German artist Burgi Kühnemann uses books as ironic weapons against bourgeois values. She uses books found in second-hand bookshops, selecting them on the basis of the subject matter of their illustrations: pretty girls, brawny men and faithful dogs. Kühnemann estranges these images by adding her own painted commentary, thereby satirizing the leitmotiv, the overt subject matter of the image, and mercilessly disclosing its covert values.
Burgi Kühnemann was born in Mayen (Eifel, Germany) in 1935 and now lives and works in Pforzheim (Germany) and Pegognaga (Italy). She trained at the Werkkunstschule in Düsseldorf, specializing in metal sculpture and drawing from model. Kühnemann’s artistic work revolves around themes which she analyses, differentiates and redefines. With a sure and lucid touch, she dissects cherished assumptions.
Kühnemann has been making book projects since 1983; examples include Buch-Akte, using photos originating from the German Freikörper naturist movement, Burgis Heine, inspired by the German author Heinrich Heine, and Deutsch Gut? which parodies Nazi kitsch and the characteristic German penchant for middle-class values. Behind the perfect and attractive world, Kühnemann always finds lurking a grubby, imperfect reality. Her books are entertaining, caustic and unsurpassed in their offensive against hidebound convention. Since the death of her parents in 1996, she has also used family mementos and documents as artistic material. Her childhood and everyday family life –in the period from 1930 to 1960– have also been sources of inspiration.
Found photography becomes painting
Kühnemann uses existing photographs for her work and transforms them into paintings. She copies the photographic images without significant manipulation. The work Glück, for example, consists of nine small canvases depicting the private mini-universe of the German everyman: they include an adorable lapdog such as most families possess (typically, a schnauzer), buddies on a football field, two little girls dressed up in their Sunday best on their first day at school, a young woman with her fiancé in Wehrmacht uniform, and a young baker showing us a gigantic loaf of bread for which he has won a gleaming prize cup. The nine pictures form a potpourri of geniality, in which Kühnemann lets the images speak for themselves.
German cars and dogs
For Mein heilix Blechle: deutsche Fahrzeuge in alfabetischer Reihenfolge –with its proud pairings of men with their cars– Kühnemann uses the glossy picture book of icons from the St. Demetrius Cathedral. These painted motifs are arranged in alphabetic order and interact with their background to fuse into a single picture. Contradictory value systems clash in this work: the holy cow and religion, with a Volkswagen as its natural crowning glory.
Many of Kühnemann’s books are populated by dogs, which range from winsome pets to snarling guard dogs. In Mann & Hund, she portrays the dog owners. Taking a book of traditional embroidery patterns as her starting point, she places a historic figure or media hero together with his faithful canine companion alongside each splendidly ornamental letter. The man-and-his-dog theme is a traditionally German one which was exploited in the Nazi era to boost the image of Hitler, who liked to be pictured with his trusty Blondi. Man’s best friend had a prominent place in Nazi propaganda and was a metaphor of command and obedience.
Hitler’s image is not a taboo subject for the 73-year old Kühnemann, but a phenomenon that goes along with (her own) German identity. Similarly characteristic are Ferien, Freizeit und Urlaub, Essen und Trinken, Das Auto and a notice on a garden gate with the inscription Vorsicht Hund. It is a German identity, which Kühnemann probes with her astringent but never cruel wit.
Diana Franssen, Van Abbemuseum
Susanne Padberg, Galerie DRUCK & BUCH
This exhibition has been realised in collaboration with Galerie DRUCK & BUCH, Tübingen (Germany).