An interview with Rainer Fetting

Galerie Herold
Sep 19, 2017 2:01PM

“I was really one of the first to take Selfies‘”

Katharina and Rainer Fetting taking a selfie in the artist's studio in Berlin, 2014.

It is Saturday, 10.30 in the morning, I’ve slept three hours, not because I was out enjoying Berlin‘s night life, but because I changed, rewrote and deleted the questions I wanted to ask Rainer Fetting until the early hours of the morning. Bob Dylan, who will accompany me for the rest of the day, is being discussed on the radio. It is five minutes to eleven and I have to go. I‘m meeting Rainer at 11am. Fortunately he happens to be my neighbour.

Rainer greets me and shows me around his apartment. We pass a Mapplethorpe showing Desmond‘s back. I notice that alongside the many paintings, photographs and sculptures, there are piles of music CDs everywhere. The covers are nearly all the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix or Bob Dylan. I even spot a Pete Doherty CD, which is next to one of Rainer’s Helmut Schmidt sculptures. After we work out how to use the iPhone as a dictaphone, I get started.

Katharina Herold (KH): On your film work, which was partly done in New York – was that a product of its time? A kind of development of your artistic being, and could you imagine doing that again? – My first question is badly received and Rainer Fetting frowns before tackling the question.

Rainer Fetting (RF): “Then, when I lived together with Salome at the Moritzplatz, I also made feature films. I was on two different paths, I painted and photographed, but also wanted to be an actor or film director and therefore I filmed a lot with my super 8 camera. That sounds very calculated. It was also a case of, “How can I survive!?” That’s a question you can‘t ignore as an artist. I was simultaneously very interested in film and theatre, and you could express yourself differently in those media. Alongside painting, those other forms of expression and ways of working have always interested me.”

KH: You also create lots of paintings from photographs. Are they part of the work, are they for your archive or how do you decide as a photographer when a photo stands on its own?

RF: “I’ll have to think about that. It depends on the circumstances. Sometimes I create a composition; there are times when you have to react quickly to capture something. So there are completely different situations.”

KH: Are there photos, which, as you say...

RF: “…are composed and constructed?”

KH: Yes, and then perhaps you wouldn‘t go on to paint that?

RF: “…no I wouldn’t, then it would be something wonderfully photographed. So - what I want to paint, I‘ve often already photographed with a Polaroid camera. I‘ve also used many Polaroids for sculptures. There are whole boxes full of Polaroids of Desmond. When he used to go to Paris for fashion work, I worked a lot with Polaroid to capture the image and to quickly achieve results. That way I can work alone on the sculpture. Desmond has more or less always posed live for paintings, because he wanted it that way. He says it’s very meditative for him to sit as a model for a painting or sculpture. In such cases I hardly ever painted from a photo. Desmond has allowed me to paint him so often – he has had so much time for and with me while I paint. But even then I was still under pressure to finish quickly. Sometimes Desmond kept me working longer on a painting – so that I could be more concise. I painted earlier subjects such as “View (Pilatus)” hanging in the Chancellor’s office from photos. Claus was my model for that. I’d photographed him, on a short skiing trip to the Alps, in front of a window. One variation of this motif-series has just been sold at an auction in Austria. The painting is called “I find you wicked”. Claus is a musician and that was something he always said, so then that‘s what I called the picture.”

Desmond, Hasenheide Berlin, 2011

KH: Once again on Desmond, you have a long friendship and...

RF interrupts: “Yes, but again to answer your question, one out of the series of window-view photos with Claus, served as a template for the painting. There are other photos taken around the same time in a large format photo book published by Braus.“

KH: I read in an interview that you said, when you paint somebody naked, that’s when you are closest to them. That could also be interpreted to mean that when naked you are at your most vulnerable, because you can‘t hide behind anything. You reveal yourself.

RF: “In Desmond‘s case and with my earlier nudes, I somehow tried to connect to painting traditions - to the Brücke painters, or later, for example, to the painting of abstract expressionism – but then I would introduce the figurative again. The nude has always been an important theme in painting for centuries. The image-aesthetic has always interested me the most - I don‘t know if aesthetic is the right word. Clothes as covering - you portray that in fashion history. Do I want to portray the fashion of the day, or do I want to show the person and concentrate much more on his nakedness? A naked body has a high degree of abstraction and it’s fascinating to translate this into painting. Desmond has always been happy to make his sculptured body available for art, whether working with artists such as Basquiat or with fashion designers such as Thierry Mugler. He has also worked with Mapplethorpe, who photographed people like bronze sculptures. I didn‘t do that when I photographed. Rather, I wanted to capture the psyche. So I put no value on lighting my models with technically ingenious artificial lighting, making for some kind of perfection. I captured daily situations. I was more interested in the atmospheric - but fundamentally it was about painting.”

