Text zur Ausstellung „The Last Summer“ von Christine Poullain







Dr. Michael Meyer in Conversation with Nina Hannah Kornatz
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Search Movements Without Searching

A Conversation With the Painter Nina Hannah Kornatz  

Just before the outbreak of Wold War I, the draughtsman Paul Klee travelled to Tunisia. The landscape there was a revelation for him, and he returned from this trip as a painter. In April 1914, he wrote, “It penetrates me so deeply and mildly, I feel it and become so sure, without effort. The colour has me. I don’t need to chase it. I has me forever, I know that. That is the meaning of the happy hour: I and colour are one. I am a painter.”

Did you also have such an experience, moments of which you might say that colour had you and that from then on you were a painter?


Actually, above all there was a moment when I knew that I didn’t want to become that. As a child, I went to a museum of painting with my mother and a friend of hers. It was horrible for me. I remember saying afterward, “Seriously. How can you look at paintings! That is so terribly boring!”

At about 13, I started to draw and paint.

At 18, I went to Paris for the first time. At the time, I was working on a copy of Otto Dix’s The Journalist, because I thought the painting with its different garish reds and Sylvia von der Harden’s spider-like distorted hands was weird. I really took great pains with painting this picture, which I painted from a postcard, as usual. And actually I was quite happy with my work. Since I was in Paris, of course I wanted to see the original in the Centre Pompidou. When I stood in front of the painting, it was like an epiphany. My goodness, my copy was shitty! It was also the first time that I shed a few tears in front of a painting, partly out if despair over how wrong I had been, in spite of all my efforts, how presumptuous my attempt had been, and partly because of how many emotions a painting can transport.

Dix’s work is painted very skilfully, delicately, and almost translucently. The whole character of Sylvia von Harden, with all her fragility and strength, is inherent in the paint. And I was impressed that the work does not hide the process of painting – a pencil drawing of a clothes rack on the corner is simply painted over and yet shines through the superimposed paint. It was rejected as a wrong decision, and simply painted over. Still visible? Who cares! Great. And all of this can be seen on a plane surface in the form of a painting.

To come back to the quotation by Klee you mentioned: colour has always fascinated me, I love colour, and it’s no accident that today I teach colour theory – I understand Klee’s feelings all too well.

But the moment when a painting manages to render itself and the beholder emotionally naked – that preoccupies me. And it is much more difficult to be emotionally touched by a painting than, say, by a piece of music. It requires from the beholder a great willingness to engage in contemplation. In my existential, adolescent mood at the time, I said I wanted to paint at least ONE “good” painting in my life. Today, that makes me hope that I will grow very old.


It is difficult to produce emotional closeness through painting not just because it appeals to the sense of seeing and must therefore – unlike listening and much more so than smelling and tasting – overcome the distance inherent in the visual. And then there is the difficulty of breaking through the rituals of current habits of seeing. For the picture to get under your skin, to render itself and the beholder naked, as you put it so nicely, what is seen must be perceived in a different way than a graphic user interface. The visual must be understood differently than viewing a website, where a smooth and quick manoeuvrability counts as a good “user experience”. The norm today is seeing without seeing. Or put differently: seeing means immediately understanding. The painting, on the other hand, must seduce us to perceive more intensely – and that means first of all: more slowly –, to remain in a state of incomprehension. But the painting must then also accommodate this taking pause by offering the unfolding of an experience, a non-verbal address. If you want: the painting as a complex emoticon. Here, seeing gets to know itself as looking.

In this sense, Paul Klee’s remark is important, who saw the advantage of painting compared to music in the fact that the painting can counter the banal passing of time with a polyphonic simultaneity, a time period. To formulate this in a formula: the visual as time period becomes emotional and achieves the quality of an animation or ensoulment. Klee aims at a dream-like effect of paintings. They dream at you.

That sounds wonderful. I work on my paintings usually for several weeks on various levels and overpaintings. I always notice that people ask how much time it takes me to do a painting. I find that difficult to answer, because I don’t see the process of painting as chronological time; it exists outside of this perception – just as I don’t read a book and record exactly how much time it has taken me. A painting is for me like a book, except that the entire story is told on one surface. Here it is of course interesting for me that moods or emotions change over time.

