Arnulf Rainer: Ways to Abandonment and Mortification

The cross as subject and form in Arnulf Rainer's drypoint work


1.     Formal Foundations

Every line is made up of three elements, the surface it is drawn on, the pencil or needle point that defines its extent and the hand which brings it into being. The surface for this simple drawing technique can be roughened, open or tightly closed, the point used can be hard or soft and the hand that draws it can be tightly controlled or playful and free. According to material constraints, surface and point, the creative hand must sensitively define the relationship between solid paper and soft pencil while drawing. And, with a firm grip and pressure, it must overcome resistance, such as between an aluminium plate and steel needle. This is the only way a line can be given a flow and a character - and in the end perhaps also its attractiveness and meaning.

These three factors, surface, point and hand, live in an open relationship and the wide range of expressions possible in drawing become available from the very beginning, from the very first line. Their basic principles are the creative flowing source and the perspective of an encompassing whole. A line can create another, or reject it, and lines can be inspired by conceptual constructs or by the literary recounting of fantasies.

The work of the Austrian artist Arnulf Rainer (born 1929 near Vienna, in Baden) has developed along two different tracks, the graphic and the painterly. These two routes run parallel, intersect and even at times become entangled, and the works that result are multifaceted. The painterly images are created through layered and free movement while working into photographs and collages, and the graphic drawings are water colours and various different types of prints. Of these, the impressively autonomous and never ending drypoint works stood out from the very beginning.[i]

It is in these that abstract line meets geometric form, rectangles, cross beams, main beams, arches, circles, disks, segments and branchings. These subjects lie on a square surface and are the fascinating result of the movement of lines, lines which lie concentrated at the image's surface and one after another enter into vibrant accumulations, layerings or antagonisms. They are brought to life by dominant structural forms, for example a large arch that overlays and breaks out of the image, and they run loosely alongside each other or repeat, associate, vary, overlay, overlap, pile on top of each other, or dance arbitrarily out of sequence. At times line is laid down over line giving them a static power, here woven into a type of net, there forming a uniform area which allows neither light or colour to show through. The lines sometimes darken towards the middle, and lighten again towards the edge. It is as if there is a composition behind it all  - and yet it is nothing more than a demonstration of the vibrancy of lines, individually or together. Their image defining force is plain to see, their flowing power - until we unpick their loose textile threads at the edges or in the gaps. A tension is created between these edges and their centres, the image as a whole, the surface of the picture, the rectangle, the curve, the copper and the paper.

As the years passed one of the basic geometric forms detached from the dry point lines, one of immense weight, the cross. This subject has been a constant of the artist's large shows for fifty years, beginning with the crucifixions at the Viennese Galerie St. Stephan in 1956, through the great cross show at the De Menil-Collection in Houston, Texas, (1992), to the many museum retrospectives, such as Bonn (1992), Amsterdam (2000), Vienna (2001) and Bologna (2001).

Rainer's concentration on the elementary began with his early interest in the beginnings of art and its primary forms. In the early 50s he met other young artists through a Viennese protest group called the Art-Club. They distanced themselves from the art of the pre-war years. For them a radical break was needed. A radical break was needed for Rainer. This parting of the ways turned into an interest in what were known as the microstructures of art, where the line became more important than the subject, the process more decisive than the result. Surrealism, which was internationally influential at that time, added pathos and departure, with a sense of gesture and movement, and the quality of artistic excitement to this analytical calculation. This was expressed in motion and at the same time predated all rational plans and compositions. But for Rainer this search was also inherently incomplete and full of contradictions. This was what primarily differentiated him from the preeningly self-confident André Breton in Paris who saw himself as the Pope of Surrealism.

The young Rainer was plagued by doubt about his art, but also about himself, his ability to grasp art at the moment of its creation. This is why he made no great discoveries, no style, no work, but instead created initial forms from simpleness, from unconsciousness, from darkness. He did not believe that original forms came from great advances, but instead coincidentally, from circumstance, from desperation, from opinions, negation, decomposition and destruction. Their unfolding seemed to him to be possible more from ex negativo, from demolition and refusal. This led him to a path, to the unveiling of a power, that led to a new beginning. Perhaps the flow is the flow of his hand, the furrows are the furrows of his face, the excitement is the excitement of his body. The destruction of all cultural conditioning, the beginning from scratch, became a trail that led Arnulf Rainer to discover new things when he tiredly closed his eyes and began to draw. Later he remembered, "This led me to gestures, gestural drawings, that were always occurring to me, short, just a second long, abbreviations. I  dared to capture this hand movement seismographically in my small prints. I had found something, I had captured an output as motion that wouldn't let go. Like a protector or swordsman, I forced myself to the most intense concentration <... > always looking for an ‘absolute'  in art."[ii]

In his first blind drawings, which represented exercises in concentration for him, he discovered the microstructures, dissolvings, concentrations and centralisations of form, he was keen on, but he has said that doubts about the traditional forms in art, and about himself and his artistic abilities were still present, and becoming a decisive impetus. Free-form scepticism and a self critical analysis of form appeared early. The works on graph paper formed a contrast which balanced the originality of the structures he had discovered. This led to the crystallisation of his basic focus, the cross, from the segmented circle and from the overlay of the horizontals and verticals.

