Untitled “(Selbstbildnis als Maler)”, a watercolor painting done in 1985, depicts a painter boldly waving a paintbrush at the viewer. The deftly sketched figure of the artist, Walter Dahn, peers out from behind a dark square, probably a canvas—defying the physical limits of that medium. The blithely anarchic gesture of a painter’s brush held high underlines Dahn’s decision to turn his back on stylistic convention and standard motifs. He takes no interest in allegorical representation, virtuosity, pictorial depth, or luminous glazes. It seems that the artist pictured is stating that, “despite everything,” he is still a painter. The small-format figure—in a watercolor painting—thus has a comically impudent air.
Walter Dahn was the main protagonist and cofounder of the artists’ collective Mülheimer Freiheit (1980–82)—named after the street in Cologne where its studio was located. The group soon became known as one of the “Neue Wilde”. Dedicated specifically to painting, these artists developed a style that was perceived as “rough” and “wild,” and introduced elements of punk into art. Their paintings—impulsive and lackadaisical—reflect their insistence on motifs that are not mere decoration, and exploit the extraordinary strength of the grotesque and the banal. However, following his participation in documenta 7 in 1982, Dahn struck out in a new direction, which is already hinted at in his “Selbstbildnis als Maler”. He started to work in other mediums, such as drawing and photography—which he had pursued concurrently from the outset—and screen printing.
All of Dahn’s work impressively confronts the existential issues of our own time, as in the untitled ink drawing of 1985 depicting a naked male torso with a tree trunk and branches growing out of the neck instead of a head. The motif in brown, earthy tones is executed on repurposed paper, with still visible biographical details of German sculptor Andreas Bindl (1928–2010), who in some circles is less well known today than during his lifetime. The writing is upside down in relation to the painted motif. If the viewer turns the sheet the right way up to read the writing, the tree trunk and branches become a root system. While there is an internal affinity here between the human and arboreal parts of the human-tree-hybrid motif, there is also a tangible affinity between Dahn and Bindl; it seems that Dahn appreciated the latter’s commitment to exploring fundamental existential factors such as relations between human beings and animals, and relations between human beings and nature.
After Dahn’s break with “wild painting,” more connections to “kindred spirits” appear in his work—including numerous musicians, writers, and fellow artists. The drawing “König Schwan”, for instance, depicts the creature that Dahn’s teacher, Joseph Beuys, connected with transformation and sociopolitical issues. The gold-bronze glaze and the envelope suggest a Beuysian energy exchange—in both material and intellectual terms. The gold-bronze can be read both as the conduction of physical heat and as a symbol of spiritual transformation, with the letter, as a means of communication, representing an exchange of ideas within a protected domain. Dahn’s compositions show that art can always be reconsidered in terms of its role as a means of communication and as a conduit for meaning.
Further works by Walter Dahn in the Baloise art collection:
Inv. no. 0528, Ders. Mann mit abgetrenntem Kopf/Weltkugel, 1985, India ink on paper, 20.8 x 15 cm
Inv. no. 0730, Kopf mit Maske, 1984, Oil crayon on paper, 29.7 x 21 cm
Inv. no. 0791, Selbst als Elektriker, 1985, Gouache on envelope, 32 x 22.5 cm