Drawing from Abundance
The new pictorial space in the paintings of Franziska Maderthaner
by Günther Oberhollenzer

The eye first needs to adjust to these paintings: strong colors and big gestures, a tremendously rich visual narrative, blurring boundaries between abstract and figurative elements. We see a beautiful show horse, realistically painted in profile. But its hindquarters dissolve into abstract patterns, in the background there appear wildly combined diverse fragments from Picasso’s Guernica: the drifting light-bearing woman or the mare caught up in suffering, mouth wide open. We see a dancing pair (of lovers) in grey brown military uniforms. Zoomed in close in the front right-hand section of the painting, it seems they could step out of the picture at any moment. The man’s head is erased, the braided hair of the woman falls apart, quite naturally, in a wide, sweeping brushstroke. Only after a second look do we discover the voluptuous Baroque female figures in the colorful and flamboyant background. We see a good dozen pairs of feet in stylish shoes, standing on a white floor. Presumably, they belong to guests of the art opening, but that is pure speculation, for bright color cascades pour over a great part of the pictorial space, a thick, strong color flair, blue, yellow, red, brown, from which wildly gesticulating hands emerge. Only three paintings from the extensive oeuvre of Franziska Maderthaner.

The artist draws from an almost boundless picture archive that she has compiled over many years and continuously expands. In her visual memory, art history motifs mix with album covers, commonplace objects merge with constellations of the everyday. The beginning of her pictorial histories forms an abstract color space. For about ten years, the painter has been starting her work process, mainly, with controlled as well as intuitively driven pourings. This results in an association space from which she can develop the figurative motifs as well as the abstract gestural placements. Maderthaner loves the light, fluid and accidental in painting: it is the opportunity and freedom to drift, find compositions, shape worlds of images. The canvas is her battlefield and research area, a place of knowledge and mystery in one. For all this she needs the figurative, emphasizes the artist, since for her, gestural abstract painting has reached an endpoint in art history. Despite this, her pictures are characterized by the basic ideas of Abstract Expressionism, a flat two dimensional pictorial space, to be built up by the artist through the free act of pouring paint beyond the visual control of what’s happening. At the same time, the figuration built up upon it clearly runs counter to the character of the strict two-dimensionality of Abstract Expressionism and what follows it in painting of the second half of the 20th century. But it is precisely from the dissolution of the abstract-expressive pictorial space and its new spatial meaning, i.e. expansion, that Maderthaner’s paintings, to a great extent, acquire their excitement, expressiveness and strength.

According to Robert Fleck, we live in an era of profound upheavals in the visual arts, where the prescribed norms fixed in people’s heads and the design vocabulary of 20th century Classical Modernism and its successive movements, after decades of processing, for the first time no longer pose a problem. Simultaneously, Fleck goes on to say, contemporary painting has attempted, explored, and gradually positioned, as well as accomplished, so many new things, that today we can speak of a new pictorial space and the contours of a new paradigm in painting. This is especially evident in a dialogue between the second and third dimension, in keeping with the dissolution of the two-dimensional image structure and a breathing and pulsating, or as Fleck calls it—a “floating”—of the pictorial space.[1]

In Maderthaner’s paintings we also see a self-determining and open engaging with image and space coordinates, a continuously changing composition, a dancing, drifting, and re-inventing figuration, embedded in an abstract color space originating from it or further engulfed by it. The artist does not shy away from big gestures, Baroque exuberance, nor from employing digital media (by processing virtually her painting templates in her archive), nor from the comparison to the paintings from art history that she profusely quotes.

Art always develops in conscious or unconscious reference to already existing works. But Maderthaner consciously adopts works of more or less well-known masters of art history and incorporates them by painting over them or partially erasing them; by distorting their appearance she stages them anew, rewrites their histories, puts them in new contexts, on an equal footing with motifs taken from our daily lives. For the artist, everything is worthy of a picture. A plate in the style of Gmunden ceramics, as well as a nylon bag floating in the air, a standard construction worker’s glove, as well as colorful fabric patterns, jeans, or other contemporary articles of clothing. Maderthaner does not differentiate between a trivial present day manifestation and a momentous piece of scenery from a work of art history. Irreverently, the artist takes over classical subjects and motifs. She particularly loves the Baroque period with its expansive garments, the powerful drapery, the affected poses and gestures—to, in the next step, transform them lovingly and confidently into her own compositions, her images and stories. We know, or think we know, many of the subjects she uses: the dinner party, the woman playing the lute, the self-portrait of a female artist, the portrait of Napoleon, the woman with the grapes, the lady with an ermine. And still the pictures are new and unusual, occasionally also irritating and provocative. To come back to Guernica: is this even allowed? To use the anti-war picture, an absolute icon of art history, as a background layer? For Maderthaner there is no doubt: Yes, she’s allowed to. It is a picture from her pool of images, just like any other.