These discoveries led him back to line, which was always more than an intermediate stage on the way to a subject for him. It is an elementary reality in drawing which exists in different relationships to other marks - and to concepts for critical thinking about structure. This led him to the early phase of his studies of proportion. They look - as with drawings on graph paper - like a dialectical counter strike against his research into psychomotricity and automatic gestures. This led logically, along with the subconscious sources of art, to his tracing of its rational foundations. This makes the studies of proportion a further variant of his exercises in concentration and what he called his exercises in discipline, all identical in the intention to discover the terms of art, and also more specifically, the form of the cross.

The arranging of the proportions consisted of collages of coloured paper, linear distributions of space and angled structure. Often these develop into colourful malleable objects, "I attempted  to paint based simply on areas, volumes and the distribution of colours according to their weight. The starting point was coloured collages, which I created from the parallel rearrangement of coloured paper to achieve a balance. The coloured paper was, for technical reasons, horizontal, which makes it difficult for me to determine which way is up, and which down, which right and which left, even today."[iii]

In this arrangement of proportions the cross has an imaginary function as a kind of schematic grid that seeks out a balance between the colours in the picture. Once Rainer achieves the impression he wants he attaches the paper elements and fixes their relationship. This work is based on the theory that art is essentially an arrangement of relationships. He is also interested in the question of whether complex forms can be constructed from the arrangement of sections, i.e. the numerical sequences, into interweavings and intersections. For him the ultimate idea behind the work is, "... the distancing of absolutely everything from the work that is not the arrangement of the material in use in order to avoid any subjectivity or imaginings. This work is cold, austere and concentrates on balancing the form. And from that point on observation becomes possible."[iv]

However Rainer was not satisfied with this approach to the rational origins of art for very long, the experiments with the construction of new forms from the realm of the unconscious. He destroyed most of these early works because of space constraints, and there are no crosses amongst these more linearly organised forms, but even so the artist discovered - as he once put it - vertical structure as "a royal route to abandonment and mortification."[v]

From a formal point of view the cross establishes two lines which exist in a primal dynamic relationship with each other. Two lines cut across each other horizontal and vertical. But behind the lines there is a power, or to put it another way, the idea of a line with its own character. One moves upwards and downwards, the other conversely swings horizontally to the right and left. The cross is the prime location of two lines in space, the point where they intersect. The place where they no longer float individually in free space, but instead have fixed each other and connected their individual lives as toward and away from each other. These transformations take place at the intersection, which has a form that makes the cross the opposite of all freedoms. This creates tensions, which combine to form new forces. It's not the pure phenomenon that makes it special, but its physical and psychological charges, which express internal struggle and indicate a centre loaded with the energy from which art is created. For Rainer the transcending of the linear, resulting in complexity, lies in this transformation which expresses the extension of forms into the symbolic.

Rainer is not just seeking the cross in the overlaying of the lines, but also at the lines' roots in the basis of the cross, in the cross shaped metal plates. This support in a way constructs the space used by the cross, in which the lines, either move, or not in relation to the cross. They have the freedom to produce the crossing over out of themselves and to repeat it. It almost seems as if they are given life from the very beginning by the cross' thoughts as they take it as their point of reference and shape themselves in their own way from it, as with Kreuzdiagonale (1969/1974), with a plate of 32.5 x 22 cm. This is defined by two t-shaped rectangles superimposed on each other. This cross space is dominated by a powerful black diagonal element which in countless marks lies emphatically over the empty spaces and tapers from bottom right to top left. These marks pile at the bottom edge approximately between a third to a quarter of the way to the right and carry on in one great sweep to just under the top edge on the upper left. The many marks thicken into an almost regular curve, into uncountable little lines, and later to a tightly woven network and then finally to a large coherent black area. This form takes up something like two thirds of the surface, bordered by the two white areas which remain free, lower as the left part of the cross, above through the small triangle on the right. In comparison with the t-cross the black form appears as a powerful foreign object which penetrates the cross like an arrow. Towards the right it is almost entirely trimmed away by the angular outer edges of the cross beams. It seems to be stabbed into the cross by unimagined dimensions and movements. It is not actually burst asunder by this, in fact it has optically conquered the space. This foreign object targets its apex towards the upper right in the sweep of its diagonal curve and carries on beyond. It is the power of this dynamic which converts the pure formal tensions into symbolic representations of thorn and spear. They stick fast to the cross, or even burst it.

