Forest Pictures and Picture Forests
Remarks on a motif in the pictures of Sebastian Nebe by Marc Ries
They are large pictures. Their subject is always the same: the forest. And: the scraps, traces, residues of people, things apparently left behind, lost, their past function remaining at times unclear (such as the blue ribbon spanned between birch trees). These subjects are arranged within the pictures at a scale that matches the scale outside their frame, thus suggesting a shared presence; the shared presence of the objects within the frame and of those beyond. Thus, the viewer is integrated into the space of the image, even defined as a participant within the pictures. Or are the subjects rather designed as being part of the viewer’s world, where they are included and determined? In any case, this method probably supports the intended and distinguishable »immersive« quality of the pictures, but I believe that the homogeneity of the appearances there and here, an equivalence which provokes partaking, is not engaged in contemplation, but in active correspondence between the inside and outside of the pictures. I look at the forest at eye level, and the forest gazes back at me. But taking part in what? That which is there to see at first appears surprisingly clear.
The surprising element lies in the perfect dovetailing of drawn and real forms, which shapes the overall appearance. The trees, huts, things are displayed in all their details, all their “naturalness”. At the same time everything there is to see is pure drawing, pure imagery. This is a forest, this is a picture. Yet it is a particular forest, a forest selected for this image, that I face. The precision of the depiction is foremost owed to the decision to capture the forest as a forest in winter or autumn, bare of leaves, preferably a birch wood. The deciduous forest has been deprived of its leaves. With this variation, this »different appearance due to the time of day and year«, the trees reach »an exceptional level of reality«. This, I would add to Brecht, is a reality, which is inherently excluded from our society, an Other elevated above an unvaried, linear, excessively self-celebratory social existence bare of any direction. These trees evoke something unsettlingly autonomous, something that turns away from me, something that cannot be exploited. The few leaves that can be seen, are in danger of vanishing in an enormous shadow; they can only be seen in the pale back light, or otherwise, they shimmer in a peculiar remoteness. Thus the branches gain significant power, they entirely destructure the picture, for they are without volume, they rather lash and reach out anywhere, in any direction, as an ideal drawing matter; or the tree stumps, that stretch themselves spasmodically upwards, signifying a time “lived out”. All these elements destabilise the space, they are obstacles, which render the whole impenetrable. The trees appear as simple textures, without flesh, without leaves, without life, any life seems to be withdrawn, or pointing downwards. Furthermore, they are often falling, or broken, derived of their foundation. Down there are immeasurable piles of stones. Stones, rocks, the pinnacles of the inorganic, provide a highly “uneven” ground, a persisting foundation. One cannot be certain as to why there are so many stones inside the forest at all. Perhaps we should consider an upheaval, a reversal, during which the world of rocks had eruptively hewn its way into the forest and taken all its life. A harsh world. On other pictures, then again, pine forests are the rule, trees which, despite their “evergreen” leaves throughout the year, represent an apparent resistance to the natural cycles, much closer to the unchanging, resistant nature of the rocks than the vital movements of plant life. In effect, this is a barren, lifeless or silenced forest, which one approaches as a viewer – or a stroller.
The impression that the subjects of the pictures are intended to be clearly discernible, while at the same time undoubtedly insisting on painterly omnipotence, becomes increasingly powerful. Thus possibility arises to show and create at the same time. One neither has to look for the forest, nor for the painting. Neither merely abstract suggestions, or painterly definitions, nor photographic precision determine the transfer; rather, it rests on a technical and material decision, in other words the medium of drawing, the drawing-painting in the sense of graphical-painterly geometry, and their basis, paper, to realise the simultaneity of presentation and creation. Geometry, understood as the attempt to subsume the given under a supplementary order, to introduce rules for making something visible that is necessarily removed from natural perception. Reality is represented in terms of drawing, but it is not overdrawn. One cannot deny a certain comic-style tendency here. However, invention or liberation are not what is aspired, but rather a focused discovery of all those elements – the branches, the bare trunks, huts, rocks –, which, found and selected as they are, are most appropriate to be used as material for drawing and graphical approaches. Paper, then again, marks the will to define a space of correspondence, because paper, in contrast to canvas, does not yield a definite image object, but rather makes it possible to imagine the layers of paint as a membrane, a passage between two spaces, and thus our perspective.
