Interview with Matthias Brandes by Alessandra Redaelli

How did you train as a painter?

I enrolled at the Academy in Hamburg in 1969. After ’68, you either did politics, videos and broadsheets, or you were a reactionary making bourgeois art. For those of us who loved painting, political and social realism was a good compromise. And then there was the DDR, which had a fi ne tradition in painting.

My master was Gotthard Graubner, an abstractionist who had trained in Dresden. It was from him that I learnt the mystery of colour and the importance of Cézanne for modern painting. But basically I painted very little. I was studying to become a high-school teacher, so I also had to work on pedagogy and didactics.

At the age of 29 - understandably late as a result of a politically and emotionally eventful student life - I finally had my qualifications as a high-school teacher in my pocket. But instead of settling down in some high school with a regular state salary, I retired here to the Veneto countryside, which in those days was still a poor part of the world. I realised I still hadn’t learnt how to paint, so I started from scratch, teaching myself. Very small paintings. Three pears, a few landscapes, and some portraits. As a student I admired Guttuso, but then I started going wild about Morandi. Bit by bit I tried to absorb all Italian fi gurative painting of the twentieth century: Carrà, Sironi, and the others.

But then a few years later I saw the light, at a Balthus exhibition in Venice. Self-taught and anachronistic like me, Balthus – who was at the height of abstract expressionism – painted his young girls in a style inspired by Piero della Francesca. What courage!

How do your paintings start out? Where does the idea that then turns into a painting come from?

If only I knew! There is no rational reason. The Ships, for example, came about like this: at the age of eight, my son was crazy about the story of the Titanic. The fi lm had just come out and he was bowled over by the story. So I decided to make him a simple cardboard ship as a toy. One day I saw it there, left lying on a table, and I suddenly realised the magic it emanated in that position: an object as majestic as a ship resting on a table! So I started working on this subject and the Ships series was born.

I’m curious about the symbolism of your painting. Why should a house – which is normally the quintessence of solidity and protection – be in an unstable balance, or sometimes even take flight?

I believe that my houses are basically living beings, exceptional personalities or strange animals. This is what they become when they are torn away from their natural environment. And at that point, they can even fly. I find it perfectly plausible. In your recent works there are also some female figures. As stately and as holy as Madonnas. Could you explain this new shift?

In actual fact, I’ve always painted portraits and figures, even though I’ve never decided to make it my main work. Figures are a very slippery terrain. To put it bluntly: it’s easy to make a mess of things when painting fgures... After all, it’s a subject that has been experimented so much in the history of art that there are works that simply cannot be surpassed. If you aren’t prepared just to make do with mundane expressionistic deformations or caricatures, you find yourself competing against giants. It’s a subject I like and one I’m deeply attached to for personal reasons, but I must confess I have many scruples. Too many, possibly.

Your paintings are drenched with emotion. They say a lot about you. Do you paint more for yourself or for the person who buys the painting?

I believe in the importance of the painting above the sofa. I like to imagine what goes on in the home of someone who’s bought a painting of mine. Thinking this person will see it in the morning, when they wake up, and in the evening, before going to sleep. Looking at it in natural light, or lit by an electric lamp or even by candlelight. And every time the painting will look different, and the observer will never get tired of looking at it, even after years and years. This is because the painting contains a secret – one that can be guessed at but never discovered entirely.

In a society like the one we are living in today, bombarded by powerful and obsessive images that come not only from television, but also from the Internet and through all forms of digital communication, what is the role of the painter?

In the past, painting had a monopoly over the production of images. There were special places for pictures, such as churches and grand buildings, and painters formed the collective conscience of their age. Now, with photography, the cinema, television and all the rest, painters are reduced to no more than expressing absolute subjectivity. The popular imagination is entrusted to the extraordinarily rapid and all-pervading mass media.

Painting can’t compete with these processes. Its task is to create areas of contemplative perception, outside the realm of time. From this point of view, painting is and remains irreplaceable, for it creates an inner “counter-world”. Take Rothko, for example, who in my view is one of the absolute masters of the twentieth century. You can’t take in something from one of his works without gathering yourself in contemplation. That’s it: the more contemplation it requires, the more I like a painting. And the more painting acquires meaning today.