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You’ve got to feel sorry for Richard Oelze (1900-1980) – he lived through pretty much the worst that the twentieth century had to offer. The German artist fought in the trenches in World War One, and after that bounced around Europe, witnessing the rise of fascism. He fought again in World War Two, was imprisoned by the Allies, and survived, only to watch Auschwitz, Hiroshima and the Cold War unfold. Poor guy.
The earliest works in this exhibition are from the 1950s, and you get the definite sense of an artist processing the trauma of his earlier years. He’s labelled as a surrealist – having mingled with Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí in inter-war Paris – but just as important is that he trained as a cartographer. He charts the nightmarish terrain of his age in these shadowy, amorphous pictures.
Never quite abstract or figurative, these scenes have all sorts of grisly associations: mustard gas, heaped graves, burns victims. They’re painted with tempered precision, they have the graininess of archive film footage. ‘In Lieu of Flowers and Blood’ is a terrifying mass of conjoined faces – except they’re not quite faces. Oelze doesn’t do specifics. The dread in his work has the vagueness of dreams that are about to get seriously dark.
Part of me wonders how he would have dealt with the falling rubble of 9/11. Part of me is really glad he never did. This two-room show brings a welcome focus to Oelze’s incredible work – but he deserves a proper retrospective.