The pictures of the forest by and by turn into forests filled with pictures. Into a forest which in itself is the image. The provoking element in viewing these pictures lies probably in the fact that while one sees the forest, one at the same time has the experience of standing inside a forest. Probably the most significant dimension of a forest is its very lack of dimensions, its lack of directions, its lack of distances one could estimate, its dynamism that denies any perspective. When one stands in the forest, there is hardly any orientation, hardly any distances one could estimate, and as such, the forest irrefutably reveals itself as a forest. We are surrounded by countless tress, by the forest. By something entire, the actual, yet hidden violence and logic of which we can only imagine. One could say that the forest is the natural space which perhaps represents the most acquainted type of the uncanny. The core attribute of the forest’s nature is probably a lack of similarities within its boundaries. This might be a fundamental difference of natural spaces and cultural spaces in general, yet the forest does produce this difference with a unique analogy to humanity. Trees are – in comparison to stones, other plants and water – vertical “beings”; they face the visitor to a forest, they are figures in space, characterised, however, by enormous differences: they are, though often thinner than the human body, still considerably taller, and they always appear in greater numbers, their obvious amount makes clear that there is a mass, a majority that will not be surmounted. And a third aspect is particularly obvious with the forest. Oscillating between fear and desire, the perception of its varietà, its variety, its polymorphism, the immense singularity of its component parts, no tree is like another, no branch, no leaf. That again is another universal rule, the diversity of all species, but it was in particular the human being which has always tried to assert its uniqueness, its culturality through a rough, contrary programme, the programme of identity, of sameness, the unity of his self and all things created by him. As such, the objects of use that are arranged in the pictures – a hut, a canopy swing, bits of plastic – are highly recognisable due to their clear forms, their common materials, the serial nature, in other words, the possible repetition of their nature as commodities. Yet this effect is constantly subverted by the total antagonism through which the natural qualities of the trees and stones articulate themselves, by their obscure and thus also uncanny polymorphism. In Renaissance painting, the varietà in combination with the composizione was considered a desirable goal. “Indeed, both terms are in fact complementary: neither the centrifugal varietà nor the centripetal composizione can exist by itself. Composizione disciplines varietà; varietà nurtures composizione”. Whereas the varietà is concerned with the diversity and the contrast of the gestures of the figures and hues of paint, the composizione is engaged with the “systematic adjustment of every element in a picture to serve a desired impression as a whole”. Of course, in the Quattrocento these guidelines are mostly applied to the depiction of human figures. But already in the pictures by Filippo Lippi we encounter “uncanny, but perfectly executed worlds behind the protagonists, where [he] allows the composed space to extend deep into the picture, whether these elements might be trees or rocks.” Sebastian Nebes’ unpeopled pictures elaborate on the unbridgeable distance of man from nature exactly via the accentuated graphical depiction of the varietà of trees and rocks – in comparison to the schemes of compositional arrangement and colour saturation within the pictures. The left behind, now useless objects in their primitivism emit the fatuous brilliance of an involution, by intention concerned merely with quantity, and not “quality”, as Novalis and the Romantics would have it. Novalis’ dictum “to give the ordinary a mysterious appearance” is sacrificed in these pictures to the uncanny of vital diversity, as it appears in the creative power of nature as natura naturans – even if it is limited to that particular point in time when, apparently exhausted by growth and blossoming, nature dies and turns lifeless. It is a fascinating exercise to compare these two kinds of death within the paintings. The »stationary« transition-death of a nature that in its very stillness, its required nakedness is elaborated with the graphical directness and sobriety that demonstrate the entirety of the violence of its abundance and diversity. And also the predetermined, ultimate death of all those things with which we surround us, which befalls them once we have abandoned them for whatever reason, once they slowly fall apart and enter an entirely apathetic, stupendous present. Whereas nature replies to the question of »what for« with the precision of the logic of its vitality, the “what for” of things becomes a parody of their functionality, life as such reveals itself within them entirely as “a self-destructive illusion” (Novalis). But yet we have painting, we have pictures that may still validate to us, that that which we see as given by the outside force of nature, at the same time is always an image we have created ourselves.
