When the Water Falls
by Barbara O'Brien · June 11, 2019
Susanne Kühn, BEASTVILLE, 2019, 250 x 380 cm, two parts, mixed media on canvas. Photograph by Bernhard Strauss.
Susanne Kühn, BEASTVILLE, 2019, 250 x 380 cm, two parts, mixed media on canvas. Photograph by Bernhard Strauss.

This essay was originally published in the catalog for Bosch & Kühn Susanne Kühn: Beastville, on view through August 25, 2019 at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna.

Water in all its forms and energies, shapes and symbols, is an essential component of the iconography of the painter Susanne Kühn. Generative or threatening, cooling or cleansing, driven by the forces of wind or gravity or seismic shifts in the earth or politics—water is symbolic of a once-generous and now corrupted relationship between humans and the natural world. In the hands of Kühn, a painter of great talent and emerging importance, water is also a powerful formal and compositional element. The paintings on view in the exhibition Bosch & Kühn. Susanne Kühn: Beastville showcase her ability to synthesize not only art historical genres and styles, drawing and painting, but also landscape and figuration, painterly expression and geometric abstraction. "When I was looking for a title for the exhibition," shared Kühn, "I wanted ... a taste of story-telling, movie, thriller (Dogville), something which describes not a general area, but phenomena of a certain place (ville) as this allows
it to be both personal and also an example for something which applies to other places." [1]

The Academy of Fine Arts Vienna has created a program of curated exhibitions that offer a visual dialogue between the signature work of art in the Paintings Gallery, the Last Judgment triptych (c. 1490 – c. 1505), an altarpiece by Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450/55 – 1516), and artists working in the twenty-first century. When Susanne Kühn (b. 1969) was invited to participate in this series, she visited Vienna to carefully consider the Last Judgment and then began work on what would become the two ambitiously scaled, multi-panel paintings on view, Robota II (2019) and Beastville (2019).

Creating connections between historic periods, places, and ideas is well-grounded in Kühn’s own biography. Born in East Germany, she began her studies at the Academy of Visual Arts in Leipzig at the age of twenty, one year after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Her studies at Leipzig were in sharp contrast to the seven years that followed, which she spent in the United States for post-graduate studies at Hunter College and the School of Visual Arts in New York City. In 2001 Kühn was awarded a year-long fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "Leipzig," Kühn said, "is a very academic place where you spend a lot of time observing and creating images of reality in a very old-fashioned sense. You learn with a pencil, with a color to achieve that." Her time in the United States, by contrast, offered a "very open, borderless environment." Kühn continued, "I didn’t know the contemporary art world in the US, and also not the art historical background of the United States. I learned about it during those seven years. Everything I do now in my work on canvas has a connection to that." [2]

The layout of the exhibition in the Paintings Gallery places Robota II to the left and Beastville to the right of the Last Judgment, echoing its hinged triptych structure. While Bosch’s painting was originally intended to be an altarpiece experienced in the architecture of a religious space, the configuration in the Paintings Gallery encourages the viewer to read the contemporary and historic paintings together, as one expanded field of experience in a place of high secular reflection. Arranged
in this order, and read from left to right, the image of rushing water emerging from the left edge of Robota II has enormous visual impact. It appears as if the painting has been upended, set on its side with a pooling lake resting on the perpendicular angle and a powerful current that seems to have turned back upon itself, both emerging from and returning to the earth as an active and generative force.

ROBOTA II, 2019, 250 x 390 cm, mixed media on canvas, two-parts
ROBOTA II, 2019, 250 x 390 cm, mixed media on canvas, two-parts

Liquid ribbons of cyanic blue and the white of the canvas itself are defined by contour lines of graphite black, both suggesting and updating the grisaille form used by Bosch to create the images of folded door panels in the Last Judgment. The reduced palette of grisaille appealed to Kühn, who has turned away from the brilliant palette of saturated jewel tones that had been a signature of her work.

