Insight into the multifaceted life's work of a Berlin visual artist

Karl Arndt: Joachim Dunkel - Sculpture and Drawing

To become an artist according to his talents, out of innermost necessity - that was made difficult for Joachim Dunkel (1925-2002) at the beginning. His father could not agree with his son's life decision, and the course of time, for its part, was initially nothing but resistant. Before Dunkel could embark on his self-determined path, he had to endure the final phase of the Second World War as a young soldier, and with it severe physical and psychological stresses. But then the tide turned. In 1946 came the "start" at the College of Applied Arts in Berlin-Weißensee, and from 1949 continued his studies at the College of Fine Arts in Berlin-Charlottenburg, where Dunkel became a master student of Bernhard Heiliger. His talent was quickly recognized. Scholarships, among others from the Studienstiftung des Deutschen Volkes, and prizes, such as the Rome Villa Massimo Prize and the Georg Kolbe Prize in 1958, meant help and encouragement in life. The place of the young artist was and remained Berlin, where he was appointed professor at the Charlottenburg University in 1974.

In Berlin-Weißensee, in the years 1946/49, Eva Schwimmer and also already Heiliger were the teachers. This coexistence appears in retrospect, in knowledge of all that Joachim Dunkel was to create, decidedly significant. On the one hand, he met the draftswoman (and above all the illustrator) Eva Schwimmer - and on the other hand, there was the sculptor Heiliger, who at that time was aiming at a compact plastic form that was already clearly tending towards abstraction. Dunkel, we can say today, in retrospect, was following his star when he was attracted to these two artists who were so different in nature and moving in such different directions. Two souls dwelt - but not "oh" (as Goethe's Faust laments) - in his breast. He became a sculptor who created his own world of human and animal figures (among them with preference: horses) and furthermore modeled, with or without commission, the most impressive portrait heads. At the same time, however, drawing was always a deep-rooted need for him. Over the years and decades, a graphic oeuvre of overwhelming scope and richness of subject matter grew up in powerful spurts. In this oeuvre Dunkel shows himself as a storyteller - as a sensitive as well as powerful, spontaneous and vital creator of material that comes from the Bible, ancient mythology, fable, fairy tale and other traditions. A large number of drawings to the old animal epic "Reineke Fuchs", which Dunkel not only read in Goethe's retelling, was published in 1986 in a beautiful publication by the Berlin publishing house Arenhövel. The artist dedicated this book to Eva Schwimmer, thus bowing gratefully to his former teacher and at the same time confessing that, like her, drawing was something indispensable to him - namely an outlet for his imaginative talent parallel to sculptural work.

Certain scenes from the sources just quoted did not let go of the artist - which is why he took them up again and again and drew them anew, with changing accents. If one looks more closely, central leitmotifs become recognizable in these various themes. It is about the always topical keywords violence and suffering, cunning and seduction, desire, love and death - in short, about a world view reflecting the human primordial nature and human destiny.

Dunkel was particularly fascinated by the bull-man Minotaur. He exemplified the whole range of human passions and sufferings. He drew him relaxed in an Arcadian idyll, as it were en famille with a Minotaur child, then as a lover or as a threatened, suffering and dying. The artist also integrates this figure into scenes in which it actually (according to the underlying "script") has no place: e.g. as an admirer of female beauty in the role of Paris or cruelly acting as the flayer of Marsyas; it can even appear in depictions of the Fall, namely instead of Adam next to Eve, who is shown with the apple or with a skull (!) in her hands. Or we see the head of the Minotaur (not that of John the Baptist) in a bowl triumphantly held in her hands by the seductive Salome.

Joachim Dunkel has dealt with "his" materials, his reading experiences, in such a combinatorial way again and again. He took them up by drawing, in order to expand them immediately, following his imagination and narrative instinct, and to spin them on - but this, mind you, always in harmony with the core message of his respective source. That these bold excursions are not about education and knowledge, but about a spirited, even elementary re-experiencing, does not remain doubtful to the viewer of the sheets for a moment. Just as Dunkel experienced the ancient stories and filled them with obstinacy - without detours, drastically, blatantly, completely without false shame - he was also able to convey them! Two characteristics of his art are to be emphasized in this connection: the lively, the later the more often in the furious tending ductus of his drawing on the one hand and a already briefly touched peculiarity of his figure world on the other hand. One experiences how Dunkel brought his sceneries from the inner imagination into vividness; one is carried away by the speed he set, and one admires that with all the - often quite daring - "delimitation" of the forms, the danger of arbitrariness, of mere frenzy, of shapelessness was avoided.