KH: So you had no sense of staging a photo?

RF: “Certainly, that as well, but not so theatrically. It depended on the situation.”

KH: The portrait of Desmond in our exhibition is I think from 2011. Was that the last time you painted him?

RF: “Might have been, but it won‘t be the last time.”

KH: Are you looking forward to being able to paint his portrait again?

RF: “Yes, - ode to joy.”

KH: Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix - have they been important to you for long? You‘ve said, you‘ve seen Bob Dylan live. Do you paint them became they’ve been part of your life for so long?

RF: (Pause) “Hendrix – I saw him live in 1970 on the Baltic island Fehmarn. 12 days later he was dead. I spent some time in Hamburg, when I was making my way back to Wilhelmshaven. His death was announced during the night in the “Grünspan” music club in St. Pauli, where I happened to be. There are 2 or 3 gouaches from the early 1980s of Hendrix. I lost sight of Dylan after my early years. For me it was more the Stones, Hendrix, and Soul & Blues music. Later Rap. I discovered Dylan again much later. Utterly by coincidence, far away from the mass celebrations of the covering of the Reichstag by Christo, close to old Tempodrom, I suddenly heard Dylan from a distance. I strolled along and got a ticket. Hardly anyone had heard about the concert. He was completely ignored then, even by the critics. After that concert I never missed any of his tours in Berlin. It fascinated me that he was simply doing his own thing. He was on his “never ending tour”. He varied his songs almost to non-recognition. Today he is ‘in’ again.”

KH: I heard two people talking on the radio this morning about Bob Dylan. One said he found it phenomenal, how Dylan always reinvented himself... (RF Interrupts)

RF: “I saw him just a few weeks ago in Berlin in the new Tempodrome. It was great. He came to the microphone like an old dodderer, wide-legged so as not to fall over, in his cowboy boots. This time he sang melodiously - not against the grain as he usually does with his enervating, disharmonic croaking. I can imagine that when you are on tour year in, year out, you get bored with yourself very quickly. You always have to play the same program. I can really understand that. You have to do something different or varied and developed. That is just what he does and that is something then that wasn‘t understood. The audience always wants what it knows. I know that from the arts scene. When you don‘t fulfil expectations, there is great disappointment and the public is quick to be overcritical, or reject you.”

KH: With Dylan, you have the feeling that he has an urge to express himself. Almost like a Jazz musician, who spontaneously captures what is happening at the moment and transforms it. I think that is something one could say of you. That applies somehow.

RF: “It could be. Anyway, after so many years I can now start painting these pictures of musicians, who were always important to me.”

Fetting's studio in Berlin

KH: Berlin. Now it naturally interests me, what you think as a native of my new, and your well-known, hood. You painted many pictures when The Wall still stood, and then many during the time of upheaval. I‘ve just read in an interview that you find it positive how much Kreuzberg has changed and that the people are friendlier. But does Berlin still inspire you to paint?

RF: “I painted Berlin in its existential situation, or took the pulse of the time as source for pictures. They weren‘t townscapes as per Kokoschka. New York was interesting as townscape because the city has grown so anarchically. It has no skyline with church towers.”

KH: There was a certain energy exuded which perhaps was extremely tangible in the period of upheaval. It interests me because for most people of my age or younger, Berlin is the Metropolis, above all for art. Do you think that‘s still the case of Berlin?

RF: “Yes, certainly. But it’s nothing like it was then, when I was young, because then I experienced things quite differently. Today I’m in another situation. You experience existentially, but you are no longer the struggling artist. Then you saw things quite in another way and did other things. Then, New York was naturally quite different, and also Berlin.”

KH: Today, are you happy not to be a struggling artist – and that you allow more time for your sculptures and other projects?

RF: “I must revise that with the ‚struggling artist‘ – you’re always a struggling artist - artistically or however. As far as sculptures are concerned – do I give myself more time? It depends what the model brings along – time, character, temperament, energy. Desmond never has much time and is often in Berlin only two weeks at a time. Nonetheless, over the years I‘ve been able to create really good work with him.”