On another cross-shaped metal plate, Feueradern (1990), measuring 49 x 33 cm, a kind of free dance of crisscrossing lines happens on the surface, around the central square of the cross. It consists of a slight thickening of bright red lines which concentrate at the centre and are partly faded into distributed areas of colour by a later printing with colour. The whole is held together however by the rectangular lines which lighten within the cross beams as they run, intersect and fade. In these zones the perpendicular lines which sometimes seem to drift off into the diagonal, shoot into the middle of the concentration of verticals. However they remain defined by the character of the horizontal. In this way the composition gains its vitality. It seems as if a power decides over the cross shape of the plate and the cross of the drawings, a power that rules both levels and forces the drawing to become the spirit of the cross.

Another variation from this group, the Dornenkreuz (1990/1991), is stockier in plan than the earlier ones and has a plate of 41.6 x 29.6 cm. Both on the cross beam and below it unravels into various shapes. The red runs out from the lines everywhere and imposes a structured yet continuous layer of colour on the shape within. This can be seen in the detail of the outbound lines which escape the borders of the red. There is a change towards the bottom and left where the lines almost independently define the shapes. Their direction is now not defined by the perpendicular, but instead by diagonals and inclines. Corresponding concentrations of line in the square at the centre of the cross allow curves to be sensed in the middle which, because of their association with the title, are reminiscent of a head and give the print a narrative weight. The result of this is that it avoids the formal austerity of Feueradern.

Another variation in form, on a metal cross plate, thus a space formed by the cross, is an individual, cross-free, and autonomous character of internal composition, for example with a diagonally placed oval. It appears in Rostkreuz (1990/1991) with a 41.6 x 29.4 cm plate. From the upper right a large, elongated rust brown oval slides onto the surface. As a solid core it hangs in a net of intersecting lines with outgoing thread-like marks moving to the side and downwards to the cross shaped surface of the plate. The thickness of the lines and coloured structures lends the abstract form in the etching a certain presence. It could be interpreted as a dense liquid flowing down in the form of a drop, or perhaps also as the indirect expression of gravity. A similarly independent form appears in the smaller Kreuz Schwarz Blau (2002) on a 29.4 x 19.5 cm plate. In this a kind of blue cocoon slides into the picture diagonally from upper left to lower right.

The cross shaped marks in the rectangle are another variation in the dry point images of the cross, such as for example the Himmelskreuz (1991) with a plate of 41.8 x 29.6 cm. A strong and straight vertical divides the surface in the middle. It mirrors the upper quarter and a little more, above a corresponding horizontal. The cross shape defines in this way unambiguously the centrally placed abstract form created by a straight or slightly curved concentration of lines. It entwines around the intersection and this, together with the title Himmelskreuz (Heavenly Cross) gives the blue colour of the shape's structure a meaningful symbolic association.

While in the later work the lines dominate, Kreuz im roten Busch (1999/2001) is unambiguously defined by colour. Two details create its inner structure. Firstly the print's structure comes from the light cross beams placed high in the upper quarter together with their corresponding two parallels in the vertical, and secondly the informal powerful and thick lines drawn with a blunt point which leave the large lower and small upper corners free. The coherent areas of colour are given internal structure by the cross. They lend meaning to the title because of the association with God's burning bush manifestation to Moses and in this way approach a possible meaning to the etching.

An early cross stands out from the entire range of drypoint works, titled Tabernakel Kreuz (1956) with a plate of 34.7 x 23.8 cm. It appears with the title of Überdeckungen as the first print of the first series of etchings, and was created in 1956. The process of revision is indicated by the edition title, and the increasing transformation that resulted seems to have been withdrawn from this work, because it appears unmistakably to be the result of conscious design. Perhaps the title of Tabernakel Kreuz simply indicated the point of departure for a veiling of shape in this series, making reference primarily to the rectangular character of these etchings of the cross, the cross as a geometric body. But this can only be an assumption based on the work as a whole.

