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  • Video

    Sigmar Polke 'Carnival', 1979

    “Titled ‘Carnival’ and painted in 1979, it is best to understand the context in which the painting was executed: Polke in the 70’s was immersed in a culture of taking on both lovers and mind-altering substances, an important insight into his state of mind when looking at work from this time.” Sigmar Polke's 'Carnival', 1979 to be offered in our Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 29 June in London.

  • Provenance

    Private Collection, Belgium
    Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York
    Private Collection
    Christie's, London, Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Auction, 14 October 2010, Lot 35
    Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

  • Catalogue Essay

    The carnival has a deep-rooted history in European thought. The Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin rose to prominence in 1965 with Rabelais and His World; this groundbreaking analysis of the late medieval author proposed that the carnival offered an interlude during which the social conventions of quotidian existence were briefly suspended, allowing a crucial outpouring of dormant frustrations and desires.

    In the present lot, Sigmar Polke takes up this radical notion and brings it into potent dialogue with his own practice. In the 1960s, Polke instigated the Kapitalistischer Realismus (Capitalist Realism) movement along with Gerhard Richter and Wolf Vostell. This uniquely German Pop permutation was an ironic celebration of the country’s buoyant postwar economy, standing in direct opposition to the Socialist Realism that was popularised and endorsed by the Communist party. These artists mocked the anodyne optimism of materially prosperous society, positioning their work as a kind of anti-art; they rebutted advertising culture, training their attention on the capitalist illusion of freedom by which social conservatism is reinforced. Polke and his contemporaries sought out the very freedoms that Bakhtin associated with the carnivalesque.

    ‘The hierarchical background and the extreme corporative and caste divisions of the medieval social order were exceptionally strong. Therefore such free, familiar contracts were deeply felt and formed an essential element of the carnival spirit. People were, so to speak, reborn for new, purely human relations. These truly human relations were not only a fruit of imagination or abstract thought; they were experienced. The utopian ideal and the realistic merged in this carnival experience, unique of its kind.’ (Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World (1965), trans. Helene Iswolsky, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1984, p.10).

    Karneval inverts expectations of conventional portraiture. Polke bodies forth a kind of surrealist accretion populated by the ghosts of Socialist Realism, the icons of consumerist complacency, and his own somnolent likeness. All are levelled onto the same picture plane in a pageant of dreamlike and shifting perspectives. A demand is made of the viewer to filter through numerous physical and conceptual layers in order to assemble a visual coherence. A strangely enfeebled self-portrait is doubled, tripled, quadrupled as layers recede. In the pictorial foreground, he is nestled against a clown-like figure; in the second layer, he is faceless, held at knifepoint by a crazed aggressor; yet deeper, he is pressed fourfold against a quadrangle of Socialist Realist heroes. The würst dangling carrot-like from the clown’s cap figures an ironic sanctification of German consumer culture akin to Warhol’s Coca-Cola or Campbell’s soup can, while a worried TV audience hovers nervously beneath.

    To decode this dizzying array of imagery, we can return to Bakhtin; there is a striking congruence between his ideas and the progressive anti-rationalism of Polke. The artist wrote that 'We must create a world of free and equal phenomena, a world in which things are finally allowed to form relationships once again, relationships liberated from the bonds of servile text-book causality and narrow-minded, finger-pointing consecution ... only in these relationships is it possible to find the true meaning and the true order of things.' (Sigmar Polke, 'Early Influences, Later Consequences,’ in Sigmar Polke - The Three Lies of Painting, exh. cat., Berlin, 1997, p. 290). In truly carnivalesque mode, he saw the nonsequitur and the disjunctive as methods for fresh exploration and revisionary truth.

    The hallucinogenic result of this attitude is vividly present in Karneval. A dreamlike transposition of visual strata fades in and out of focus, configuring multiple shades of perception. Beyond the historical and social depths of the image, this pluralistic, almost Cubist tactic may have its genesis in Polke’s experimentation with LSD and magic mushrooms. During the 1970s he took a psychedelic odyssey in Europe and Asia, and his dalliances with mind-altering chemicals had a profound impact on his approach to art. ‘I learned a great deal from drugs – the most important thing being that the conventional definition of reality, and the idea of “normal life,” mean nothing.’ (Sigmar Polke in Kristine McKenna, ‘Sigmar Polke’s Layered Look,’ LA Times, 3 December 1995). It was at this time that he became somewhat estranged from his early contemporary Gerhard Richter, who recounts that the two ‘grew apart from each other … He started smoking pot and taking drugs and I retreated from him because I never did that.’ (Gerhard Richter in Mary M. Lane, ‘Gerhard Richter at 82: Art is Still ‘Sublime’’, Wall Street Journal, 15 October 2014).

    However, there is more at play here than psychoactive stimuli. The ‘transparencies’ of Francis Picabia are a striking antecedent; interested in photographic techniques and optical trickery, the French Dadaist laid images atop one another in compound mirages. Polke, ever reticent on the topic of his own work, disavows art-historical influences, declaring that ‘Picabia is a very old painter who some people try to connect me to, but I refuse such comparisons very well.’ (Sigmar Polke in Kristine McKenna, ‘Sigmar Polke’s Layered Look,’ LA Times, 3 December 1995). Despite Polke’s ludic evasion, his layered figurations find philosophical analogue with Picabia’s notion of the transparencies as ‘the resemblance of my interior desires … where all my instincts may have a free course.’ (Francis Picabia in William Camfield, Francis Picabia: His Art, Life and Times, Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1979, p.233-4).

    Karneval deconstructs hierarchies. Across different artistic movements, social hegemonies and staid conventions, Polke dreams a fractal reality that radiates intellect and wit. As Michael Kimmelman avers, Polke’s works ‘mix high and low, tragic and comic, abstract and real, hallucinogenic and profane. The images approximate at once a state of mind in which divergent thoughts exist simultaneously, and a cast of mind in which no narrative, no ideology is permitted to command high ground.’ (Michael Kimmelman, ‘ART VIEW; What Is Sigmar Polke Laughing About?’, New York Times, 23 December 1990). Polke embodies the carnivalesque, and here finds lunatic insight in a lucid palimpsest of German social history.



acrylic and graphite on printed canvas
150 x 130 cm (59 x 51 1/8 in.)

£1,000,000 - 1,500,000 

Sold for £1,142,500

Contact Specialist
Peter Sumner
Head of Contemporary Art, London
[email protected]
+44 207 318 4063

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London 29 June 2015 7pm