The artist’s mission

Christoph Lichtin


There’s something uncanny about Stefan à Wengen’s paintings. Analysing them, one is immediately confronted with depth-psychological questions. What is coming towards us out of its place of concealment? They are paintings that radiate a great intensity and aura. Georges Didi-Huberman sees auratic paintings of all kinds as uncanny, since they confront us with the returning repressed: according to Huberman, speaking in metapsychological terms, aesthetic intensity is ‘the return of the repressed in the visual sphere.’ [1] The relationship between the visual and the subliminal, hidden and uncanny in Stefan à Wengen’s painting is the theme of the essay by Beate Ermacora in this publication (cf. p. xxx). The actual leitmotif of his painting is the phenomenon of anxiety. With reference to the most important groups of works, this text outlines the artistic means, the sceneries and thematic focuses of his paintings, in which an actual phenomenology of anxiety is manifested.


After training at DesignSchool in Basle, in the 1980s Stefan à Wengen initially created non-figurative work, which can be situated within the ambit of the then Neo-Geo movement. An early exhibition brought the artist together with John M. Armleder. In the early 1990s his preoccupation with reduced forms yielded an interest in simple pictorial signs and symbolism. This phase coincided with a lengthy period in New York and a subsequent move to Germany. Symbolism is taken to mean a system or a repertoire of signifiers perceptible to the senses which attain a significance beyond the matter perceptible to the senses. At the same time, however, living creatures, objects, as well as actions and processes embody something specific for a particular culture or society. As we move in a world with different and to some extent interpenetrating pictorial traditions, symbols which formerly had a meaning or which belong to an alien cultural canon are not automatically intelligible to us. Through his preoccupation with initially rather graphic symbols borrowed from a geometrical formal language, Stefan à Wengen came to figurative painting. His work is defined even today by his interest in pictorial signs: a personal repertoire of signifiers – animal, house, night, water, ship or tree for example – with references to different cultural codes has developed since then.


Buildings of various kinds appear in à Wengen’s paintings A large series begun around 1998 consists of tree-houses. These are ephemeral architectural structures which form symbiotic entities along with nature. Human beings are never visible in these paintings; whether the tree-houses are used or abandoned remains unclear. Typical of them is the almost monochrome manner of painting, which gives the paintings the appearance of existing in another time (ill. p. xxx): on the one hand they look as if their colours have changed over time, while on the other they can – according to style and reading – be interpreted as representations of a dreamlike reality. In the former case one could speak of suggestion, since the painting imitates the documentary aspect of photography and thus lays claim to the factuality innate to that medium: ‘This is how it was.’ These paintings, which create an unreal effect with deliberate overemphasis of colour, could be said to refer to a dreamlike reality. The elevation of reality may be the formal means that makes us think, with regard to à Wengen’s painting, of romantic pictorial concepts in which the dialectic of dream and reality also aimed towards suggestion. As an architectural form, however, the tree-house also refers to childhood, an additional world of experience in which perception occurs with different eyes. In this case the painting created with a reduced palette can be read as an image remembered from childhood, which finally depicts the synthesis between the fading representation of a once-present reality and a dreamlike perception of the world.

In à Wengen’s painting, figuration should not be confused with a depicting reality. Even if his models come from a great variety of sources – most of them are drawn from found photographs, or photographs taken by the artist himself, whose qualities he first probes through a drawing process with a view to a painting – in the end they are aimed at our own image-memories. His paintings act as offered references within a very direct process from perception via memory to effect. À Wengen’s paintings are in the end directed towards a collective visual memory, but one that is individualised by the viewer and perceived as his or her direct personal memory.

Nature, architecture and childhood are parameters set in the ‘Tree-house’ series. In a further artistic phase the artist also developed a preoccupation with foreign cultures. At this time he produced the series of paintings featuring Baptist churches, then the series of East Asian stilt houses. These are always deserted images, metaphors of the abandoned house as we know it from art, film or our own experience. The emptiness in à Wengen’s paintings gives us room to enter the pictorial space ourselves. Thus we turn from viewing subject to an object within the painting.

One feature of the architecture in à Wengen’s paintings is the phenomenon of the interpenetration of architecture and nature and the consequent threat to humanity. Both his early modernist stilt houses and those from the later series ‘The Mission’ deal with this threat. Tree-houses are per se art-works of ingenious stasis, they are buildings exposed to the forces of weathering, just as stilt houses are exposed to the natural force of water. But a grave threatened with collapse or a chapel refer to transience, the former in a twofold sense: in its function as a guardian of transience, the grave itself is ephemeral (ill. p. xxx). In every case there is a meeting of nature and culture. Characteristically, the wooden chapel placed like a pioneer’s shack at the edge of an as yet unclaimed nature reserve stands precisely on the dividing line between these two zones (ill. p. xx). The building reminds of man’s fear of nature and its defeat through faith. Religion is the sense of a power in nature and culture the attempt to ward off that power and capture its effect in images.


