Anna Oppermann and her Ensembles

The religiosity of humankind first found its expression in polytheistic cults. 
The plethora of gods, goddesses and semi-divine beings served to explain the complexity of life and its contradictions.
Even nowadays, entering a Hindu temple, we might feel overwhelmed by the vivacity of colors and figures, the cumulation of polymorphous bodies and the facial mimics of statues which express serenity, indifference, anger, bliss, wisdom but also the most trivial instincts. 
One must be able to see the whole picture to contemplate a religious shrine, and to penetrate Anna Oppermann’s Ensembles.

Anna Oppermann photographed by Elke Walford, Hamburg, 1985. Courtesy of Galerie Barbara Thumm, Berlin

Using the associative technique of collage, Anna Oppermann -born Regina Heine, 1940-1993-, whose background is rooted in Arte Povera, Conceptual Art and philosophy beyond others, delivers extremely sophisticated pieces, where it is impossible to retrace one meaning, for there are multiple and conflicting ones.
Perishable mementos such as postcards, pictures, used transport tickets, layers of paint and ripped notes pile up in compositions that have a similar function to Warburg’s Mnemosyne.
Collage works in fact for Oppermann as a sort of conscious dream, it is a mechanism to reorder and caption unrelated images of life.
Anna Oppermann’s Ensembles have often been defined as a visual representation of solipsism.
Images are juxtaposed in collation, with the hope of finding a red thread that unites scattered objects.
Relics are glued one onto each other, in no particular order nor hierarchy, mimicking the fact that the artist, as a society outcast, has to shape the pillars of their morals without having directions before them.
How to leave a mark behind, when the artist doesn’t accept any of the preconceived models?
Oppermann tirelessly explores the dilemma of wanting to be an uncompromising artist and yet having an ambition for success, which she sees as intertwined with the keeping of a well recognizable status quo.
A blatant example of that is her name changing to Anna Oppermann, through which she adopts the husband’s last name, in a disingenuous adhesion to social norms.
The materials used in her Ensembles and the proliferation of symbols together point to a critic to Pop Art and represent an exasperation of whatever is easily reproduced, ready made, caducous, insignificant, tradeable.
These layers also seem to shield the artist; their thickness and opacity come up in architectural structures without windows. There is no way out, no communication between the world and the self.
Like a double-sided Plato’s cave allegory, both the idea that the artist has of the world and the idea that the world has of the artist are mere conjectures, if note pure projections.
Windows still are part of the interiors, but they appear in a Magritte-like fashion: they are reflected in a mirror and are nothing but deceiving mental representations.
A reader of Umberto Eco’s semiotics, Theodor Adorno’s dialectics, Michel Foucault’ theories of relationships between knowledge and power, Oppermann subscribes to all the philosophical currents that assign to words and symbols an ability to shape societies.
The inexactitude, or doubts around self representation are responsible for an inner split that isolates the artist from normative society.

Anna Oppermann, Spiegelensemble, 1968-1989, property of Generali Foundation, loaned to Museum der Moderne Kunst, Salzburg, Austria. Photo of Werner Kaligofsky

In Spiegelensemble (1968-1989), concentric reproductions of the same self-referred ensemble testify the utopian attempt at breaking down the complexity of the individual in tiny pieces: there is always a facet, an angle that stays left out, so it is necessary to begin again from the start, in an endless fatigue that leads to schizophrenia.

Anna Oppermann, Portrait Herr S., 1969-1989, here installed at Art Basel 2016 by representative Galerie Barbara Thumm, Berlin, Germany. Photo of Nici Wegener.

Portrait Herr S. (1969-1989) is Oppermann’s take on the sexual revolution initiated in the late Sixties.
The color palette is extremely carnal: red, pink, the pale skin of naked bodies give the ensemble an intensely fleshy feeling.
The center of the composition is a male body, lying on a bed in the same position as Christ on the cross. 
Not surprisingly, as it happens with Oppermann’s figures striving to withhold their features, his head is shielded by a Medieval knight helmet. All around him, there are sketches of interiors, female naked bodies, tulips and carnation flowers, geometrically shaped objects that possibly allude to a sexual function.
Images are captioned with the love lexicon: “Bettauflegung”, “Erotik”, “Sexualobjekt”, etc.
Purposefully walking the line between anonymity, shared sexual imagery and Christianity, Anna Oppermann takes a side on the borning myth of “free love”. According to the artist, free love is complementary and not opposed to the European culture permeated in Christianity. The sexual revolution brought to light the legitimate desire for physical fulfillment, a need as typically human as the wish for connection.
And once again, Oppermann doesn’t label complexity as just an enrichment, but also harbinger of confusion and of shuffling of any warranted scheme for interaction with others.

Anna Oppermann, Anders Sein (“Irgendwie ist sie so anders…”), 1970-1986, here installed at Württembergischer Kunstverein, Stuttgart, Germany, 2007. Photo of Alex Oppermann.

