In 1963 Lüpertz moved to Berlin and began a body of paintings using what he termed 'dithyrambic' forms, the subject of his Dithyrambic Manifesto of 1966. The term 'dithyramb' refers to the lyric poem that accompanied the ecstatic worship of Dionysus in the ancient world. In Lüpertz's early work it denotes both isolated formal inventions and modes of presentation as a formula for a kind of artistic pathos.
In 1970 Lüpertz began to use German military motifs in his paintings: insignia, officers' caps, steel helmets and capes. Helmet-dithyrambic IV 1970 is one of the earliest of this group of works. In this painting the helmet and cape are centrally placed in the composition, unlike later works that depict a more complex group of objects. Speaking of these motifs, Lüpertz stated in 1982 that:
there were certain very specific insignia that project violence. A steel helmet and a snail, a guitar, a Nazi cap, or a Robin Hood cap, are all expressive of violence if they are imbued with monstrosity. But these motifs do not have that meaning which is generally interpreted into them; it is Zeitgeist which suggests those interpretations … For me, the motifs were only very superficial stimulations. I have always seen myself as an abstract painter. That, to me, means a painter without responsibilities.1
Confronted with the notion that 'using the German helmet in his work was not a neutral motif, devoid of political association', Lüpertz stated:
One shouldn't try to over-analyse the situation. The time always defines why I use certain motifs — it comes from inside. For example the helmets came from one incident in Italy. I was in a cinema looking at a war movie. It was just a visual phenomena [sic]. These steel helmets appeared over the top of a grassy hill, over the horizon, and it caught my eye. It was really an accident. My eye was caught because I already had an artistic idea — I was already looking for something monumental and singular, and I already had an idea of the horizon in the painting. I had been painting roof tiles, before, as something monumental, but they were somehow empty — they didn't work. So I just jumped on the next image … If the helmets appear to be more aggressive, then that has more to do with history than with my art. I only made four paintings with plain steel helmets and maybe ten more still-lifes using the same form. I was just playing around, just as I have done with all the other objects.2
To emphasise his role as an abstract painter, Lüpertz repeated a number of his works in the early 1970s to undermine the importance of their subject-matter. 'To repeat something so that you can't tell it apart from the original', claimed Lüpertz, 'that is an adventure. That is an attack on painting.'3 He painted four near-identical versions of Helmet-dithyrambic during his year-long scholarship at the Villa Romana outside Florence in 1970. The Gallery's work was the last painted of this group.
Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.418.
- Dorothea Dietrich, 'A Conversation with Markus Lüpertz', Print Collectors Newsletter, vol. 14, no. 1, March-April 1983, pp.9-12, p.10.
- Keith Patrick, 'Markus Lüpertz: Nationalism Without Frontiers', Art Line, vol. 5, no. 5, Summer 1991, pp.10-16.
- Dietrich, op. cit., p.9.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010