KH: The energy that you describe, that comes from the model, but is also in you...

RF: “I need this additional energy. It’s simply – you have to be well rested. In the evening I‘m too tired. Previously I often painted in the evening and at night. Today that’s rare.”

KH: You said about the Willy Brandt sculpture that it deliberately has no smooth surfaces, because Germany and its history are contained within it.

RF: “The Willy Brandt sculpture wasn’t a result of the gut reaction of a wild painter. I gave it some thought.”

KH: How can we more-or-less imagine the way you prepare for such a piece? Does the impulse actually come when you say, now we‘ll start?

RF: “It grows slowly over time with the possibilities that one has. With a sculpture you first create a frame and give it some thought, and then it develops. It certainly doesn‘t start after counting to three.”

KH: And how did the Willy Brandt sculpture come about?

RF: “The Willy Brandt sculpture was a commission. They were rebuilding their headquarters and a sculpture was needed.”

KH: And the Helmut Schmidt?

RF: “With Helmut Schmidt? Your father, who knew Helmut Schmidt from his visit to the gallery, thought that I should definitely do one more live portrait of him. Even then Schmidt was quite old. Eventually it came to a photo session in his ‘Zeit’ (newspaper) office. I really wanted to photograph Helmut Schmidt outdoors in front of the wall of a building with typical north German clinker brickwork. I was given permission to photograph him during the discussion with your father. But whenever I wanted to use my reflex camera, Helmut Schmidt turned rather ill tempered away and lost the expression that I wanted to get. Then I carried on taking photos from the table with my small unobtrusive camera, and Helmut Schmidt didn‘t really notice the pictures being taken. Later, when the atmosphere was more relaxed, I stood up from my chair at the table and simply photographed him from all angles, and he began to grin. Later I had a commission from the Diba-Bank for a graphics series and a small sculpture in conjunction with the Helmut Schmidt Journalists‘ Prize. After the full-body sculpture of Willy Brandt and the Henri Nannen (founder of Stern magazine) head, I wanted this time, in a kind of political trilogy, to do a Schmidt bust. I needed photos for this where Helmut Schmidt lets his right arm hang over the back of the chair, with the typical cigarette in his right hand emphasising his words. I had to make the resting right arm abstract, because I couldn‘t form it in full length. So I ended up making seven versions of the mould.”

Rainer Fetting and Galerist Rainer Herold (carrying Desmond sculpture), Berlin 2014

KH: Is there another level in which the sculpture is based on your live photos?

RF: “I recall that being the case, but it doesn‘t particularly have anything to do with the quality of the sculpture.”

KH: You work on Sylt. What does that mean to you? Is the energy that you feel on the island different? Is there a special reason why you paint there?

RF: “I‘ve been painting there for years. For me, Sylt is always associated with a feeling of home – though if you say it like that it sounds corny. Wilhelmshaven where I was born and bred is on the North Sea. The Humboldt School, the grammar school for boys that I went to, had a country school residence on the East Frisian island Wangerooge. I have good memories of the time there. The smells there were a mixture between salty sea air and the typical island vegetation. Sylt always reminds me of the time on Wangerooge. The fastest connection to a North Sea island from Berlin is to Sylt. I naturally wanted to translate the uniqueness of the island into painting. My first stay with fellow students in 1974 was on an unauthorised site where camping was forbidden. Since then I’ve travelled there again and again. My early works were created in the open air, but by inclement weather and the painting material was flying round my ears. So I always wanted to have a studio there one day.”

View from the Studio on Sylt, Villa Ronny, Westerland, Oil on canvas, 95 x 150cm, Private Collection

KH: Fascination Sylt. Your Sylt pictures are quite comprehensive – dunes, sea, Frisian houses, surfers, wild roses....

RF: “OK, the Frisian houses are typical of the island. Their thatched, often mossy roofs and hunched and crouching style fully integrate into the blustery dune landscape. Sylt motifs can be almost idyllic - verging on the kitsch.”

KH: You compare the kitsch on Sylt with the frequently pretentious opulence that is also shown off there. That’s seen in our exhibition for example in the paintings “Hummer and Sheep” or “Frisian House with Vehicle”.

How do you experience that on the island?

RF: “I don‘t go to Sylt for the ‘arty farty‘ areas, although that could also be a theme if it interested me. Perhaps that would bring another tension into a picture. I‘ve already had experiences with those cars.

