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Flowing Forms
Thoughts on the Painting of Nicola Barth

Judging a picture according to what was ‘presented’ had already been disabused by 1890. The young Frenchman, Maurice Denis, stated it clearly: ‘Remember that a painting - before it is a battle horse, a nude model, or some anecdote - is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order. (1)

Today, after we have long become accustomed to the experiments of modern art, it seems we see paintings as pure compositions of form and colour as a matter of course. We also understand the images of Nicola Barth as such, whereby the colour-saturated surfaces also awake numerous objective associations that are, however, not so direct and clear that they can be compressed into narrative ‘anecdotes’. Hindering this as well are the deliberately cryptic titles that appear to be in a secret language, which evoke more sound and atmosphere than specific meanings.

When one tries to allocate Nicola Barth to the categories of objective/non-objective she would fall more into the latter. And here again she falls into the ‘softer’ line.  Her art is not characterised by hard, geometric contours as in the constructivist tradition, but rather by soft, irregular contours and flowing overlaps. The forms sometimes take on traits that are reminiscent of plants, heads or cells, sometimes one thinks of landscapes or events that take place under water.

Especially in the eyes of male viewers, the flesh-coloured structure of two round forms crowned with red points in Esren Fatit Nulet specify certain female body forms, but articulating this verbally means being unable to dispense with an involuntary humour.

One thinks of a relevant corny joke:

The psychiatrist draws a vertical line: “What does that make you think of?” “A naked woman!” answered the man. The psychiatrist draws a star. “And that?” “A naked woman of course.” The psychiatrist puts down his pencil and says, “I have the impression, naked women are an obsession with you.” “With me? Who was it who drew all the obscene stuff!”

The question of what exactly we see in Nicola Barth’s images can quickly become a similar ping-pong game between the painter and the viewer. The difficulty of meaningfully interpreting what happens in the picture lies in the fact that it appears sensible to interpret it as an ‘event’, as (at least notionally) a time sequence. There is always the impression that form and colour constellations could utterly change in the next moment, as with a cloud formation or whitecaps on water. The image shows just a snapshot from an at least imaginary ongoing process. The conscious fragmentedness exists not only in time but also in space. We see cut-outs, but also spatial ones. For each of Nicola Barth’s compositions are partly based on a clear structuring of the actual image into several large-scale units, and yet the surface forms are often cut off by the edge of the image and suggest an indefinite extension beyond the visible.

With many painters from the Informel tradition, there is the impression of movement as if it were a frozen, solidified trail in the physical substance of the image surface, as when a strong, gestural or impasto painting can become a thick, hard crust, which happens often, for example, with Antoni Tapiès or Emil Schumacher. Although the brushwork is also often visible with Nicola Barth, the individual strokes always go into the larger-scale units, are distributed within or expelled from them, and the colour seldom remains impasto. This results in a thin, fluid quality that gives a watercolour character to most of her paintings, the oil paint becomes almost watercolour. The pictorial space does not appear fixed but rather to flow. The flowing colour is like a substance from which the painted world is constructed. What appear in the image through colour are less forms or things in themselves and more a perceptual or sensory space that forms around them through an emotional or corporeal relationship with them. Thus the colour cannot be allocated to clearly and identifiably formed things, it is no object colour but rather used in a way for which the term ‘colour sense’ is used.

The artist herself, describes the process of painting a picture as the progress of amorphous, unstable states to a crystalline compaction. Different stages of the image are therefore described as different states of matter; it is not only an analogy that the initially fluid colours dry and harden. Nicola Barth uses the broad possibilities of painting to suggest different ‘states of matter’ - a term that is far more appropriate here than ‘materials’. Wikipedia delivers a clear and concise definition: ‘States of matter describe qualitative, different, temperature- and pressure-dependent physical states of substances’.
Thereby the basic qualities of hard, fluid and gaseous are distinguished, the first two states are also differentiated as ‘crystalline’ and ‘amorphous’. Changes in states of matter occur through melting, solidification, freezing, evaporation or condensation, amongst others.

Nicola Barth appears to transfer such a differentiation of physical states into painting which alone elicits the possibilities of colour. All the prophets of doom who yet again proclaim the end of painting exclude its still unrivalled ability to precisely suggest states. Therein lies an accuracy that is beyond contoured or linguistically definable concretion. Painting does not work with hard materials like sculpture, rather it can evoke physical, psychic and emotional feelings from the use of colour; that is paradigmatically the case with Nicola Barth.

Author: Ludwig Seyfarth, Translation: Heather Allen


(1) Définition du Néo-traditionalisme, in: Review, Art et Critique, 30.August 1890. English trans.: ‘Definition of Neo-Traditionalism’ in Harrison, C. et al eds. (1998) Art in Theory 1815 – 1900, London, Blackwell, p. 863



Extract of a speech by Esther Erfert on the occasion of the VOBA exhibition

Text by Sandra Mann on Nicola Barth's painting