Eight pictures in portrait format hang alongside each other. They were created separately. Thousands of weft threads made of silk and paper and black warp threads went into the creation of each painting in the course of several weeks and even months of continuous work at the hand loom. The motifs are not separated by frames. The composition, colours and individual motifs extend into the adjacent picture and unite the eight pictures in an overall representation.
Comparable series of pictures range from altarpieces to comic strips. In a total of three years’ work Katharine Oehlert has created a polyptych which is unique both in form and content. The threads and dyed paper strips tell of the history of the town of Hilden. This commissioned subject matter is a challenge in itself. The wealth of events of a thousand years overtax both memory and the possibility of narrating them in a succession of pictures. Even reduced to essentials this history fills an entire library. All the things that apply to artistically relevant representations of the history of towns and cities cannot serve as a model here.
When one stands in front of this series of pictures, the eye begins to wander and a cosmos of individual and recognisable objects and symbols reveal themselves. Only gradually does the impression of diversity give way to the impression of the underlying calm of the composition.
Large individual shapes span the overall design and smaller individual details move, so to speak, over the entire surface. Distinct but subtle colour contrasts never cover up the essential character of the drawing which is a basic element of the entire series of pictures. The abstract and thus generalising drawing gives concrete expression to the forms in such a way that they can be read.
The first two individual pictures consist simply of white, grey and delicate ochre areas which form a background to clearly accentuated drawings of objects. Relics of the past such as the groundplan of Hilden as a circular village around a green, a drawing of the outlines of shards and groundplans of the oldest church in Hilden are arranged without apparent order next to the elegant lines of the handwriting of old documents. Reading the images from left to right silhouettes loom with rounded skull-like heads and introduce movement, direction and, for the first time, dynamism and development. The beginning of a history. Thus the foundations of a mythology which has an individual character thanks to the use of specially created symbols or symbols used in an unusual context rather than traditional icons have also been laid. The upward and downward movement of the overarching lines and the use of bright and dark areas of colour create ciphers of light and darkness. Since the poetic paintings of Paul Klee and documenta 5 the observer has been familiar with such a concentrated form of experience in pictorial designs.
The third and fourth individual pictures are striking above
all in that the iridescent ochre shades of the first two pictures now give
way to brown and green contrasting with cobalt blue shades linked by motifs.
The major lines of the composition are continued, literally towering up, and the skull-like caps first appear bottom left, looming up towards the right; a blue-lipped fish-head repeats a similar skull shape on the left, the face given to the “fish” also repeats a round shape which is to be found slightly higher up in the second picture. Architectural elements now create the illusion of depth. At the bottom a row of medical instruments begins and engraved steles framed like gravestones with sharp black outlines and grey shading are at the same time reminiscent both of the remains of photocopies and of factual illustrations of scientific objects in books from the 19th century or earlier. Their shape, like their content, is symbolic. The portrait of Wilhelm Fabry and two birds clearly dominate this picture, where the two birds accentuated in shades of red convey emotion and experience. A scallop shell appears and the dream-like quality of Katharina Oehlert’s narrative style begins to emerge from this repertoire of motifs which combines a private symbolism and sign mysticism in a veritable cultic montage which has its precursors in art from Max Ernst to Michael Buthe.
In the fifth and sixth pictures the large lines of the composition bring highs and lows into the work. Grey colour sequences which tend towards black contrast with radiant yellow, green and blue which on the right descend into grey. In addition the lefthand picture with the cypress-like upright green shuttles of the loom against a background of dome-like shapes in front of which a fabulous creature wearing a crown is encamped is with its atmosphere of sepulchral silence reminiscent of Boecklin’s painting “Toteninsel”. At the top left a black, fractured wedge-like shape threatens to destroy the idyll: an image of the first great crisis of the world. The hill-like structure in the background ends on the right of the sixth picture in an abyss which divides the entire polyptych: the second war of this world, conveying the fundamental experience of evolution and collapse. This pictorial cosmos succeeds in moving from the mythological idea to immersion in subconscious dream worlds and becomes subjective, individual and thus personal: coming to grips with history.
