“Where higher beings commanded, …“ - Heinrich Nüsslein & Friends
March 7 - April 13, 2019

Galerie Guido W. Baudach is pleased to present “Where higher beings commanded, ...” a rare series of works from the mediumistic painter Heinrich Nüsslein (1879–1947). The group of expressive and fantastical landscapes and portraits from the widely overlooked outsider artist originally stem from a private Berlin collection. The paintings are accompanied in the exhibition by works from select contemporary artists whose practices and common preference for certain classical subjects and unconventional design forms evince a particular closeness to Heinrich Nüsslein, above all their tendency towards intuitive placement amongst them Gotscha Gozalishvili, Thomas Helbig, Andy Hope 1930, Erwin Kneihsl, Markus Selg and Thomas Zipp.

Yet while Nüsslein espoused occult superstitions and was convinced that his paintings conveyed extrasensory inspirations from the spirit world, the contemporary artists accompanying him in the exhibition display no esoteric eccentricities whatsoever. Rather, they practice a rational, calculated openness to the unprovoked or unintentional and the coincidences that arise within the creation process. They utilize this openness in their art in a manner both self-evident and free from pathos, quite similar to what the Surrealists and other modern and postmodern artists already explicitly practiced, especially with art brut. They do so, however, without the irony and self-satisfaction often found in this context, but with genuine professional interest and sincere collegial respect for the work of so-called outsider artists such as Heinrich Nüsslein.

Nüsslein, born in Nuremberg as the son of an artisan, began his mediumistic art practice in the mid-1920s. At this time he was already 55 years old and had led the solidly middle-class life of a rather prosperous antiques dealer and contented father. He had always nurtured an interest in the fine arts, in painting in particular, and in his younger years had had serious ambitions for an artistic career. However, due to economic pressures and – most of all – the severely impaired eyesight that made conventional painting impossible all his life, Nüsslein already had several failed attempts to complete classical art training behind him. After coming into contact with spiritualist circles via a customer who had purchased some antique paintings from him, Nüsslein was inspired to resume his artistic practice. His resulting introduction to mediumistic painting may well have struck him as an unexpected opportunity or fateful coincidence to still find success as an artist, even if it was outside the traditional canon.

At that time, the still-nascent modern age had already turned the traditional understanding of art on its head. Apart from the now-ubiquitous abstraction and the residual reverberations of the spirit photography that had been extremely popular at the end of the 19th century, there were two of-the-moment currents within art and art theory that were particularly instrumental to mediumistic painting and its reception during the early 1920s. One was the recent elevation of another form of outsider art, the “Artistry of the Mentally Ill”, to the echelons of the art world, thanks to psychiatrist and art historian Hans Prinzhorn. The other – also directly influenced by Prinzhorn – was the spread of the tenets of Surrealism, which proclaimed “psychic automatism [....] in the absence of any control exercised by reason” as its highest principle.

Heinrich Nüsslein adhered to this principle in a certain sense when he began creating paintings and texts in 1924 that did not originate from his consciousness. But while the Surrealists strove to draw inspiration from their own unconscious, Nüsslein sought inspiration from outside himself: from the realm of the supernatural. He explained how he had to deliberately and systematically practice excluding his ego to facilitate the automatic texts and images that he created, a practice similar to meditation. His focus lay unequivocally on painting, to which text was subordinated as corresponding commentary or explanation. And Nüsslein, insofar as he is representative of modernism, developed his very own technique through his experimental use of the material: a style of glaze painting that he described as “color etching.” With this technique, he would apply highly diluted paint, for the most part oil paint, to a sheet of glossy paper or cardboard and then work out his motifs at a rapid pace using small balls of fabric, tufts of cotton or his own fingertips, which he would at times coat partially in gold dust. This process, rooted in his self-study of the material and technical fundamentals of painting, served to enhance the durability of his works. He also preferred to perform it in semi-darkness, without looking at what he was doing and holding casual conversation with the people present all throughout.