In Anders sein (“Irgendwie ist sie so anders…”) (1970-1986), Oppermann represents the difficulties of being an artist. The ensemble is immersive and oppressive.
The color palette is centered on gray tones and the darkest shades of red.
A repeated module is the one of women with hair covering their face: that’s the uniform of the artist, who struggles with the frustration of not being seen nor validated, and with her own unwillingness to unapologetically reveal her identity in an act of radical honesty.

Anna Oppermann, Künstler sein – Über die Methode (Zeichnen im Ensemble, Dilemma der Vermittlung, der ökonomische Aspekt), 1978-1985, here arranged for the exhibition Künstler sein (2019) in Bielefeld, Germany.
Photo of Philipp Ottendörfer

Künstler sein – Über die Methode (Zeichnen im Ensemble, Dilemma der Vermittlung, der ökonomische Aspekt) (1978-1985) is the ensemble that mostly recalls a shrine shape: from a beeline of pictures on the floor, the composition rises up in progressively smaller steps and peaks in a rectangle of portraits that reflect the beams of candle-like light.
And as much this is true for religion, Anna Oppermann is aware that for art critics, trying to establish the true meaning über die Methode is equal to trapping oneself into dogmas.
This piece is a sheer refusal of doing art in order to please the audience. The complexity of the construction mirrors the layered profundity of the creator, who can’t be reduced to a paragraph in an art catalog, devoid of intimacy and of a careful reflection spread over time.

Anna Oppermann, Pathosgeste – MSGMO “MACH GROSZE, SCHLAGKRÄFTIGE, MACHTDEMOSTRIERENDE OBJEKTE!” , 1984-1992, here arranged for Württembergischer Kunstverein, Stuttgart, Germany, 2007. Photo of Alex Oppermann.

Pathosgeste – MSGMO “MACH GROSZE, SCHLAGKRÄFTIGE, MACHTDEMOSTRIERENDE OBJEKTE!” (1984 – 1992) is an even more mordant declination of Oppermann’s adversity towards public-conceived art.
Ironically set in the Hamburg Altona Townhall, this monumental piece actually had its first origins in 1979. 
The giant-sized human figures placed in the center stretch their arms to the sky, mocking in first place the equestrian monument to Kaiser Wilhelm I by Gustav Eberlein, inaugurated in 1898 right in front of the Hamburg Altona Townhall. 
Oppermann offers a persiflage of the pathetically pompous monuments erected to commemorate some of the most gruesome pages of history.
The fault of such artworks is their highest degree of insincerity and the least courageous participation of the artist: accepting to offer one’s talent for the celebration of someone else’s ideology deems the artist to complete disappearance.

Anna Oppermann, Paradoxe Intentionen (Das Blaue von Himmel herunterlügen), 1988-1992, Galerie Barbara Thumm, Berlin, Germany, here installed at S.M.A.K., Gent, Belgium, 2017. Photo of Dirk Pauwels.

In Paradoxe Intentionen (Das Blaue von Himmel herunterlügen) (1988-1992), we witness the triumph of a deep blue color. Being one of the last ensembles arranged before the artist’s death, Paradoxe Intentionen is a light-hearted reflection and, somehow, appreciation for the subtle cunningness subdued in lies and in the daily mission of trying to sell oneself’s winning image.
Introducing a variation on the liar’s paradox (see the panel quoting Aristotle), Anna Oppermann gives up on a lifelong devotion to detangling reality from mystification, private self vs.artist persona: maybe, there is just as many authenticity in carefully curating one’s public aspect as in the spontaneous self.
Paradoxe Intentionen is a self-effacing celebration of the artist’s profession, who has to constantly confront and overcome -or, at least, make-believe, fake it until they make it- the limits imposed by gender, social and economical status.
Oppermann ultimately delivers an art piece that defuses the mechanism of imposter syndrome: she finally takes ownership of the lies that allow her to obtain respect in a world dominated by appearances.
Anna Oppermann died in 1993, at the young age of 53.
Despite the impossibility of knowing what a late stage of her career would have looked like, Oppermann’s production is already so dense that researchers will have a hard time just trying to put together the multimedia components of her Ensembles.
Deconstructed and partly sold, the Ensembles can hardly be reorganized in the same manner twice.
A reverse reconstruction of Oppermann’s maieutic process highlights all the assumptions and hurried conclusions we bump into, whenever we try a philological approach on an art form that is so recalcitrant to linearity.
More than many before her have done, Oppermann forces the audience to face and embrace their own hypocrisy, concluding that knowledge can never turn into a possession; it remains, instead, a tiring and obscure process; a continuous dependance from and rivalry with the “other”; a tension that kills and resuscitates the individual with any deepening of their consciousness.

Sources
Anna Oppermann – article on Wikipedia
-Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart
-Galerie Barbara Thumm, Berlin
-Kunsthalle Bielefeld, exhibition Künstler sein, March 23rd to July 28th, 2019
Kulturstiftung des Bundes
-City of Hamburg
Ute Vorkoeper, Bildkosmos der Liebe, Zeit.de
-Julia A. Hoffmann, Künstler sein, March 22, 2019, Art|Dates
-Anna Oppermann – Review by Nicole Scheyerer, March 1st, 2008, Frieze.com

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