A further element charges the paintings with additional mystery, which likewise draws the view towards the pictures. In most of the paintings, the entity which makes pictures as such possible, light, is significant in a surprisingly spectacular way. It seems as if light – the skies – introduces an atmospheric difference to the darkness of nature, to the gradient indifference of fall and winter time; the surprising richness of its colour, ranging from soft, bright hues of blue and red to strong, glowing red embers might produce a certain sense of elevation above the negativity of nature and its figures, but yet there is a suggestion of uncertainty. Where does this light come from, is it a playful dawn, a sign for the presence of a cultural agglomeration “beyond” nature, the condensed illumination of a city, is it a mere, yet aggressive quote of a pacified epoch of painting, or indeed the signification of an apocalyptic overcoming of everything? Furthermore, the light is the actual painterly element in these pictures, a hue which relates the simultaneously thetic and antithetic to the disegno of the forest and the objects, affirming them in their deathly clutch, while at the same time injecting them with a hope of overcoming.
1. Bert Brecht quoted in Martin Seel, Eine Ästhetik der Natur. Frankfurt/Main 1991, p.105-6
2. Michael Baxandall, Die Wirklichkeit der Bilder. Malerei und Erfahrung im Italien des 15. Jahrhundert. Frankfurt/Main 1977, p.179.
3. Ibd., p.178.
4. Ibd., p.179.
5. cf. Novalis, »Die Welt muß romantisiert werden«, in: Herbert Uerlings, Die Theorie der Romantik, Stuttgart 2000, p.51.
The Forest as a Stage
Some Thoughts on the Tenth Winner of the LVZ Art Prize
by Hans-Werner Schmidt
Sebastian Nebe, the tenth winner of the Art Prize of the Leipziger Volkszeitung, was born in Blankenburg, Harz, in 1982. With reference to a popular cultural programme in central Germany, I pursue the thought “this should be in my Brockhaus encyclopaedia”, and thus I learn the following about the Harz: “The H. rises through a series of plateaus from SE (Lower H.) to NW (Upper H., → Brocken, up to 1,142 mamsl); its shape, with its steep ledges, stands in strong contrast to the surrounding mountains. In its western part, which is mostly covered with spruce woods, the surface structure of the deeply gorged mountain range is characterised by a main plateau at 600 mamsl (Clausthaler Hochfläche) and the mountains of the Brocken massif (granite) with average heights of 800–900 mamsl; by contrast, the Lower H. only has average heights of 350–500 mamsl, mixed and deciduous forests are common.”
The mountain ranges of the Harz appear on the horizons of Neo Rauch’s paintings, who grew up in Aschersleben. Now, it is Sebastian Nebe’s turn to travel the “gorged mountains”. Since 2006, the “forest” has gained a dominant presence in his still young oeuvre. His preferred image carrier is paper – a wood product. The formats usually exceed the two metre mark. The immediacy of the perspective and the lack of an introductory foreground gives the pictures the impression that all it takes for you to enter the undergrowth is just a single step. The dense trunks, the branches bare of leafs and needles: in this shady zone the trees appear not at all inviting; to enter here demands a stern conviction. Sure-footedness is also required. Towering rock formations and heaps of rubble challenge your sense of orientation, as you try to safely make your way across the terrain, with no signs by the local tourist office designating recommended routes and providing distance and time information. Likewise, the parts of the sky which can be glimpsed through the dense network of trunks and branches appear as patches of light, not as signs that give any comfort. Mist and clouds add a pale nuance to the palette. Shades of red cannot be assigned to dusk or dawn without doubt. Even the thought of distant fires does not seem out of place in these scenarios. Then, the wanderer comes across piles covered in tarp – Nebe leaves us guessing what might be hidden underneath those covers. And then, at one point, the forest gives way to a small clearing, where a cabin claims its space between the mighty trees, under their heavy branches. But there is no romantic notion of a forester’s lodge at work here. The cabin is locked on all sides. In the worst case vandals might have gained an entry. It must be a startling moment for visitors when they find such a wooden building inside an exhibition space, a “black lodge” which denies any notion of “protection” and dismissively keeps its inner secret. And thus, in the situation of a public showing, people – here, the visitors to an exhibition – reenter Nebe’s work. It is of course at the liberty of the audience to research the stories that circulate about the Harz; they can certainly provide orientation in the undergrowth of possible meanings through an associative dialogue with Sebastian Nebe’s work.
Already in 2012, Sebastian Nebe, then master student of Astrid Klein, had presented an impressive position in the exhibition “NATUR 3d – Zeitgenössische Kunst im Dialog mit historischen Museumsbeständen” (“Nature 3d – Contemporary Art in Dialogue with Historical Pieces of the Museum Collection”) at the Museum der bildenden Künste. Now, I am pleased to see that he returns to the museum as the winner of the Art Prize of the Leipziger Volkszeitung.