"I started working in monochrome, black and white, two years ago for a museum show in Freiburg. I wanted to do something related to drawing, but very different. This expanded to canvases – very large scale. They are part painting, part drawing, part of the space. The drawing is framed by the space, itself. The threshold between space and the whole of the drawing is important." [3]

Kühn’s impressions of the relationship between her paintings and that of Bosch also influenced her decision to work in a nearly black-and-white palette:

"Once in a lifetime, a contemporary artist is next to a famous, World Heritage piece which is a huge challenge in itself. Additionally, considering the exhibition space painted in black, the altarpiece by Bosch shines like a jewel in bright red, pink, and green – a lot of expressive energy. Since it was my intention to create a momentum between the Bosch altar, the space, and my paintings, it seemed consequent to paint in a monochromatic palette of black and white, and
simultaneously refer to the grisaille." [4]

Bosch keeps the narrative action of Last Judgment in the arena of life, with subject matter rooted in the religious beliefs of his time and centered on the evils of life. Kühn interpreted the narrative as a reflection of the fears of the Late Middle Ages related to the punishments of the afterlife, and turned in her paintings toward the fears of our own time:

"When I saw the Last Judgment, ... I thought that the painting is about fear and projecting what people thought at the time. Fear produced by religious beliefs. Fear that you would end up in Hell. With the pair of [my] paintings that will be on view, I wanted to reflect on the fears that trouble people today." [5]

Expanding upon this connection to Last Judgment, she shared:

"For me, the [Bosch] painting is not entirely religious. It’s true that we see Adam and Eve and God on the left panel, but when we look closely at them, we observe Adam who is bored and lazy as an adolescent young man lying in the grass, not paying attention to what the high authority God is explaining to both of them. Whereas Eve, being pictured as the stereotype of the responsible, young woman, is listening closely to what God has to tell them. This is so well observed and funny, I think. Everyday life." [6]

In his biography Hieronymus Bosch: Visions and Nightmares, German art historian Nils Büttner offers not only an aesthetic, but also a cultural introduction to Bosch, which highlights intriguing connections to the cast of characters created and presented by Susanne Kühn:

"The world Bosch painted, in which objects that do not belong to each other mix and supposedly lifeless objects awaken, is analogous to a world-view in which mythical creatures, like antipodes and akephaloi, served as proof of the endless creative power of the Maker. ... The fact that they were marvelous creatures was just as much beyond questions as the permanent presence of evil in the world." [7]

The Frankenstein’s monster-like figure in Robota II and the array of simian creatures in Beastville emerge not only from the imagination of the artist, but also from a cultural history that presents in dynamic opposition concepts of progress and technology, beauty and ugliness, human and animal, good and evil. Of the presentation of "evil" in the Bosch triptych, Büttner writes:

"In place of the usual temporal symmetry, however, to which the awakened dead are being judged, before going up to Heaven or being plunged into Hell, Bosch gives us a sweeping panorama of the biblical narrative from the Creation to the end of the world. ... On the central panel, where other triptychs of the Last Judgment from the period show the Resurrection of the Dead, in Bosch’s version a hellish universal cataclysm is being staged, extending onto the right wing." [8]

Like Bosch, Kühn shows the evils of the world—corporate greed, environmental destruction, technology overtaking human impulses (perhaps)—but she does not presume to see the future. These narrative panels, which the public sees upon entering the Paintings Gallery are certainly dramatic, but for Kühn, equally interesting are the triptych’s outer wings:

"What I actually really love are the two grisaille panels on the other side. You see them when you close the piece, and in the current exhibition space, you can actually walk around the altar to observe them. The painting is comparably simpler on the outside, yet it seems, maybe more subtle. Fear also plays a role. Travelers are hunted, and involved in a robbery, the place seems to be not safe. On the left-hand side, there seems to be an execution which took place some time ago. Yet, small details reveal beauty and love. The shell which is on the hat of the monk is not only a sign for a saint, but we also see it as part of a lovely still life near the water." [9]

Hieronymus Bosch: Last Judgment triptych, outer wings, c. 1490 – c. 1505, oil tempera on oak, c. 164 x 59 cm (each wing), The Paintings Gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna
Hieronymus Bosch: Last Judgment triptych, outer wings, c. 1490 – c. 1505, oil tempera on oak, c. 164 x 59 cm (each wing), The Paintings Gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna

