Rory MacLean meets Salomé
Berlin’s original ‘fierce’ painter met me at Borchardt’s, the capital’s most popular Parisian brasserie. A handsome maitre d’ took my coat. An attractive waitress poured my glass of San Pellegrino. The refined surroundings seemed to be a long way from the rough and raw Berlin that Salomé discovered in 1973.
‘In those days West Berlin was called “the island of the happy people”,’ he recalled with a laugh. ‘I grew up in Karlsruhe, trained as a draftsman but, you know, that seven-to-five job was killing my individuality. Then I met a dancer – a crazy, wild, ferocious ballet dancer – and he brought me on my first trip to the city. Six months later I’d moved here for good.’
In the 1970s West Berlin was a centre of radical politics. Young Berliners marched for women’s rights, rioted against Pershing missiles and demanded gay emancipation.
‘Those political gay groups opened my eyes,’ said Salomé, as the waitress took our order. ‘I believed it was important that one’s personal experience be reflected in art as a means of changing society. I saw the artist as a political animal.’
Salomé won a place at the Berlin Academy of Art. But money was tight. He lived in a loft room on Moritzplatz with Rainer Fetting and only a small wood-burning stove for heat. The first winter was so cold that he contracted rheumatic fever. But his passion was strong. At his first HAW - ‘Homosexuelle Aktion Westberlin’ - meeting, organiser Gerhard Hoffmann looked up and said, ‘Here comes the Daughter of Herodias!’
‘What sort of weird queen is this?’ thought Salomé, who in those days had orange hair and wore floppy hats, his mother’s green winter coat, a red fox stole and red high-heeled shoes.
Hoffmann later owned the Anderes Ufer where Salomé worked as a waiter, as well as at the Matalla Bar and Dschungel disco.
‘It was all meant to be,’ he said with a laugh. ‘If I hadn’t met Hoffmann - who gave me the name Salomé - I would have kept using my surname – Cihlarz – which is Hungarian. I would have never made it in the art world with a name like Cihlarz!’
In the gay cafés and clubs Salomé met like-minded painters, musicians, photographers and theatre people. Together they developed the Heftige Malerei - 'Fierce Painters' - school, creating honest and shocking portraits of life in Berlin.
‘Our inspiration was expressionists like Kirchner and Heckel,’ he told me. ‘But also we were rebelling against minimalism. We wanted to bring the human being back into art. To bring painting back to life.’
Yet Salomé remained a traditionalist. ‘You know, a painter must master his medium. He must have craftsmanship. Only if he knows his traditions can he be a revolutionary.’
In 1977 Salomé, together with artists including Fetting, Helmut Middendorf, Bernd Zimmer, Anne Jud, Berthold Schepers and Rolf von Bergmann, founded the Galerie am Moritzplatz. Three years later he and three colleagues were invited to participate in the Heftige Malerei exhibition at the Haus am Waldsee. In 1982 he won a DAAD scholarship to live in New York. Two years later his work was shown at the Museum of Modern Art, making him the youngest German artist ever to exhibit at MOMA at that time. He lived in New York and the US for the best part of fifteen years, his work also taking him to Toronto, Brazil and Japan, until his return to Berlin in 1999.
Alongside painting and three-dimensional work (for example a large number of projects with Rosenthal), Salomé formed the punk band band Geile Tiere - 'Horny Animals' - with Luciano Castelli. At Anderes Ufer he also created a performance piece For My Sisters in Austria – in response to the persecution of homosexuals in Austria – as well as ballet and theatre shows. His most recent CDs Dark Desires and Ich bin Kunst – which he produces mostly for friends - have a driving electro-techno beat.
‘Gesamtkunstwerk is my interest,’ he said. Multi-faceted creative work.
Today Salomé’s paintings can be found in museums and private collections around the world. Among his best-known works are the Swimmers and Water Lillies series which the German critic Bazon Brock called ‘a gift to mankind’.
‘The swimmer – or swimmers – are always myself. All my work has a strong autobiographical quality. I’m not a painter who can paint flowers or a landscape; it might sell but it’s not me. I have to know my subjects, to experience them, even to love them.’
Salomé also produces paintings with more overtly gay themes.
‘I’ve been involved in the gay rights movement for over 30 years now, and I’ve always seen art as a motor of emancipation. But these days the market seems to have grabbed the souls of many young artists, both gay and straight. Young gay painters may depict a situation but they don’t offer a solution or political goal.’ He shook his head. ‘There’s less and less that rattles my soul.’
A waiter served our lunch. I ate Borchardt ‘classic’ Wiener Schnitzel, without a doubt the lightest and most delicious I’d ever eaten. Salomé had calf’s liver with mashed parsley potatoes and glazed onions.
‘There’s more to life than stereotypes,’ he said over coffee. ‘One’s personal happiness is vital to make life worth living.’
Salomé looked across the busy restaurant and – suddenly – I felt as if he was looking back over his life, back to his first days in West Berlin. ‘I’m older, riper and more stupid now but those early days were something special. I had such a good time. I never wanted to live my life in a closet. I’m living the way I want to live.’ He took a last sip of coffee. ‘I’ll keep on painting and working the way I do until the coffin is closed.’