For the last thirty years or so, German artist Antoinette has been obsessed with the myth of Europa, the Phoenician princess who, smitten by the sight of Zeus as a white bull, jumped on his back and was taken on a tour of the world which ended in Crete where the horny father of the gods gave her three human sons. After Zeus had absconded the king of Crete married her and adopted the three sons, among them the future King Minos, our fractious continent taking its name from the hardy Europa, founder of the Cretan royal line. Greek myth has of course always been a fecund source of inspiration for artists, and the Europa myth has helped bring forth Antoinette’s most powerful works. There are over fifty items, predominantly paintings and drawings, with a few sculptures, arranged by curator Dadja Altenburg-Kohl in the intimately labyrinthine Museum Montanelli in such a way as to draw the visitor deeper into the often nightmarish visions of the artist.
The paintings suggest the macabre distortions of George Grosz, the claustrophobic interconnectedness of Bosch and the feverish misanthropism of Goya’s ‘Black Pictures,’ in a hyperventilated blend of surrealism, expressionism and futurism. I can’t think of a better style in which to deal with Europe’s energetically divisive, richly blood-soaked history, or the neurotic self-doubt and fear with which it faces the future. Trash Heap, one of the four pictures in the first room of the exhibition, is a scene of post-battle desolation, with Europa’s bull in centre-stage, almost being carried away on a stretcher by two stretcher-bearers. The bull, in allegorical terms, the father of Europe, stands baying more like a giant lost sheep than the progenitor of this most influential continent. And he has much to lament. Europe is a ruin, a tangled heap of confusion and confused bodies, the tragedy worsened by a pack of tourists, surveying the reeking mess in listless postures, hands in pockets. The same pack of bored culture vultures one sees on the merest European mole-hill, looking for any old bit of architecture or local colour to distract them from their own vacuousness. It’s the end of the European world in Trash Heap and in many of the other paintings, but there’s also vigour in that end, ambiguously portrayed by Antoinette in the shape of a masturbating man in the bottom right-hand corner of the picture, while just above him there’s an equally determined character grappling with what appear to be a couple of life-size puppets. Our next great European leader gathering together a fresh new pan-European electorate? Or an illustration of one of the roots of the European problem? Both perhaps. Antoinette spreads the allegory as generously as her oils, and there’s plenty of material to be read into her pictures, as long as those readings aren’t too optimistic. The White Flag, one of the most powerful pictures in the upper section of the gallery, is focused on a naked female adjusting either a bed-sheet or a flag, surrounded by coloured grinning skulls and faces in harlequin masks, though the feeling in this powerfully tactile image is that she’s just shaken these images of death and deception out from the material like bedbugs. Generally it’s difficult to focus on any one element in the swirling wash of Antoinette’s madly over-egged pictures. The drawings too, though lacking the profuse array of colours, create disorientation by their woozily mixed perspectives, so that it’s well-nigh impossible for the eye to rest anywhere, and before I’d reached the downstairs sections of the exhibition I was feeling as out of breath as a reader of one of Proust’s serpentine, endlessly uncoiling, page-spanning clauses. Antoinette takes no prisoners, as the British idiom has it, and her pictures make no concession to the viewer’s eye. Which as any artist worth her salt knows, is exactly as it should be. Paint and be damned!