In Robota II Kühn presents a pair of figures – her children, now young adults, facing the world on their own terms – in two scenarios. In the right panel they are industrious, active builders creating a Transformer-like figure – recognizably human with a form that includes a large torso, hinged arms and legs, and a head from which extends a pair of metal antennae. Like a medieval jouster, it carries a long spear in its hand, but seems to lack the ability to stand. The young people work in tandem
to secure an additional large, rectangular panel to the front of the creature’s torso. Certainly this creature, at twice human scale but seemingly unable to move without the aid of these summer-clad figures, suggests an energy forlorn not treacherous, melancholy not aggressive. The man and woman are in the prime of their youth: athletic, strong, focused, and thoughtful. The figure they build seems a plaintive twenty-first-century Frankenstein’s monster, seemingly unable to mobilize the potential of its own size and power. There is an energetic momentum to the construction of this eponymous Robota, but to what end?

Technology seems, indeed, to offer faint comfort as the twin figures sit in repose and calmly observe the left panel with its open-ended narrative and bounding energy. Kühn explains the social history of their pose:

"The children are building a very active contemplation when they sit by each other. They are positioned as Goethe in the Roman Campagna, a painting from 1787 by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, looking into a landscape which is dissolving, yet they are sensitive and not hysterical. In the Tischbein painting, Goethe looks at the remains of the Antique; in my painting the two reflect on nature." [10]

From the left panel, a very different energy seems to literally spill out: The artist (their mother) peers out from a drop of water – all fluid shoulders and hips – with torqued fingers and feet too small to support her weight. She gazes directly toward the viewer, her face rendered in a realistic portrait, embedded in the watery form of a human figure, a contour drawing of lightening blues outlined with graphite grays. The artist / mother raises her index finger in a gesture that suggests caution. She is using her hand as a tool to open a long, rectangular box, coffin-like in its proportions. Here is a suggestion of a twenty-first-century Pandora’s box, with the evils of the world that have been so far contained, now escaping in a tumult of uncontrollable energies. What ability to recognize and fight against the rushing water (of evils) that spills from the left panel to the right is here presented? The human figures in the Last Judgment have, from the time of Adam and Eve to the last gasp of civilization, succumbed to temptation, to their worst impulses, to the fears and evils of their time. What, Kühn seems to ask, will be the response of our time to greed, to lust, to envy, and to each of the other seven deadly sins?

In Robota II, the metal creature, its component parts formed from slim bands of metal that are dotted with a regular pattern of drilled holes, has not the spirit nor intellect needed; it hasn’t the soul with which a Christian God would have endowed the figures in Bosch’s dire narrative. Phillips-head screws stand in for eyes; a beveled disc is situated where we would expect a mouth to rest, but the creature is mute; it has no organs, no heart nor mind, neither lungs nor sinew. We can see through the body, constructed of brushed aluminum and hinged to limbs that seem to offer no ease of movement. What are we to expect from the young man and woman, both now and in the future, their future? Unlike the artist, who peers at us from within the drop of water, they don’t acknowledge the gaze of the viewer. They turn their heads over their shoulders to gaze placidly upon her figure, seemingly relaxed as they sit in tandem contemplation, bridging the canvases almost like the past and the future, what we know now and what we will never, by virtue of our own mortality, experience.

The powerful compositional element and narrative energy of the waves in Robota II recall the Ukiyo-e prints of Utagawa Hiroshige (1797 – 1858). His mastery of vividly colored, complex woodblock prints was used to profound impact in The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō Highway (1833 – 34) with scenes of mountains that improbably bend toward the ocean, workers and tree whose forms lean against the power of the wind. Expressive gesture, a powerful sense of line, and the abstraction of natural forms find a sympathetic connection in Kühn’s paintings. Her focus on abstracted natural motifs, the powerful effort of the human figure, the physical presence of the energy of wind, of waves, of the movement of bodies of water—these compositional elements reflect Kühn’s earlier fascination with Japanese art and here recall the Ukiyo-e prints of Hiroshige.

