Reflections on the art of Stefan Bräuniger
When you look at Stefan Bräuniger’s paintings, naturally what first draws you to them is the fruit and flowers they depict. They have an ethereal quality yet at the same time they are such exact, in-your-face reproductions of nature as to seem literally ‘alive’. Gazing at them, you are captivated by the beauty ofa rose, the delicate charm ofa sweet pea, the perfect roundness of a blackcurrant – and you are almost overcome with awe äs you stand before these marvels of nature.
Only when you think a little harder about how the paintings work do you realise there is more to them than the subjects themselves. Much more than the fruits and flowers it is the choice of what is placed within the frame, the choice of perspective, the combination of colours – i.e. the elements of their composition – that give tension and feeling to the works. Bräuniger’s stll lifes testify to hisfine sense of proportion and structure but beyond all their formal qualities they show he is a painter with real passion. The themes he chooses do not really indicate that he is a fanatic for flowers and fruit but that he is an artist who hasfound the ideal subjects for displaying his genius.
The chief characteristic of the square, the formal that Bräuniger often uses for his pictures, is its equilibrium, and that makes it the natural foundation for his creativity. With great virtuosity he tums this basic shape into something with its own special dynamism, conjuring it into being with left and right-sloping diagonals, receding formations, the employment ofopposing colours, the creation of patterns and the clever use of shape and line.
Ifyou examine Citron V (p. 7), for example, you can see all these elements in play.
The three separate fields of the background correspond to those of the three lemons in the foreground and the way the lemons are arranged, each closer (orfurther away) than the next, gives an Impression of depth and volume. Yet at the same time, seen äs just two-dimensional shapes the lemons form a rough diagonal that is opposed by the diagonal of leaves running from bottom left to top right. The triangular-shaped area of background colour is matched by the similarly-shaped areaformed by the leaves near the top edge of the frame, äs is the large leafin the bottom corner by the shape on the upper right. In juxtaposition with the concave triangle on the left hand edge ofthe painting, the leafin the top left corner forms a convex triangle whose shape is echoed by a stem on the lower right. Meanwhile panicles, stalks and shadows weave a mesh oflines that contrasts with the spherical forms of the lemons. The way these corresponding, contrasting and balancing elements are handled for instance, the way the bottom right triangle contains the heavy shape of the front lemon while the triangle on the upper left contains the counter balancing mass ofthe bright green leaves — is quite masterly. Even the shamfer ofthe lemon at the right-hand edge play s a part in this composition. It prevents the right ofthe picturefrom becoming too heavy and thus enhances the construction of the painting äs a whole, pointing up its almost abstract qualities. Whichever way your eye tums there is tension and movement between the dijferent lines, shapes, weights and volumes.
The manner in which colour is used helps to emphasise these geometric elements of the painting. The dominant hue is the yellow ofthe lemons whose three-dimensional quality is further brought out by white-ish highlights. The warm, earthy-brown background contains a mixture of yellow, red and blue
that chimes with the colours ofthe leaves, stems and fruit but it also has a reddish finge that is complementary to green and therefore makes the lemons and the leaves stand out more boldly. Another sign of the refinement of the painting technique are the fine streaks of colour, tending towards red, on the outer rim of the lemons, leaves and stalks and edging the shadedparts ofthe leaves.
The distinctive feature of Stefan Bräuniger’s pictures lies in the fact that they explore all these aspects of the painter’s art yet remain true-to-life representations. They are, so to speak, a synthesis of pure painting and straight reproduction. Every pore of the lemon is depicted with painstaking care, its waxiness conveyed to the life, the radiant smoothness of the leaves and the natural thrust of tough little stalks captured so so precisely. But this too, when it comes down to it, is seen by the artist äs essentially pari of the creative process.
What predominates here is the fascination of an artist with the painter’s ‘craft’, with the act of painting äs something quite detachedfrom the thing that is being painted. Bräuniger is loving in the way he lays on the coloured ground of his pictures so that later they will have that typical ‘glow’. After that, without stopping to think about any deeper connotations, he concentrates on creating a good match with his working photograph of the chosen subject, using all his painting skills to produce a realistic image that corresponds to the object itself. The different shades ofpaint are then mixed with the utmost care and applied to the canvas in succession, working outwardsfrom one corner oftheframe. The delicacy of the sweet pea ‘s leaves, the glossiness of the blackcurrants, the silken sheen ofthe olives, the radientfullness ofthe cherries or the lacy softness of the fragrant rose – ever since the 17th Century the painters of still-lifes have striven to capture the inherent sensuality of objects using all the arts at their command.
Despite all its obvious painterly qualities, Stefan Bräuniger’s work is inconceivable without photo-graphy. Quite literally, his art is the sum of his working methods. As already mentioned, photo-graphs serve äs the basis for his paintings. In his own home, and äs far us possible under identical lighting conditions, he takes photographs of whateverfruits andflowers come to hand, though he judges only about ten percent of the shots to be adequate for his purposes. With the aid of an adjustable frame he selects the area of the colour print that he wants to convert into paint, then it is projected onto the canvas and he sketches it in.
But it is not so much the mechanics of photography that are the deciding influence on Bräuniger’s art. It is more the photographic way ofseeing things. From the very beginnings of photography, painting and photography have influenced each other. In this context the photorealists have revealed just how abstract the medium is. From their standpoint, photography is essentially an assemblage of abstract planes, lines and dots that only the human eye can resolve into a recognisable image. Even if Bräuniger does not call himself a photorealist, because labels of this sort appear meaningless to him, he still borrows and applies their discoveries. He does not arrange his subjects artificially, nor does he show them in their entirity. The camera lens explores them for him bit by bit, one chosen section after another. It breaks the material world up into fragments, zooms right up dose – a way oflooking at things that is not concerned with the object itself but which in picking out a single leaf, for example, divides the world up into rectangles in which only a fraction ofthe object can be seen. The great value of Bräuniger’s work is that within the limits of this space he is able to capture the essence of the object. Seemingly without effort, his paintings function not only as exact reproductions of nature but also as these carefully constructed rectangular abstracts.
Unlike the painters of the past, Stefan Bräuniger is not forever striving to infuse his subjects with metaphoric or symbolic meaning. Nevertheless you cannot help reacting emotionally when you look at them. Hisfruits andflowers seem to want to say no more and no less than: “l am what I am”, a rose, a lemon or a branch ofolives. But sadly their wish is impossible to fulfil. The manner in which they are portrayed makes it abundantly clear that they are only the Image of a rose, lemon or olive, not the thing itself. Perhaps this is the origin of their profound melancholy and strong poeticism. These may be put down to the artist ‘s unforgiving gaze that does not miss a single detail, but even more to the fact that they are isolated fragments – with a living presence, yes, but lacking any surrounding context. The more clearly the image declares: “I am a picture” of a rose, a lemon or an olive branch, the more the transience of the real rose, lemon or olive becomes apparent. Their essence is preserved but their reality is gone and no longer tangible. In this sense, Stefan Bräuniger’s penchant for things of nature can be seen äs an attempt to paint life back into them and thus to inactivate their transience – yet in doing so, to activate and make tangible precisely the contradictions that this involves. An attempt in which he succeeds quite brilliantly.