Photographs function as a kind of note of the present, painting is more of a mesh or weave of present things. Dream-like is a lovely word for that; dreams are after all also a way of sort of processing the complex present.

The painting as a weave of the present: I think that is a very successful metaphor. How does this process work in your performative exhibitions where you cut your works apart. How does that feel? And are there differences between the various destructions of your art?


In fact, people frequently ask me whether I don’t find it difficult to “destroy” my works. To be honest, I don’t find it easy to answer that question, because for me, the work is not “destroyed” in any brutal sense. I also don’t have an emotion about this that I could articulate, because at that moment I find it necessary to open up a new space for the work. To transform it.

In 2013, I started to cut up old works and assemble them in a new way. On the one hand, I was unhappy with my usual methods of composition and their painterly realization, learned at the academy, and on the other hand the newspapers were full of pictures of destruction through wars and natural disasters on hitherto unknown scales. At that time it seemed so meaningless to keep working as figuratively as I had done. The whole world seemed to fragment. So these two things influenced each other.
The two large performative works temporary rage (2015) and make a wish (2017) go one step further, they are not mere collages, they involve the audience at the exhibition very directly.

The experience of fragmentation is a topos that became classic in modernity, it becomes clear in Romanticism and its longing for a “new myth” increasingly occupying the minds. The most striking feature of the last century was the effect of the counter-reaction to fragmentation in the form of quite different movements of totality, led by the national and communist ones. Our era must ask how to counter increasing fragmentation without ideologies of the total, but also without a postmodern affirmation of mere diversity. It seems condemned to having to invent a global integrity. Adorno’s idea that the total is the untrue, and that art with its “shocks of the incomprehensible” should enlighten our view of the administered worlds, is no longer valid today. To put it somewhat grandly, art must face the civilizational task of making contingent freedom understandable as the chance for an “inner space of the world” – Rilke’s term is Weltinnenraum. No “meta-narratives”, but the beginnings of success stories that go all out.

In this respect, I thought your work Temporary Rage from 2016, where you didn’t just cut up a work of yours in St. Petersburg, but also exchanged the individual parts for works by other artists, was an interesting contribution. The public fragmentation of art was here sublated from an uninhibited display of the general fragmentation to a possible form of being connected. Rage becomes a gift: here as a gesture of an aesthetic exchange economy. Your performative works seem to me therefore like search movements for an etiquette of fragmentation. What significance does the form of figurative painting now have for you? And what kind of relationship do you have to your older, figurative works?

Actually, a really good one. I never turned completely away from figurative painting. I had just the personal feeling that I reached walls that I needed to break through or climb over. As mentioned before, for a short while I couldn’t see the point of purely figurative painting – often that is a good moment to sort yourself out again.

In my diploma thesis, I changed a quotation by Brigitte Paulino-Neto  from La Mélancoli du geographe, and replaced “geographer” with “artist”: “How often did I say that – quite apart from any kind of deformation professionelle – the main characteristic of the artist is, in my opinion, that he gets lost on strange terrain… because the artist is a lost person. Because he is willing to admit that he lost his way, and admit his tendency to explore distant places without moving at all.”

The way you put it – the problem is how to face the multiplicity that apparently keeps increasing (just think of social media , and it’s creation of pictures), well, that opens up many paths.

I think, in my work the issue is not primarily to decide for or against figuration or abstraction; I see the terms at most as poles, like black and white – without the one, you don’t get the other.


I’m interested in how your search movements lead to your subjects. What influences your choice of motif, say in the series Siegen or Baden?


When as a child I was allowed to pick my own clothes, I slowly realized that there is something like different tastes. To adults, that seems logical – like this, don’t like that.

