Friedrich Kunath: The Art Of Surviving November | Galerie Max Hetzler

This exhibition is seasonally perfect. Friedrich Kunath’s landscape paintings sag with the weight of winter ennui, of damp half-light, of attenuated days. November, dark and wet, is there to be survived. Looking closer at many of the works on show at Max Hetzler, and the message is spelled out still more explicitly: I THINK I’LL STAY HOME TODAY is scraped in small black capitals in the lowering grey skies above a pine forest. Meanwhile, framed by bare branches and underlit by a low sun, is the title of the painting pictured below, dead centre of the canvas: IT’S BEEN EVENING ALL DAY LONG.

Kunath’s paintings are deeply conventional at first glance. The Friedrich that comes to mind is the painter’s namesake, Caspar David, who did so much to define the look of German Romanticism all of 200 years ago. Those same pines, those same bare branches, that same scrutiny of the effects of the light of a winter sky. Kunath subverts all this though, with a series of ironical gestures and motifs. In ascending order of absurdity: firstly, those spidery black sayings, with their deliberate ‘live laugh love’ banality; secondly, through the imposition of implausible and incongruous items in the landscape, such as the car in the painting below; thirdly in the grafitti-style scratches on the surface, barely visible at first, made directly into the oil paint as it dries, as a final playful act.

Friedrich Kunath ‘It’s Been Evening All Day Long’ (2022-23)

Look hard at It’s Been Evening All Day Long (2022-23), on the wall of the gallery, and you realise that Kunath has scratched cartoon pizza slices on his beautifully-rendered sky. We’re far away from Caspar David now: the Romantic artist, a deeply religious man, earnestly strove for the sublime with his trees and skies. Kunath attains sublimity, then blows it a raspberry.

In other paintings in the exhibition, a Cartier van trundles through some picturesque scenery (how?). A defeated-looking tennis player, in his whites, leans against a tree. And, in an escalation of the absurd, a little army of cartoon fruit pieces march through a snowy forest, sagging branches lit by yet another golden sun.

My pulse quickened when looking at these works: not because Kunath had transported me to somewhere else with his sublime landscapes and wise sayings, but instead because I saw what I thought was something really original. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s exciting. Perhaps the artist would judge me harshly for having this feeling though, given its lack of ironic distance…

Friedrich Kunath: The Art Of Surviving November is at Galerie Max Hetzler (London). 07 November 2023 - 06 January 2024