The seventh and eighth picture surprise the observer with their more transparent colour spaces: back to primeval instincts, one is reminded of the first two pictures by the composition which is now completely free of heavy shapes. The scenes breathe a sigh of relief and are supported by the ascending shaded line of the A 3 autobahn. The centre is occupied by satyr-like dancers with goats’ legs. These are an allusion to the coat of arms of one of Hilden’s twinned cities and are an example of the incorporation of tradited symbols by means of adaptation and variation. A cobalt blue bird flies over panels composed of children’s wish lists amidst mythical beaked creatures. The bird takes up the dynamic narrative and points to a mandala-like symbol which, with the mythical creature at the bottom, completes the entire pictorial sequence on the right hand side.
There is no central perspective embracing Katharina Oehlert’s world of imagery, no frame enclosing individual scenes, no compositional element forcefully yoking together all the scenes. A closer look at these individual scenes, however, reveals a network of links and relationships between the individual areas and motifs within the picture.The artist has woven a fabric of continuity. Beyond the formal aspects the observer learns that for example the documentary writings appear as eternal steles, memorial gravestones, elements of architectural craftsmanship such as round arches or abstract sequences defining the picture. Portraits can be interpreted as concrete depictions of ideal concepts or dreams, and the abstract lines of contours framing individual scenes have a dramatic narrative function in relation to human destiny. The different levels of meaning fuse and merge and the division between the meaning of a motif and given areas of life is removed.
This view of the homogeneity rather than disparate nature of different spheres of life and history is reminiscent of the philosophy and spirituality of Indian peoples. The symbolic content of their images was nourished by clouds, animals, gods and ….colours. Sand and artistically woven materials formed the supports for their images. Symbols evoked the meaning of the pictures without completely revealing it. Access to the meaning of some of these symbols was barred by a “security code”, which is also true of the mandala, the crowned mythical beast and the pair of birds in the world of Katharina Oehlert’s imagery. Transparent coloured spaces in which the background is often left white where light forms a backdrop to the motifs and a special use of scene-related colour are further reasons for seeing this polyptych as “Indian”. On the other hand, the fact that the artist evokes visions from the abundance of objects, that she weaves and creates a fable and at the same time encodes with considerable intimacy and affection a world of memory and emotion, means that this very personal imagery of the artist is psychologically akin to the paintings of Marc Chagall.
The special importance of this work of art lies not only in the application of the technique of interweaving different materials, or in the intellectual achievement of the realisation in arduous and meticulous steps of the overall idea for the design, which for months existed only in the artist’s imagination, but above all in the successful and entirely individual imagery chosen for this theme of a thousand years of the history of Hilden.
Rolf Jessewitsch, 2003
. . .
“1000 Years in Hilden – The Paths of Time“, a tapestry
History bears witness to what happened in the past and is
happening in the present with regard to both mankind and nature. The study
of history has developed its own methods, language and ways of thinking.
It has defined aspects for examination and linked them to other sciences,
not only in order to describe, but also to research the connections between
causes, sequences of events, developments and effects.
When it explains facts, illuminates meanings, history becomes interpretation that is influenced by cultural-spiritual conditioning, the thirst for knowledge and objectives.
Language is its essential mediating agent.
Art is a medium of perception with a fundamentally iconic structure that is accessed via visual perception. Yet there is no pictorial science which corresponds to linguistics, even though for thousands of years humans have made themselves understood by scratching signs and pictures in wood and stone, filling them in in colour, distinguishing them by structures. In contrast to the study of history, art is not interested in causes, sequences of events, developments, i.e. the factor of time. As an object of perception, it is defined by space, in which it presents itself, and by timeless presence, from which it offers its open iconic interpretations.
How did Katharina Gun Oehlert approach the incompatibility of the two positions mentioned in the title? Being an artist, it goes without saying that she stripped the historical elements she found on her exploratory search through Hilden’s history of their historical context and transformed them into autonomous motifs in her tapestry, arranging their sequence and relationship not in a scientific context, but within the iconic context of the superordinate whole of the tapestry.
