Tattoo

Hemma Schmutz

It always comes as a surprise to discover human figures in the graphic-abstract universe of Otto Zitko. Sometimes it is a face or another part or parts of mostly female bodies, which are rather explicitly integrated into the pictures. In US-American museums the entrances to rooms with sexually charged images are marked with signs warning the visitors of the “explicit material”. Europe has always been somewhat more liberal in these matters, but here too collections of erotica are hidden away in gentlemen’s studies, tucked away in a folder and placed in a cabinet.

Following the publication of Hetärengespräche by Gustav Klimt and the publication of similar material by Egon Schiele where female models were depicted with their legs wide open, allowing a view of their “private parts”, these kinds of pictures became canonised as an important part of Austrian art history. In her performance piece Genitalpanik (1969), VALIE EXPORT permitted men to gaze upon the female sex, while at the same time defending women’s sexuality with a gun in her hand. Ever since Gustave Courbet’s L’origine du monde (1866) the realistic presentation of the vulva has been a recurring topic in Western paintings. However, abstractions have always been part of figurative illustrations in various cultures, from the very beginnings of human efforts in creative expression. Examples for this type of illustration can still be found nowadays in public toilets.

Pythia, the title of Zitko’s nine-piece portfolio of lithographs, hints at the female connotation of the series and serves as a background for an interpretation which is charged and ambiguous. Pythia was the name of the priestesses who presided over the Oracle of Delphi, giving prophecies to people in search of advice. The priestesses would sit above a crevice that emitted ethylene gas thus putting them in a trance. In this state they spoke in mysterious voices and tongues, and the (male) priests had to interpret these utterances. Yet, in a male-dominated society, these virgin women, even in their privileged role as priestesses, were only mediums and did not have a position of power.

The idea that being in a trance, i.e. losing control, brings one closer to a sphere of “truth” is present in many (Earth) religions. Since the surrealism, artists have been trying to access those parts of the personality which are suppressed by the intellect, for example through écriture automatique – although the doodles we make while talking on the phone would do just as well. The artists try to analyse these “texts” in a process similar to Freud’s interpretation of dreams. Is it too bold to state that the artist is a medium and that an external voice manifests itself through his body? Is it really an external voice or is it rather an innermost voice which is very much a part of the artist himself?

We all know the surprisingly spiritually charged genesis of abstract art in the early years of the 20th century. One of the originators, Frantisek Kupka, had worked as a medium in his youth, and in his later abstract paintings he always emphasised the spiritual character of his works. We learn similar things about Malevich, Kandinsky and Mondrian. Maurice Tuchmann perfectly analysed this pattern of development in his book The Spiritual in Art (1).

The association string “earth-crevice-woman-vulva” only becomes interesting through being transferred to the male artist, thus giving the traditional gender ratio a new, powerful dynamic. If the artist is the medium, i.e. the Pythia and the authoress is the interpreter – what is then left to be prophesied? In Zitko’s works the ambivalence between the seemingly wild, chaotic and spontaneous gestures of his lines and his controlled, deliberately structured elements offer a mine of interpretations. Is there such a thing as deliberately created spontaneity? What kind of balance is there between conscious control and freely flowing lineaments? One may say that certain forms reappear throughout his entire oeuvre, such as oval shapes that usually break the limits of the image and are not illustrated in their complete form. These are mostly found in his paintings, drawings and graphic works rather than in his wall paintings. But this recurring shape does not seem to immediately divulge any secrets: “However, the crevice, the holes, the zones do not reveal anything: the gaze does not penetrate, instead it glides along the distances, following the cracks.”(2)

It almost seems that not seeing or not being able to see anything is the source of the constantly repeating act of seeking, which continues incessantly, restarting again and again. The point where a full stop is placed in one painting seems to be the beginning of another. The target of the inscription – led by the body of the artist and conducted in his own characteristic style through his hand as a medium – is always the body, which is being touched by the pen or crayon: “The body is a thing which is open. And in order to open up, it has first to be closed, and one has to touch this closed thing. And to touch the closed thing already implies the act of opening up. Maybe there never is an opening up without touching [un toucher] or being touched [une touche]. And opening – touching – does not mean tearing, breaking or destroying.”(3)

In Otto Zitko’s art the body as an addressee has never before been so figuratively represented and explicitly visible than in the figurative illustration in the above-mentioned series of graphic works. It is not with the destructive power of Kafka’s short story In der Strafkolonie (In the Penal Colony) that Zitko inscribes himself into other bodies, but with a gentle scratching on the skin, like a red, fragile tattoo – as sported by the girl in a portrait in the series – which is imprinted on the shoulder of the artist’s counterpart.

Notes:
1 Maurice Tuchmann, The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting, 1890-1985, New York, 1986.
2 Jean-Luc Nancy, Corpus, New York, 1992 (translation from the German)
3 ibid.

This text was published in: Otto Zitko – Pythia, Edition Antagon No. 2, Salzburg 2008, ps. 11–13.