The vertical shaft of the cross of the Tabernakel Kreuz rises over a square. It extends for about half of its entire height like a beam to almost the horizontal, only to follow this route back to the underlying shape. Within the perpendicular extensions of space in the centre of the cross are two ovals that extend almost to the edge, in the middle of a space between two intersection diagonals shaped like an "x" being pulled apart. This early cross has one thing in common with the other shapes in the series; they are all the basic forms for the later etchings, the rectangle, beam, curve, circle, branch and cross.

Two other variations of form make iconographic reference to the early renaissance, going back to shelf like extensions of form, such as those Cimabue, Giotto and Simone Martini are known for. Inspired by these, something is inserted, a kind of shelf, which  hangs under the horizontal beam. Rainer saw in this way an interesting variation on the cross space. In the Kleinen Kreuz-Serie (1999) these crosses appear, in the same 20.5 x 14.4 cm format, as Kreuz Silber/Blutrot and Kreuz Silber/Kirschrot. They were created in 1999 and have the same format plates. In both Rainer has drawn a cone like shape focused on the middle around which the various basic red shapes stand proud from their special frame.

Mantelkreuzes (Maltese Cross), two crosses of this same shape created a related shape.[vi] And these two crosses are also included in the series, as Mantelkreuz mit Füllsilber and Mantelkreuz Silber/Blutrot. Beneath the cross beam the cross shaft pulls the 19.2 x 12.8 cm plate apart to form a truncated cone below, wider than the horizontal beam. Rainer abandoned the crosses of the renaissance for his own iconography and the Maltese Cross. The work extends beyond the shape made by the plate and strives for its own antagonistic tension.

In 1970 Arnulf Rainer was already talking about the eternal processes that the continually recurring drypoint works were based on. He clarified how his work's goals and practice mutually create each other, "My etchings from other plates are created using a similar principle to overpainting, but most have their own plate. This gradual covering slowly evolves over many years. There are many individual test prints of the interim stages. I think to find solid ground somewhere, then I decide on a series. In this way these plates are built up in stages (though it would be hard to guess from comparing them), like the metamorphoses of people and insects. This gradual growth of the work is a result of using drypoint, and this is becoming ever more important in my graphic work. All my plates will probably end up in black, i.e. completely scratched out, but this is another way that every day I painstakingly fight on, because I am in love with the process and not the goal. I don't want to skip anything at all."[vii]

The various reworkings of one plate to produce the six large crosses of the Große Kreuze series (1980-1990) represent a unique experiment that was gradually created over a period of altogether ten years. These etchings were produced one after the other on one plate of an exceptionally large format (115 x 49.6 cm) and printed in various colours. It is a complex but unified process which lends clarity to the long phases of revision and continuation. The plate itself which is at the base of every variation is a cross, cut from what was originally a rectangular format of 115 x 49.5 cm. To create a cross from the original square the artist cut two short rectangles from the edges of the upper half and two longer rectangles from the lower edges. Next came etchings of crosses, over a period of six years, creating in the process two extensions to the original form. He then remounted the four small original rectangular offcuts, finding his way back to the complete rectangle. In this way his reworkings included two etchings which are extensions of the form and finally a change of colour.

The first variant of the six large crosses is the Schwarzes Kreuz (1980/1981). In this, one abstract black form, sharpened at the bottom, slightly displaced from the middle and made up of uncountable moving lines slides from above into the cross. Towards the middle, absolutely blacked out by the colouring process, it appears open at the edges, as if frayed. The dynamic of this explosion escapes with the outgoing lines, and is so unambiguously abstract, yet at the same time so close in association - from the tip of the arrow to the female mandorla. It is the basic form of the series.

In the Dunkelblaues Kreuz (1981/82) the form, which pushes powerfully from the upper right into the cross surface, expands to the sides and below. In the flow of the drawing the fraying at the upper left edges and at the sides becomes longer and pushes downward far into empty space, with one line running almost to the other end. The powerful blue colour dominates within the lines, and the colour which flows outside the linear channels during the printing process becomes the surface. As opposed to the previous austere black, the blue makes the top layer of drawing and the penetrations seem mysterious and dark.

The overworking in the Rotes Kreuz (1983) continues in the third variant. The form slides further into the cross and pushes into almost the entire upper right area, all the way to the edge of the plate. At the lower part of the right cross beam the under corner remains free for the escaping lines, and on the opposite side escaping lines accumulate at the edge. At the top they seem trimmed and in the lower area apply pressure to the corner that remains, pressure that originates in the invading form. Below, escaping verticals dominate and underline the movement and the process of increasing infiltration. The bright red colour dramatises - as opposed to the blue - the process, giving it the character of active antagonism.

