Catalogue entry

Arnulf Rainer born 1929

T03387 Untitled (Death Mask) 1978

Oil pastel on black and white photograph 609 x 505 (24 x 19 7/8)
Inscribed 'A Rainer' b.r.
Purchased from Galerie Heike Curtze, Düsseldorf (Grant-in-Aid) 1982
Prov:Purchased from the artist by Galerie Heike Curtze, Düsseldorf 1982
Exh:Staging the Self: Self-portrait Photography 1840-1980, National Portrait Gallery, Oct. 1986-Jan. 1987, Plymouth Arts Centre, Jan.-Feb. 1987, John Hansard Gallery, Southampton, March-April 1987, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, April- May 1987
Lit:as for T03385">T03385

The following is a translation by the compiler of an extract from Rainer's text 'Rein-Pein-Schein-Sein' (Vienna, 1978):

The death mask is a record of the last stage of human expressiveness. It is the image of an (artistic) attitude originating in the final exertion of life still striving for expression. It is a cast of a self-portrayal at the moment of entry into facelessness ... In my death mask series both spiritual and formal principles are directly (and indirectly as metaphor) involved, which are important to the development of my work; extinction, turning away, disturbing taboos, clownish insolence, the quasi-sacred, removal, curiosity about death, the mysticism of death etc. In all my overpainted photographs, I induced in myself a search for identification, self-transformation, dialogue, empathy; at the very least curiosity or an attempt to communicate. Communication with the spirits of the dead is an old shamanistic ritual. However, this is not the reason for my approach to the theme of death. After ten years of cramped self-portrayals I was touched above all by the mimic-physiognomic language of these faces. No grimaces, no psychophysical tension, no allowance for dialogue-seeking, no desire to impress or deceive, no exaggerated mannerism here. Instead indifference as if it had a formal value, as if it were definitive. The face of suffering, of those who have given up the struggle, the quietened, the absent-minded, the decaying; both terror and redemption appear here ... I haunt cemeteries and morgues, collect photographs of the dead, observe dead physiognomies, study mortification. As a person I want to get closer to this secret; as someone astonished no longer ignore the problem. As a human being like any other it is the great confrontation for me too ... The works shown here are preparatory, preliminary. There are no big pictures, no central key work of museum format. They will never come into being, they can never be - with the exception of my own death mask - my own death photo (overpainted by me once more in an imaginary way?) ... The faces of the dead qualify the lives that have passed. They are taboo. We endure them only blotted out, transfigured through our culture. With the basic material used here - death masks of important historical figures - there were complication with their executors. Under suspicion of hubris and infringement of taboo ... I was never able at first to get a look at authentic casts. In the beginning I had to approach the theme through reproductions. I always had to work on the likeness I found, photographing it anew in order to distance myself from the interpretative style of the original photographer. These photographs seldom provided what I was looking for. After some brushes with bureaucracy I was granted the opportunity to photograph a few original casts for a very short time ... The faces of the dead, that is to say death masks, exhibit enormous differences of expression. Is this something fundamental, is it due additional retouching, or is is perhaps a sort of naive personal projection? The faces of the military, of polititians, of managers and of the powerful look more polished, more beautified, but emptier and shallower than those of saints, thinkers, artists etc. Here was another kind of death. Through the original masks I was able to come to grips with every special expression I was looking for.

The following death masks have been used for the Tate's three works: Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher (1844-1900: T03385">T03385), Saint Theophil of Corte, the Franciscan monk, born in Corsica (1676-1740; T03386">T03386) and Heinrich Heine, the German poet (1797-1856; T03387). T03385">T03385and T03386">T03386both exhibit intensive scribbling, while much of the surface of T03387 has been scratched or scraped away with a fine pointed instrument. The photographs were all taken by the Atelier Rainer. In a letter to the compiler dated 3 May 1988, Gabriele Wimmer of Galerie Ulysses in Vienna explains where Rainer found the photographs and confirms that a number of the images were used several times in different formats. The photograph used in T03385">T03385comes from Ernst Benkard, Das Ewige Antlitz, Berlin 1927 (pl.85; the reproduction in the book is of a bronze cast in the Nationalgalerie, Berlin of the original, which then belonged to Dr Elisabesh Förster-Nietzsche). A total of three overpaintings of this image exist, in different formats. For T03386">T03386, Rainer used a photograph illustrated in Wilhelm Schamoni, Das Wahre Gesicht der Heiligen, Munich 1950 (pl. opposite p.228; Convent of La Vergine, Fucecchio). There are four overpaintings of this image in different formats, of which T03386">T03386is one. The deathmask used in T03387 belongs to the artist (original in Bibliographical Institute, Leipzig). This image has been overpainted only once. Rainer has also drawn on photographs of the death masks of Robespierre, Schiller, Brahms, Mahler, Goethe (see entry for P77072">P77072), Frederick the Great, Disraeli, Beethoven, Karl Kraus and various saints.

This entry has been approved by the artist.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.548-9