The Great Composers is a version of a lithographic print of the same title made by Rainer in 1967. It was originally published in a portfolio titled Wahnhall comprising 20 images, in an edition of 96, and printed by Johann Eisenbarth, Vienna. Rainer destroyed about a third of the edition because he judged it to be poorly printed. Numbers 1-25 in the edition have additional hand-colouring. This version of The Great Composers is number 5 in the edition. The original print is divided into eight sections, each one representing a famous composer. The 'portraits' represent Beethoven, Wagner, Mozart, Strauss, Schubert, Haydn, Bruckner and Bach. The print has been overworked in various media including pastel crayon and oil paint, which virtually obscure the original. Only a portion of 'Mozart' is visible on the top right hand side. Rainer started painting over his own images (drawings, paintings, prints) in 1952. He began working over other artists' images (paintings, prints) around 1960. In the late 1960s he began drawing and painting over photographs of himself. Since this time overpainting has become one of his signature techniques. In 1973 he wrote:
I cannot delight in works of art, because in a painting straightaway I always see the weak points … The intuitive desire to cover up these very defects, to block them out one by one, until nothing else can be seen, this led me to paint on top of what already exists. It was for this reason, out of love and the impulse to perfect … However, I do see that the weak points are endless, even if the canvas is already completely black, because this process of overpainting creates a new and autonomous visual structure, and once again new weak points emerge, black on black. In this way I never stop working on my canvases. I am tormented by a constant feeling of dissatisfaction.
(Arnulf Rainer: Obras Recentes, p.18.)
For Rainer, working over an existing image, whether his own or somebody else's, liberates and activates his creative energies. Although his expressive lines and brush-strokes appear obsessive and even frenzied, he works slowly on series of overpaintings, adding sometimes only a stroke a day to each work and allowing them to develop over years. The application of new layers is a highly concentrated activity, a form of internal conversation the artist has with himself. He has called his overpaintings 'exercises in mortification' which he hopes will lead eventually to 'an expression of total peace' (Rainer, p.151). He uses predominantly dark colours, particularly black, which in his early drawings was associated with the deep ocean and the subconscious. In this instance a few streaks of brighter colours, including red and green, also appear. The original lithograph The Great Composers was made during a period of experimentation with hallucinogenic drugs resulting in a series of fantastical figures, all executed in black. In 1973, when his paintbrush broke during the overpainting of a photographic Face Farce (see Tate T03390-1 and T03905), Rainer began using his fingers to apply and smear paint. This technique has influenced the heavily impastoed texture of the overpainted version of The Great Composers.
Arnulf Rainer, Rudi Fuchs, Arnulf Rainer: Even Before Language, exhibition catalogue, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam 2000
Arnulf Rainer: Early Works, exhibition catalogue, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam 1994
Arnulf Rainer: Obras Recentes, exhibition catalogue, Fundação de Serralves, Porto 1992