The animal is also an expression of untamed nature. Representations of animals assume a significant place in à Wengen’s œuvre as a whole. He paints nocturnal animals such as owls or bats, exotic birds such as cockatoos or hornbills, which are associated with cultic ideas of rebirth, or animals with a strong sexual connotation: the monkey, which displays its potency and libido, or the rhinoceros, whose treated horn is said to have an aphrodisiac effect. À Wengen’s depiction of a rhinoceros (ill. p. xxx) refers to the most famous depiction of this pachyderm. In 1515 Albrecht Dürer made a woodcut, based on Portuguese sketches, of the rhinoceros that arrived in Lisbon on 20 May 1515 as a diplomatic gift from an Indian Mogul ruler for the Portuguese Viceroy in Goa, Alfonso de Albuquerque, and finally, when being passed on as a gift to Pope Pius X, drowned in the Tyrrhenian Sea when its cage slipped from the ship in a storm. Art-historical references are omnipresent in à Wengen’s paintings, alongside references from film, fairy-tale and mythology. The monkey has a specific meaning here, because it too, like the rhinoceros, has its own art-historical tradition. The monkey has always been seen as a symbol of the artist, because the artist – like the monkey – apes nature with his art.[2] And we don’t have to refer to Michel Butor’s 1967 autobiography ‘Portrait de l’artiste en jeune singe’ to see à Wengen’s portrait of a young chimpanzee (ill. p. xxx) as anything but a cryptic self-portrait of the artist. Now the chimpanzee appears as an anxiety-inducing opposite number, seizing us with its sad, hypnotic eyes, just as the painter à Wengen does with his art as a whole. Representations of animals aren’t only symbolic in the sense that they can stand in as images for something else – a monkey for the artist, for example; in a metaphysical sense they can, so to speak, be seen as the outward appearance of a creature which is different inside, but which makes contact with us through its eyes, as à Wengen’s cockatoo (ill. p. xxx) does. This particular effect of eye contact specific to the nature of the portrait is apparent in the ’49 Ghost Portraits’ (ill. p. xxx), one of the artist’s main works. The starting-point for this group of works is the issue of a painting’s ability to depict evil as a human constant, not simply by referring to the universally familiar villains, war criminals and dictators from human history, whose faces can prompt almost reflex emotions, but by showing evil as a part of us all. In an essay written in 2005 (cf. p. xxx), Stefan à Wengen explains this self-referential background to the work. Here the supposed eye contact with the figure in the painting plays a central role. Stefan à Wengen has planted the eyes of Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Joseph Stalin, Reinhard Heydrich and others into the faces of quite ordinary men whose portraits he took from a freely accessible picture database. Each one of these ‘everymans’ has developed the potential to be a criminal, who looks at us with an ‘evil eye’. There are 49 variations in all, which when lined up side by side produce a considerable spread of evil.


The Mission

The anxiety induced in us by this work may be eased by Kava Kava (ill. p. xxx), a root from the South Seas whose extract is supposed to give courage, but which can also be deadly if taken in the wrong dose. À Wengen is fascinated by these ideas of an ‘other’ world, a world of secret powers, even of a reality behind the visible one, which collides with our intellectualised, rational imagination and which we constantly try to repress in our western culture.

The meeting between two cultures is the subject of the series ‘The Mission’. In front of the bamboo houses that we can connect with the culture of the South Pacific, there stand modernist sculptures of classical western modern art. Here the ‘garden sculptures’ (ill. p. xxx) are not in the park of a western art collector, but outside a hut somewhere in Papua, in a jungle at the other end of the world. Like ethnographic artefacts from our culture, they now stand in the original context from which artists once drew their inspiration at the beginning of the 20th century, stylistically adapting the ‘primitive’, or being challenged by the exotic in their artistic attitude to life. Stefan à Wengen has visited Papua New Guinea several times, like other artists before him. In this context we might think of Emil Nolde, who was, with his wife Ada, a member of the ‘medical and demographic German New Guinea expedition’ of the ‘Reichskolonialamt’. Nolde had no function within the expedition, he drew, painted and made written notes, precisely and concisely capturing the explosive nature of the cultural encounter: ‘Colonising is a brutal affair. We white Europeans are the bane of the primitive peoples.’ [3] Nolde established that these peoples would take on the ‘corrupting depravities’ of the Europeans, which would lead in the end to the destruction of their culture. His conclusion was correspondingly bleak: ‘The primitive people live in nature, they are one with them and part of the universe. With the disappearance of the primitive conditions, a first segment of life on earth will be over.’ [4] To bring back a sculpture based on ‘primitivism’, as à Wengen does, is to recontextualise it. But his series does not just recall the origins of modern art, ‘Arp in the jungle’, as Julian Heynen calls his essay in this publication (cf. p. xxx); with this work à Wengen also succeeds in locating it within a contemporary discourse of art which has found a major source of inspiration in ethnography. After an era described as a ‘post-colonial phase’ – we might think of Okwui Enwezor’s documenta 11 (2002) – à Wengen’s search for the connection between the alien and the native is an interesting contribution within a now globalised art. His eye is directed towards pictorial motifs in which an exotic, alienating effect is still entirely inherent, but which he also knows from his own intuition. À Wengen approaches these with a knowledge of the historically problematic history of the meeting of cultures, and with the constant awareness that his vision is determined by the western tradition.

