Déjà vu – Visual references in the work of Thomas Behling
When obser ving the work of Thomas Behling you have the impression of having seen it somewhere before. Something seems to be familiar although you can’t quite define what. A simple explanation would be having already seen Behling’s work in an exhibition or fair somewhere, or at least reproduced in an art catalogue. But if this is not the case then the question remains – how can we explain this
constant déjà vu effect?
First doubts appear because the semblance of similarity is nothing more than that, a semblance of similarity with perhaps the process of recognition confused by unfamiliar elements.
Pyramid-shaped pine tree tops arranged on the peak of a mountain amidst an atmosphere of dusk are the elements of a landscape from the Romantic era and could be from the early 19th century. Analogies to Caspar David Friedrich come to mind. Though any attempt to detect the exact master copy proves to be difficult or even impossible ("Erscheinungswölkchen" - "Small Epiphany cloud" I).
Many of the motifs used by Behling, who was born in the German-town of Hannover in 1979, give a sense of déjà vu, something already seen in the past. Quotations, adaptions or innuendos of classical works are the means for this artist, whose work can neither be reduced to mere contemplation of earlier art works, not be understood as Appropriation Art.
Works such as “Are you a victim of evil forces?” (2010) “Star” (2010) or “Total structure” (2011) show that the artist is investi- gating other questions, as Corona Unger and Rainer Bessling have clearly pointed out in previous catalogue publications.
Following are some of the works in which Behling has developed his own motifs on the foundations of previous art works. He seizes on “kitsch” or antique family photos from the flea market or clas- sical art works for his materials. The artist’s intention is not a rebus or picture puzzle trying to prompt the viewer to recognize the master copy. Rather things get truly interesting when beyond recognizing the master copy the viewer starts to reflect on the artist’s appropriation. Behling is not satisfied by simply quoting and citing. The appeal of his art is often that a charac- teristic of the master copy is carried into his newly created work and becomes an underlying foundation of the new artistic expression.
Looking at the work “Jesus” (2009), the standing outline of Christ – often seen in 19th century art – emerges from a dark background. His long curly hair, parted in the centre, his beard together with the cloth loosely draped around his left shoul- der refer to Christ’s imagined real image. His extended arms invite the spectator and one can imagine the Biblical figure who uttered : “come to me, all you who are weary and burdened” (Matt.11:28). All these characteristics seem familiar to us from numerous presentations of religious art expect for this little cloud seeming to hover between Christ’s hands in front of his belly.
For his work “Jesus” Thomas Behling chose the photo of the famous “Christ” (1827–33) by Bertel Thorwaldsen, more precisely a photo of one of the many copies of Thor waldsen’s sculpture in Copenhagen’s Church of our Lady. The addition of the “little celestial cloud” – in which nothing will appear – is the only change to the previous motif and still it is this small move which changes the image’s effect decisively.
The plain and sacral expression of Thor waldsen’s sculpture changes into something miraculous. It seems as if the extended hands of Christ themselves are generating the cloud and making it hover. As if a miracle were being performed in front of the spectators while the magician looks at his creation in contemplation or astonishment.
Tradition tells us that water turned into wine, that the sick were healed at the touch of HIS hands. But there is no mention of a small cloud of this kind. And af ter all: what is going to appear?
It might be a happy coincidence that Thomas Behling’s addition of the cloud refers equally to Bertel Thor waldsen’s source of inspiration, which was the painting “The five wise and the five foolish virgins” (1813–16) by Peter Cornelius, on which God’s son appears standing on a small cloud lifting from the ground in front the prudent and providing virgins. It is said that the Danish sculptor had problems finding a suitable position for his Christ who in Copenhagen receives visitors to the Church high up on his pedestal.
There were various failed attempts befo- re Cornelius’s work helped Thorwaldsen find a solution. As Christ is looking from a higher position onto the virgins not only his arms are extended to them but also his head is bowed slightly in their direction.
Thomas Behling creates a new interpre- tation of this body position and especially the bowing head of Christ in a way that HIS glance focuses on the “little celestial cloud”.
The Christ who receives visitors in the Church has been transformed into a magi- cian admiring with fascination the product of his miraculous abilities. Behling doesn’t simply treat the master copies in an alienating manner, he disrupts the sacred habitus through his ironic intervention.
In a similar way Behling uses irony to intervene in his works “Christ knocking” (2008) or “Fear not: I am with you” (2011).
The effect of writing “I fuck you” in pink on glass over a copied detail of Raphael’s famous Sistine Madonna (around 1513) is almost brutal. In earlier centuries this painting was seen as the mother of all religious paintings, an image admired for Mary’s human traits, became a cult object of veneration.
The vulgar and brutal announcement of the image’s title contrasts drastically to Mary’s celestial grace. The motif presented
in the manner of an ancient master by Raphael seems incompatible with the graffiti writing.
Behling, however, aspires to something else in spite of these strong and formal contrasts, by taking up Raphael’s original. The theological debate about Mary’s immaculate conception is brought back to mind through the sprayed words and is at the same time superimposed by the announcement of the sheer sexuality.
The artist Behling never – neither in quoting Thorwaldesen nor with his re- make of Raphael – intends to discredit the cited works. On the contrary he reveals something hidden by showing them in the fashion of our rational and mundane consideration of facts.
Behling’s inter ventions cause us to perceive the quoted originals and their statements in a new light, even when the artist does NOT refer to previous religious works, for example when he acts on a motif of the leftists “Tame birds sing about freedom, wild birds fly” ("Der Traum" - "The Dream") or on master copies of Otto Quante from the 1930ies ("Homage an Otto Quante" - "Homage to Otto Quante" II, 2005).
Through irony and annotations the artist illuminates in a new light what we know or think we know.
translated by Alexandra Hudson