Martin Dammann’s paintings haunt me. In 2007 I first visited the Berlin-based artist at his studio-home. On the floor was a vast, ethereal water colour of four ghostly German soldiers relaxing beside a Belgian beach, silhouetted against the wide English Channel. The source of the image – a small, faded, black-and-white 1917 snapshot -- was pinned to the wall. The photograph itself was unremarkable yet, re-rendered in Dammann’s startling emotive colours, it was transformed into one of the most arresting paintings I’ve seen.
Back then Dammann told me that he felt an intimacy with the soldiers, in part because ‘I know something they know, and this exchange draws me both into their time, and into a timeless place. I try to convey my emotional response through the intuitive use of colour.’
Dammann has long been fascinated by unknown, amateur (usually black and white) snapshots of war – not the raw, violent familiar images of battle -- which he then interprets in his paintings, instilling strong emotion, shocking colour and a sense of mystery. His objective isn’t to keep the past alive but rather to use it as a mirror for the present, to reflect his own identity. Like Howard Hodgkin, he creates ‘representational pictures of emotional situations’ (to quote Hodgkin).
Last month I visited Dammann in his new studio at Funkhaus Berlin, a vast artists’ colony inside East Germany’s former radio headquarters. He put down his brushes to show me works for a show opening later this week at Vienna’s Georg Kargl Gallery. As usual his paintings surprised me, this time because the soldiers had vanished.
‘All my life I’ve taken family photographs,’ he told me. ‘But I’d never used them in my painting for I only captured the good moments, which in a way were too beautiful for watercolours. Then in 2012 I took a photograph of my father asleep in a chair, with his head thrown back, surrounded by other images of me and my sisters. I thought this is how he’ll look when he is dead. Instantly I knew that I could use the image, the darkness, in a watercolour.’
Dammann’s Vienna show – as recent exhibitions at both Berlin’s Barbara Thumm and the InSitu Gallery in Paris – focuses on his personal watercolours, yet frames them against historical images from the first half of the 20th century. For example a new haunting painting of a towering house -- which overlooks the Belgian beach where his four German soldiers posed for the camera in 1917 – is juxtaposed with a shocking, wartime photograph of a burning building.
At the gallery entrance will hang a menacing, original portrait of an arrogant 1919 Berlin Freiwillge Bürgerwehr (civil defence) monitor. ‘Look at his face; it’s too soft for him to have served in the trenches,’ said Dammann. ‘He avoided the war, and now he’s making up for it. He was dangerous. I plan to play a little acid light across his eyes and upper body, to show how the emotions are working in him.’
Elsewhere in the Vienna show, an unknown actress – perhaps a Second World War troop entertainer – balances a parasol on her forehead beside a watercolour of Dammann’s father standing on the dining room table, surrounded by his family, changing a fused light bulb.
In 2008, Dammann told me that he and Germany have a ‘parallel history’. For him, the catastrophe of the Third Reich have provided ‘the value system of all Germans with some sort of negative foil which forms a basis which is often forgotten or not acknowledged. It’s a chapter of our history which leaves me bewildered and estranged: the events of those years are clear and must be judged. Like other Germans, I come across this incredible knot – this contemporary problem – all the time, which I believe is at the root of my preoccupation with that period.’
Today, after the years of searing reflection, he has loosened that knot, and found the freedom to move forward into a new world. His work – and the photographs which he chooses – continue to capture an unexpected, indistinct and poignant feeling of something invisible, something of special meaning, and an echo of meaning that somehow remains.