Beauty: a Political Concept

Switzerland Exhibition Tillmans
“We are in difficult political times right now. But we can’t forget the game and should look at the world without judgment and fear.” Source: Picture Alliance

What’s the difference between a photograph and an image?

It’s a question to which Wolfgang Tillmans has given much thought. One of Germany’s leading photographers, he is concerned primarily with images, not photography. The latter is nothing more than the medium in which he expresses himself; sometimes, Mr. Tillmans uses a camera and lens, other times, he makes abstract pictures without a negative, like his famous, abstract “Freischwimmer” series that show swirls of color suggesting water or wind.

Photography depicts reality in most people’s view but for the artist, a picture can show more than what we see: inner states, feelings, things hidden, a person’s strengths and weaknesses. For Mr. Tillmans, photographs are always “made pictures;” it’s not about the motif, but the manner in which it becomes a picture: through cut-outs, perspective, connotative frameworks, color, and above all light.

Mr. Tillmans first became famous in the 1990s with photography of his friends in the techno scene, and for communicating young people’s mood and feelings about life. Since then he was the only non-British artist to win the celebrated Turner Prize and now, celebrated for the language of his images, he’s the subject of a dedicated retrospective in Basel’s famous Fondation Beyeler.

Some of Mr. Tillmans' abstract works were created in a dark room with many accidental effects, such as the "Freischwimmer" series. Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne, Maureen Paley, David Zwirner
Wolfgang Tillmans was born in Remscheid, Germany and studied in Bournemouth and at the Poole College of Art and Design, UK, then lived in London. After one year in New York, now he lives in London and Berlin. Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel; Wolfgang Tillmans
Mr. Tillmans was the first photographer and non-Brit receive the Tate annual Turner Prize; his other awards include the Hasselblad Award, the Royal Photographic Society's Centenary Medal, the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition's Charles Wollaston Award as well as the Culture Prize of the German Society for Photography. Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne, Maureen Paley, David Zwirner
Paper Drop (Window) 2006 uses light on photography paper, as part of a series created 2002 through 2008. Courtesy Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne, Maureen Paley, London, David Zwirner, New York
“I take pictures in order to see the world,” Mr. Tillmans once said. Foundation Beyerler
Critics have called the artist the “documentarian of his generation, especially that of the London club and gay scenes,” though he said in response that he had not intended to be seen as diaristic or autobiographical. "I was not recording the world around me or my tribe or whatever. There is a big misunderstanding there that still persists to this day." Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne, Maureen Paley, David Zwirner

His works are figurative and also abstract, including the popular “Freischwimmer” and “Paper Drops.” The latter is a series of semi-abstract works showing the edges of photo paper curving back to form a teardrop, and merge with the diffused background. “It’s about the transformation that conceptual photography and conceptual art have in common: the transformation of a thought,” he says. For the viewer, it is a play of reflected light, shadows and contrasts.

But Mr. Tillmans isn’t looking for beauty; this, he says, “would be politically backward looking.” His subject: “the concepts of beauty and world. For the concepts of beauty have taken on a political tone. For me, it is beautiful when two men kiss.” He is preoccupied with politics and organized a poster campaign  against Brexit in 2016. In 2014, he watched a Black Lives Matter demonstration in New York and only illustrated a raised Black hand as Michel Brown was shot by a policeman on August 9, 2014 in Ferguson even though he had his hands up.

“We are in difficult political times right now. But we can’t forget the game and should look at the world without judgment and fear,” he said.  For that reason, he and the Fondation’s senior curator, Theodora Vischer, set up a room with nudes. “There is no need to be afraid of bodies,” Mr. Tillmans said; under no circumstances does he want to hear of the human body being subjected to norms, ideologies, or a feeling of shame.

He is often asked by journalists whether he is always on the lookout for pictures. No, what counts first is living, is Mr. Tillmans’ response.


Susanne Schreiber covers the art market for Handelsblatt. To contact the author:

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