Often and hastily compared to the subversive Vienna Actionists at the beginning of his career, and previously known as the cofounder of the short-lived, provocative Dog Group (Hundsgruppe – during its one and only manifestations, in 1951, he insulted members of the public while verbally denouncing their ‘rotten conception of art’), Austrian artist Arnulf Rainer later left body art behind and committed his destructive impulse to pictures. Since 1975 he’s worked on the series Art on Art (Kunst auf Kunst) – which involves colouring in, scribbling on and scratching into printed reproductions of Old Masters’ artworks that he has gleaned for years, either by photocopying, scanning or ripping them directly from books. Among the many artists who have triggered his obsessive ‘overpainting’ (übermalungen) are Rembrandt, Friedrich, Corot, Redon, Van Gogh and, last but not least, Victor Hugo, whose profuse yet dilettante practice of drawing (or ‘daubing’, as the French writer cautiously and coquettishly qualified it, because he had ‘something else to do’) has sparked over a hundred untitled übermalungen, all produced between 1998 and 2002. Half of them are shown at Maison de Victor Hugo along with, and therefore confronted by, their original sources for the first time, thanks to the meticulous research and archaeological eye of the museum conservators
A rather expressionist or seemingly primitive intervention, which is aesthetically reminiscent of surrealist automatic writing and the ‘outsider art’ that Rainer has also been collecting for years, his overpaintings of Hugo’s Romantic landscapes are not as iconoclastic as one might think. In fact, Rainer’s graphic storms and colourful explosions over the writer’s drawings magnificently complete the originals in a dialogue staged and displayed according to random and formal leitmotifs such as skylines and oblique lines. Indeed, in the absence of further communication with the artist himself – who, like the writer before him, remains secretive if not mute about his drawing process and techniques – the curators organised this show around the recurrences they could observe by default and over time during its preparation. Also, like Hugo’s paperworks, the small formats of Rainer’s overpaintings – determined by either the pages that were torn from books or the standardised A3 of printers – prove sublimely that the intensity of a gesture doesn’t necessarily grow with scale.
In the interests of counterpoint, the exhibition ends with overpaintings taken from series focused on other artists, and here one realises that whereas, for example, Friedrich’s reproductions have literally been trampled on (visible footprints) and Corot’s figures furiously scraped off, Hugo may have inspired Rainer with more empathy than rage. In other words, the show allows Romantic ruins and modern(ist) tabula rasa to reflect each other with surprisingly graceful pertinence, without hurting one another in the least. On the contrary, the aura of Hugo’s landscapes keeps on gifting the overpaintings with strength. The originals experience their enlargement and disfiguration without shame or loss, for somehow Rainer has managed to approach and recover their original state: for it was, it turns out, precisely through working with ink spills and coffee accidents that Hugo shaped his own picturesque universes.