Stefan à Wengen, born in 1964, is one of the most important figurative painters in the contemporary German art world. An encounter with one of his paintings goes hand in hand with immediate recognition: old-masterly in stupendous quality and excellent technique, the subject is placed on the picture surface in predominantly dark, black-brown or gray colors.
Although the paintings are highly accessible at first glance, a closer look leaves an irritating impression. A horse on wheels, historical clothing worn by a monkey, and then certain motifs that seem familiar. Moments of irritation provide the mental pause, the second look, which is so essential for these pictures.
à Wengen, who comes from a family of painters from Basel, quotes pictorial topoi from the cultural memory of Western European society. He questions the authenticity and reliability of common memory, our abilities to interpret and understand, and also the ability of images to narrate by collaging motifs into new contexts. The quotation becomes uncertain and its interpretations remain open. Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff addressed this very uncertainty in his quatrain "Die Wünschelrute" in 1835:
„Schläft ein Lied in allen Dingen
die da träumen fort und fort,
und die Welt hebt an zu singen,
triffst du nur das Zauberwort.“
If the poet must meet the word to awaken the dreaming things, Stefan à Wengen meets the figurative design of the motif and retells it. Ominously, he leaves it in the dark, lonely, suspenseful, and at times eerie. The song that Stefan à Wengen awakens in things speaks of the strange, of death, melancholy, existence, sexuality, fearfulness and the uncanny.
The fact that he hints at the invisible abysses, which are necessary for the visible world to come into being, is something he shares with Black Romanticism, the 19th century trend, that understood the irrational spectrum as a space of possibility and concentrated on the detachment from explicability. The foreboding unconscious could then and can still be seen as a vast reservoir full of hidden memories, experiences and desires. What could be more interesting?
At the same time, the image of a skull is first and foremost the image of a skull. However to the observer it is also a commonly used image for death - a topos.
In 1793, Friedrich Schiller addressed the question of sublime horror:
„Das Erhabene [Anm.: das Schreckliche] verschafft uns also einen Ausgang aus der sinnlichen Welt, worin das Schöne uns gern immer gefangen halten möchte. Nicht allmählich (denn es gibt von der Abhängigkeit keinen Übergang zur Freiheit), sondern plötzlich und durch eine Erschütterung reißt es den selbstständigen Geist aus dem Netze los, womit die verfeinerte Sinnlichkeit ihn umstrickte, und das um so fester bindet, je durchsichtiger es gesponnen ist. […] Vernunft und Sinnlichkeit stimmen nicht zusammen und eben in diesem Widerspruch zwischen beiden liegt der Zauber, womit es unser Gemüt ergreift.“
For Schiller, horror, because it jolts the viewer out of his lethargy, leads to a moment of reflection and thus to intellectual independence. With the topoi cited in Stefan à Wengen's paintings, the feeling of possessing a memory of the motif and the inevitable attempt at interpretation, the artist creates a similarly reflective moment. He tests the limits of the universality of art. Is art a universal language? Are these images legible, and if so, what stories do they tell?
Stefan à Wengen makes the song sound that sleeps in things, only the melodies we hear differ.