Yearning : Sehnsucht, a new art exhibition at the Austrian embassy in Washington, D.C. features portrait paintings by Oskar Stocker, a brilliant artist also known for his many other artworks. People from all over the world have been drawn to his exhibition which depicts the portraits of 22 subjects.
This is more than a simple art exhibition. Each person has a life-history to share which keeps the viewer’s interest. Each painting represents a life of memories and Stocker does a marvelous job painting their personalities.
The exhibition documents culturally diverse faces from the Austrian province of Styria and its capital, Graz, painted in a stimulating thought-provoking manner. Attending last week’s opening was Gerhard Rüsch, Graz city councilor. To better explain Stocker’s work, Rüsch quoted the famous philosopher and statesman, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “Only he who knows yearning, knows what I suffer.” Rüsch observes that Goethe “reminds us what yearning often means to people: The desire and the hope, which inevitably go hand in hand with pain.”
“The yearning for a loved one is likewise here, as is missing a place that has become dear to us. For many expatriates, and this includes also Styrians living abroad, the yearning for one’s roots and origin is a feeling that may accompany them throughout their lives, even though they are highly successful in their professions, social environment and private achievements,” Rüsch told the hundreds of visitors attending the exhibition’s opening.
Yearning is more than just homesickness or heartache, Rüsch points out. “Homesickness is very often preceded by a yearning which we usually call wanderlust: the need to say goodbye to one’s home country, at least temporarily, in order to move into the ‘great wide world’ in search of all the things one assumes do not exist at home: freedom, good fortune and adventure.” Stocker’s “portraits convey both of these worlds in an interesting and very clear manner,” Rüsch adds.
The exhibition was conceived when Stocker was at a New York café having breakfast with the Mayor of Graz, Siegfried Nagl. That is when he decided to paint some of the most interesting people in the world, with each painting helping tell the person’s life story. Stocker met personally with numerous Styrians who have made their home in one of the most diverse places on earth, Rüsch noted.
“These portraits bear witness to the rather unusual, personal yearnings and dreams, and to paths that have been abandoned or followed, and that have Graz or Styria as either the destination or the starting point of human peregrinations,” he said.
Rüsch told the audience that Stocker’s life’s motto is “Painting keeps me alive,” a common theme among passionate painters. Rüsch said he was proud of the exhibition because it shows the creative potential that is inherent to both Graz and its yearnings. Graz, by the way, has been designated by UNESCO as the City of Design.
In Yearning : Sehnsucht, A portrait of twenty-two expat Styrians, the catalog that accompanies the exhibition, Dr. Guido Schlimbach, chief curator of the world famous St. Peter Kunststation in Cologne, Germany, discusses Stocker’s portraits in detail. Schlimbach points out how portrait painting almost ceased to exist by the end of the 20th century. Schlimbach observed that until that time, portraiture had been an “obligatory academic discipline” among painters but predicts it will once again return as a possible subject of painters.
“In times in which almost all portraits are created by the digital media,” Schlimbach writes, “portrait art has become an exciting and interesting alternative for quite a few modern artists. One of them is undoubtedly Oskar Stocker, who was born 1956 in East Tyrol and now lives in Graz.”
A 15th century artist, Antonella da Messina, inspired Oskar Stocker’s own style of portrait painting, Schlimbach notes. Stocker, he says, also “allows us to encounter people whose faces look directly at us. The eyes come into being first when he paints, they are the most important thing, the central motif of his works. Starting from them, from their gaze, the whole portrait emerges, and the composition of the picture is modelled on them. A traditional saying goes that the eyes are the mirror of the soul. This saying has become the painter’s maxim, when, in his work, he takes on the challenge of not creating a realistic image of a person, but capturing something essential that will make them come to life in a magical way. The artist touches the face of the portrayed person, avoiding every exaggeration, but emphasizing the individual. In the process of painting, in the creation of the outwardly visible, he – in his own words – advances in layers that touch the essence of the portrayed persons in exactly the same way in which he has come to know them during the portrait session.”
“By asking what seem to be superficial questions,” Schlimbach observes, Stocker “gains insight into people’s characters, learns something about their lives, transferring it all to the canvas. In that respect, Oskar Stocker’s paintings reveal various aspects of the portrayed person’s life, not only its disruptions and fears, but also the joy and happiness of it. For amongst his clients are not only the rich and the beautiful, but also neighbours and friends, passers-by from the street, even the homeless and asylum-seekers.”
“The portrait-painting biographer does not provide us with a faithful effigy,” Schlimbach states, “but rather a possible interpretation of the person in question, just as he would imagine their life situation to be. And in the same way the artist gets close to them, touching them in his painting, we, too, are able to experience them very near: the person becomes manifest.”
Schlimbach refers to Stocker’s original material choice as “material eroticism,” noting that it ranges from classical canvas, huge lengths of paper and tarpaulins to old packing paper and discarded cardboard boxes. “There is nothing that he would not use,” Schlimbach explains, “nothing too simple upon which a portrait could unfold… It is not so much the portrayed that contribute to the exciting effect, but rather the interplay of the material and the colours he uses.”
Some of Stocker’s portraits reach a height of more than eight feet, others mostly around five feet. He wishes to give his protagonists a certain grandeur, give them prestige, Schlimbach adds, regardless of what they are or have in real life.
Stocker paints with muted colors he mixes himself. Schlimbach notes that Stocker “works with just a few colors, mostly with one per portrait, sometimes with two, rarely with three. Now and then he creates a background, though it often remains empty. His portraits are effective in their complexity and reduction. Stocker almost always paints faces, rarely other body parts such as the chest or the upper part of the body, and even rarer, the whole body. There is neither a background, nor furniture in the room, nor a landscape.”
This must-see exhibition will be on display through Nov. 14 at the Embassy of Austria at 3524 International Court NW. Please see the Austrian Cultural Forum Washington website for details.