The disadvantages caused by his weak eyesight, which had excluded him from a classical career as a painter, he thus turned into a virtue with his mediumistic practice. Various eyewitness testimonies attest to the major impression Nüsslein's painting performance left on those privy to it. In particular, the speed with which he produced his paintings inspired incredulous astonishment. Nüsslein himself considered his speed to be directly related to the quality of his works – that is, the less time needed to create, the more successful the painting. Ideally, each piece would be finished in only one take. Accordingly, Nüsslein subjected his works to critical examination only upon completion of the painting process and even then rarely made adjustments or additions.

The resulting paintings, solely landscapes and portraits, are often virtuosic in their execution, in terms of color, light, perspective and composition. At the same time, they exhibit strong stereotypes and repetitive moments, both in the landscapes and, to an even greater extent, in the portraits, with their consistently austere, sometimes sinister facial expressions. Both the landscapes and portraits always depict the past, whether deceased people or the places they once occupied. Realistic resemblance or lifelike reproduction were irrelevant. All that mattered was the intensity of expression. A major portion of Nüsslein's paintings fall into his self-described category of “contact paintings.” By this he meant paintings whose composition and content were “entered” into him via contact with a person, a piece of music or literature.

Nüsslein believed in reincarnation, karma and supernatural powers despite evidently having never belonged to any particular esoteric or parapsychological group. In a number of writings, he explored the genealogy of his mediumistic art. With a relative absence of reflection, he described these works as “metaphysical” or “psychic painting,” and himself as an “intuitive image writer.” The fundamental characteristic of his works, however, always remained the fantastical elements of the underlying visual world.

When it comes to the categories of outsider on the one hand and professional artist on the other, Heinrich Nüsslein and his work resist classification in both, then as well as now. For the art brut purists, both his works and their creator himself were and still are too strongly influenced by artistic training. For representatives of academically influenced art, on the other hand, Nüsslein is quite simply too obscure, if he is even noticed at all.

Nüsslein worked for a particular audience, however, which consisted primarily of spiritualists and other esotericists with an affinity for art. Amongst such circles, he even enjoyed a small amount of celebrity at the beginning of the 1930s, with exhibitions and other honors broad, from Brussels and Paris to London and New York, that garnered appreciation for his unusual creation process. Amongst parapsychologists in Germany, there was already talk of the “H. Nüsslein phenomenon.” Like many other followers of the occult, Nüsslein was initially very positive about the National Socialists’ rise to power. Soon, however, he found that his works were classified as “un-German” and “degenerate” by the Third Reich. After being banned from exhibiting, he withdrew to a small village in Chiemgau in the mid-1930s, where the state mechanisms of persecution and control, unlike in his hometown of Nuremberg, apparently left him by and large alone.

Of the thousands of works that Nüsslein created in the course of his mediumistic art practice, a sizeable number of which he was able to make at least temporarily accessible to the public in his spacious home, only comparatively few have survived. The rest were either confiscated by the Nazi dictatorship or destroyed during the Second World War. Of these surviving works, most were commissioned pieces held within private collections.

Amongst these are the works to be seen in the new exhibition. They are landscapes and portraits that surfaced some time ago in a Berlin flea market, once belonging to a certain Anna Staudinger from Berlin-Adlershof. Also on display are the accompanying descriptions of the paintings, pieces of automatic writing described by Nüsslein as “legends,” typewritten on the pre-printed stationery of the self-proclaimed “painter and writer of the supernatural.” Nüsslein very likely did not create most of the pictures and texts in the actual presence of “contact person” Anna Staudinger, but rather on the basis of writing samples and photos of her. However, it seems that two times at least they met in person and each time Nüsslein created a painting and a related text for her, first in September 1938 and then again in November 1939, both times in Berlin.
Enclosed with the finished works was an autograph card, also included in the exhibition, featuring a black-and-white photograph of a picturesque portrait of Nüsslein, undoubtedly commissioned from an academically trained colleague. The portrait was kept entirely in the style of the New Objectivity movement, except with a ghostly hand, very out of place in this context, at the top right of the picture, hovering over the painter's shoulder as if emerging from the darkness.

