“I a most wretched Atlas, the huge world, / The whole huge world of sorrow I must carry / Yea, the unbearable must bear, though meanwhile / My heart break in despair.“1 The young poet Heinrich Heine versed these lines of despair between 1823 and 1824. In 2013 the British band Coldplay sang: ”Heaven we hope / is just up the road / Show me the way Lord, / because I / I’m about to explode / Carry your world, / I’ll carry your world (…) / Carry your world / and all your hurt …“ naming their song “Atlas”. – Atlas, the Titan god, condemned by Zeus to carry the heavens of the then known world upon his shoulders at the westernmost point till the end of time.
It took centuries before the ancient firmament was recognized as a globe, and neither the sky in Heine‘s poem nor in the Coldplay song are borne by the mighty Greek god any longer, but by the self, by man itself. The very point where the individual carries the weight of the world on his shoulders is just where Brunner‘s works come into play.
In the early 90s Werner Brunner (*1941) commenced his group of works ATLAS. Based on the ancient myth of Atlas and inspired by the Heine poem, the artist, who has been living and working in Berlin since the 1970s, examines the art-historically and architecturally anchored Atlas motif in unique manner and explores its importance for the present age. Brunner is a sensitive and critical observer of our times, who follows current world affairs with a keen eye. The trained blacksmith, architect and historian of archaeological architecture finds first inspirational impetus for his works in newspaper articles, press photos and ads in daily papers. Accordingly, Brunner often uses pictures of carriers and wretched people from developing countries for his Atlas pictures, mounting them in his large-size works he eventually paints over them. Also Earth, this unbearable weight, which these men, women and children shoulder, no longer is the stylized globe we believed to know so well. In Brunner‘s painting “Ich unglückselger Atlas – Verbrannte Erde. V“ (I, a most wretched Atlas – Burnt Earth. V, 1998) for example, the silhouette of Atlas crouches under the enormous burden of the burnt Earth, a crater of asphalt varnish and ashes. Instead of a globe with the countries neatly organized in a gaudy colour scheme, we are confronted with a terrifying relief of a nightmarish vision.
While the Atlas in this allegory of hopelessness remains an anonymous shadow figure, Brunner puts a face on his Atlas figure in the work “Ich unglückselger Atlas … IV“ (1998-2011). The face of a woman, an African woman, to be more precisely. Brunner came across her photo in an article on illegal European fishing fleets off the coasts of Africa. In the original picture the woman balances a tub with a big fish on her head, in Brunner‘s work she carries the entire Earth, its white and sere surface, dismal with cracks, hovers above a shy smile on her face. Just as it is the case with the aforementioned painting, it is the relief-like, almost haptic surface treatment that makes these representations of the Earth so impressive. Apart from asphalt varnish, Brunner also employs sand, ashes and paper which he mixes with the paint on the image surface.
But Brunner‘s globes not only show a deserted planet. In his late work “Ich unglückselger Atlas … IX“ (2017) we see the Syrian city of Aleppo aflame. Groups of people between the burning houses stretch their arms to the sky, their fingers forming the victory sign in the face of a devastated city. The mass of burning houses and people is just barely supported by a classic Atlas sculpture that seems to be about to tilt out of the picture in the left margin. Women carrying toddlers in their arms push past it, as well as several children carriers, fleeing the city, they run towards the observer. Those who flee and those who stay, both groups are represented in photomontages, appear as duplicates. By duplicating them the painter makes their fate the fate of many, as which they form a human pattern, an echo that is not only repeated in the picture. How often do we see one and the same press photo? How many fates do they represent? And how much do these fates really affect us?
The large-size collage “Ich unglückselger Atlas … VIII“ (2012) poses the question regarding sympathy and the own share in the responsibility in a more obvious way. With the arms stretched out behind him, a boy drudgingly drags a ‘world bag‘ filled with advertising and packaging waste. Ever since the big issue of an import ban on plastic waste that China imposed this year, even the last know-nothing should have realized that there is a connection between the waste everyone generates day by day and the destruction of the environment, as well as the disastrous living and working conditions in some countries. While we open and close the trash can thoughtlessly many times a day, others live in and on this waste, fuelled by the corrosive hope to find something useful that’ll extend their survival. The direct correlation between these two social realities is illustrated in Brunner‘s work “Element“ (2009), which shows a young boy in a small barge fishing in waste-polluted waters.
While there has always been a tragic element inherent in the Atlas motif, the ark, in return, is a symbol of hope, survival, a new dawn. According to biblical records, Noah built the ark for himself, his family and a remnant of all the world’s animals at God‘s behest to spare him from the Flood sent as retribution for mankind‘s moral lapse. Werner Brunner became occupied with the motif of the ark around the same time he began working on the ATLAS series. In 1992 he was asked to create lithographs for one French edition2 of “Deutsche Menschen / Allemands“, a compilation of letters by Walter Benjamin, but it was Benjamin‘s prefixed dedication to his friend, the religious critic Gershom (also: Gerhard) Scholem, that kept preying on his mind: “May you, Gerhard, find a chamber for the memory of your youth in this ark that I built when the fascist flood began to rise.“ These words marked the starting point of Brunner‘s series ‘ARCHE‘. While early works such as “Walter Benjamins Arche III“ (1994) and “Ahoi IV“ (1993) are, despite their melancholic colours, still characterized by the idea of a hope that humanity can be rescued and retained, a notion also implied in the dedication, later works like “Bodenlos“ (2007) and “Arche VI“ (2002-16) are far less optimistic, also in terms of the materials Brunner employed. Using plywood, wooden slats and parts of wooden boxes, he hammers, nails and breaks, working on them to exhaustion. “Arche VI“ shows apparitional figures, standing among the ruins of their lives, surrounded by clouds of fire and sand. In “Bodenlos“, in return, we see a rowing boat without rows, without bottom and without passengers, above all, without any hope. This is where the ark returns to its original meaning: case, shrine, coffin.
What both works have in common is Brunner‘s special feel for the downsides of our age, the dark spots many of us tend to ignore. Brunner, who spent his childhood in Bavaria in the 40s and 50s under the impressions of World War II, found his path to art in his mid-twenties after he had completed an apprenticeship as blacksmith, won‘t turn a blind eye on these issues, as he knows of the consequential perils. This is why his works represent views on global connections and the question regarding the quintessential human. And when Brunner becomes Atlas, as it is the case in “Ich unglückselger Atlas … XII“ (1997/2017), trying to put on his underpants on shaky legs with gravity failing to act around him, while houses and cars, makeshift tied to ropes, flap away, then we see the artist‘s struggle to keep things together, to not let go, to find answers, answers to the contradictions of our existence. And this urge requires something that Brunner bears within him: the confidence that this world is worth the effort and the hope that art can be more than just food for thought.
And patiently bear the burden of misery
And patiently bear it, long, so long,
Till Atlas himself would lose patience
And cast from his shoulders the ponderous world
Into eternal night. 3
text: Claudia Heidebluth
translation: André Liebhold
2Walter Benjamin, Allemands, Ed. Théâtre Typographique, Courbevoie, 1992.
3Heinrich Heine: Buch der Lieder. Hamburg 1827, chapter 239