"My interest in Asian Art has shifted over the years: Initially I was fascinated by more formalistic and aesthetic aspects such as the elegant flow of the line within the rendering of landscapes; the graphical quality and boldness of this artistic language; and also the powerful impact in particular of Hiroshige and Hokusai on contemporary generations of artists who express their ideas in manga and comics. Recently, I have come to appreciate that in scroll-paintings also lies a performative quality since the observer is taken on a stroll through landscapes by 'rolling' through the drawing." [11]

The iconography of water has been part of Kühn’s vocabulary for some time. In Anne geht baden (Anne Goes Swimming) (2005) the central figure, whom we presume to be the eponymous Anne, is fully clothed, not swimming at all. A beaded necklace is twice twined around her neck and falls loosely as she bends from the waist, with the shoreline at her back, to tie her shoe. Is she preparing to disrobe or has she finished her swim? Her figure, like the largest monkey form in Beastville, seems to push up against the very space between the painting and the viewer, breaking the fourth wall – the theatrical proscenium plane of the painted world. The imagery and patterns of
oozing and liquid forms continues into the forested area in which we find Anne. Branches morph from leaf- or fir-covered limbs into watery, gestural expanses of draped, painterly forms. The trees themselves have lost their leaves, their vigor, perhaps even their ability to generate life for another season. A geisha-like figure rests among the desiccated trees, gazing off to the left and suggesting a scenario to which we are not privy. Indeed, the remains of much activity are strewn along the lower edge of the painting, as blocks of hewn and sanded wood suggest planed boards stacked against one another, waiting to be used in the construction of housing. It is hard not to imagine that the trees have been stripped to be at the service of a civilization that has planned for its own – but not for the forest’s – continuation. Still, a few lower branches hold budding leaves in tenuous battle against a brazenly corrupted trunk. Anne looks down; she is neither guide nor interpreter, but a quiet player in a scene of mysterious intention and direction.

A similarly reflective figure of a young woman sits at a work table in Regina arbeitet (Regina Working) (2009). While we experience the setting as an interior space, the room has no back wall, and a mirror placed diagonally behind Regina reflects what appears to be a horizon line. In Regina Working we find the expressively abstracted forms of trees seen through a window but also, at a further remove, a vernacular representation of pine trees as tidy triangles of blackened green against a pink-tinged sky. We are immersed in the space in which Regina works—and what is her work? Writing, certainly; putting pen to paper; making sense, perhaps, in the midst of a jumbled space filled with the iconography of East and West, the natural and the constructed world, geometry and nature, the grid as an organized world and the inclusion of a Lego-style toy pirate wielding a sword perhaps on a chair between Regina and the mirror as a remnant of the world of her then-young children. The room—as much stage set as home—is littered with small, modest boxes crafted from unfinished wood—perhaps pine. They are mostly empty of content, though two contain Delft ceramic forms. The small, stacked wooden forms continue in Beastville as stairsteps that rise along the right edge of the canvas. They are tinged with a soft, dusty pink and palest tangerine.

When I asked if Regina is a self-portrait (during Kühn’s 2011 visit to the Kemper Museum, in whose collection the work is placed), she shared that every one of her paintings contains an element of self-portrait.[12] In more recent paintings, Kühn has presented a protagonist who is more surely a representation of herself; a figure who takes on the role of guide or interpreter. In Robota (2018) the artist appears in three different guises placed against a glowing citron and tangerine ground. From left to right she is presented as St. Barbara sitting and reading; as a stooped woman, nearly a shadow behind the seated figure, who tends to a chimney; and finally, a self-portrait in her youth as she mills nuts and bolts in a factory in East Germany. Here the chapters of a story are told in horizontal compositional slices. The painting, already formed from two joined canvases, is further bisected by an internal logic of storytelling. The painting becomes a theatrical set; the painter herself the confident protagonist.

Many simian figures populate Beastville: "the 'contemplating' monkey to the right is a portrait of a monkey of the Museum of Natural History Vienna; the monkey costume to the left refers to a monkey of the Zoological Museum of the University of Göttingen."[13] The largest has a self-portrait of the artist staring out at us (fig. 9); her gaze, in an old painterly trick, allows for the optical illusion of the eyes of the painted subject to follow our own as we move in the space of viewing the painting. In this case, Kühn has expanded the literal »reach« by including her own arm to the figure, making clear that she is draped with the skin of the animal, not subsumed by it. Her right hand holds a paint brush and the extended index finger of the left hand suggests, again, that there is important attention to be paid to the circumstances in which we are found.