Dunkel's world of figures includes numerous mixed creatures, half animal, half human. The artist predominantly combined the male body with an animal head; pan and centaur figures with human-like heads, on the other hand, appear rather rarely. In this way, their action is made clear as one that is driven by instinct. The artist was visibly fascinated, even obsessed, by the possibilities that such connections opened up for him. A multitude of individual studies - portraits, as it were - of the most diverse fantasy figures, together with the narrative sheets, testify to an imaginably sovereign zoological-anatomical combinatorics, in other words: a stupendous ability to be organically credible, vivid and expressive in all mixtures of animal and human. That this succeeded is due not least to a sharp and always alert power of observation. It occasionally found expression in fascinating studies of nature - for example, in a series of large-format color drawings showing a dead buzzard.

We now understand better why the artist was attracted by stories in which animal men are depicted - be it the Minotaur or the stag-turned-Actaeon. But also in the countless pages of the "Reineke Fuchs" epic, in which - as everywhere in the fable - animals act in an exemplary manner instead of humans, Dunkel's approach was to transform them into mixed creatures. He proceeded differently, but still comparably, with his Trojan warriors. He presented them with face helmets and in this way achieved an uncanny alienation: cruel masks, moved by no feeling, come before our eyes.

As undeniably as drawing was a field of work of its own for Joachim Dunkel - there are nevertheless (and how could it be otherwise) clear connections beyond individual motifs such as the Minotaur or the bird-man to the sculptures. First of all, it should be noted in this context that the artist in his narrative sheets has always dominated the figures to the fore and all ambience if at all then restrained included. He narrates in the manner of a sculptor who creates figures and concentrates essentially on figures! On the other hand, it is also noticeable that in Dunkel's sculptures the narrator sometimes makes himself felt. There are the highly idiosyncratic, boldly weighted reliefs that unfold on a wide scale, between full-round bodies and graphic incisions, with themes that do not surprise us if we know his graphic work. We find the Expulsion from Paradise and the Judgment of Paris, the Apocalyptic Horsemen and crucifixion scenes. And we continue to encounter groups of two that, although they do not show any action, no matter how moving, are nevertheless closely connected with the world of Dunkel's drawings. Mars and Venus, Europa and the bull, the girl and death we see represented - and in a very unusual way. The aforementioned couples hover in front of disk or crescent shapes, which we read as celestial bodies, and above clusters of clouds, which in turn are associated with tree formations. Thus they appear to the viewer earth-above, compellingly enraptured into the fairy-tale-like.

In works from the late 1990s, the connection between Dunkel's drawing and sculptural work once again becomes particularly clear: The artist created a plateau, a "playing field," in order to be able to present a terrifying battlefield on it - inspired by Homer's "Iliad." At first glance, we see a horse struggling with the last of its strength and a fighter broken on his knees among the stretched-out corpses. Then, little by little, with a closer look, the whole cruel extent of the events visualized here is revealed to us. We perceive dismembered bodies mutilated by cuts. And two totem-like marks towering high above the scene suggest in turn an archaic world filled with elemental destructive force. The "Cue Troy" staged in such a haunting manner stands for war as a never-ending self-endangerment of man. Dunkel had had to experience this himself as a young soldier (as mentioned at the beginning); and at the time of the creation of his sculpture, during the Balkan War, the gloomy fact of war had again come particularly close. The extent to which the Trojan theme was on the artist's mind is shown by a series of individual figures, warriors on foot and on horseback, which were modeled parallel to the battlefield in small format as terracottas or for casting.

In the Troy scene, as in these statuettes, the end point of Dunkel's development in sculpture becomes apparent. We have before us - in analogy to his graphic ductus - a creative process literally recognizable as a "handwriting". The artist developed this spirited, expressive style since the 1960s. In the portrait heads it manifests itself as pure sensitivity and nervousness. Initially, on the other hand, Dunkel - not in the wake of, but rather in his own way parallel to his teacher Heiliger - had worked towards the compact, taut, smoothed volume. This strict concept of sculpture, however, could not suffice for him for long. He broke it up because his vitality and spontaneity demanded it this way and no other. What he had in mind could only be realized through an open, richly differentiated surface. And also the work with color accents - a parallel again to the drawings - means nothing else than pushing for more expression, for pulsating liveliness. That this has not the slightest thing to do with naturalism hardly needs to be emphasized. How significant that Dunkel not infrequently supplemented his torsoed figures with surface forms, cut from cardboard or sheet metal, in order to counteract their corporeality in this way, with surprising access. The artist certainly wanted the sensual radiance of the bodies he modeled - but at the same time he always wanted a seemingly idol-like strangeness, unfamiliarity, and enchantment. Just look at his female figures, so richly varied in movement!

In summary: In Joachim Dunkel we have before our eyes an artist who, conscious of tradition - but never obedient to tradition - has gone his very special way apart from all "innovatism". What he left behind deserves admiration because it substantially enriches us.