This artistic freedom to treat historical documents in a way that does not destroy their “readability“ was only be achieved by making them part of a great parable of unfathomable nature, so that they became the tangible open “ground“ on which history took place. Thus, she first devised a coloured space for her picture that covered the entire surface in warm earth colours, structured this with clods of earth, cracks and crevisses that are interrupted by the luminous blue of flowing water. On the left, from the depths of unknown times, the surface of the earth develops out of a light “non-colouredness“ in which the sun stands as a symbol of life and the beginning. To the right, the space on the tapestry ends in a similarly pale, light colour: the future in the sense of the unknown, undefined. The artist places the greatest contrasts in colour, the luminous intensity of the dramatic light-dark, in the middle of the tapestry, the place where the knowledge of history will be portrayed in its most distinct and richest way.
The woven “skin“ of this portrayal, which is a parable of the ground upon which the abstract signs of Hilden’s history were imposed, is materially sensuous and of an intense tactile quality. The special weaving technique invented by Katharina Gun Oehlert gives the woven texture a skinlike softness and warmth, real, palpable folds, ripples and compressions that break the light and cast shadows, causing the colours to vibrate.
In this way, Oehlert achieved a dimension of materially real
presence that gives the designed surface a vitality and a life of its own
which is open to ever new interpretations. Many things can happen on this
ground: traces can be found again and again and be recreated. The surface
is not static, but adapts to the imagery of events in a lively and dynamic
way from one part of the tapestry to the other.
The artist then spreads out an abundance of copies of historical sketches, groundplans, registers, letters, seals, documents, medallions, portraits, tools, machine parts, etc. from the archives of the city of Hilden over the prepared ground of the painting which fit into it, accentuate and overlap it. This second, abstract dimension of signs and contents which can be understood on a rational level reduces history to a non-generalized presence which does not, however, dominate the ground of this work of art.
A third dimension explains the tension and creative richness
of this tapestry. There is a visual leitmotif that counteracts the title
and historical facts, an idiosyncratic decision made by the artist. The
impact of the composition of this extensive work shows unmistakably that
Katharina Gun Oehlert does not regard abstract history as the most important
element. Where the facts become blurred, space is set free for the imagination.
How many fantastic figures hide in the contours, shadings, movements of the coloured ground. Almost every contour of the surface anticipates the origin of new forms. Birds, fish, shells, the moon present themselves in a dominant fashion. How threatening the iron horseshoe, how poetic the fabulous figure of the boy with the crowned horse's head.
The blue bird, rising from the terrible abyss of this century’s dark history, storming away into the future, is more meaningful than the signs of industrial development and the ornaments of new streets and motorways.
And the enchanted lovers in the circle of childhood wishes, under the symbol of utopian creativity, in which half technology and half nature fuse together, and which stands for the defiant belief in a more human future.
All the figures are similar in form, like parts that have
been extracted from the painted ground, and are transformed into elements
of the other dimension – a dimension of emotion, of imagination,
dreams, magical relationships, mythical memories and their primal images.
They are all more meaningful and more expressive in the context of a canon of icons and motifs and forms than the historical motifs portrayed.
If we again relate the three creative dimensions of the tapestry to one another, Katharina Gun Oehlert's work contains a bold statement:
The first dimension of the powerful, materially real presence of the surface of this work of art, is a parable of the earth and nature, the basis of creation, of the ground on which history takes place.
The second dimension of abstract-rational signs is a parable of the presence of man in time and space, read in the traces he leaves as evidence of his thinking, working, creating order, of his desire for power and creativity.
The third dimension of the creation of forms is a parable of the realm of the spirit and soul with their ancient themes of feeling and imagination, more closely akin to the ground than history in a concrete sense.
Rosmarie Kesselheim, 2003
. . .
The Hilden Panorama
Song: swarming into the balmy wind in the fragrance of meditation on this dream from the past interwoven with life in the present day.
Dance: thread by thread / colour upon colour /along the entire breadth/ arranged in the interplay of above and below / stroke by stroke of lines intertwined and placed one alongside the other!
