Ralph Fleck

Wilfried Wang
Portraits of Cities - Between estrangement and recognition
To view Ralph Fleck's paintings of cities without reference to the actual location could initiate a reaction of déja-vu in a widely-travelled onlooker: Of course, that is Rome as one knows it, hot in the light of the late afternoon; certainly, that is London, grey at any time of a normal day in the early autumn; Madrid with the Avenidas wedged between the medieval quarters; similarly Paris with Haussmann's Boulevards in stark contrast to the naturally evolved layout of the pre-Enlightenment period; or New York with its lithic skyscrapers, which, when observed from a distance, appear as a grid, analogous to the rational ground plan of the city. The paintings are composed in such a manner as to individually provide sufficient references to the widely-travelled beholder while one hint in a painting of a series is sometimes enough to explain the gradually recognizable physiognomy of the respective city.
Within the series of the most recent years there are developmental sequences of paintings ranging from the more obvious to the more abstract. It is as if the painter seems to represent to himself and the beholder how the historical development of painting contains the search for the fundamental. From this vantage point, Fleck's choice of the segment of a city's view is decisive: the larger the format and the more distinctive the segment, the easier the recognition of the city in question. Sometimes very well known buildings are part of the paintings, sometimes topographic elements, like rivers, parks or bridges, particular to a specific city are included. In this regard, the series aim at the phenomenon of estrangement by the single painting as well as at the phenomenon of recognition of city structures as a result of viewing entire sequences (specifically in New York paintings).
In this thematic field between estrangement and recognition the painter Ralph Fleck has been able to unfold. Brush stroke and paint mixture are placed with such precision that they become part of this balancing act. The mixture of paint implies surface structures like window frames or facade ornamentation. Fleck's mastery of this technique is in accordance with the observations of Marco Boschini regarding the subject of pittoresco (La carta del navegar pitoresco, Venice 1660). Fleck pursues neither the absolutely exact geometrical alignment, nor the separation of colour fields or even seamless transitions from light to dark; on the contrary, he is in search of convincing ambiences that are created by well-applied paints. Naturally, the distance to the painting plays an important role in the phenomenon of the mixed perception of colour fields.
In this context, the fixing of the focus is as important as the portrayal of the objects within the image segment. With a few exceptions, most portraits of cities are taken from the air. The aerial view has had a fascination for the beholder right from the beginning of this technique. Just think of the first passengers of hotair balloons of the 18th century or of the Zeppelin. Given the circumspection of the relatively slow travelling speeds of older means of transport, the beholder can watch to his heart's desire. Airplanes only permit a brief moment of awe before the city en miniature vanishes. Fleck's portraits of cities allow the awe and the fascination of beholding to linger. In one case, there is the barely perceivable change of light (consider for instance Monet's studies on light), in another case, the mosaic-like accumulation of paint to form a hieroglyph of a city, and again and again the density of sun-lit and shaded sides of buildings created by the telephoto lens.
Fleck rarely paints people, vehicles or other signs of urban civilisation. In some paintings an impression is created as if a city were something that had always been there, akin to a geological structure seen from above. This estranged, distanced focus characterizes Fleck's portraits of cities. Fleck not merely positions himself in an unusual position with the help of contemporary optical means, but he puts himself and the beholder of the painting into an elevated vantage point. One looks down on a city as if it had always been there, like a natural phenomenon. The city that is thus portrayed seems to know neither style nor time.
Had it still been the case with Caspar David Friedrich that the beholder of a scenery was integrated into the painting in the manner of the reader of a novel (Morgen im Riesengebirge, 1810/1811; Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer, around 1818; or Kreidefelsen auf Rügen, around 1818), then the beholder's awareness becomes objectified in Ralph Fleck's paintings through his point of view. The painting's composition lets the buildings appear as orthogonal surfaces, there are no distorted verticals are unknown. Therefore the buildings look that more static, like geological sedentary entities. At the extreme ends of image segments - from the general view to the close-ups - the colour surfaces become more and more abstract, whereas with the more detailed views the impression of the casual adherence to factually identifiable parts prevails.
The maintenance of verticality in relation to the representation of the buildings pays tribute to the beholder's anticipation and in this respect Fleck's paintings compete with photography. It is true that telephoto- lenses and rectifying mechanisms of some lenses are responsible for modern viewing habits, but even the ancient Egyptian or classical Roman representations refused to allow vertical lines to become distorted.