Herfried Münkler has called one chapter of his book “Die Deutschen und ihre Mythen” (“The Germans and their Myths”) “The Morality of the Backwoodsmen”. He describes the moral code of the old Germans as rooted in the German forests. Sebastian Nebe could put the fear of God into Varus, too.
A Walk Through the Image
by Ana Dimke
The genre of landscape painting has always been used to present fantastic image spaces. Ever since romanticism, we have become acquainted with the idea of strolling into these pictures. And thanks to romantic irony, we are also acquainted to being in awe of our own thoughts and feelings, but with a smirk.
“Die Stille” (“The Silence”), “Die Höhle” (“The Cave”), “Die Insel” (“The Isle”), “Die Wälder” (“The Woods”) are titles of works by Sebastian Nebe, and they show exactly what they promise. I am drawn into a painting of a forest. Lured into visiting an exhibition by the literary pun “Romantischer Egoist” (“Romantic Egoist”), I find my way blocked by “Die Schwarze Hütte” – a huge, dark and real black lodge – before my gaze gets lost in the “Dämmerung” (“Twilight”). The space is filled with the promise that these places could be found in real life. Reminiscences of forest walks come to my mind. These hikes always had something magical and at the same time disenchanting about them; in our times, what we discover in nature are rarely wild animals, amazing plants or fresh springs, but rather traces of civilisation, waste left behind. These things, these facts of life and their remains bear witness to existence. Could this be a hint at a return? In his paintings, Sebastian Nebe captures the morbidly familiar with great atmosphere and with obvious consideration for physical effects. At the same time, he creates a mental distance to elements of drama through calculated references to art history. Meanwhile, the gaze trails off into the black and white images, sporadically intercut by patches of colour that mark the sky or a piece of tarpaulin. The ironic take on these scenes, mixed with what might be a pleasure in decay, are defining elements of these mood landscapes and connect the artist with romantic painting.
Traditions always have to be reinvented. This is not only true for the visual arts in general, but also for art academies. That this endeavour can be successful is testified by graduates like Sebastian Nebe. The Leipzig Academy of Visual Arts is closely associated with first-rate painting, and thus it is a good omen for the art world, and for us, with our 250 year history, to see that an artist like Sebastian Nebe can create such powerful tension and strong mental resonance with his pictures.
- 1982 born in Blankenburg
2002-2005 Studies of painting at the Academy of Visual Arts and Design Halle/S., Prof. Thomas Rug
2005 - 2009 Studies of painting at the Academy of Visual Arts Leipzig, Prof. Astrid Klein
2008 Glasgow School of Art
2009-2012 Master studies with Prof. Astrid Klein
lives and works in Berlin
- 2022 When I'm not afraid to love, Galerie Kleindienst, Leipzig
2019 Fühlen und Lenken, Barlach Halle K, Hamburg
- Summerhouse, Galerie Kleindienst, Leipzig
- 2018 Im Osten nichts neues (with Andreas Mühe), G2 Kunsthalle, Leipzig
- 2016 Internal Security, Kunstkreis Hameln, Hameln (Germany)
- Always Crashing In The Same Car, Galerie Kleindienst, Leipzig
- 2013 Der neue Morgen, 10th Leipziger Volkszeitung art award, Museum of Visual Arts, Leipzig
"l'egoiste romantique" (with Sebastian Burger), Centre D'art Passerelle, Brest, France
2012 Still, Paintings, Kleindienst Gallery, Leipzig
2010 Die letzten Tage der Unschuld, Painting and Installation, Kleindienst Gallery, Leipzig
2008 Die Schwarze Hütte, ZINGERpresents, Amsterdam
Art Amsterdam, with ZINGERpresents, Amsterdam
2006 Bungalow, ZINGERpresents, Tilburg
- 2022 Present Collective, Spinnerei, Leipzig
