It is nothing else than a great honor to write about the art of Tania Brassesco and Lazlo Passi Norberto. They recently received the renowned “Premio Arte Laguna” in Venice, one of the most important European prizes for young artists.

Maybe it is consequent that the first solo exhibition of Brassesco and Norberto in Germany has a German title, that evokes much more than just a relation between the artworks. The title “Sehnsucht”, translated vaguely with desire, places these pictures in a long tradition of European and German literature, philosophy and of course visual arts.

“Sehnsucht” originally means in Middle High German not only a common world feeling but a serious psychic disease with significant effect on the physique of the sufferer. This desire for a beloved person or an idea can grow to an obsession. In most cases the exaggerated love remains unfulfilled. The best example in Middle High German literature is undoubtedly the so called “Minnesang”, which consists of unfulfilled dreams of a noble court lady.

Regarding the works of the two Italian artists the conception of “Sehnsucht” may not be deduced from the Middle Ages but from the Romantic derivative of this idea. The romantic conception of “Sehnsucht” implicates on the one hand the historical memory of the supposed well-organized political structure of the Holy Roman Empire and on the other hand the eternal process of striving for a pure aesthetic experience, which found ironically its fulfilling in the per se not completed genre of the fragment.

Perhaps a quote from Novalis fragmentary novel „Die Lehrlinge zu Sais“ elucidates best, what the romantic concept of “Sehnsucht” is about. It is part of the fairytale of “Hyazinth and Rosenblüte”. Although Hyazinth loves Rosenblüte, he sets forth to reveal the world’s mystery. His longing for truth is even bigger than his feelings for Rosenblüte. Pictorially and literally spoken he wants to lift the veil of Isis. The novel is hereinafter cited in German:

„Hyazinth […] kam endlich zu jener längst gesuchten Wohnung, die unter Palmen und andern köstlichen Gewächsen versteckt lag. Sein Herz klopfte in unendlicher Sehnsucht, und die süßeste Bangigkeit durchdrang ihn […]. Unter himmlischen Wohlgedüften entschlummerte er, weil ihn nur der Traum in das Allerheiligste führen durfte. […] da hob er den leichten, glänzenden Schleier, und Rosenblütchen sank in seine Arme. Eine ferne Musik umgab die Geschehnisse des liebenden Wiedersehns, die Ergießungen der Sehnsucht, und schloß alles Fremde von diesem entzückenden Orte aus.“

His longing, his „Sehnsucht“, does not lead to doom but to a so to speak didactic conversion to that magic, which shimmers every day through our daily routine.

Now what has all this to do with the photographs of Tania Brasseco and Lazlo Passi Norberto? The Romantic gestus in their photographs is dominating first of all in their 2011 published series “Fairy Tales Now”, which alludes not only nomenclatorical to THE genre of Romantic literature – the fairytale. The pages of a storybook fly through a mystically illuminated scenery, a woman lies dreaming on something that can be read as a wooden, oversized carpet and a fairytale-queen dressed in white is demanding our immediate adoration.

In my view it is really no mistake to think – considering these pictures – of the great American TV serial “Once upon a time” that also plays with the classic fairytale staff and transforms them from literary characters to somber protagonists of a small-town.  Here and there the layer of fairytales does not only act as an instrument of insight. Furthermore it serves as ironic act, as a staged play.  It is clearly “made”, it emphasizes more the structure of fairytales than their idea. It is clear that this is a highly self-referential approach to the Romantic period.

Brassesco and Norberto carry this conception to extremes in their latest photographs: There are fishes that swimming through divinely staged rooms of the Gründerzeit, there are naked bodies that crystallizing out of floral structures. Everything our eyes can see or comprehend seems to be covered with melancholy. This melancholy is nothing more than the heart of these photographs – weather they depict fairytales or are tasteful advertisements for a prestigious Italian jewellery designer.

I think the conception of this works is so traversed by a subtle postmodern intellectuality that even the melancholy is more acted than truly felt. Brassesco and Norberto create artworks, which go much further than the heartfelt romantic “Sehnsucht”. They know every trick in the book of postmodernism, even if they do not just revive the cool quotation arias of the 1980s. Instead of that their concept is sometimes as simple as strikingly contemporary: They emphasize the pose, the absence of something that wants to go further than the aesthetic glimpse at feelings like melancholy.

The meta level is essential for the art of Brasseco and Norberto. In fact this level is actually the message of their works – impressively embodied in their splendid series “The Essence of Decadence”. For these photographs the two Italian artists have paraphrased paintings from the late 19th century. These works indicate another facet of their oeuvre: Not only the immobilized photo is part of their art but furthermore the process that leads to these specific pieces of art – the complex illumination, the costumes, the motions in time and space etc. Photography, cinema, performance, installation and handicraft seem to have an immeasurable impact on the final product.

But unlike the works of – considering a well-known example – Christo and Jean-Claude this processual art does (indeed) manifest itself in a permanent and static product. Something from all the effort remains: a picture. The fragmentary character of the Romantic art is finally translated in a closed system.  

In the light of these aspects the works of Brassesco and Norberto are eminently traditional and up to date at the same time. They are less performative as they seem. This is in my opinion the reason why the comparison with the bourgeois „tableaux vivants“ is only a superficial benchmark. The idea of „tableaux vivants“ is processual. Brassesco and Norberto transfer the process to a static picture. The photograph is the core of their longing for art.

Even Cindy Shermans “History Portraits” cannot be regarded as comparable art pieces. Where Sherman demolishes her roll-play by liberally applied make-up and the feminist agit-prop-character, the two Italian artists show the beholder a perfect and highly aesthetic picture. This is also to be seen in the range of references for the formidable Decadence-series: Beside expectable greats of the fin de siècle as Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele artists like Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the famous member of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, the late academic painter Herbert James Draper and the proto-futurist Gaetano Previati are also to be found in the list of references. This sequence is nevertheless aesthetically very meaningful: What once parted the different artists – style, attitude and politics – is now melted into a very artificial substratum: into the aesthetic essence of art itself.

We are returning to the basis of our reflections: The pictures of Tania Brassesco and Lazlo Passi Norberto are naturally reflecting the Romantic conception of “Sehnsucht”, the introspective immersion into the world’s mysteries. But in fact they go much further than the Romantic art. Their artworks are not the expression of this desire but an image of desire for a western generation that lacks reasons for true desiring. In that regard their art is all at once – contemporary, timeless and overwhelming.

Therefore it’s hardly surprising that the two photo artists already found themselves in exhibitions with Damien Hirst, Cindy Sherman and Chuck Close. Their photographs are namely not only art but a precise diagnosis of our present state, so that we pass them almost reverently. And it is this astonishment without presupposition that leads to the core of art itself.

Sebastian Karnatz

* Text for the Solo Exhibition "SEHNSUCHT"