D.he face with white make-up and something pointed like a sugar hat on his head, reminiscent of clown hats by Pierrot or Pulcinella, a man in the photo series “April Fool 2020” wanders through deserted streets and past empty shelves in supermarkets. It is the photo artist Erwin Olaf – in the role of the slightly crazy, with whom he reacted to the virus shock last year. The dance on the volcano was over, said Olaf at the time, “the house of cards is collapsing, we are all fools”.
The artists are even more so, fooled by a situation that left many, robbed of their audience, in the void. But if one sees in the artist the one who holds up the mirror to society, as the court jester once did to his ruler, then with Erwin Olaf one is at the right place. Only after completing his training as a journalist did he decide to express himself in pictures about current social situations rather than in texts and to deal with issues of dealing with each other in works that are dedicated to bodies with the same passion as feelings.
“Joy” is still a cult today
At home, in Holland, Erwin Olaf, who was born in Hilversum in 1959, is a star; even the royal family posed for his camera for official shots. It was a commissioned work, the only one that can be seen in the Munich exhibition, his first major retrospective in Germany. The rest are free works, but there, too, Olaf remains true to the imagery characterized by high-gloss aesthetics and technical perfection that he uses for fashion and advertising photography in his job.
And then there is a provocative coolness, a moment of provocation, underlaid with an outrageous joke. It could look like this, for example: A young man, naked, his face ecstatically enraptured, hides his abdomen with a bottle from which wild champagne foams out. “Joy” is the name of the picture, was created in 1985, made Olaf famous in one fell swoop and is still a cult today. It comes from photo series on the Amsterdam gay and colorful gender scene, for which he propagated tolerance and saw the attack on encrusted moral concepts as the best means of defense. This also applies to “powerlifting”, the shot of a very stout, undressed bouncer who dangles a tied guy from her forearm.
Diversity fills entire series
Olaf’s early work speaks of great admiration for Robert Mapplethorpe’s explicitly sexualized pictures, but he was also inspired by old masters, for example for the series “Ladies Hats”, which has been going on for twenty-five years, with extravagant creations like those from Rembrandt’s pictures – only that they include androgynous youths show mannered lascivious expression. You don’t necessarily have to like that, but it’s impressive how Olaf consistently and incessantly undermines the popular concepts of masculinity. His interest in diversity fills entire series, appeals against exclusion and for acceptance and respect.
Sometimes they are linked to specific events. Outraged by the Mayor of Cologne after New Year’s Eve 2015/16, who reprimanded women instead of men and demanded that they prevent sexual assault by keeping an arm’s length away from the men, Olaf photographed a woman in a bra with an outstretched arm and slacked off Make a two and a half meter high wooden sculpture for the picture, with scorch marks on the legs, which stir up associations with witch burnings.
Already at the turn of the millennium, Olaf’s pictorial cosmos had calmed down a bit. Large-format series were filled with a mysterious silence, often unsettling and “incredibly beautiful” – as Anja Huber, the curator, titled her exhibition for the Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung.
For refined stories, Olaf has built sophisticated backdrops down to the smallest detail in the studio. They provide ample food for the imagination. For example, in the series “Hope”, which seems to lead to America in the 1950s and shows people who remain withdrawn, as if frozen, a woman in her sparkling clean kitchen in front of a flower cup and a nibbled piece of cake. These pictorial narratives remain open-ended, but are by no means as opaque as scenes that were created in places in Berlin with a history. In the Stadtbad Neukölln, where Joseph Goebbels once swam, a sad clown in silver pumps stands on the one-meter board, in his hand a sealed letter for the bather who sits rigidly at the edge of the pool. What’s going on here and what’s next? Who will say that. Sometimes the joy of surreal brain teasers actually seems greater than the intention of conveying content. The look in “Clärchen’s Ballhaus” at three scantily clad, worn-out women who could have stepped straight out of a painting by Otto Dix is also puzzling. They look sadly at a young girl who, turning her gaze to the viewer, withdraws from the situation.
Olaf created the series “Im Wald” especially for the exhibition, a novelty in his work, because it was here that he took photos outdoors for the first time, in the German and Austrian Alps.
Overwhelmed by the mountains, he is quoted as saying, he said that he has finally understood German romanticism. But more than Caspar David Friedrich, the recordings are reminiscent of Arnold Böcklin and his “island of the dead” when a boat with black figures glides over a calm lake. It goes without saying that Erwin Olaf also breaks this model: the ferryman is tattooed from head to toe and wears seppel pants, the two women he drives are wrapped in niqabs. In this way they lead the viewer back to the present of our globalized world, including migration problems.
Erwin Olaf – incredibly beautiful. Art gallery Munich; until September 26th. The catalog, published by Hatje Cantz, costs 40 €.