My road to painting has been as tenacious as half-dried oil paint on a palette.
My road to painting has been as tenacious as half-dried oil paint on a palette.
I have been painting for as long as I can remember, obsessively covering canvas after canvas with oil paint- enthusiastic and obstinate, yet without any technical skills or art historical context. The results reached from Pollock to Fontana- without ever having heard these names or having seen their work. My family didn’t have much contact with fine art, there were no weekend visits to the museum or holidays trips to Florence. Instead I got the regular walk-about of my father’s firm while my mothers operetta music billowed through our living room.
Art was not considered a feasible career option in our house. My mother as a failed opera singer made an admonishing example, and found her sole outlet and nostalgic stage after the right dose of champagne and wine, entertaining my father's business dinner parties.
After the family business selling luxury sanitation failed in the grand and dramatic manner so inherent to our family, the question of what career path I should follow suddenly became acute. My destiny as junior chief executive was suddenly passé, and I must admit - my personal grief was limited. After copious discussions that could be summed up with “we will only pay for a proper education” we settled on the quintessential compromise “Design Management”. At least I would be studying at an art school, a Parisian branch of the Parsons School of Design. My study program was perfectly designed to supply wealthy American heiresses with the right conversational material for future charity events. A bit of art history here, a dash of business theory there - also very handy to saddle up for future divorce battles.
It was a pretty depressing time. My educational path felt pointless and unchallenging, leaving me with sufficient time for drinking, cocaine and spending my parent’s money. If I was going to be
forced to waste my time, at least I would make it hurt. It felt incredibly wrong spending time on the sidelines of an art school - in button-up shirts, chinos and Tods next to the dusty and oil splattered art students who found us business students suspicious at best. Milton Friedman instead of nude drawing.
At least I was in Paris, and it was the legend and heritage of this city that really put me in touch with fine art for the first time. My art history classes gave me a reason to get up in the morning. I devoured Arthur Hauer’s “Social History of Art and Literature”, carrying it around for years as my personal bible. I spent hours at the museums, I loved it all, as long as it was paint on wood or canvas, no matter what style or era.
I would sneak past the gothic paintings, delighting in all the grotesque little hell creatures, slowly drifting towards the early Renaissance, past Ucello’s crude yet striking “Battle of San Romano”, pleasantly anticipating the all-encompassing monumental works like Veronese’s “Wedding Feast of Cana” or Delacroix’s “The Death of Sardanapalus”.
I ended up spending my first summer semester in Madrid, at the premise of collecting some marketing credits and leaving this cursed education in the rear view mirror. I mainly went to Madrid to speed up my studies and please my father- anything academic for him was just a means to an end. You get your ticket into occupational life, and that is that, a giant waste of time and money otherwise. How I ended up taking daily painting classes in Madrid instead I am not entirely sure, but those 6 weeks where some of the best of my life so far.
I reveled in Madrid’s fabulous melancholy. The city is like a newly impoverished baroness, maintaining her grace and composure despite her more than critical financial reality. Coincidentally I ran into someone I knew from a past ski trip the first few days of my trip, and albeit I admittedly couldn’t remember his name or who he was, he offered me his apartment free of charge for the rest of the summer, while he buzzed off to his summer residence in Malaga. It seemed that nobody had paid the rent or upkeep on this place for years, and the majestic decaying apartment in one of Madrid’s best neighborhoods was as gigantic as it was cluttered and filthy.
The city was hot and stifling, it seemed like everyone had fled and I had the perfectly air conditioned Prado and Reina Sofia all to myself. It was there that I had my first “spiritual”
experience with art, if you want to call it that. I was standing in front of Zurbaran’s monks, when suddenly a wave of reverence and awe washed over me. My entire body began to tingle, my focus shifted, simultaneously zooming in on every little detail and soaking up the painting in its entirety. I could sense every pore of my body, it felt like I was dematerializing, stepping away from my own physical form.
Ever since this day, if I have sufficient time and leisure, I can transport myself back into this space of being, let myself be enveloped by a painting, lose myself in this meditative state. All I have to do is focus very closely on a little detail, a single masterfully executed brush stroke, some perfect imperfection on the canvas, and this strong physical sensation will begin to overcome me. To this day museums and galleries are a timeless space for me, you step inside and the world stands still. It’s as if I wasn’t walking but instead hovering through the corridors, past Rembrandt's crude brush strokes, Velazquez dynamic fall of folds and fabrics, Caravaggio’s masterful play of light.
