Martin Dammann interviewed by Rory MacLean
with Rory MacLean
“I feel an intimacy with the soldiers,” he told me as we gazed at VOR MIR (BEFORE ME). At the time of the photograph during the First World War, the Belgian beach – which Dammann has known since childhood – marked the end of the 600 kilometre Western Front line. “I know something they know, and this exchange draws me both into their time, and into a timeless place. I try to convey my emotional response through the intuitive use of colour.”
Earlier this month I caught up with him again at Café Morena, a much-loved Kreuzberg meeting place which offers all-day Spanish breakfasts and 5 Euro cocktails (“Happy Hour always…”). After Dammann – his slender face accentuated by long gray hair – had ordered coffee and apple cake, he recounted to me the journey his work has taken him on.
At the age of thirteen, Dammann had debated whether to be a deep sea scientist, a palaeontologist or an artist. “The impetus was the same for all three careers; digging out things which had never been seen before.”
He chose to become an artist, training first as a carpenter “to make my parents feel better if things went wrong”. He attended Bremen’s Kunsthochschule but on graduation unexpectedly lost his sense of direction. “Finally I had the freedom to express myself, and I didn’t know what I wanted to say. It was a real crisis for me. To find a way forward I decided to go on a long trek in the mountains. There, suddenly, model warplanes flashed into my mind.”
I asked him to explain.
“Like most boys, I was once obsessed with plastic airplanes. I built dozens of them: German, British, American. When I found I had too many, I’d burn them. The smoke was so realistic. I still have its smell in my nose. I hadn’t thought of the models for years and now – whether out of curiosity or for sentimental reasons – I wanted to build one again. The idea totally captivated me. But I was on top of a mountain. I had to wait to get down to a town and into a toyshop. And those few days of longing were a horror. The depth and vigour of my emotion totally surprised me. I knew I had a subject.”
Dammann’s childhood obsession with warplanes exploded into an adult fascination with wartime images. He was awarded a DAAD Scholarship to travel to the UK. In London he happened upon the newly-created Archive of Modern Conflict. The curator gave him unrestricted access to its superb collection of photographs from the First and Second World Wars. Here he found unknown, amateur snapshots – not the raw, violent familiar images of battle - which he could interpret through painting instilled with strong emotion, shocking colour and a sense of mystery.
“The photographs I chose captured an unexpected, indistinct yet poignant feeling of something invisible, something of special meaning, and an echo of that meaning somehow remained.”
His objective isn’t to keep the past alive but rather to use it as a mirror for the present, to reflect his own identity.
“For example, I am fascinated by groups, and how – especially in wartime – the individual dissolves into them. This does not mean that I envy the soldiers. Quite the contrary. I value individualism above all else and the surrender of self is unthinkable for me, which is of course one reason why these photographs move me so deeply. In my work I follow where my emotions lead.”
Dammann’s bold, distinctive paintings quickly attracted both German and international attention. This week he is shuttling between shows in Vienna, Stuttgart and Berlin.
“I began to realise that Germany and I have a parallel history. I realised how profoundly my own identity has been shaped by the Third Reich. It’s a chapter of our history which leaves me bewildered and estranged: the events of those years are clear and must be judged. Like other Germans, I come across this incredible knot – this contemporary problem – all the time, which I believe is at the root of my preoccupation with that period.”
Although his paintings portray soldiers and civilians of many nationalities, his most powerful work chips away at the defensive wall that was built to separate modern Europeans from the Nazis. To me he seems to say that they are like us, yet now Germany is a profoundly different land, its identity reshaped forever by cataclysmic events. He isn’t taking part in a political discussion – which would necessitate the questions of truth and morality – but rather is offering us an artistic reinterpretation of possibility and experience.
“I’ve always tried to escape cliché. From the beginning I asked myself, ‘How do I get away from the clichéd images of war?’ The answer was to make my approach to the content as strong as the content itself. Cliché is also a reason I chose to work primarily in watercolour. It is the most hackneyed of mediums, especially in the field of landscape which I’m starting to explore. Again I’m trying to see the familiar in a unfamiliar way.” Dammann admits, “I like to challenge myself.”
This determination has created a remarkable body of work. In VOR MIR, as in many of his other paintings, colours are often deliberately inharmonious. Every picture hints at a story, yet the ghostly, nebulous treatment of the subject provokes questions, demanding that the viewer find his or her own way into it. For example in WHITE NIGHTS the viewer must ask him or herself, are the soldiers German or Soviet? Are they burning a village house or rethatching it? Like Howard Hodgkin, Dammann’s paintings are “representational pictures of emotional situations” (to quote Hodgkin). They convey real events (all be they events which Dammann individually did not experience). The effect is often of a work-in-progress, not a static still life but an organic image in the making.
As we looked through his work, I pointed out that people are often portrayed in negative space; that is, as blank white paper. “You know, when painting with watercolours it’s often more important what you don’t do rather than what you do,” laughed Martin Dammann in response.