Permanence and Changes in Imaginary Maps / The Paintings of Josef Achrer

Lü Peng

As a child Josef Achrer was fascinated by maps, which he later started to paint with a touch of mediaeval or even renaissance undertones. In his child-like instincts one can also spot old, traditional romanticism. Yet this does not mean that this tradition is already outdated, useless or contrary to our times. According to Walter Benjamin’s theory of modernism, Charles Baudelaire is the peak of the European modern era. This French poet once celebrated maps and children who love maps. At the beginning of his poem Le Voyage, he wrote:

Pour l’enfant, amoureux de cartes et d’estampes,
L’univers est égal à son vaste appétit.
Ah! que le monde est grand à la clarté des lampes!
Aux yeux du souvenir que le monde est petit!1

Josef Achrer is exactly this “child who is fond of maps and engravings”. His series of “maps” poignantly express the strong graphic and geometric “desire” of the world. Perhaps not a practitioner himself, Achrer and his oeuvre do remind us that there have been many artists who used maps for their paintings in the 20th century, such as Gerhard Richter. It may be the case that Achrer’s works are all about the traditional passing down of graphic information from teacher to pupil, like blood relations in European civilization – though his series is very different from Richter’s atlas. The dimensions of Achrer’s “maps” are astounding, with lengths exceeding one, two or even three metres. In contrast, Richter’s “maps” measure just a few dozen centimetres. Compared against each other, Richter paints as if he was creating a reduced scale model of civil maps, whereas Achrer’s maps tend to be closer to enormous military maps. This “imbalance” in terms of dimensions also emphasises the irony present in both these types of maps. Richter’s German city maps contain an extremely strong ironic subtext; under his brush, cities that were reconstructed after being bombed during World War II are once again reduced to ruins. Richter used maps, photographs and other images as the basis. In contrast, Achrer avoids the difficult questions of war and history, instead resorting to imaginary spaces. Unlike his childhood paintings, the adult artist’s “maps” grapple with questions of geometric space and present graphic elements full of symbolic meaning and mystique from a different category than just legendary castles. Its geometric elements, which occupy more than half of the depicted landscape, seem non-geometric in contrast.

The artist’s diagrams of various “shoals” could be called “people’s zones” and “zones without people”. Places that feature geometric shapes are the “people’s zones”, while sites that are just implied, as is common in ink and wash landscapes, are “territories without people”. This is diametrically opposed to the Chinese idea of the landscape, but it reflects how it is understood by people in the west. They are in a world that they themselves change and build. And precisely this transformation and rebuilding of nature by man originates in geometry. In this regard, Western tradition has not fundamentally changed at all between the time it divided up dividing up the fields in Mesopotamia and Achrer created his imaginary maps. Are Oriental or Chinese elements mere entertainment, then? This is likely related to two Western traditions. The first seeks to find eternity in a constantly changing environment and expresses what we, as people from this world, see. Only fleeting phenomena that are transformed in seconds are portrayed. Thus the only concepts that are permanent and worthy of investigation are the geometry of the shapes hiding behind the symbols. This in fact is the origin of Achrer’s enchantment with geometry. The second tradition is the search for changes in stability. In modern times, this point is very clear and a contemporary sign. To use Marx’s words repeatedly cited in recent years in studies on Modernism: “All that is solid melts into air.” As a result, attempts at modernism and modern painting incessantly become efforts at “something new”, just as Baudelaire says at the end of one of his poems:

Plonger au fond du gouffre

Enfer ou Ciel, qu’importe?

Au fond de l’Inconnu pour trouver du nouveau!2

Modern people are unable to resist the temptation of “new”, they constantly hope for and need “something new”. The roots of the volatile “craving for change” in modern art, a primary source for many of Achrer’s changes, may in fact lie here. In an interview he once explained that he himself needed new stimuli. For him, China is a new element he can use to break down old orders. It is a new something of stabilised geometry and imagination. Perhaps these are the two basic motifs in his painting; in fact he does not need to travel to China at all, he just needs China from his friends’ pictures and photographs and a few subway signs. Using these he paints imaginary “maps” of his imaginary China. And this is truly something that for all of us (including us Chinese) is different from the “new somethings” of actual reality.

When Achrer naturally reduces forms to basic geometry and renews complex tones as primary colours, one cannot say that the artist is expressing interest in form as such. In fact it concerns an analytical and logical tradition that exists in his blood. This also gave rise to the above questions, because superficially, the world is unreliable – and humanity must strive to find answers to questions that lie below the surface. Despite the fact that phenomenologists would likely express it differently, Achrer truly answers individual questions and in his steps he leaves original tracks and proof. In this regard, he contemplates and attempts to answer philosophical questions, while our world sincerely needs us to persist in posing questions (may they be posted by artists, philosophers or writers) so as to prevent man’s characteristic inertia from setting in.

1/ To a child who is fond of maps and engravings The universe is the size of his immense hunger. Ah! how vast is the world in the light of a lamp! In memory’s eyes how small the world is!
2/ To plunge to the bottom of the gulf Hell or Heaven, what does it matter? To the bottom of the Unknown, to find something new!

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