My return to Paris and the tedious and much-loathed business lectures, led to my regress into old unhealthy living patterns and ultimately to a complete meltdown, followed by several weeks at an in-patient clinic in Germany. In classic Jans-ean manner I had flamboyantly and irrevocably made the point to my father that I needed to do something fulfilling and engaging with my own life - or else.
Without a viable portfolio to speak of, it took a very passionate address to the dean of my university, ultimately leading to my change in majors - I was finally able to enroll in the fine arts “Foundation” program, based on the Bauhaus principles and covering everything from sculpture, to sketching and material sciences. The workload was heavy and left little time for sleep or leisure - it was the best time of my young life.
During that time I met my good friend Christophe Lopez-Huici. While most students where sitting alone in their tiny Parisian bedrooms, sketching until their hands were sore and falling into self-despair, we cheerfully turned the night into day, taking on each task swiftly and with good humor while keeping our blood alcohol level steady. In between we took naps in university corners or had a “steak frites” at the neighborhood brasserie.
After these formative years my path into life as an artist should have been made, but a year later at the Parsons School of Design in New York it were my well-meaning friends and roommates who, in my parents stead, talked me into taking the more “feasible” route of “Communication Design” over fine art studies - first figure out how to make money, you can always paint later.
I signed up for communication design without really knowing what that was. I was mostly interested in the animation and motion graphics classes, but instead of colorful eye candy I produced a series of existential video montages on MiniDV accompanied by disturbing sound collage. My graduation piece was far from the slick TV station material we were supposedly getting groomed for -instead I produced a painfully lengthy on-stage theater discourse about my rather shallow perception of American culture. The piece borrowed the Thomas Couture title “The Americans of the Decadence” and was inspired by artists like McCarthy, complete with lots of fake blood and exposed genitalia. There was a Jesus with Mickey Mouse ears, carrying a cross covered in dollar bills, singing a duet with a Britney Spears double who was riding a giant Prozac pill like an electric bull. It was a potpourri of bad taste and exaggerated clichés.
Since I was well aware that the end of my studies would definitely coincide with the end of my fatherly support, my roommates and I founded an animation studio during our last year at university. After two years of Ritalin abuse and snoozing off to the humming sounds of Mac vents in our apartment-turned-studio, my first burnout ended this business venture rather abruptly.
The company moved to Switzerland later on and became rather successful, but I was glad to be out and allocated my last savings to surviving in New York for another 6 months. During this time Christoph Lopez Huici and I worked on our “Puppets Projects”, which we managed to place at a couple of group shows and even a side-fair of Art Basel Miami.
2006 was the year I returned to Germany, making my way to Berlin at last. After a quick pit-stop in German daytime television as a full-time “OnAir designer”, I decided to finally take the jump into life as a freelancer and artist. I had arrived in the situation I had always envisioned, finally having the space and time to paint full-time, which lead to the biggest “painters-block” of my life. Problem number one was, my training as a painter was virtually non-existent. Passion and devotion are two fine things, but if all they result in are canvas after canvas covered in indecisive brown oil-paint muck, the process is doomed to become rather frustrating.
The act of painting itself has always filled me with joy. While painting, I was completely at ease with myself - the problem was, I was never at ease with the fruits of my labor. It was “l’art pour l’art” at its finest, and almost all my works ultimately made their way into the landfill. Painting was my life, and at the same time I had zero perspective of turning this passion into a livelihood. I was ready to risk everything and put all my chips on the art card, but my hand was not very promising. Unless brownish-grey oil-paint-mud was going to be en-vogue very soon, I was screwed. I felt ridiculous and like a freak, clinging to an untimely art form, which on top, I couldn’t even master!
I was like an opera singer passionately and fervently hitting all the wrong notes.
Problem number two was trying to find some sort of subject or unifying concept for my scattered body of work. The few paintings that could be recognized as such, were rather figurative - and that was a move onto very thin ice for me. I wanted my art to have some sort of recognizable meaning - be it personal experience, humor, politics or whatever. But my search for the “red thread” always got me entangled in the emotional and intellectual brain-trash that had accumulated throughout my life, and it took me a lot of negotiation and 7 years of psychoanalysis to even partially step away from this mess.
In a way I am almost happy my painters block kept me from covering even more canvases with pseudo-intellectually charged junk, most of the time my deliberation on a certain topic just got me deeply depressed and avoiding the studio altogether. The more I think about it now, too much meaning or message in painting annoys me.
It feels completely irrelevant and overly intentional. Painting functions on an entirely different plane than other art forms for me.
