Monday, 16 February 2009

Kai Althoff
Untitled, 1999
Watercolour, pen and pencil on board 25 x 24cm

Saatchi Gallery, London
7th August 2005

In amongst the big hitters in the first (and only) instalment of the “Triumph of Painting” exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery in its GLC Building incarnation there were a few small works by German artist Karl Althoff.

I have never seen these before, except in reproduction, and was surprised at how small they were. He uses a variety of different materials such as resin, lacquer, and varnish and an interesting use of paper in particular. His painterly touch is perhaps best described as nervous, and the colours are mostly murky.

One work was of vaguely homoerotic Prussian soldiers stripping a dead victim of his boots - comprised small pieces of paper stuck to canvas - almost like a folk fantasy illustration but with a dark subject that goes beyond the brothers Grimm.

The piece I have chosen though is from a different era altogether. It is a portrait of a young contemporary dandy that is rendered in pen and ink with a few very simple lines and then subtly coloured to convey an elegance that is at odds with the subject’s smug expression. The marks have a muted expressionist quality that suit the latent sexuality of the skinny body and relaxed posture, and the work of Egon Schiele seems an obvious reference.

Althoff’s artistic oeuvre spans installation art to literary writing, painting to performance, and music to pottery and I find meaning in his work very hard to decode. Perhaps it is best that the viewer just accepts the “content” as seen and interprets it for themselves.

So self-possessed; I wonder what this young pretender is aspiring to? Surely not just an excessive delight in clothes and material elegance, for as Baudelaire said, these things are no more than the symbol of the aristocratic superiority of the dandy’s mind. My reading of the image is that he is just a one more of the 90’s “Slacker” generation, waiting for the meaning of life to dawn on him. It is in this interpretation of the image that I find its melancholic roots, not the bright hopeful outlook of one in love with his own reflection in a mirror not yet aware that the face he sees will bear him away into death, but the look of one who is playing at mourning his own lack of meaning.

©blackdog 2009


  1. A new name, a new artist for me- thanks for this information and inspiration! After having read your precise analysis I am interested in his painting- you have described very well body and gesture of the watercoloured young and beautiful "dandy" ( (reminding me of Schiele, considering the style of painting, too), a some elegant/elitaire-a bit decadent- melancholic (ennui?) looking person, also a bit like an intellectual-aristocratic "Paradiesvogel"/paradisebird- in his (heavenly-)red-coloured dressing, nonchalant the gesture, maybe with a slightly homoerotic flair - wonderful gentle are the fine threads of lines, giving a touch of some chaotic feeling! The melancholic feeling seems to be essential for the artist as I read on the website about an exhibition of Kai (not "Karl") Althoff in the Kunsthalle Zürich.

  2. "Die Ausstellung in der Kunsthalle Zürich wird vom Künstler mit einem sentimentalisch traurigen Bild des Blicks aus einem alten Haus hinaus in einen winterlichen Garten begleitet – und mit einem nicht weniger traurigen Text über die Regelwerke und Spiele der Liebe parallelisiert" (2008)

  3. If you would like to see more there are a couple more works owned by Saatchi...

    But even better is Issue 75 of the art magazine Parkett. This isn't available online, but your library my help with a copy. The text is in German and English, this has 30 pages of essays and pictures of his work.