How does painting position itself in a world where the role of the picture has been fundamentally altered? For a long time painting had a monopoly on the big, colorful and influential image. But then it was replaced by photography as the key medium of the image. Nevertheless, painting remained, far into the 20th century, the indisputable principle medium of art. In the last decades, this has permanently changed. With far reaching consequences. “The hegemonic situation of the medium forces the artist, with every work, to also meet representational demands,” stresses Fleck, who has a say about this again. The dismissal of painting from its traditional hegemonic status has possibly liberated this medium from formations and external (e.g. social) constraints, even more than the revolution of the Classical Modern around 1910. Painting as a “minority medium” possesses no social justification anymore, just an artistic one.[2] Thus the new role of painting can, by all means, be seen as a chance, expressed in diversity and, in part, autonomy from the henceforth dominating image types. The painter can, in this situation, freely determine the relationship of her art to contemporary world images, to other artistic media, and to the tradition of painting. What’s nice about this is: today everything is possible and permissible in painting. Maybe this also explains the burgeoning variety of painting positions in the 2000s (even though this medium no longer appears on the first place at big international exhibitions). Maderthaner’s painting is a good example of this thesis. The artist celebrates painting, its illusionary power as well as how it plays with abstract forms. She loves quoting from a rich reservoir of art history as well as integrating motifs from our immediate present. The leeway of the medium of painting is discovered anew. This results in an outright freedom to get away with anything, a refreshing and liberating effect. Along with this comes a nostalgia-free approach to her own position, humor and irony, as well as twists and distortions, back and forth turns, reversals, reflections and structural renewals of image languages.

Rosa Loy, an artist from Leipzig, once told me what fascinated her about painting was being able to overlap different time frames and events, making stories more multi-leveled than a one-dimensional message permits. “I can weave many things that take place simultaneously into one painting, if I act as the condenser and transport that onto the picture,” the painter says. “I can bring polyvalences into the picture and weave them in; it doesn’t matter if things happen simultaneously, in different places, or in different spaces: it’s all the same. I have the power to banish them into the painting.”[3] This power is also something Maderthaner knows how to use. Time and space seem to cancel each other out. At the same time, her paintings fit splendidly into our current reality, which is marked by an incredible flood of medial images. Her image cosmos is characterized by a now taken for granted, no longer striving for legitimization, inherent eclecticism. Enthusiastically, she draws from plentiful resources, from an endless supply of images, constantly accessible and retrievable through the new media, and takes from it what she needs for her paintings. “It is not a unique style that I paint in,” the artist stresses. “I am proficient in every technique, and so the pictures are stamped with an impersonal style.” And still—here the author contradicts the artist—a painterly handwriting is clearly apparent. Her Baroque mannered, dynamically lively, though mysteriously puzzling image worlds have a high recognition value.

Ultimately, she is a “specialist in surfaces,” Maderthaner says with a wink. But the surfaces she creates have great depth, and that not only in an illusionistic sense.

Günther Oberhollenzer

The quotes by Franziska Maderthaner stem from conversations the author had with the artist in her studio on August 22 and October 3, 2017.







[1] Robert Fleck, Die Ablösung vom 20. Jahrhundert. Malerei der Gegenwart, published by Passagen, Vienna, 2013, pp.18ff., 23-27.

[2] Ibid., 72, 74.

[3] Rosa Loy and Neo Rauch in conversation with Günther Oberhollenzer, in: Rosa Loy & Neo Rauch. Hinter den Gärten. Essl Museum exhibition catalogue, published by Prestel, Munich 2011, p. 187-209, here p.190ff.