The other overworkings precede a correction of the very surface that lies behind the process. The artist reattaches the four areas which were cut from the original plate. However the points where the cuts were made remain wide lines as a result of this reattachment. In this way the plate retains its cross character, although again mutated to form a rectangle. In this way a further possible way of transforming the cross is brought into being. The invading lines can now, in Grünes Kreuz (1985/1986), move over the borders of the cross and beyond, refilling the form of the rectangle with the cross. The new upper corners are immediately caught in a tension, to the right only indicated, but to the left defined by the lines, and this repeats beneath the cross beam. To the right a zone of light appears between the lines of the weave, to the left a heavy invasion of verticals. A few verticals run into the sides of the small newly-attached rectangles, a process that seizes the dynamic from above. In the lower shaft the form only slightly expands. Unbroken verticals dominate the lower sides. The point is slightly rounded off. The sparingly applied green of the print allows the unworked areas to show through, intermingle network like with the white of the paper and attain an illuminated character. Thick diagonals and lines extending horizontally in the central area visibly take on more colour and bring a further tension to the surface. Unlike in the earlier print this does not lead to a coherent layer of colour but remains furrowed and stamped with transparency by the lines that run in many different directions.

A fifth variation, the Violettes Kreuz (1988/1990), is defined by two elements. One element is the various corners which are left free, the upper right is, just as in the previous variant, minimal and hardly visible while the opposite is somewhat larger, although some lines run into this corner like hairs. This approximately echoes the size of the lower right corner, but this is completely empty. The triangle, which tends towards isosceles, is contained by concentrations of parallel-running hypotenuses. The remaining corner at bottom left remains an amorphous area, free of tension. It seems as if it is guarding itself for a last stand against the now extensive invasion of the foreign body. The dark violet colour is thicker overall towards the middle but lightens in the lower portion and on the sides. The overall impression is of the invading foreign body losing momentum, yet at the same time a tension is created because the forms stand statically opposite each other.

The sixth and last variation appears in the Silbergraues Kreuz (1988/1990). It visibly hasn't received any more reworking with the drypoint, but has been printed in an alternative relationship of colour, light, printing and paper, silver grey on blue. This allows the linear structure to be better seen, with what was dark before now seeming light - and vice versa. And the relationship between the two forms, the cross and the invading arrow, is also reversed. The cross's form now regains dominance, shining forth from the formless linear landscape. Everything dark about the previous print has yielded, with the cross at centre asserting its destruction. In front of the dark of the paper and the chaos of lines its contours are dominantly displayed in glowing silver grey traces of light.

The drypoint edition Große Kreuze (1980-1990) was the biggest in size of any comparable edition. Using one metal plate, it documents the transformation of what Arnulf Rainer feels to be his central form, the cross, through freehand drawing, and the construction of printing plates in both rectangular and cross shapes.

Impressive variations are produced during etching - each representing a valid and complete work in itself. The graphics and the printing plates that support them exist in a dialectic relationship. Between them a cross is created, either as framework or dominant trace of the rectangular plate structure. This is a result of the structure of the cross plate in the centre and the four small reattached rectangles. In all six variants the form, the vibrant lines and the spatial constants of the cross, including as surface, gain an individual vitality.

The cross is never simply a surface, it always opens spaces of thought, feeling, consciousness and the subconscious. In a Christian sense the cross plainly fills out architecturally sacred spaces. According to Kiel based phenomenologist Hermann Schmitz the artistic basis of such sacred spaces is about profound arousal which pushes against individual experience. These spaces are therefore seeking to dampen and to form the emotional content so that within such a cross shape it becomes sufficiently familiar and accessible.[viii] In this way concentration and comprehensibility can force the ominousness from it. Schmitz is speaking about an atmosphere that he thinks of as undefined, within the wide spread feeling, which is experienced as poignant forces.

The drypoint series Große Kreuze has its own inner unity and yet is related to all the other phases of this group of works via the process from which it was created. In the end these are not six different works but instead they are a single work that owes its existence to a perhaps temporally extended but coherent process. And this also applies to all the comparable graphics because the cross as form and subject is for Arnulf Rainer a single work, that in the end owes its existence to just one unified movement. But this is more than just a working concept, these crosses are lived artistic practice that unifies productive energy and creative passion. All the crosses document this one path, the agonising within and around an individual form in infinite variation. The cross therefore is the opposite of all the artistic vitality and painterly movement in this artist's individual works. Rainer himself said, "The cross has become my basic form. I can't think of anything else that challenges me, makes me work. That's why I always come back to it. <... > I try everything possible. I've tried everything to break through to the opposite of the cross, but it always brings me back."[ix]   


2. Symbolic Meanings

A glance at the long and many faceted development of the drypoint crosses often starts, as with much art history research, with the difference between form and content.[x] This is logical from an analytical point of view but in practice does not allow the two aspects to play out against each other. They belong together. There are not only many titles that dispute a symbolic understanding of works, but religious and biblical associations of forms are not far removed from a connection with at first purely formal work either. This situation is related to a large extent to the shared development of works in graphic art and painting.