Giotto and his contemporaries equally adhered rigidly to this principle. In this way the structural- static spirit of the building was represented. Tiepolo's ceiling paintings the inclined verticals are, of course, part of the trompe l'oeil effect. But it was only with the beginning of photography that the dynamism of space and form is brought into the consciousness of the public. Aerial photographs taken by non-rectified lenses generally show inclined verticals. This effect is accepted by the beholder as it is immanently connected to the seeming reality of photography. Fleck's portraits of cities with their absolute verticals are therefore more than the fulfilment of an expectation, they are a critique of photography.
By consistently correcting the inclined verticals, some paintings (e.g. those of New York) reveal a degree of abstraction visible in Mondrian's series of trees, which was painted around 1912. Fleck's New York abstractions are of a haptic nature in comparison to, for example, Mondrian's late work Broadway Boogie-Woogie (1942-1943), which is a conceptual abstraction of the Broadway in spite of its identifiable, organic layout.
Extensive, almost monochrome surfaces in Fleck's portraits of cities relate to his interest for the sublime, something that was already discernible in his paintings of the Alps. A tall, black skyscraper in the foreground of a painting, dominating the whole canvas surface symbolizes for Fleck not just the longing for a privileged view but expresses the skyscraper's authoritarian character. Those vertical studies of the Paris office district of La DÈfense show deliberately composed segments of high-rise buildings, seemingly set to oust the more traditional parts of the city, thus revealing the terrifying side of the sublime, as described by Edmund Burke in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (London 1757): "No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear. (...) Whatever therefore is terrible, with regard to sight, is sublime too, whether this cause of terror be endured with greatness of dimension or not. (...) Greatness of dimension is a powerful cause of the sublime. (...) A perpendicular has more force in forming the sublime than an inclined plane (...)" (II. part, II. and chapter VII).
Fleck's paintings reflect different moods. Each city portrait, in spite of its apparent concern for the factually correct light or for the structure of buildings, is about ambience. Fleck's portraits of cities are not primarily about the segment as pars pro toto in a morphological sense, but to represent a fragment in lieu of an experience of the quality of an entire city in the way that it is seen in different seasons and climates. For this reason Fleck rarely paints panoramic views, as they give a deceiving impression of completeness, putting the beholder into a position, that leads him to the conclusion of having comprehended everything thanks to the apparent overall view. The panorama, a means of representation of the early Enlightenment, implies omniscience, certainty, completeness. The segment, in the same way as the panorama is, strictly speaking, just another detail, emphasizes the partial, the limited, the concentration on something specific.
Were the panoramic view considered the symphony of painting, the segment could then be regarded as chamber music, were not Fleck's points of view in relation to his city portraits located in the air, which, together with the occasional dramatic composition, pays tribute to the sublime. This apparent contradiction within the analogy, however, shows the intensity with which Fleck unites the choice of topic, point of view, composition and means of representation.
If Fleck's scenic paintings of the Alps or the sea are stormy, roaring, misty, that is to say dramatic, then his urban paintings seem to be frequently passive in the beholder's eye. The secure distance, with which the city fragments are viewed, enhances the impression of tranquillity. Only in those paintings, in which abstracted surfaces of paint dominate, a tension is established that beyond the control of paint and brushwork reflects the spirit of a city.
Once again, Fleck's portraits of cities rarely make use of the panorama; instead they are occasionally developed as a series. These series sometimes range from more obvious, discernible motives to more abstract painterly topics. Only the entire collection of urban paintings reveals Ralph Fleck's conceptual point of view. Thus understood, this "collection" of city portraits is a meta-panorama, a mosaic, constituting a whole document from apparently unrelated bits and pieces. Such a document records the physiognomic qualities of an individual city without paying attention to its socio-cultural questions or problems. Only once, in his series of the destruction of Germany (see the catalogue Städte, 1997) Fleck allowed himself to show melancholy, reproach or criticism. They were constructed at normal street level of a pedestrian.
The aerial perspectives of cities do not allow individual human fates to come close to the beholder, they do not refer to ecological challenges, they do not identify urban planning blunders. The cities are just themselves. Fleck's portraits of cities concentrate on the phenomenon of their construction, on the characteristics that result from minor changes in formal and spatial structure. To express these qualities in the medium of paint is, in view of the many media that already deal with urban problems, enough of an ambitious goal. At a time, in which cultural and political borders are vanishing, the intensity with which Ralph Fleck traces the qualities of respective cities in his paintings is probably the essence to which an artist should wisely confine himself.
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