In total, Nüsslein created seven landscapes and seven portraits for his Berlin client. He began with a single portrait at their first encounter in September 1938, carving the word “blessing” into the paint on the lower right and explaining in the accompanying legend that the depicted likeness was an “image of peace” that would bring both joy and protection to its addressee. Whether the painting depicted Anna Staudinger herself in a previous life or another person entirely is unclear from the text. What is known, however, is that Anna Staudinger was so impressed that just one year later, she commissioned a whole series of paintings, a so-called Karmaschau (karma-show) that she would exhibit near their corresponding sites of action: six portraits and six associated landscapes in six earlier incarnations. Explanations were again provided by corresponding captions in the usual pathetic and cryptic jargon.

Unfortunately, only nine of the twelve commissioned paintings have survived, five portraits and four landscapes. These are hung in the exhibition with empty spaces in between that make apparent the gaps in the series. The original descriptions of the paintings, also on exhibit, explain in precise succession from 1 to 12 what we see in the paintings – or what we do not see, in the cases of the missing paintings: an earlier incarnation of Anna Staudinger as priestess of a sun cult in ancient Mexico, for example, as a sports teacher in the “Empire of the Lemurs,” as a peacemaker during the era of the Cherusci, as a master builder of the male sex in the fifth millennium B.C. or as a temple servant on Mars. By matching paintings with descriptions, it’s possible to identify precisely which of the Nüsslein set of works are missing from the Anna Staudinger collection.

As Heinrich Nüsslein himself explained in one of his writings, he frequently created such twelve-part karma-shows in the 1930s, the sequencing of which provided “quite extraordinary clarification” about the past lives and reincarnations of an individual. Until now, however, it was not known whether any series of this kind had been preserved. The karma-show by Anna Staudinger thus seems to be an absolute rarity, despite its fragmentary state. It may well be the only almost-complete Karmaschau by Heinrich Nüsslein to have survived.

Another landscape, painted only a few weeks later in November 1939 – during another Berlin stay and possibly an addition to the first portrait Nüsslein painted for Anna Staudinger – has also been lost. Only the legend still exists, describing a “temple from the Maya cult in the holy gardens” and which is exhibited here on its own, without any painterly visualization.

All of the Nüsslein paintings once owned by Anna Staudinger display references to his artistic role models, from the symbolism and expressionism of his portraits to the East Asian silk and finger painting and Art Nouveau of the landscapes. But as much as Nüsslein was inspired by artworks and styles known to him, he was also just as concerned with his own innovative approach, which is evident in both his self-referential use of the material and in his application of unconventional techniques. Heinrich Nüsslein practiced a ritualized painting process, characterized by the repetition of stylistic devices and motifs while at the same time remaining gestural. Fully in the manner of modern abstraction, color represents a quality in itself. In this respect, Heinrich Nüsslein, although included in some collections specializing in outsider art and emphatically taken up by later artists such as Arnulf Rainer, is not only an outstanding protagonist of mediumistic art, but also a remarkable painter of modernism who has been unjustly forgotten to a large extent.

The accompanying works in the exhibition provide a consistent and representative extract from the oeuvres of a variety of contemporary artists. The majority of these works were not produced especially for the exhibition. As small in format as the Nüsslein paintings, the pieces range from paintings and photographs to drawings and collages.

 

One of these artists is the Berlin-based Georgian painter Gotscha Gozalishvili, whose many-colored inpainting from 2005 has the format of a landscape and yet bears a remote resemblance to a portrait. A current paper work from Thomas Helbig combines frottage and drawing techniques as well as figural and abstract moments in a likeness of a multifaceted, manifold personality. In contrast, the 2013 painting Dark Times by Andy Hope 1930 is a portrait with collage elements that could have come from a dystopian, surreal sci-fi comic. The 2009 photo collage by Erwin Kneihsl Ohne Titel (Kreuze I) is a dramatic staging of a famous Lithuanian pilgrimage site, depicted as an apocalyptic landscape in grainy black-and-white contrasts. Markus Selg in his computer-created painting Messina from the year 2010 has conceived a terrain that is no less fantastical than the nature sceneries of Heinrich Nüsslein. Meanwhile, Thomas Zipp’s 2019 portrait painting A.F.: Magic Square Face evokes an impression of the complete dissolution of the individual human face in favor of a (pseudo-)scientific principle.