Young adults are recurring characters in Beastville, but here placed quite small at the base of the painting. Two young women carry the literal weight of a simian form on their collective back; bodies intertwined so that two pair of legs and arms seem as one. One figure gazes behind toward a forest animated in a deepening wash of contorted forms: trees and light; perhaps smoke and steam. They seem to rush toward the West. The tail of the largest simian form falls luxuriously into a swirl of white at its feet, laid atop a series of triangulated pyramidical forms; perhaps domiciles, perhaps industry, perhaps the past, perhaps the future. A snake-like form coils out of the stepped pink and gray forms; it is hard not to see the snake in the garden of Eden and the departure of the young couple as them being exiled.

Of the relationship between Beastville and the Last Judgment triptych, Kühn wrote:

"The landscape scenery in Beastville refers to the ambivalent atmosphere of the [Bosch] grisaille panels. The monkey costume in my painting imitates the posture of the monk [Saint James], who runs through the painting. I think it is very important that James is depicted in movement. And this particular posture has the quality of being in a hurry, being hunted, but also it reflects time. Or better, the passing of time." [14]

How are we, in the twenty-first century, to address the seeming hopeless narratives, both of spiritual downfall in the Last Judgment triptych and of impending ecological doom in Beastville and Robota II? Let us look at one small figure on the left edge of the right panel of the Last Judgment—a man astride a slim-bodied bird; he balances a sort of ladder placed mid-torso and held on his neck by rungs of wood. In his seeming innocence, he recalls the smallest monkey in Beastville, seated in the lower right-hand corner. On the front of the ladder—it goes nowhere as it is parallel to the earth—is a covey of small birds; behind him is a figure only a third his scale that is somewhere between animal and human. The primary figure guides, we imagine, the bird, just toward and perhaps through the village ahead. The exhaustion in the right-hand panel is palpable; the energy of the central panel as destruction is rampant and havoc wreaked has nearly disappeared. Resigned to a fate, perhaps, but also aware that as humans, choice remains; an understanding that a weary traveler may move through and beyond this chaos.

What is to become of the tumult and chaos, the fear and uncertainty? It is to be faced, certainly, but each person, given their age and state of grace, approaches on their own terms. Is he (the figure astride a slim bird) the artist, the poet, the figure who observes and records? Is he, like Susanne Kühn, leaving the work and action and building and decisions to the future generation, owning that it is her responsibility to reflect upon and share the knowledge of her experience?

Perhaps I long to see, in my twenty-first-century century notion of progress and possibilities of the human race, a moment of hope as the traveler, astride the slim bird, moves into and hopefully through and out of the right-hand panel, to the character or persona of the artist. Can he survive the fate of nearly all others upon whom his gaze falls; can he tell their stories to the people of the future; can he travel through and not be subsumed? Can the artist be a truthteller and be heard; be a mother and hold hope for the future generation; be a worker and find empowerment in the repetitive gestures and the weight of line of works of art that rest somewhere between painting and drawing ... giving way to the understanding that action is for the young, but the observations, reflections, and messages of the workers, the mothers, the women, the youth, and the elders can be heard and respected? Kühn has faced her own fears and the fears of our time: alienation, xenophobia, climate change, and the lack of autonomy of the individual.

