumatized figures whose audacity to want to fly makes them plunge. The East German press defames the painting; what is provocative, is effective. Grimmling does not allow himself be turned from his course. He paints people with black wings, black birds that fall, body parts knotted into each other. He paints Icarus series and associations on Olivier Messiaen’s “Les oiseaux” compositions. He still has exhibitions with figurative paintings; in the course of time, these make way for rhythmically staged abstract symbols and signs. The figurations are of someone fallen, imprisoned , tortured, stumbling, never of an idyll or a victor. He paints pictures of walls full of eruptive energy and raging vitality. In an intense red, “fanfare red” as the painter calls it, in the red of the working class, he depicts martyred people whose skin seems torn from their bodies. One of his most important wall triptychs bears the title “the rower” (1978). The central panel shows a blood-red man breaking through the wall by rowing; his force seems to burst apart the edge of the picture; yet the edge of the picture cramps the figure, just as people’s situations cramp them. The two side panels depict white pieces of concrete, segments of wall on which lie red, ravaged human bodies. “Back then, when I made the wall pictures, it was the attack of my own present. But it was also meant that red, incarnated figures lay on the wall, figures that, in their creatureliness, could never be agile. Not only because they are already victims and become victims as runners on the wall: they are already damned to leap back and forth across walls beforehand. My figures were intended to describe that there is an inevitability in being, in mental entanglement,” says Grimmling. “My description of the plunging figure with black wings did not always refer solely to East Germany. I think the only person I comprehend is the one who falls. I’ve never understood the one who rises up and flies.”
The painter is no longer content to describe the winged person’s plunge and yearning to get away. He formulates the metaphor more succinctly: the obstacle begins with the first encounter of two people. His winged people are now entangled in a knot. He paints compositions with torsos, arms, and legs that are knotted together and do not seem to belong to anyone. The knots of humans are the transition to the “Gordian knot”, a central metaphor of his oeuvre along with the “bird-man”.
“I stage things in my head with forms – always body parts ... always
of a person ... I construct a dramaturgy with arms and legs ..
 but I always want to preclude a plot
it is my belief that I drag around with me a lot of stageable material
I can’t say how much my eyes function outward
... I can’t consciously implement what I see
this is a conflict between the outside and me ...”

we read later in one of his texts.
One of his best-known panel paintings from this period bears the title “fault of the middle”; Berlin’s New National Gallery displays it in 2004 in the major exhibition, “Art in East Germany”.
During the period when East Germany still existed, the Lindenau Museum Altenburg bought this work of art. This museum is to be commended for not letting the painting disappear in the cellar, as has happened to other works by the painter. “guilt of the middle” is full of confusing energies: an injured white leg, hands, feet, wings, heads. In the middle is the outstretched red hand of a deformed birdman, questioning, demanding; no other hand responds to it.
“The leg in a cast, the plunging person, the fist, the hand are all the same in their power that wants to leave the pictures. In falling as in struggling, in mourning, in one’s own brokenness as well as in awkward optimism. Everything has the same energy, but no root, no core, no center," says the artist. “Whether socialist hermeticism or capitalistic openness, we lack a center to refer to. It is the ‘fault of the middle’ if it is not there.”
In 1981 and 1982, two already set up exhibitions that he organized in Halle and Merseburg with his friend, the painter Olaf Wegewitz, are closed down on orders from the communist bureaucracy. In Merseburg, the reproach is: pornography. The functionaries take offense at a painting by Grimmling that shows a cramped, flying, headless, naked male body with erect penis. Constant conflict with the all-powerful, small-minded censorship wears the painter down. In this period, he feels as if he were taking a bumpy ride on a dilapidated carousel in the middle of the dreary fairground of East Germany.
For it is not so easy to live as a freelance artist in the Workers’ State. If you are not a member of the Visual Artists Union, you are regarded as a “work-shy element” and have a quasi-antisocial status. Only as a member of the union do you get a tax number legitimating you to work independently. Being embedded in these strictures means being controlled, but also social security. For an artist with a rebellious temperament and an unruly intellect, like Grimmling, it means prisons, oppression, tedium, and stultification.
“out of the vaccinated willingness to integrate grew a will to
refuse, a desire to articulate against the society’s adoptive
relationship to the individual.
together, these changes seem to be tests of the
elasticity of ties, experiments with the robustness of
moving away ... as a constant attempt, a process of letting go.”