New forms begin to emerge in the artist's work around 1954. Based on the earlier central compositions and vertical compositions dark and increasingly black images were now being created, darkenings, as Rainer called them, a new addition, a complete covering of paint. From constant agonising about a satisfying form, from doubt and a kind of compositional imperative the initially knot-like bundles of lines become ever denser, until the lines meet up to form surfaces and the overworking slides smoothly into pure overpainting. In this way concentric areas are formed. Finally they expand again, till they almost fill the entire paper, turn it almost entirely black. Almost - then in the end, everything suddenly accumulates at the bright remains. The core of a new image is established at the agile and creative flux between overpainting and the small zones that remain free. This is also where the borderlines find a key meaning. The tension built up between the two dissimilar expanses takes up residence in these surviving zones. A new interpretation presents itself in the relationship between the dominant overpainting and the minute remaining white areas. The image has become a vehicle for the dramatic expression of painterly energy, a tangible reward for the agonising over shape and form.

This drama is constantly repeated in ever new variations. Black masses of colour glide threateningly over a surface and put the remaining free areas under the spell of whatever lies between being and non-being. In this way the image makes the artist's basic intentions towards eradication and destruction impressive and comprehensible, and at the same time demonstrates a tender respect, a sensitive aversion to a secret premonition. Non coerceri maximo tamen contineri a minimo divinum est, as stated by the inscription on the tomb of Ignatius of Loyola. God lies in the paradox of not being restricted by the largest but at the same time not being encompassed by the smallest. And the fascination of this unusual art also lies within this paradox. An art which is not only much influenced by waiting and the time spent on this path, but also primarily the concentration and agonising of the artist. Arnulf Rainer himself describes it this way:

"These almost complete coverings of overpainting require a lot of time to come into being <...>. The image is started just once and then ever more restarted. It must be observed and evaluated over the course of years. And there are always little corrections to be made. This then leads to a certain peace and stillness. Repetition, endurance, loss of detail, eschewing effect, in other words the asceticism and mortification at the surface of the medium, lead to contemplative arrangements of the image. Although the painter is hard working and capable, the image gradually attains a great silence."[xi]

During this new period Rainer's previous interest from years before in spiritual literature was reignited. The religious dimension of this new working phase however does not stem from religious instruction. It comes from the artist's feeling of crisis and the inner need to withstand the extremes it evokes. In this same period Rainer was also experiencing intellectual isolation. Virtually every step in a new artistic direction was absolutely rejected by his environment. The artist himself was branded a kind of lunatic. Only a small number of artist friends stood by him. Arnulf Rainer later remembered, "I was forced to the edges of society and culture. There I tried to interpret myself and prove that I wasn't mad, a schizophrenic painter with crazy ideas. So I tried to find some parallel or metaphor for what I had produced in my painting. And so I discovered religion through my work as an artist."[xii]

This personal discovery of spiritual paths gained an additional imperative because of an encounter with the Vienna cathedral clergyman, Monsignore Otto Mauer (1907-1973), around 1954, who was establishing his Galerie Nächst St. Stephan at this time. Constant studio visits to Viennese artists one day led the clergyman to Arnulf Rainer. He spent a long time during his first visit looking at these pictures and bought two of them immediately. This encounter led to repeated meetings and many conversations. During this process Mauer and Rainer discovered that they shared a lot of opinions. Mauer too, who always understood how to identify useful and fruitful relationships between art and religion in speeches and texts, saw the parallels between artistic and spiritual development

Rainer also met other religious individuals in Mauer's circle, such as Friedrich Heer (1916-1983) or Dominican priest Diego Götz, who was around the same age as Rainer and who introduced him during conversations to the spirituality of Louis Chardon (approx. 1595-1651) a French member of his order from the 17th century. At the same time Rainer was developing the ideas of the French philosopher Simone Weil (1909-1943), and after a rereading of the works of St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) he all at once discovered parallels between the prayer for peace, annihilation, elimination, nada and his own tensions, including his inner difficulties with his overpaintings. The questions of a meditative imagination are for him not much different to those of a visual imagination. To him the black compositions became more and more a spiritual exercise. In his later writings about contemplative painting he wrote, "The ‘prayer for peace', passive meditative worship, means silence in painting, slowness and elimination, including elimination of the darkness of the spirit and the abstinence from expression."[xiii]

Producing art and his turning to mystical concepts of a union between humanity and God were happening in parallel for Rainer during this phase. In both he was attempting to overcome the limits of being human, bodily limits, and by doing this also overcome mortality to experience otherness in the dark of God's secrets and touch otherness in art. But both paths also meant a constant agonizing over the existential. A constant struggle to overcome all the limitations of knowledge and action and not to surrender before the obstacles of irritation, the darkness.