But who would want to stay in this place of uncertainty? Two other simian forms populate the right-hand canvas of Beastville. The smallest rests in blissful ignorance, looking forward and not back toward the drama to which the extended index finger of the draped artist gestures. The mid-size simian figure, paw resting against the hewn stump of a tree trunk, tilts his head up toward the pink tower and moves our own gaze toward the snake, the precariously staked tower, the nearly but not-quite hidden pipes out of which thick steam falls into the forest. (How like the steaming eruptions from the surface of the earth in the Last Judgment triptych’s right-hand panel.) Perhaps the snake is a continuation of the pipes, the steam, the oozing liquid produced we know not where and for a purpose we know not. Importantly, the mid-size simian is bathed in a halo of light, suggesting in its iconography that it is a knowing creature with something to offer us by way of explanation, direction, or intention. The use of pink and blue to indicate a gendered space is intentional on the part of the artist. The figures of the young man and woman are also set in relief against a glowing field of white, perhaps the suggestion of a more politically neutral setting of equality in a future time and place. The young man and woman are stand-ins for the future, but it is a prospect understood with tender personal meaning, representing a fear on the part of the artist regarding what challenges will be inherited by not only future people in the abstract, but pointedly by her own children.

Once more, to step back physically and conceptually, we may find our answer. The cooling waters of Robota II are sited to the left of the Last Judgment triptych and give way finally to the steaming pipes of Beastville, sited to right. This sequence mirrors the cool springtime of the Garden on the left-hand panel and the eventuality of the scorched and steaming earth of the desperate scene in the right-hand panel of the Last Judgment. The palette of the overall composition – the placement
of Kühn’s paintings to the left and right of the Last Judgment – moves us from the cooling blues of an upended waterfall to the warmer palette of chalky pinks and earthy tangerines of the stepped scaffolding of Beastville. The artist, draped in the skin of a simian figure, enters the painting on the left, like the striding figure of Saint James in the Last Judgment. Her clear-eyed gaze suggests confidence, authority, ability. The raised index finger of the left paw and the paint brush held in the right offer an iconography of creativity (from the finger of God touching Adam to the activity of the artist in the studio). The young couple rush out of and away from the darkness of the right-hand panel, yet not quite toward the artist. Still, they move toward the light. The figures in the Last Judgment are finally subsumed by the darkness; of their sins, of their fears, of their time. Kühn offers an image of fears, yes, but paired with ingenuity; challenges met with intelligence, and uncertainty which we hope to be softened by confidence in the creativity and capabilities of those who follow:

"In trying to understand what a reflection on Hieronymus Bosch could be today, it occurred to me that the Bosch paintings are about a certain type of contemporary fear. In my work, I explore fear of being different, fear of alienation, the difficult role we artists play in this. On the other hand, I am interested in the frenetic energy young people have to work, establish, and build things, whereas on the other hand there is uncertainty, instability, and danger." [15]

Kühn suggests that the role of the artist is to look at the world as it is, to ask questions that must be asked, and to face scenarios from which we must not turn away. What a great pleasure to turn toward the paintings of Kühn and relish them in dialogue with the Last Judgment by Bosch.

Barbara O’Brien, an independent curator and critic based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was Executive Director of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri from 2012-2017, after serving as chief curator and director of exhibitions since 2009.

1 Susanne Kühn, email to the author, 27 February 2019.

2 Kühn, transcript of a podcast interview with the author at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri,USA, September 2011.

3 Kühn, Skype interview with the author, 1 February 2019.

4 Kühn, Skype interview with the author, 1 February 2019, and email to the author, 17 March 2019.

5 Kühn, Skype interview with the author, 1 February 2019.

6 Ibid.

7 Nils Büttner: Hieronymus Bosch: Visions and Nightmares (Renaissance Lives), trans. Anthony Mathews (London: Reaktion Books,
2016), 115 – 16.

8 Ibid., 127, 130 – 31.

9 Kühn, email to the author, 2 March 2019.

10 Kühn, Skype interview with the author, 1 February 2019.

11 Kühn, email to the author, 13 March 2019.

12 Kühn, conversation with the author, Kansas City, Missouri, September 2011. While I was chief curator at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri, I was able to facilitate adding two paintings by Susanne Kühn to the museum’s permanent collection: Anne geht baden (Anne Goes Swimming) (2005) and Regina arbeitet (Regina Working) (2009). Kühn came to Kansas City in September 2011, and gave a talk at the Kemper Museum in addition to visiting with the curatorial staff. These comments are from my memory of those conversations.

13 Kühn, email to the author, 7 March 2019.

14 Kühn, email to the author, 2 March 2019.

15 Kühn, email to the author, 27 January 2019.

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