To this day I really don’t care if its a shriveled old Habsburger, Abraham or Maria with child that’s depicted - a good painting works on an immaterial and elevated plane for me. Whether the subject is religious, mythological or worldly, it has always carried a highly spiritual meaning for me, something the artist itself might not even be able to control or grasp. Again I see the similarities to opera - I dare to claim that few people are actually moved by the soap-opera-like storylines; it is the sonic grandeur and ethereal experience that gives the listener goose-bumps.
I decided the technical hurdles of my painting practice where probably the easier ones to tackle, and during my search for a mentor or institution that could offer me a more technical education and help me develop my skill-set, I quite literally stumbled into the studio of Edward B. Gordon
one day while taking a walk. Following his advice, I enrolled in the summer program of the Angel Academy of Arts in Florence, one of the few public school programs teaching old classical painting techniques today. For me this course felt like a quantum leap - albeit it was depressing to be the youngest, most impatient and thus the initially worst student in a class full of retired housewives.
Emulating Velazquez and Vermeer, and beginning to grasp their technical approach to layering, light and structure was a complete revelation, and quickly seemed to get me out of my initial rut. Excited and enthused I returned to Berlin and rented a large and light-flooded studio space from a friend who ran a contemporary gallery next door- only to quickly realize that problem number two was still very real. I now was more confident in my technical abilities, but the close vicinity to other contemporary art I had so swiftly maneuvered myself into, quickly intimidated and depressed me. I didn’t think the contemporary art around me was particularly good, to me most of it felt technically crude and rather arbitrary. It seemed to me, that most contemporary art primarily existed to intimidate and belittle the viewer, and make them feel dumb for not finding it accessible. Anything that was technically intricate or advanced, without being obviously politically or socially charged was quickly discredited as “decorative”.
The only way to avoid the ridicule of not understanding modern art seemed to be to purchase the pointless piece and then belittle your guests at dinner parties for not understanding it either. Painting began to increasingly feel like a neurotic hobby that is better kept a secret from friends and family. My freelance work as a motion graphics designer was as purposive as it was loveless at the time, and the loss of two larger clients forced me into full-time employment again.
I found myself back as a nine-to-seven employee, doing On-Air production for MTV and VIVA. At this point I hadn’t owned a TV for over 10 years and if I’m honest I was quite surprised those stations where still operating. To prepare for my job interview I had to find a friend who still had a TV set, and l lock myself in front of the screen to catch up on 10 years of painful television.
After 2,5 years of steady employment, a regular paycheck and warm bathtub holidays I began to feel restless again, yearning for time spent in the studio. Anything that wasn’t a life of full-time painting began to feel like avoidance, a bypass, another year on the back burner. Impulsively and
strategically unwise I quit my job shortly before the company went bankrupt anyways, passing on a healthy severance package to the great pleasure of the HR department.
My plan was to apply for government funding for my own company, spend the money painting in isolation for 6 months, and then take it from there. I wanted to flee into the mountains, or spend time in the Bretagne- far away from people, judgement and worldly distractions.
This romantic leap for freedom quickly turned into a tedious procession of humbling visits to the unemployment office, ending in me receiving no support whatsoever due to a formal discrepancy in my application that my case worker had overseen this entire time. I was broke, disoriented and frustrated, sitting in my kitchen in my briefs when suddenly the phone rang. On the other end of the line was a managing editor from “Spiegel TV”. He had tracked me down as the only available Designer who had been part of the rebranding of VIVA TV, and he was offering me the rebranding commission for a new TV station.
When asked whether I had a company we could run this project through, I warily glanced down at my coffee-stained boxer shorts, my kitchen sink overflowing with dirty dishes, and answered without hesitation “Of course I do, newly founded!” And to his question when he could come by my office to talk about the details I replied “We are in the process of moving right now, I will call you asap and let you know our address and availabilities”.
Less than a week later after a series of sleepless nights, the hasty founding of a company, borrowed computer screens and office furniture and the renovations of a rundown office with the help of my little sister and love affair at the time, we received the entire editorial Team of Spiegel TV who had flown in from Hamburg. I managed to sell off the alcoholics in the elevator as classic “Berlin Kreuzberg charm”, the office was still smelling like saw dust from the floors we had put down in a hurry the previous night.