Mysticism, like art, unfolds similar powers. They are able to blast new insights free from the quarry of unexamined attitudes, to grasp and understand them, and reduce them to a communicable form. But how many literary sources accompany the completely deranged steps of this labour and document the failure of prowess, dispute, self doubt, denial of the senses, depression, pain, a death wish. And yet the inner centre of Arnulf Rainer's art lies in this labour. After attempts at breaking away and breaking loose he always turns inward again. This need for negation, for the original, constantly renews his work, which settles on one form then creatively and inventively moves on to another.

The black forms found their leave via the vertical and central forms. Many crosses can be more than suspected, they can even be revealed as patterns to follow, or invitations to overpainting. The cross that the image was originally based on shows through the over painting differently, depending on the way light falls on it or the traces of structure that can still be seen. In this way yet another dimension of the cross can be sensed - the existential that represents hope against hope. In the face of suffering and failure this dimension knows too of signs of life and achievement. In the end it should be no surprise that the cross is not only the basis subject but also asserts itself as the entire form and is elevated to the level of image.


3. Theological Connotations

From an external point of view the cross is a pillar with cross beams. In biblical times it was a frame on which people who had been sentenced to death were executed, pilloried. Crucifixion meant a terrible death. The person, standing upright and with outspread arms, was made a sign of humanity, a mirror image erected as a deterrent to us. Before him, every person must show their true face - and that of those who have power over them. In this way the judgement of the powers that be is enforced and in this way they believe that they fulfil the law and their obligations. And the masses have their spectacle, they shout with excitement - or terrified they see through it and realise what is happening before them. Before the cross everything comes out, evil, blindness, helplessness and megalomania.

On the cross, according to the Bible, is also where the real God can be seen. A God who in this dark hour withdrew righteousness, he concealed, he refused. He left Jesus alone. Jesus had to bear all the pain and ridicule alone and in isolation without the consolation of a person or a belief in the conscience of God. For this reason he died the death of the godless, those who are abandoned by God, those that God himself has given up on. It is the death of the real, sacrificed to God and the world. This desperation was unleashed the last time Jesus screamed out from the cross - a cry of release and senselessness revealed. This is why the cross means the last place, the location of his definition, at that moment of his life. Therefore being on the cross revealed Jesus for who he really was. In Philip's letter it says, "who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross." (Phil 2:6-8). Jesus is therefore he who was abused, but never abused in return, struck without striking back, experienced injustice and yet forgave injustice, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." (Lk 23:34)

All the evil of humanity drained out into Jesus, drained into death. Because the cross is not just a form and not just a symbol, instead it represents a story, and that story is of Jesus of Nazareth. He loaded the sins onto himself, bore them and took them with him into death. The darkest, blackest, moment of his life, the moment of complete emptying of power and belief and sin happened on the vertices of the cross. Here his death was transformed back into life, and created a light in the middle of the night. Humanity returned to humanity and God to God. At the moment of this death God could no longer restrain himself, and he revealed his life-giving power, "Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." (Phil 2:9-11)

Through this ennoblement the cross finds its ultimate meaning and is revealed as a sign of the redemption in which, from God's power, Jesus was invested with the power of divine love. The cross reveals what lies beyond suffering. "Im Kreuz ist Heil, im Kreuz ist Leben, im Kreuz ist Hoffnung (In the cross there is holiness, in the cross life, in the cross hope)," go the words of an old hymn and this formulation clarifies what the Bible calls resurrection. Jesus experienced death on the cross, but it was a death for all. His life represented life for all. This is the Biblical meaning of the cross. It is not actually proclaimed by Arnulf Rainer, but also not denied in his art.

