João Ribas on the Work of Christoph Schmidberger

Mark Moore Fine Art
Feb 3, 2017 6:33PM

Mark Moore Fine Art is proud to present the first on-line only exhibition of work from the personal collection of the artist. "Seventeen From the Vault" includes classic examples of Christoph Schmidberger's best paintings and works on paper from the apogee of his career. Art Critic João Ribas shares his insights into the work of the artist.

CHRISTOPH SCHMIDBERGER "Deep Silence" 2009 Oil On Panel , 19.5 x 16.5 ins / 49,5 cm x 42,6 cm


Eroticism is not merely about pleasure; it also includes the agony of unobtainable enjoyment, as well as the yearning for voluptuous self-effacement that lies at its core. Like this inexplicable doubling—where abjection and delectation are almost metonymic—the work of Austrian painter Christoph Schmidberger points to the darker shadows of the erotic. Sometimes scurrilously blatant, more often coy and with only a hazy hint of decadence, Schmidberger’s work engages eroticism through the complex and transgressive act of looking. 

In doing so, the Eisenerz born artist proves to be a master of hedonic devices. Rather than limn the overt or explicit facets of seduction—as in an outright depiction of its consummation—he opts for a subtle and ultimately more inviting stratagem (by virtue of being more accurate): the sublimation into markers and allusions.  Depictions of sex are often merely an ersatz eroticism; Schmidberger opts instead for the realism of silk-and-satin, tinged with theatricality and weaved through affected postures and intimate glances. Through their iridescent veneer, the paintings thus present us with scenes of unfolding eroticism, sometimes symbolically cloaked---as in his paintings of swans without a Leda—and sometimes unabashedly open.

In the latter case, Schmidberger has us stumble on listless bodies in a liminal state, leading us to rendezvous to which we are not sure we are really invited. In such paintings, Schmidberger’s male subjects often fondle themselves in a seemingly disinterested narcissism, as if our own gaze upon them is meaningless—sex as pure expenditure.  Through such charged moments—scenes of enactment or submission held in narrative suspension— Schmidberger leads us to the secret masked by the veils of fantasy:  that we desire through an elaborately staged mise-en-scene, where we are both actors and spectators.

These are the very scenes Schmidberger sets before us, dramas of both attraction and repulsion.

CHRISTOPH SCHMIDBERGER "Jordan" 2011 Oil on Panel 26 x 24 ins / 66,5 cm x 61,4 cm

One of Schmidberger’s best known paintings, “Resist me - that's all I need’, is a perfect example. In the painting, an adolescent female figure lies bare-breasted on a sumptuous bed, taking part in an ambiguous, but nonetheless activated narrative. The painting is simultaneously an image of erotic invitation and of clear vulnerability, as evidenced in the work’s title. Schmidberger gives us a frozen moment seemingly before or after the ‘real’ event to which the painting alludes, the arrival in media res heightening the tension. In doing so, the painting proposes that the closer we get to the object of erotic fascination, the more things become unclear, a suggestion which runs throughout much of Schmidberger’s work.

The female figure caught in a languid posture with a male lover in one of his current series of paintings, “You are forgiven,” follows a similar premise. A kind of post-coital, reverse pieta, the image stands as an illustration of that oft-remarked confluence of the two basic psychic forces, Eros and Thanatos, captured in the euphemism of the petit mort.  The luminosity of the flesh in the painting—also a fixture of most of Schmidberger’s work---is thus both carnal and morbid. This is the same slippage between ecstasy and death that is seen in Schmidberger’s paintings of bodies floating in swimming pools.

The link between the two drives serves as a kind of undercurrent in Schmidberger’s paintings and drawings.  As Bernini found a representation for the sexualized ecstasy of St. Theresa, linking eroticism and religious passion, so Schmidberger finds the expressive language of seduction to mirror that of Romantic death. Works like I Confess and Bees and Bunnies present iconographic models of youthful ecstasy, its recumbent figures harkening to the religious-erotic language of the Renaissance and the Pre-Raphaelites.

CHRISTOPH SCHMIDBERGER "Little Girl with Flower" 2009 - 2011 Oil On Panel - 16 x 23 ins / 40,7 x 58,7 cm

Part of the subconscious visual link, and its clear art historical ties, lies in Schmidberger’s marvelously rendered figures. If “flesh was the reason oil painting was invented,” as Willem De Kooning proposed, then Schmidberger takes that viscerality of paint to a salacious and evocative conclusion: the profuse glow of erotic energy itself.  This is present not only in the figures but seemingly suffused throughout everything in the paintings. Adding this to the more traditional markers of the erotic in painting, as say the procumbent cat for example, Schmidberger suggests that the banal or quotidian is itself erotically charged, in a kind of fulfillment of the Freudian premise that everything is in fact a potential target of libidinal investment.

Schmidberger takes this one step further by making the smooth, delicate veneer of the image itself connote the sheen of desire. His less blatant, less overt work proposes that the image does not have to be of a fetish itself, but rather, that it already is a fetish— it already signifies the operation of desire.

CHRISTOPH SCHMIDBERGER "Sapling", 2016 Color Pencil Drawing on Paper 19.5 x 17.5 ins / 50 x 44 cm

As mirrors of this “lyricism of the masses,” to purloin Charles Baudelaire’s description of sexuality, Schmidberger’s work shows how the erotic is thus always already aestheticized and mediated. The modern day versions of Alcibiades and Olympia we find in his paintings are cribbed as much from art history as from the very youthful subculture---and in Schmidberger’s work there is only youth---that has become synonymous with the erotic in contemporary media.

One finds these conventions appropriated and internalized as a collective fantasy in Schmidberger’s work. Nowhere is this clearer than in his portraits, the figures in which allude to the subtext filled narratives in fashion advertising.  Part of our shared erotic imaginary, these are the images that are presented back to us in their full resonance in Schmidberger’s paintings, showing us how eros does indeed come in many guises, some more pleasurable than others.

João Ribas                            

João Ribas is an art critic, writer and curator based in New York City. His writing has appeared in several arts and culture publications internationally.

"Seventeen From the Vault" can be viewed on ARTSY by clicking on the following link now.

Mark Moore Fine Art