But where does that come from? Even today, when I’m shopping for clothes, I sometimes perhaps think, oh my, that is quite ugly. And I can be sure that five minutes later I will be back looking at exactly that piece of clothing. Because something about it I found quite jarring. The same thing often happens when I’m in museums or exhibitions. I want to have to have that experience of being perturbed. That leads me to the question of which pictures from the media or art history do I pick to work with, which personal experience do I want to process. What triggers emotions for me? And how do I deal with them?

I try not to force that. You pretty much hit the nail on the head with your term “search movements”. Just without the searching. So I quite often find my subjects quite accidentally, because they do something to me. And primarily, I try to find out what that is, and whether that will also work for others through my work.

Your working process can be understood as an explorative getting lost, a semi-controlled exposure to wherever your creativity takes you. Modernity is full of this image of the artist as an egomaniacal excess of creativity, starting with Byron.

I don’t want to point to the negative aspects – that artistic genius can be easily sold as empty pseudo-transcendence, and is frequently identical with economic and political extravagancies and irresponsibilities that made history as rage about the fragmentized world, especially in the last century. I’m more interested in a high notion of aesthetic creativity and the question of non-imperious charisma of the extraordinary. Kierkegaard’s small text Of the Difference Between a Genius and an Apostle from 1847 has always been helpful to me. He explains there that both the genius and the apostle keep doing things that seem “paradoxical” to their contemporaries. Only that the apostle has authority from “above” for his paradoxes. What he has to say was given to him as a revelation. The genius on the other hand is paradoxical on his or her own. The only authority he can find must come from within himself. 

NHK. That doesn’t sound paradoxical to me. To put it quite pragmatically, everybody is more or less imprisoned in the inner space of his or her skull.


Kierkegaard’s view of this imprisonment is a positive one. For him, the inventiveness of the genius is a “humorous contentedness”, he finds in his creativity a happiness that needs nobody else and that also doesn’t demand from anybody else that they should make him happy. This contentedness of the genius can however also be understood completely differently. To go back to the quotation by Brigitte Paulino-Neto: the genius gets lost in paradoxes, without any clarifying transcendental aid. He exposes itself to the imprisonment in himself. That isn’t pure fun. But he intentionally exposes himself to this most inherent constriction, as Celan once put it, because he has learned that powers are at work inside him – pent-up life, moods – that want to take on this risk of outmoded paradox. And the creative person here need not understand her actions heroically as a lonely exposure. The artist need not be a transcendentally exposed individual genius, she can also be a successor and ancestor, as part of a tradition of the paradoxical. The imitation of the greatness that existed before protects her from the idiocy of weltschmerz. The genius’s productive powers are then less independent and original, but they are taut, striving towards something higher. This rather more receptive genius is then sanctioned not so much from “above”, but from “behind”, from the past. The image of the dwarf climbing on the shoulders of giants is quite appropriate here. In spite of his smallness, he manages, by taking advantage of a greatness that already exists, to get further than the great ones before him.

NHK: Yes, that’s right.


The hope in this climbing manoeuvre is to be able to offer something presentable as a good continuation and something that can be continued further, based on the surplus of expression and stress, on one’s own standards informed by traditions, and on one’s own work discipline. This artistic transformation and continuation pays witness to what it is like to be touched by the world in a certain time, touched so much that there is still enough air and space for surpluses of creativity. In her good works, the artist thus proves herself to be an apostle of immanence. In this way, the genius as a good imitator becomes the harbinger of a freedom that can also be available to our time: an authentic meeting of life and spirit.


What you are describing here is of course an ideal. In practice, it probably sometimes looks rather less romantic. My creator, I prefer that word to genius, sometimes has a cold, sometimes doesn’t feel like getting up in the morning, or has to write mails. So often enough, life and spirit stand in their own way.

Sometimes you also ask yourself why you do this art thing to yourself. It’s unhealthy. It’s stressful. It takes you to your limit.

But if somebody from the outside asks me how long I “work” everyday, all I can say is: always. That’s simply how it is, I hardly ever think of anything else. To make art isn’t work, in my opinion it’s a decision.

So I see it as an enormous privilege to be able to do what I do, and it’s terribly important to me to have others participate in this intense process.