Since the execution of Jesus at Golgotha the cross has forever been both an object of historical report and a theologically saturated sign. Since the resurrection Jesus has constantly been questioned from new perspectives, what does the cross mean for humanity and what consequences are there for our lives. In early Christendom answers to these questions were sought via many overwhelming terms. Redemption (Gal 3:13), sacrifice (Eph 5,:2), atonement (Rom 3:25) are the terms in Paulinian theology. The evangelists concentrated on the search for an answer to the variant words  for you, for many, for all, for us (e.g. Mk 14:24). Further terms entered circulation in later societies, they speak about ideas that have their basis in the old Bible, in our stead, for our good, for our salvation - instead of us - these are symbols supported in Isaiah's Songs of the Suffering Servant. Later believers found their, justification before God, their liberating renewal in the events on the cross and in the resurrection before god. Such interpretations allow them to see their lives as holy and as witnesses they experience a process in which God himself constructed a new society of priests, prophets and saints.

Over more than forty years Arnulf Rainer has created many, very many crosses. During this time he developed the cross as the central form in his art. It appears in different shapes and with different content and finds its micro and macro construction in detail, and in image dominating forms. Rainer cloaks it in thousands of facets and yet leads it on a route march through every possible stylistic variation back to the constant driving force of an inner form that is entirely to be understood as mystical. In the cross Rainer swings between two extremes, from   monochrome abandonment and existential mortification to energetic dashes of colour and passionate finger painting. These extremes correspond to the various different expressions of tense moods of concentration, action, silence, outcry, the dark and glimmerings of light.

During all these years Rainer's works have been moving between two poles, complexity and unity. The demonstration of a completely inexhaustible creative reservoir of form indicates however, in view of his sources, both a creative suffering and an enjoyment of a creation in constant renewal. And it also indicates that all these virtuoso seeming transformations of form have however recoalesced in a single zone, a point of stillness. But at the same time this complex tension suggests another dimension to Rainer's crosses. It lies beyond the fascination which is inherent in every individual cross, the cross as living idea, as inner event, as deed, impetus, motivation, power, reflection and knowledge. This is where all the complexity finds its unification, the sheer restlessness, the driven acrobatics of the cross find rest.



[i] In the literature two publications are of pre-eminent importance: Otto Breicha, Arnulf Rainer - Überdeckungen. Mit einem Werkkatalog sämtlicher Radierungen, Lithographien und Siebdrucke 1950-1971, Vienna (Edition Tusch) 1972. Kunstmuseum Bonn (publisher), Arnulf Rainer: Die Radierungen, with text by Volker Adolphs and Barbara Catoir, exhibition catalog, Cologne (Wienand) 1997.

[ii]  Arnulf Rainer, Blindzeichnungen (1973), from: Otto Breicha (publisher), Arnulf Rainer: Hirndrang. Selbstkommentare und andere Texte zu Werk und Person, Salzburg (Verlag Galerie Welz), 1980, P. 121-123, P. 121f.

[iii] Arnulf Rainer, Dialektisch. Zu den Proportionscollagen (1953/54), from: Hirndrang, P. 52f.

[iv] Arnulf Rainer, De Idee des Kunstwerks (1954), from: Hirndrang, P. 51.

[v] Arnulf Rainer, Eine einzige Zuständlichkeit (1964), from: Hirndrang, S. 59.

 vi] The title of a work from 1988/89, oil on wood, 186 x 122 cm, reproduced in author's publication, Arnulf Rainer: Weinkreuz, Insel-Monographie Nr. 1569, Frankfurt/Main (Insel) 1993, P. 64.

[vii] Arnulf Rainer, introductory text for portfolio Stirnstrandwand, 1970.

 viii] Hermann Schmitz, System der Philosophie, 3rd  volume: Der Raum, 4th part: Das Göttliche und der Raum, 2nd  edition Bonn (Bouvier) 1995, P. 284.

[ix]  cf. Friedhelm Menneke, Das Kreuz als Realpräsenz, in the catalog Arnulf Rainer: Kreuz-Weisen, Cologne (Kunst-Station Sankt Peter) 1992, P. 10-13, P. 12.

 x]  cf. primarily the essays by Volker Adolphs, Zwischen ‚Frohrot' und ‚Bogenblau'. Zur Entwicklung der Druckgraphik von Arnulf Rainer, in the catalog Radierungen, P. 11-26; and by Barbara Catoir, ‚Fenster in die Nacht' oder Der zur Ruhe gezwungene Strich. Die Mappenwerke in Kaltnadeltechnik, ibid. P. 27-36.

 xi] Arnulf Rainer in conversation with the author, in: Franz Joseph van der Grinten und Friedhelm Mennekes, Menschenbild-Christusbild. Auseinandersetzung mit einem Thema der Gegenwartskunst, Stuttgart (KVB)1984, P. 46-53, P. 48.

[xii] Ibid. P. 46.

[xiii]  From: Dädalus-Reihe 4, Basel (Panderma-Verlag Carl Laszlo) 1961.