The title ‘The Mission’ echoes with the history of the religious missionary movement that was in an unhappy alliance with colonisation. But the mission to which à Wengen refers does not march under the banners of Christian teaching, but springs from western culture and its artistic achievements. Even if it is possible that we have an idealistic understanding of the representations of stilt-houses with modernist sculptures, as if an object from our culture had not been foisted on Papua for the purposes of admiration and instruction, but as if Papua itself had summoned in a sculpture from a strange and fascinating culture, other works in the ‘Mission’ series make us sceptical, not to speak of a confrontation that had dire consequences for Papua. Because the set of issues involved in ‘The Mission’ also includes the bird portraits as well as a series of paintings of dug-out canoes. À Wengen’s paintings of South Pacific culture are in this sense unsettling in their absence of any living people. Thus, as mentioned above, the bird portraits can be interpreted as surrogates for the dead, while the dug-out canoes evoke themes of death and the mythological ideas of the crossing from the sphere of the living to that of the dead. In à Wengen’s vision there is no one left to make that transition; it is the vehicle and thus the culture itself that is captured while crossing to the realm of the dead. In one painting (ill. p. xxx) à Wengen even depicts a sinking canoe, and thus, one might say, creates the ultimate end-time picture. An association, however, that he breaks with the sumptuously burgeoning mangroves in the background, bringing forth new life. The sinking canoe also recalls an earlier painting of a boat placed diagonally on the ground (ill. p. xxx), which again refers to the romantic symbol of failed hope.


But in à Wengen’s work even themes more familiar to us, like an abandoned chapel or a crucifix on whose protective roof an end-time storm crashes down like a thrown splash of paint, are to be read as relics of a culture that has become alien and uncanny to us. He likes to give his paintings a gloomy background. The black colour refers to the night, to all counter-worlds with their own natures and events, which we like to avoid. Interestingly, the black in à Wengen’s most recent paintings has assumed a new quality. If the artist initially gave his canvases a bright ground, and ‘successively’ worked his way into gloom as a background to his painting, he now works with black directly on to the ungrounded canvas. The darkness that appears looks even more direct, black is, so to speak, no longer the foil against which an object stands out, but all areas of the painting are encompassed by it. With this new painting technique the artist has produced both the paintings of the Mercedes cars (ill. p. xxx) – which seem to come out of the props box of a Nazi film – and the tree paintings. ‘Blue Tree III’ (ill. p. xxx) with its central black hole brings the aforementioned, heightened effect of the black paint prominently into play. They show the gigantic tree-trunk of an ancient oak that stands in a glowing purple twilight. Nothing emerges out of the deep black hole, but we may suspect that there is something in there, and also that a false move, if we were really standing in front of this tree in a nocturnal setting, could have extremely undesirable consequences. With ‘Blue Tree III’ à Wengen has created a narrative painting: although nothing happens, consequences are intended. The painting exudes a very special, fairy-tale atmosphere, although one which should be interpreted in terms of the omnipresent brutality of the stories of the Brothers Grimm. Of course one can draw a line, in terms of both form and content, from this work to the history and the present of visual culture. We might think of Caspar David Friedrich, Walt Disney or Alfred Hitchcock. But the last word goes to the artist. ‘Blue Tree’, as he calls his work, is a word formation that doesn’t exist in that form. In English ‘blue’ means not only the colour, but also a mood, one of sadness. The blue painted tree is a sad tree, marked by its history, and inhabited by a secret that we cannot interpret.

[1] Georges  Didi-Huberman, ‘Was wir sehen blickt uns an. Zur Metapsychologie des Bildes’, München 1999, p. 221.