In 1983, despite increasing obstacles to his work, Grimmling allows himself to be voted onto the executive board of the painting and graphic arts section of the Leipzig Visual Artists Union. He stills feels ambivalent: secure commissions are tempting, but at the same time he revolts against the limitation of artistic creativity at the hands of State controls and bans, against the hermeticism and captivity of East Germany. With his friends, the painters Lutz Dammbeck, Olaf Wegewitz, Günther Huniat, Frieder Heinze and Günter Firit – the “new Fauves” of East Germany – he conspicuously tries to be unmanageable, engaging in art actions and artists’ parties, creating little magazines, performances, and petitions against the inequality of the country’s policies on traveling to exhibitions in the West. He creates multi-media projects and concepts that are stymied by censorship. In 1984, all this culminates in the legendary “First Leipzig Autumn Salon” (no second will follow), a semi-legal exhibition in the trade fair building on Leipzig Marketplace. Grimmling and his friends want to see where the limits are and to show their art independently of all State regimentation. They want to show that there are form languages in East Germany other than those officially fostered and propagated. Perhaps it is also a test to see whether it is possible to remain in East Germany.
Installations, sculptures, objects, and paintings are driven in a scrap-metal dealer’s car from the studios to the trade fair building. It is not permitted to drive nails into the walls, so the six artists improvise. They stretch ropes, mount clamps, lean the paintings against each other, or lay them on the floor. “A refreshing approach to paint and material. Keep it up!” someone writes in the guest book. Another: “The draft of the salon is as exciting as a wind from the open sea. I feel refreshed.” Almost ten thousand curious visitors arrive from all over East Germany to view the “Autumn Salon” – although the only advertising is word of mouth, because posters or announcements are not allowed to appear.
The exhibition is a great success.
For the secretly planned “Autumn Salon”, the painters had, on their own initiative, signed a contract with the exhibition rooms and thereby created the impression that they were acting on the authority of the Association of Visual Artists. It is a trick, the only chance of eluding the culture bureaucracy’s monopoly. A gigantic chain is set in motion to prevent the exhibition – going as far as the Central Committee in Berlin. The “Autumn Salon” is permitted to be held only because the functionaries fear “greater political damage” if they forbid it. This is how it stands, verbatim, in the Stasi files. The next year, the culture functionaries label it a “counter-revolutionary event”.
The domestic intelligence agency, the State Security or Stasi, launches the “operative process” “Salon”, gathering incriminating material and constructing dangerous charges. Grimmling is considered the primary suspect. He is charged with violating Paragraphs 99 and 219 of the East German Criminal Code, “making illegal contact”, punishable by up to three years in prison. And “treasonable breach of faith”: Section 1) prison sentence of from two to ten years; Section 2), in especially serious cases, life in prison or the death penalty.
The artist is fortunate not to learn this until he reads his Stasi files, years later after the Berlin Wall falls. Three of the painters from the “Autumn Salon”, including Grimmling, respond to the open threats and intimidation by leaving East Germany. Before the end of 1984, he submits an application to emigrate. Just over a year later, he and his family are able to emigrate to West Berlin.
He feels like a wet bird flitting into a chink in a wall, a new place to settle, not like someone floating free and trying to get away. His pictures “the birds over berlin”, “the cold heart”, and “the big and the little klaus” describe his state of mind in those years.

“Going away ... from a country full of discord
and lethargy to the biotope west berlin meant extreme exertion
and loss, risk and gain. good friendships were heavily
burdened, grown relationships strained to the point of
denial, tests of the strength of one’s own roots to the point of
compulsive rivalry had to be endured, but it was also the
triumph of having left the sphere of a self-adulating “culturalistic”
nomenclature, of not having put oneself at the disposal of a leveling
co-optation, and not as a victim.”

He catches up on missed travels: New York, Madrid, London, Naples, Paris, Amsterdam, Chicago, places where he can finally see the long-yearned-for originals of many new models. Later he will mourn the passing of the island city West Berlin; beauty and ugliness were more clearly perceptible to him in the time of the Wall than they are today.