KH: The theme sheep – is that something new?

RF: “The sheep by the roadside, in fields and on the mud flats stare at you for a moment out of their bare, rustic skulls. Then they graze on unfazed by your shouts and commands. At best they glance for a second at the bilious green hulk of a four-by-four Hummer, which speeds by in the glittering sun. I found it fascinating to portray the wool on their bodies in an appropriate way. So painting is always being reinvented.

Dune roses, Sylt, 2012, Oil on canvas, 95 x 145cm, Private Collection

KH: New York Kids is from 2003. We have a similar painting at home.

RF: “In New York’s streets I already saw the images when I was on the heels of the kids from the ‘Hood’. As they walked by me with their gangster walk, I followed them. On Miami Beach I photographed the ‘girls’ from a bike, so I could get out of the way as quickly as possible ... and not look stupid.”

KH: Do you also paint over...?

RF: “…over what? I rework old unfinished pictures much later to integrate them into new pictures as under layer. There are so many possibilities in painting. You can leave pictures in their first state or add layer upon layer when the image calls for it.”

KH: Do you draw a lot?

RF: “No longer unfortunately, or very rarely, I don‘t have the time and I prefer to paint straight away.”

KH: Drawings from artists interest me. Often you don’t see them, but they can have something personal. So you don‘t do any sketches?

RF: “With sculptures you sometimes make preliminary sketches. Over the years a bit of a collection has developed. Often they are only framework sketches for the inner frame of a sculpture, so you can weld it in the foundry based on the drawings.”

KH: At home we have a watercolour of Desmond with dog. How did that come about?

RF: “On a visit to his apartment in New York, when I only had a sketch block, because you can‘t unpack your oils in hotels. In all events I used quick drying acrylics.”

Selfie with Katharina Herold in front of the unfinished painting "Big Guitar Session".

KH: You don‘t have a sketchbook?

RF: “I have many complete sketchbooks and blocks, in drawers, mostly from the early years. But travelling and strolling around in town, on foot or bike, I‘m prone to pull out my camera, because the images are there on the streets. Today everyone takes photos and everyone has an iPhone. That wasn‘t the case before - when I began. Today everyone also takes ‘selfies’. Then, if need be, artists made such self-portraits - Andy Warhol for example.”

KH: When you take a ‚selfie‘ in your studio, have you already thought about how you’ll represent yourself? That goes through art history, painters construct their self-portraits as they would like to be seen, whether in photos or in painting.

RF: “We’ll have to explore these self-portraits when they are all reproduced or shown in an exhibition, whether they are photos, drawings or paintings – or a combination.”

I had a few other questions noted down but found this a good moment to end the interview. I think at that point we both had the feeling that we had discussed some new aspects of his work. I had to ask one question though - whether, as Godfather of the ‘selfies’, he would make a few of these modern “self portraits” with me. I only asked once and a few fine pictures resulted. After that he showed me some drawings he made in the 1990s, which I found very powerful.

Then we went down a floor into his studio, to look at a large-scale canvas he was working on – a crowd of people looking at a stage. The still empty stage was going to be painted with the musicians that had inspired him, his favourites, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards and Bob Dylan. The painting was based on photographs from a Dylan concert.

We said our goodbyes and I left his apartment full of “Fetting” energy and sparkle. On that day, with friends, I visited the ‘Vienna-Berlin’ exhibition in the Berlinische Galerie. Upstairs in the museum collection hung Rainer Fetting‘s portrait of Kippenberger and I was overcome with a feeling of pride, that I had been able to interview this artist.

Rainer Fetting in front of his unfinished painting "Big Guitar Session"

This interview can be found in Galerie Herold's catalogue about Rainer Fetting's solo show in 2014 in Hamburg. Copies are available on request.

About Katharina Herold:

After completing her masters in History of art at University College of London, Katharina opened her own gallery in 2014 on the island of Sylt under the Galerie Herold umbrella.

Her gallery exhibits modern as well as contemporary art alongside a selection of fine antiques. Also on display is her own unique jewellery line "Heroldian Jewellery". A collection of rare and intricate pieces, handcrafted from antique findings. Since then she has also curated window displays at Christie’s London and decorated interiors in Germany and the UK.

Follow her on instagram @heroldian_journal and @galerieherold.

Galerie Herold