Text: no other artistic tradition is so closely linked with the place where it is created as weaving, which is bound up with everyday life, piling up the prose of life layer upon layer to form narratives in condensed poetic form, finally symbolised in the formation of sediments typical of their time. In myth the local culture evolves out of an original weave on which one rests and which one is never to forget. Accordingly the ornamentation woven into the cloth serves uniquely to capture sensed traditions on a subjective level and leads directly to what is fundamental - the enjoyment of art which assuages the fear of death; its colourfulness speaks of the sound of familiar nature: grieves for wasted time and takes pleasure in an early level of insight. The interweaving of the present with what has been endured links the unmastered past with a promise and extends the historic tapestry to include heroism, respectability and at the same time the mediocrity of truth and veracity. Thus, art creates the possibility of transforming obsolete tradition in the spirit of present-day fertility into a representation of the local, into beauty and belief in the future of maternal meaning collectively constituted.
Realisation: one can only admire the lightness with which Katharina Gun Oehlert rolls out her eight tapestries entitled A Thousand Years in Hilden, the elegant weightlessness with which she hangs the historical material before the walls of the town hall and achieves a veritable out-of-this world tour de force: that is, to glorify without falling into the trap of historicism, to document without indulging in positivism, to create a myth without contravening historical fact, to stimulate consideration of the unfathomable, without sentimentally siting the pregnancy of meaning in the past and without blurring crises rooted in this place in an act of idealisation.
This work is strikingly original because the artist’s approach (in the pre-awareness of political innocence) urges the observer to recollect and does not misuse the past to glorify the status quo. The eight-piece tableau is magnificent. In its entirety it shows the panorama of nature interspersed with symbols of local governance. On the left, in the primeval earth, archaic and subterranean, whence increasing towards the right initially indicated by animals then by human beings, an early settlement appears with its documents facing the public like gravestones arranged alongside each other in earthen red. The centre of the picture (as viewed from the throne between the mountains of files) also constitutes the central perspective of a Hilden Loreley gazing at the Rhine. Immediately to the right, roughly tapestries 5 and 6, things grow darker towards the dawn of the modern age which uses the gloomy atmosphere to build huge machines with which to overwhelm nature – both progress and an apocalyptic vision. Up to the war, without victory, autobahns as walls, factories and guns bind together to form an agglomeration, while above psyches filled with hope soar towards the heavens. Finally, on the extreme right, in the exceptional situation of the present day, the picture takes up the theme of the transition from the Bergisches Land to the Lower Rhine; in the background bridges are being built and the illusion of a mass of files evoked by lateral shadows forms the site for modern settlements. A multi-layered network of historic compromises dreams of a cosmopolitan utopia in the currents of totalitarian power. And here at the end of this illustrious ballad, after untold pain, at last a happy message of peace thrusts itself into the foreground in the lower reaches of the present day, in the warm colours of communality against the white background of tolerance, held together by aesthetically soft forms of floating anthropomorphic animal figures circling against time…the whole in the bright light of optimistic thoughts which cast a spell on the observer.
Applause: In these times when life in small towns becomes ever more anonymous the desire to commission a contemporary tapestry capturing the thousand years of local history is certainly laudable and the city of Hilden made a good choice when they gave the commission to Frau Gun Oehlert because as a local artist she embodies everything in one person: as an experienced artist sure of her style she was able inspite of a deep sense of shock at the crimes in Kosovo, terrorist attacks on the civil population, battles fought in Afghanistan and the distraction of the invasion of Iraq to concentrate fully on the realisation of her work for three years; at the same time she proved her worth as a courageous moral arbiter who was able to transform every single piece of historical evidence which came into her hands with a full sense of responsibility, in spite of the paradigm change at the millennium, from a generalised value judgment into the norms of the local conscience; thirdly, she proved an outstanding artist whose ingenuity and creative skill cast a spell on every area in which her power of expression was permitted to unfold. A magical stroke of luck for Hilden. Soon the first dealers specialising in tapestries will come like pilgrims to the Town Hall to inspect the original of the Hilden Panorama and they will be followed by well-heeled cultural tourists between Schmalenbach and the collection at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne having been persuaded to take a trip to Hilden to see these wonderful paper tapestries with their own eyes. As a consequence the true public which is not made up of small private groups of connoisseurs will be made aware of the magic of the exceptional work A Thousand Years in Hilden and will storm the Town Hall in their enthusiasm. What a wonderful dream!
Robert Bosshard, 2003