[2] Thomas Zaunschirm, ‘Affe und Papagei – Mimesis in der Kunst’, in: ‘Kunsthistoriker. Mitteilungen des Österreichischen Kunsthistorikerverbandes’, Jg. I, 1984, Nr. 4 and Jg. II, 1985, Nr.1, p. 14-17.

[3] Tilman Osterwold, ‘Faszination und Unterwerfung – Anpassung und Unterwerfung’, in cat. ‘Exotische Welten. Europäische Fantasien’, Württembergischer Kunstverein, Stuttgart 1987, p. 31.

[4] ibid.

Stefan à Wengen

1964 born in Basel Switzerland, lives and works in Düsseldorf, Germany.
1981 – 1986 School of Design, Basel, Switzerland.

Exhibitions (a Selection from 2000 forward)

– The Occurrence; Jiri Svestka Gallery, Prague, CZ (Solo Show).
– Hieronymus Painting and some Trophies; Galerie Wilms, Venlo, NL (Solo Show).
– Scapes; Galerie Tony Wuethrich, Basel, CH (Group Show).
– Im Moment der Bildbetrachtung wird der innere Monolog gestoppt; Kunstsäle, Berlin, D (Group Show).

– Comfortably Numb; Jiri Svestka Gallery, Berlin, D (Solo Show).

– The Mission; Museum of Art Lucerne, Lucerne, CH (Solo Show, Cat.).
– Portrait de l’artiste en motocycliste, Musée des beaux Arts, La Chaux-de-Fonds, CH (Group Show, Cat.).

– Nightology; Black & White Gallery, New York, USA (Solo Show, Cat.).

– Nightology; Witzenhausen Gallery, Amsterdam, NL (Solo Show).
– Team 404 & John Armleder, Clinch/Cross/Cut; New Jerseyy, Basel, CH (Group Show).

– Die Kunst zu sammeln; Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf, D (Group Show, Cat.).
– Kava Kava; Facetten der Angst, Kunstmuseum zur alten Post, Mülheim an der Ruhr, D (Group Show, Cat.).

– Aqua Reel; Galerie Römerapotheke, Zürich, CH (Group Show).

– Fúcares de papel; Galería Carmen de la Calle, Jerez, E (Group Show).
– Night Playground; Frehrking Wiesehöfer, Köln, D (Solo Show).
– Secretos; Galería Fúcares, Madrid, E (Solo Show).

– paint; Galerie Bob van Orsouw, Zürich, CH (Group Show).
– Gäste; Galerie Fricke, Berlin, D (Group Show).
– Yellow Pages; Kunsthalle Palazzo, Liestal, CH (Group Show, Cat.-Yellow Pages).
– Stefan à Wengen, Kees de Goede, Harald Vlugt; Bergman & van Laake (Solo Show), Amsterdam, NL.
– Fink forward; Kunsthaus Glarus, Glarus, CH (Group Show, Cat.).
– Der Mondopunkt; Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin, D (Group Show, Cat.).
– Sling Shot Project, New York, USA (Group Show).

– Kava Kava; Frehrking Wiesehöfer, Köln, D (Solo Show).
– Point of View; Landschaften, Galerie Anita Beckers, Frankfurt a.M., D (Group Show).

– Stefan à Wengen, Peter Piller; Adamski Frehrking Wiesehöfer, Köln, D (Solo Show).
– Zwölf Uhr mittags; Kunstraum Riehen, CH (Solo Show with Christine Camenisch).
– Ex(o)DUS; Haifa Museum of Art, Haifa, Israel (Group Show, Cat.).

– Eidgenössische Preise für freie Kunst 2000; Centre d’art contemporain, Fri-Art, Fribourg, CH (Group Show, Cat,).


1987 & 1988 Kiefer-Hablitzel-Stipendium.
1989 & 2000 Eidgenössischer Preis für freie Kunst.


– The Mission; Catalogue Museum of Art Lucerne, Lucerne, CH, JRP Ringier, Zürich, CH.

– Nightology; Catalogue Black & White Gallery, New York, USA.

– Die Kunst zu sammeln; Catalogue museum kunst palast, Düsseldorf, D.
– Kava Kava – Facetten der Angst; Catalogue Kunstmuseum Mülheim an der Ruhr, D, Kerber Verlag, Bielefeld/Leipzig, D.

– fink forward – the collection/connection; Catalogue Kunsthaus Glarus, CH,
edition fink, Zürich, CH.
– Der Mondopunkt; Catalogue Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin, edition fink, Zürich, CH.

– Ex(o)DUS; Catalogue Haifa Museum of Art, Haifa, Israel.

-Eidgenössische Preise für freie Kunst 2000; Catalogue Fri-Art, Centre d’Art Contemporain, Kunsthalle Fribourg, BAK, Bern, CH.