Since it dawned on me the night before our presentation, that an office without employees might look suspicious, I had sent out a casting call to my entire circle of friends - or rather the people I thought would manage to show up at 9am in a halfway decent attire. Since I was convinced that 80% of the people I had called would flake in classic Berlin art scene manner, I had called a lot of people. I had underestimated the power of promoting a bunch of slackers overnight to the positions of “consultant” or “creative director”, and it turned out that most people took their new
title very serious. They arrived half an hour early, wearing sports blazers, oversized scarves and eccentric glasses, looking like a satirical reinterpretation of advertisement agency folks. They also showed up in surprisingly large numbers, and our office was buzzing like a market place in Calcutta. We had a minimum of 4 people congregating around each of our unplugged computer screens, passionately gesticulating as if they were 5 minutes away from the deadline of their lives.
While I was nervously making coffee with our brand new Nespresso machine, terrified that our cover would be blown and the company farce would be discovered, my eye was caught by a stack of design magazines my sister had ordered on ebay, and I realized she had even stuck little colorful post-its in between the pages- I was deeply impressed by her love for detail.
The coffee tasted horrible, undrinkable actually, as the machine had never been used before. Our presentation was chaotic and ill-prepared. The job never ended up happening, but for the next few months, I had to nonetheless babysit the client. The next 2 years I went from door to door, offering our services to anyone who would listen. I acquired every project I could get my hands on, and executed them to the full capacity of our two unpaid interns. Income was irregular and it cost me my everything to keep the ship moving. No holidays, no fixed income, only sporadic payouts and very mediocre work where the fruits of our labor.
The only ray of light from our daily grind where a couple of music videos we ended up shooting. It started to become evident that I would either have to quit, which would have been very unsatisfying after all the time and effort put in, or I would have to find a business partner to bring some fresh energy and perspective to the table, and finally get serious.
I had met Kai at a job interview, shortly before I started to work at MTV, and we had loosely stayed in contact. I vividly remember him advising me on my first trial day at work to go work somewhere else if I had the chance - he seemed not too enthused about the company he had been slaving away for the past years. When I saw on facebook that he too had quit his regular employment to go freelance, I reached out and invited him to lunch - a week later we were business partners.
As soon as Kai joined the company, we started to predominantly work on music videos. This didn’t necessarily fix our financial problems, we could just about hold our head above water, but at least we entered a phase in which the work started to be fun, and the results began to slowly
resemble a portfolio. Financial salvation came at the very last minute, in form of our first real advertisement job. When the call finally came, we actually had already started to look for other jobs again because Kai had been kicked out of his apartment for being months behind on rent.
Suddenly everything was happening very fast. Jobs started to come in droves- even from the UK and US markets. We suddenly had the big budgets, the business class flights, fancy hotels and ridiculous day rates. Who thinks Frederic Beigbeder exaggerates, is wrong.
However, we quickly found ourselves in a carousel of uninspired concepts, tedious conference calls and meetings, lengthy discussions about the color of the socks our protagonist should wear- of course all based on significant marketing studies and research- and cutting that part out in the final edit altogether. Good or novel ideas were uncalled for and murdered immediately.
To “make the most of the budget” you get flown out to developing countries in a grossly colonial manner, where black waiters serve you lobster and chilled imported Chardonnay so you and the other white assholes can post about your Camps Bay sunset experience on Insta Stories, absentmindedly engaging in painful small talk with the agency chick of some giant German industrial corporation, while in reality being impressed how the producer managed to rally up high-grade cocaine in a strange country this quickly. The next morning you have to have breakfast across from said producer, who is hiding his hideous hangover behind oversized aviator glasses and a trucker cap, constantly and disgustingly sniffling his nose, while explaining to you why the million dollar budget is not sufficient to paint a 10ft wall in Africa according to your vision.
In transit between shooting locations, tasteless hotel resorts and lounge restaurants, everyone is staring at their phone screens, or bad-mouthing other industry assholes - trying to actively ignore and distract from the decaying Romanian community high-rises or African slums just outside the frame.
That all this had to end in some sort of midlife crisis was to be expected. After a first Atlantic crossing under sail and 2 months of traveling across India, I felt another strong now or never moment coming on - it was time to get back to the canvas.
Since 2018, I have managed to integrate painting as a daily practice into my life by finally turning a room in my home into an atelier. This live-in studio situation makes it possible to paint for a few hours every morning before starting my work day, without losing much time in transit. My first coherent series of paintings “Things I thought and haven’t said” started to materialise, it began with the frustrated overpainting of a botched canvas. From thereon out, it just continued to burst out of me.
2001 - 2003
Parsons School of Design, Paris, France
2003 - 2005
Parsons School of Design, New York, USA
2007 - 2009