Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Johannes Kahrs

Man putting his Finger in his Fingers 2004
Oil on Canvas 240 x 250 cm

Parasol Unit, London
Decenber 2006

This was another excellent exhibition of paintings and drawings at the Parasol Unit in London. The title of the show was “Lonely long meaningless way home” and was the first solo exhibition of Johannes Kahrs work in the UK. The title is a quote from Franz Kafka, and comprised a series of paintings together with pastel and charcoal works on paper, both of which media are of equal significance to him.

Perhaps most surprising is that both the paintings and the drawings are presented behind reflecting glass. This is something that Francis Bacon used to insist upon with his work and it has the effect of not only distancing the viewer from the work, but also superimposing your own reflection by on the surface. Integrating and implicating you the subject matter.

As you might expect from the title of the show, many of the works had a melancholic aspect to them. However, I have selected this large painting as it depicts a life size man in dark clothes lying down. It was shown on its own in a side room to the main galleries and had a very powerful presence. Despite the minimal shadow cast on the “floor” from the figure, I had a sense of it being well “grounded” rather than floating and the weight of the dark grey background above the figure pressing down on his chest. His face and hands are bathed in red paint and knowing Kahrs fondness for taking his imagery from film stills, I assumed it depicted blood. Reading the catalogue later, I find that Kahrs maintains that the face is just red from “basking in the sun”[1]. I haven’t been able to locate the source image, but still have my suspicions that it comes from Tarantino’s film “Reservoir Dogs” and that the red paint is an allusion to fake movie blood.

Although the glass made it difficult to ascertain his painting process, I would say that he started with the dark ground and then worked forwards using opaque paint. The paint is on the figure is quite thick and has been blended that gives a softness to the features. This may be mimicking and referencing the source material for his image, which may have been taken from a television screen, but also means that the brush work of the artist is suppressed.

The title gives us an insight into another of Kahrs obsessions, that of hands. Many of the images depicted hands prominently, and in some it was the subject. The gesture of one finger of one hand placed in the fingers of the other can be read as metaphor for sexual intercourse. The man’s eyes are closed and if he is just sleeping rather than a corpse, perhaps his hands betray his thoughts. The image is hard to fathom, but one interpretation could be that his thoughts are of an impossible love, one that can never be reached and consequently merge with sadness and that he is taking refuge from life by pretending to be asleep. This withdrawal into a disconsolate state of “temporary death” is a classic symptom of a melancholic. This reading would certainly fit with the Kafka story of a man who finds love, but quickly looses it again. But then just like my reflection in the glass keeping me at a distance from the painting, I am superimposing my own narrative on the work.

[1] de Weck Ardalan, Ziba Recurring Disillusionment Lonely long meaningless way home: Johannes Kahrs jrp Ringier 2006 p48

©blackdog 2009


  1. The quote from the interview is as follows...

    JK: Yes, it's so rhythmical, especially in German 'Einsamer langer sinnloser
    Nachhauseweg'. It should really be read in one line, in one breath, thai gives
    it on idea of time. On the invitation the words were split up. The typeface 0150
    wasn't my favourite. It looks a little bit too trendy It should be as simple as
    possible. The quote comes from Kafka, The story was that he was really
    excited, to meet a woman, I think, and he was looking for love and he finds
    to, .. but it went so quick that immediately he was back on the street again and
    then comes this line - it's a really dramatic, abrupt ending. but it is also quite
    melancholic. There is no more, nothing is coming after that.

    It isn't a story line that I recognise I'm afraid.

  2. I found the quotation JK mentioned: a part from Kafka's journey-diary- his visit -together with his friend Max (Brod) in Paris (Sept. 1911) - in a "Bordell"/brothel- Kafka often visited a Bordell, but never found 'love' there. I didn't find the title phrase of the painting in this context, maybe Jk has produced that phrase himself.


    "Rationell eingerichtete Bordelle. Die reinen Jalousien der großen Fenster des ganzen Hauses herabgelassen. In der Portierloge statt eines Mannes ehrbar angezogene Frau, die überall zu Hause sein könnte. Schon in Prag habe ich immer den amazonenmäßigen Charakter der Bordelle flüchtig bemerkt. Hier ist es noch deutlicher. Der weibliche Portier der sein elektr. Läutewerk in Bewegung setzt, der uns in seiner Loge zurückhält, weil ihm gemeldet wird, daß gerade Gäste die Treppe herabkommen, die zwei ehrbaren Frauen oben (warum zwei?) die uns empfangen, das Aufdrehen des elektr. Lichtes im Nebenzimmer in dem die unbeschäftigten Mädchen im Dunkel oder Halbdunkel saßen, der 3/4Kreis (wir ergänzen ihn zum Kreis) in dem sie um uns in aufrechten auf ihren Vorteil bedachten Stellungen stehn, der große Schritt, mit dem die Erwählte vortritt, der Griff der Madame mit dem sie mich auffordert... ich mich zum Ausgang gezogen fühle. Unmöglich mir vorzustellen wie ich auf die Gasse kam, so rasch war es. Schwer ist die Mädchen dort genauer anzusehn, weil sie zu viele sind, mit den Augen blinzeln, vor allem zu nahe stehn. Man müßte die Augen aufreißen und dazu gehört Übung. In der Erinnerung habe ich eigentlich nur die, welche gerade vor mir stand. Sie hatte lückenhafte Zähne, streckte sich in die Höhe, hielt mit der über der Scham geballten Faust ihr Kleid zusammen und öffnete und schloß gleich und schnell die großen Augen und den großen Mund. Ihr blondes Haar schien zerrauft. Sie war mager. Angst davor nicht zu vergessen den Hut nicht abzunehmen. Man muß sich die Hand von der Krempe reißen. *Einsamer, langer sinnloser Nachhauseweg.!*

    The gesture of the hands (see title) reminds me rather of the traditional- religious custom to cross the hands of a just died person above the breast! The whole depicted figure says to me: I am dead- or we need an emergency call! But in the context of JK' s interview your interpretation might be convincing.