Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1981
Paris, Galerie BAMA, Sigmar Polke, May - June 1979
Rotterdam, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen; and Bonn, Städtisches Kunstmuseum Bonn, Sigmar Polke: Das haben wir noch nie so gemacht, December 1983 - March 1984, p. 10, no. 33, illustrated in colour
Zurich, Kunsthaus Zürich; and Cologne, Joseph-Haubrich Kunsthalle, Sigmar Polke: wir können uns nicht darauf verlassen, dass eines Tages gute Bilder gemalt werden, wir müssen die Sache selber in die Hand nehmen!, April - October 1984, p. 169, no. 108 (text)
Hamburg, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Sigmar Polke: We Petty Bourgeois!: Comrades and Contemporaries, The 1970s, March 2009 - January 2010, p. 28, no. 1, illustrated in colour
Die Schmiede epitomises Polke’s appropriation of compiled and found imagery so prevalent in the 1970s. We see four comic-book figures, glowing in yellow, under and over-lapping a mesh of dripping red and blue paint. These four grimacing faces were appropriated from the comic book The Adventures of Phoebe Zeit-Geist; as viewers we join the narrative of this predatory tale during the moment at which the story’s four businessmen gaze down on Phoebe’s lifeless body following a violent assault. In its own darkly comic way, Die Schmiede should ideally be placed on the ceiling, so the grimacing men gaze down on the audience who is placed in the subjugated position of Pheobe herself. Thus, not only does this painting cast the viewer directly in the tale as the victim, but more importantly it accentuates the social contexts that Polke was exploring in his art, namely in Die Schmiede, issues of sexual difference and female equality.
In addition to the comic book content of the present work, the centre of this painting holds four further figures painted finely in silver. This mise en scene is what gives the work its name: The Forge. Depicted working metal on an anvil, the figures are cyclopes – the ancient Greek race of primordial one-eyed giants – producing the weapons of Achilles in Heaphaestus’ forge. Polke borrowed this image from a 1969 Greek stamp which commemorated fifty years of the International Labour Organisation.
The figures themselves were created using a graphic Pop art vocabulary, directly comparable to pendent works in the We Petty Bourgeois series, such as Supermarkets or Can You Always Believe Your Eyes?. However, Polke’s multiplicity and simultaneity of stylistic elements in the 1970s made him a specifically postmodern artist and, by 1975, the year of the present work’s creation, Pop art could be characterised as little more than a historical positon in both Germany and the United States. Here, perhaps, it is the graphic line synonymous with Pop, rather than the imagery itself, that attracts Polke’s attention, allowing him to create such a striking contrast with the undulating waves of paint that encircle the composition. The figures are also a testament to Polke’s extraordinary ability as a draftsman, a skill that is not emphasised enough, perhaps due to his purposefully ‘de-skilled’ and simplistic drawings from the 1960s.
Die Schmiede embodies Polke’s recurrent enthusiasm in juxtaposing the figurative and the abstract, expounding his belief that these painterly approaches, rather than being considered diametrically opposed, should instead share a complimentary relationship. However, this relationship is also complex and the superimposition of images from popular culture with non-figurative painting techniques creates a certain tension. With these juxtapositions and tensions, the artist is able to create a dreamlike, hallucinogenic world, in which reality and meaning are questioned; a phenomenon emblematic of Polke’s career.
Constantly in flux, with its intelligent combination of line and colour, abstraction and figuration, Die Schmiede expresses several themes consistent in Polke’s 1970s output and, with its nebulous and merging clouds of colour, foreshadows some of the effects created by Polke in his chemical and alchemical experimentations of the 1980s. Die Schmiede should then be considered both as a significant work of the 1970s in its own right and as a critical step in Polke’s unrelenting artistic evolution.
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