He paints large-format painting series against Western superfluity with titles like “the plates are too full” and “kadewe pictures” (KaDeWe is the colloquial name of the famous department store, the Kaufhaus des Westens). He has major exhibitions in Germany and abroad, takes part after 1989 in the German-German art debates, and responds to them with his “fusion paintings”, with variations on “porta germanica” and “salto germanico”, whose theme is Germany’s still unmastered history. Because he often paints in the German flag’s colors black, red, and yellow-gold, Grimmling is also seen as a “painter of divided Germany”. “In the sea of long time, the many who left or were pushed out of East Germany became the trailblazers of the peaceful revolution of 1989. They contributed to the collapse of the country by withdrawing their energies from it.”

Homeland is a state of thinking about green, says the painter. Green has disappeared from his pictures. It disappeared with the human figure, and the human figure disappeared with the wings. Only occasionally does green reappear, hesitant and uncertain. Blue, yellow, white, and red are the prevailing colors in his pictures – and over it all, the dominant color, black. Clear, powerful, dramatic. Without hesitation.“When I paint black, I don’t necessarily have coal, tar, or the mines in mind, but ‘dark’ and ‘below’.” He does not feel that black is gloomy, but more like an intense red.
Grimmling, who has taught since 2001 at the Berlin Technical Art College, where computer designers are trained, spends every free hour in his studio. It is his refuge, a place to come to himself.
Primed canvases lie around on the floor. “The canvas must first take on biology, my state. Moisture, structure, prone chaos,” says the painter. “When the picture wants to stand vertically, it is already asserting an idea.”
His art continues to be shaped by thinking in metaphors with intense form. He describes the spirit of the times using mythological materials and image symbols. They incessantly raise the question of going and remaining, whereby black is the vehicle, the ship, on which he glides. “In the course of time, I have increasingly grasped the melancholy of black more as a ceremoniousness and its supposed sadness or mourning more as an elegiac power,” he says. “I realized that black in the picture means form to me, that when I make pictures I use it as construction, as rhythmization, as order.” And: “All the compensations so far for fettered life that have to do with Eros, I associate with black.”

In recent years, Grimmling has become more aware of his power for tectonics and rhythm. His pictures do not develop out of motifs described through color and light, but rather out of sculptural-seeming vertical and horizontal forms. Fields of force work against each other; aggression and fighting spirit stand against introversion and the desire for protection. He is still dissatisfied and impatient with the times and with himself: the cage is open; outside is only a bigger cage; the bird’s wings are clipped. A central symbol of his painting, a symbol grown out of its fittingness as an image, is the cross.
It originated in the black bar that prevented the untying of the Gordian knot.
“The cross is the broadest sign for order and moorings. I think the cross is the basic structure in our body. The cross holds us. I don’t mean this ideologically. The body, the inner stability, is based on the cross. On the vertical and the horizontal, which are not only at 90 degrees to each other, but which are also described by the fact that they cross. The human being is built the way he is built. As soon as he lifts his arm, he does not yearn for crucifixion, but presents himself as on the cross. Our movements, even our silent communications, are spatial turnings, tippings, angled distortions of the cross. We always offer the cross, namely ourselves.”
In the Argonaut series that he has been working on for a year, the cross is replaced by the sail. The artist plays with the white triangular form, in order to project vastness into the picture. His argonautic metaphors do not illustrate Greek heroes’ sea journey on the Argo. Grimmling’s Argonaut is an individual, a loner, and the quest for the Golden Fleece is a mental adventure. His compositional discoveries are his land of Colchis.
“What is Argonaut-like, this describing of wanting to be away, extends the idea of the wing on the human body and of gold and red’s striving against black’s tying down. The argonautical, the nomadic in spirit, is mobility in search of the meaning of life. Art is always a going away to a distance from the present,” he says. “It lives from the hope that this going away will take on the sense of a clearer view of the place where one remains.” Again and again setting off into the imaginings of art, putting distance between oneself and the mainland of everyday life, is Grimmling’s program. For him, it is the most beautiful state: to paint.

[1] Some drew blood: one time, a quarter of Grimmling’s ear was knocked off and had to be sewn back on.


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