2021 Ménage à trois, Studio Rottenbacher, Berlin
2020 Keine Schwellenangst!, Städtische Galerie, Bietigheim-Bissingen
We are open, Galerie Kleindienst, Leipzig
Antipoden? Neueste Leipziger Schule, Mädler Art Forum, Leipzig
NEW II, Galerie Kleindienst - Westside, Leipzig
2019 Natur als Argument, Kunstverein Bamberg, Bamberg
- Die Zukunft ist das neue Ding, Kunststiftung Sachsen-Anhalt, Halle (Saale)
- Circlus, Thaler Originalgrafik, Leipzig
- 2018 Bataillon d'amour, Galerie Kleindienst, Leipzig
- Lindenow 14, Kaufhaus Held, Leipzig
- 2017 Corriger la Fortune, Kunstverein Tiergarten, Berlin
- Hundrede og tyve timer in København, Refshaleøen, Copenhagen
- 2016 Vor ihnen das Meer - resp. der Asphalt, die Schäden..., Labor Güntzstraße, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden
2015 Aus der Tiefe des Leipziger Raumes, Gallery Schloss Parz, Grieskirchen (Austria)
Vertraute Gesellschaft, Thaler Originalgrafik, Leipzig
Gute Kunst? Wollen! SØR Rusche Collection Oelde/Berlin, Auf AEG, Nürnberg
Turn my water into wine, Kunstraum Ortloff, Leipzig
5th Dresden Biennal, former Arbeitsanstalt Königsbrücker Straße, Dresden
2014 YOU GET SO ALONE AT TIMES THAT IT JUST MAKES SENSE, Kreuzberg Pavillon, Berlin
2013 Without title: abstract - concrete - constructive, art exhibition hall of the Sparkasse Leipzig, Leipzig
There is love in the air, but I'm still full of fear, art room Ortloff, Leipzig
2012 Natur 3D, Museum of fine arts Leipzig
unterwegs, 19.LJA ,Westwerk, Leipzig
Cer variabil, Collectors House, Heerlen (NL)
Exposition of the master class, Academy of Visual Arts, Leipzig
2011 Der romantische Egoist (with Sebastian Burger), art association Tiergarten, Berlin
Der Blick von hier, Boulevard Parabol, Berlin
Masken, Merkel Collection Mannheim
After the goldrush, art association Speyer
HotSpot Berlin – Eine Momentaufnahme, Georg-Kolbe-Museum, Berlin
Convoy Leipzig, Biksady Gallery, Budapest
2010 Der Geheime Garten der Nachtigall (mit Claas Gutsche), Galerie Wagner und Partner, Berlin
Peng!, Transponder, Leipzig
Silent Revolution-Painting and Photography from Leipzig, Kerava, Finland
Schnittstelle Druck, Museum der bildenden Künste und Hochschule für Graphik und Buchkunst Leipzig
2009 Von der Wand in den Mund, Vorstadt 14, Zug
Never odd or even, Boulevard Parabol, Berlin, Ortloff, Leipzig
2008 Drawcula, Galerie Kleindienst, Leipzig
Dreams Reoccurring, Karl-Heine-Str. 25 B, Leipzig
2007 Junge Kunst XII, Galerie Kleindienst, Leipzig
NADA Miami, with ZINGERpresents, Ice Palace, Miami
500 x X, Academy of Visual Arts Leipzig
FIAC `07, with ZINGERpresents, Carree du Louvre, Paris
Fermente, Positionen Junger Kunst, Maerzgalerie, Leipzig
Those Quaint moments of Distress, Montana, Berlin
Art Brussels, with Galerie Kleindienst, Brüssel
The Nature of Things, Art Rotterdam, with ZINGERpresents, Rotterdam
2006 Reisbrettromantik, Plattform, Weydingerstrasse 20, Berlin
Bitten. danken. fluchen. grüßen. beten., Brunnenstrasse 3, Berlin
2005 Schoene Arbeit, conference, workshops, exhibiton about the economic situation of cultural work, Agentur für schöne Arbeit, Halle
Drei mal drei aus Leipzig, Galerie Mathias Kampl, Munich
Berliner Kunstsalon, with Spinnerei Galerie / Archiv, Berlin
Black princess, Galerie Quartier, Quedlinburg
Greater Chateau 5000, Halle
2004 Hits, Rosen und Alltag, Kirow Galerie, Leipzig
Feel like a cloud, Wortspeicher, Quedlinburg
- 2013 Leipziger Volkszeitung Art Award, Leipzig (Germany)
2006 Grant of the German National Acadamic Foundation
Free Mover stipend, Glasgow School of Art
Foreign exchange scholarship of the German National Academic Foundation, Glasgow School of Art
- 2013 Sebastian Nebe - Der Neue Morgen. Art Award of the Leipziger Volkszeitung, Museum of Visual Arts / Zweitausendeins, Leipzig
Der Wald ruft, Leipziger Volkszeitung, 24.04.2013
2009 Sebastian Nebe - Die Wälder, 2009, Galerie Kleindienst, Leipzig