Trash Heap, oil on canvas, 2016
The sense of complete immersion induced by the close arrangements of pictures in the upper rooms of the gallery reached its peak for me in the rooms below. There’s a greater variety of drawings below and some of the most acutely powerful paintings. Antoinette isn’t short of a sense of humour and neither is it an exclusively macabre humour, though this element is pronounced. But she’s very playful too, which is evident in Winning, where a great pot-bellied devil pirouette’s with his hoof on Europa’s foot. Europa’s boar-mask, which apparently, for Antoinette, represents the mask women are too often forced to wear in order to impress the male object of their interest, is slipping off, and perhaps this is the reason for the devil’s irritated response. In many of the drawings and collage/drawings in this area there’s a wonderfully rendered feel of medieval church wall paintings with their angels and devils illustrating the punishments and rewards of the Christian life – suitably upended by Antoinette of course. In Madonna Upswing, one of the drawings on black paper, a more human and less iconic Madonna has breasts saggy from suckling which she supports with her hands. On her head a bird which is more eagle than dove of peace – with a skull for a head – supports a plank on its wings. On the plank are a ‘Last Judgement’ line-up of naked human figures in various irreligious postures. In another drawing a more traditional Madonna is nursing the Saviour sitting on a crocodile, a recurrent Antoinette motif, symbolic of primal instincts, survival and fertility. Madonna in Red, perhaps the most risqué of the lot, has a naked Madonna nursing a strange looking creature. This drawing is hung in a small alcove the size of a confessional lined with the early medieval stone of the building and flooded with red light and can only be seen through a small grill in the locked metal door, ostensibly, according to one of the gallery managers, “to protect the drawing or to protect us from it.” Close by there’s a completely black room, which could be the rest room of a coven, hung with more of Antoinette’s playful travesties of historical church art and imagery. Getting Out Of Costume is a parodic version of one of those Sixteenth or Seventeenth century illustrations warning of the evils of witchcraft. But here the dominant figure of Old Nick is grinning like some old thespian back- stage after the performance, removing his make-up and costume. On the wall to the left The Birth of Mary, a very combative Mary is falling out from between the legs of an African mother, straight at the shocked head of an expectant priest.
Up the second of the two staircases and down again – I’m completely alone, hot, breathless and I’m feeling more than a little disorientated – and we come to the most intensely nightmarish painting in the whole collection: Between Day And Night which goes some way to out-Bosch Bosch and gross-out Grosz. Admittedly the effect of Altenburg-Kohl’s selection is cumulative, but this painting would be as queasily horrifying in isolation. As in the other paintings there’s a lot going on, but the eye is more arrested here, encouraged to savour the tumult of violent events, to try and disentangle exactly what’s happening. It’s difficult, and though there’s no real fine detail to guide us, it’s the twisted, smeared, overlapping contortions of the painted images on the small scale which almost recreate exactly the flow of images we have in the worst bad dreams and nightmares. Something grotesquely awful is occurring in the space beneath the hindquarters of the great squatting, leering frog or rat which dominates the left hand side of the painting. Feeding ghouls, demons, a skeleton in a bishop’s hat are all hurled together within what could be the cabin of a plummeting airliner. Just below and to the right a woman lies on her back blithely reading a book, reinforcing the point that we live cheek by jowl with unspeakable horrors. The sky of the painting is black and pierced by a pair of staring eyes, and the vegetation is reptilian, blindly, menacingly alive. Nature and consciousness are infected with delerium tremens.
Between Day and Night, oil on canvas, 2013
Escape of the Animals is a less feverish composition, more precisely allegorical, a nightmare scenario in clearer focus. On the left-hand of the painting a Greek temple spews out a gorgon’s worth of huge avid snake heads, writhing out of their motion a man in a balaclava mask backed by a seething mob oversees a cross between a slave-market and the opening salvo of a gladiatorial contest. The snakelike man looks like a terrorist, the gladiators are naked humans reduced to beast-like proportions with flaming brands or swords raised saluting this Emperor of Terror. It makes the same point, in a paradoxically beautiful fusion of pastel colours, of Goya’s famous etching The Sleep Of Reason Produces Monsters. But there’s also a warning here of the active, wakeful indulgence in the satisfaction of our cruder appetites, a satisfaction which, in today’s world, is encouraged on a global scale.
Little Fascism is Antoinette in darkly playful mode again. The dominant figure here is a comfortably casually dressed man, cadaverous yet well-fed, sitting, legs akimbo, supporting another man with the same complacent look, who in turn is supporting the man of the future, an ugly pug of a skin-headed child in lederhosen. Beneath them a female saint stands, arms outstretched, behind a large black fighting dog. The main figure clutches a brace of puppets across his knee and behind him stand the clergy of that great supporter of Fascism in the early part of the last century, the Catholic Church. As well as a sardonic reminder of this historical fact Antoinette seems to give us a wildly pessimistic, but not unrealistic warning, in the shape of a tiny cut-out photo of Adolf Hitler making nice with young girls on the top left of the painting: that was the Little Fascism. It’s big brother is on the way.
Mythos Europa – Antoinette
Nerudova 13/250, Prague 1
Until 30th June 2018
Images courtesy of Museum Montanelli, Prague.