A.R. Penck (Ralf Winkler)



In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
A.R. Penck (Ralf Winkler) 1939 – 2017
Engraving and aquatint on paper
Image: 648 × 934 mm
Purchased 1984

Catalogue entry

This catalogue entry discusses a group of works; details of the individual work are given at the end of the introductory text.

A.R. Penck born 1939

P77019 - P77022 Expedition to the Holy Land 1984

Four prints from a portfolio of 15 prints on Arches paper, each sheet 750 x 1062 (29 1/2 x 41 13/16); watermark ‘ARCHES' b.r.; printed at Burston Graphic Centre, Jerusalem and published by Joshua Gessel in an edition of 50
Each inscribed ‘a.r. penck' below image b.r. and ‘10/50' below image b.l.
Purchased from Edward Totah Gallery (Grant-in-Aid) 1984
Lit: Siegfried Gohr, ‘A.R. Penck: Expedition to the Holy Land ...', Flash Art, no.114 Nov. 1983, pp.56-58

Penck visited parts of Israel and its occupied territories in January 1983 as a guest of the publisher and collector Joshua Gessel. Gessel had initially invited several European artists to undertake a project involving travel and creative work and Penck was the only artist amongst those approached who eventually accepted the proposal. The tour was extensive and eventful, embracing the Lebanese, Syrian, Jordanian and Egyptian de facto borders, as well as the Golan Heights, Nazareth, the West Bank, Bethlehem, Akko, Arad, Tiberius, the Degania Kibbutz, the Dead Sea, Eilat and Tel Aviv. Following this journey, the artist spent a four week period working at the Burston Graphic Centre on a portfolio of prints which, according to the artist, ‘was to offer a kind of artistic resumé and comment on what I had seen and experienced' (Gohr 1983, p.56).

The portfolio ‘Expedition to the Holy Land' comprises 15 prints in all, three each in the following techniques: drypoint engraving, black and white lithography, colour lithography, aquatint etching and screenprinting. All the prints conform to a similar rectangular format. This was deliberate:

These rectangles have appeared in my work since 1977. The beginning was very strange. There were photographs of my first big show abroad in Bern in 1975, that were distorted because they had been shot using a wide-angle lens and the squares had become rectangles. Suddenly I noticed that a whole new tension entered the work. ... I imagined something like a travel prospectus ... landscapes are wide. The images are more or less presentations of events, my impressions of Israel, and so I found the wide format quite suitable (Gohr 1983, pp.56-7).

The various techniques used allowed Penck to approach the experience of his visit in a number of different ways. For example, the screenprints deal with Israel's political situation as it stood while Penck was there. The colour lithographs concentrate on the landscape itself and its geological structure, while the black and white lithographs, in contrast, reveal Penck's personal reactions to works of sculpture that interested him on this visit. The aquatint etchings are more abstract, exploring black and white contrasts and personal symbolism and, finally, the drypoint engravings are, in essence, travel sketches, crowded with detail and often presenting several layers of narrative imagery in various scales.

The complexity and breadth of events taking place while Penck was visiting the region is remarkable:

There was the biggest postwar stock market crash on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and I experienced that through people's reactions and through the newspapers. I met opposition politician Abba Eban. I also met an army colonel. Then there was the big demonstration with the assassination of Grunzweig, followed by Kahan Commission's report recommending changes in government. There was a lot of uproar while I was there. It was a very dramatic period which came to a climax with the suppression of Raful, Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defence forces, as a result of the Sabra and Shattila massacres. And finally the grenade thrown at the German Embassy. All that flowed into my work - the military situation, the sculpture situation and the political situation. ... The internal strife is very strong and that is what I wanted to show in my prints. It is a kind of model situation because there are many problems and conflicts to be tackled and resolved that concern others too ... the future of humanity (Gohr 1983, p.58).

These events were not merely the incidental background to Penck's work in the region: ‘Every action on the plate somehow corresponds to a motif in reality. Whether it is executed powerfully or more sensitively and with restraint, the actual graphic work corresponds to my own experience' (Gohr 1983, p.56).

P77019 Communication 1984

Engraving with aquatint 648 x 934 (25 1/2 x 36 3/4)

Information in this and subsequent entries was supplied by the artist in a conversation with the compiler on 16 May 1988.

The image depicts two figures who represent Joshua Gessel, on the left and a friend and business colleague of his on the right. Both men accompanied Penck on his journey through the region and the scene, which shows the moon in the top right hand corner, reflects the evening discussions that habitually took place after each day's travelling was over. According to the artist, these discussions normally centred around the events of each day and the artistic prospects open to Penck in his forthcoming project at the Burston Graphic Centre in Jerusalem. The artist recalls that the couple were like ‘entertainers' and this notion is enhanced by the dramatic figure-ground relationship established through the density of black background, a density which was only achieved with great effort.

The two men are represented as large, flat, anthropomorphic silhouettes; strange creatures whose features are suggested rather than detailed. The figures are internally animated by pictorial elements which, visually, cut through to the black ground and create an ambiguity in the figure-ground relationship. In addition to amorphous, variously shaped cavities, there are images drawn from Penck's customary repertoire of pictographic symbols, including a schematic axe, a profile head and various geometric emblems. On the right-hand figure there is a depiction of the artist's schematic ‘Standart' figure, with arms raised, hands open and legs spread wide. Penck developed this image while still living in East Germany during the late 1960s and it became the stark focus of a series of 31 large ‘Standart' paintings from 1960 to 1972. It features in many works by Penck, including other images from the portfolio ‘Expedition to the Holy Land'. Writing about Penck's use of symbolism, Sidra Stich has written:

Within Penck's art, emphasis is placed on the concept of STANDART which is also the title of many of his drawing series and the name of his signature image, the stick-figure personage. STANDART is not actually a word in German, but a conflation of the words ‘standard' - which denotes a model, common type, norm, pattern, rule, or basis of comparison - and ‘standarte' which denotes a flag or banner used as a symbol for a people or military unit, especially Nazi regiments of the S.A. and S.S. and Penck's term STANDART thus embodies the idea of a basic construct or image, and the sense of a paradigm for imitation. Yet it also bears nationalistic and martial connotations, calling forth memories of a situation where regulation led to tyranny. In addition, STANDART images often have autobiographical significance, but this is never so overt as to negate the evocative potential of the imagery (Sidra Stich, ‘Pictorial, Personal and Political Expression in the art of A.R. Penck', Arts Magazine, no.58, June 1984, p.123).

While the image ‘established a memory of two people', Penck also uses these symbols which are ‘a part of my language' to demonstrate his own participation in these evening discussions by showing how he was able to inspire his colleagues with his ideas and impress his thoughts upon them. The title encapsulates a three-way process of communication.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.441-3

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