By Leo Tandrup, historian, arthistorian, dr. phil.
Transl. Jan Esmann
Preface of the catalogue for the exhibition "Icon 200" held in Kunstnernes Hus, Århus, Denmark, July 4. - Sept. 12 1999. It is undoubtedly one of the great deeds of modernism - with Picasso, Dali, Max Ernst and others - to have uncovered the horrors of reality. If one does not realise how bad things are, and how close to nil we have situated ourselves, artists and spectators loose the ability to find a way out of the hopelessness. Then the artist tends to act as a socially irresponsible island-individualist. Making pictures of pictures while he poses as an ironical spectator of a world, he considers himself highly elevated above. But not Esmann. In his universe the hope might be hard to find at first glance. His figures exist against the black background that since the beginnings of mannerism (ca. 1510) has been used increasingly often as a symbol of how man has lost nature and lives in a more and more homeless universe. Surely we in the western world have since Columbus conquered most of the globe. But in this process we have all too willingly served - or even sacrificed ourselves to - dark, aggressive gods. First the churches that brutally murdered each other, then feudal absolutism and mercantilism, then the bourgeois glorification of the national state and its worship of own profit, and finally to the demands that the world should be one big free market in order to preserve the gap between rich and poor to the advantage of the rich. The result in present time civilisation is that man has become a strained caricature of the cultured mans aspiration to be a noble uomo universale with wholeness, integrity and identity as an ideal.
Just look at Esmann's Offertorium I and II. Here two adults eagerly and devoutly exert themselves, but with thin stiff bodies so they finally, devoid of grounding, will float out into nothing else but the rational universe. That rational universe we have fostered so disastrously in a Cartesian negation of our emotions and our souls needs for tenderness and intimacy. Descartes' "I think, therefore I am" has degenerated to an egotistic scheming minds worship of utilitarianism and technical usefulness. With these skills as a black mental cargo we have obliged ourselves to the western mans mission, as self-proclaimed gods, to conquer and rule the world. Most recently in Kosovo with double-moralistic proclamations about human rights, we ourselves aren't willing to die for. Three infants, still with body and soul intact, sit in Offertorium I on a floor designed as a place of sacrifice. Two of them look attentively and astonished at the two adult's manic endeavours, and Esmann's intention is that we as spectators should slip into their viewpoint. One child is sitting on the lower step. It doe not want to be part of that and seems caught in the act of leaving while it glances back at the two others: come on, let's get out of here.
In The aporia of infancy the adult just manages with utmost gymnastic skill, and in a mindless occupation with reason, to hang on to some hook on the inside of his egg-like universe he fancies to be divinely inspired. He illustrates what happens when man tries to elevate himself to God on earth Deus in Terris. Already Michelangelo's naked godmen, the ignudes, on the ceiling of the Sixtine chapel, had in the early days on mannerism difficulties in fulfilling that role. They sit with fear in their eyes and minds, with mannered bodies - but yet they help each other. In Esmann the grown-up is all alone, even without an eye for the infant on the floor being sacrificed.
The results of the western mans flight to the sky is seen in The element of alienation and in The inherent tragedy of friendship. Man has fallen to the floor. The shape of the body is an image of the shape the soul is in. Can it still, as in the renaissance, stand and walk freely, naturally, relaxed and with a beautiful body and face - then it has won identity. Esmann's man on the floor can't find himself, can't stand for himself. He's lying awkwardly twisted and mannered on the floor. That's why he has hidden his nakedness. The freestanding naked person, a young girl, stands the closest to life. The man on the floor senses he does not anymore - quite contrary to the persons in Offertorium I & II. He has covered his head, his consciousness, along with the body except his bottom. For it is the pleasures of his lower anatomy he has, when all comes to all, been preoccupied with in his false endeavours to reach higher. It has made his sense of life's pleasures as skinny as his little rump. A young woman sits knee-bent and with a thoughtful hand under her chin and looks at him in worried wonder. She represents that part of the new generation, that in the years round the turn of the millennium, are becoming more conscious and look terrified upon their parents' insane race to satisfy the need for growth of capitalism and thus satisfy their own crippled sense of pleasure. Thus tragedy is awakening in Esmann's universe. In this there is hope for once tragedy is gone, as it has generally been since 1945, people believe that the life, they are living, can not be any other. They even deceive themselves into believing, that mankind has never existed under as splendid conditions as they do now. They might even think, in the line of the historian Fukuyama, that we have reached the end of history in a virtual paradise. Esmann's statement is that without tragedy, without the knowledge, that we can not live up to our own humanitarian ideals, we are doomed. That does not make him an optimist. He knows that it's not enough to change the situation just to have an awareness of how bad things are. His two persons in The inherent tragedy of friendship persistently strive to have a true relationship of togetherness. But they have had experiences in life, where they time and again have been Judas and have suffered existential defeats. Therefore they must bow their heads or cover them. They can not look the other person in the eyes. And they are not able to reach each other as they lie there on the floor in strained postures. They keep themselves up with the aid of a stick that presses them down and yet unites them. It symbolises their embarrassing knowledge of the necessary: not to let go of their shabby ideal of friendship or they will end up lying all alone, as shattered debris, spread over the floor in the manner of the leg in the lower left corner cut off by the frame. Esmann draws on not only manneristic and surrealistic models. He is inspired by the French neo-classicism of David's period. His rooms are deliberately cold with square marble-tesselations and pillars. But the unifying perspective is broken by the darkness from behind and by irrational elements: steps leading enigmatically away, pillars carrying nothing. The ideals of freedom, equality and brotherhood of the French revolution have broken down. That's why the noble, beautiful and voluptuous woman in Memento vivorem (remember the living) is lying on a white altar with a red blanket - dead or alive. She is Esmann's ideal, but can she stand up?
She is deeply inspired by the design in Eckersberg's eminent painting Sleeping girl in antique dress (1813) which is inspired by David's Oath of the Horatios (1784). In this picture David shows the rational and one-pointed aspiration of the revolutionary citizens to proudly, honourably and clear-mindedly risk ones life for the sake of the big common goal: the rescue of the community. Here the woman in the background lets her arm fall in sorrow over what she sees as the future: that the men of the revolution will have to die for their ideals. That happens in The murder of Marat (1793), which Esmann's picture virtually entertains a dialogue with. Esmanns' own background is the bourgeoisie: his father is an engineer. But he does not pay tribute to it. Like Georg Brandes he can't free himself of it, and therefore can't criticise it from out of sympathy and empathy with the common man or popular culture. Instead he becomes a sniper hitting on the intimate life, where a person naked reveals himself. For that reason he has to look back to a time where the spirit of the citizen was still alive and that makes him link to neo-classicism, the least bourgeois style of that period. As a young man David felt neo-classicism was the most appropriate style in which to express his own ethos, his patriotism and heroic ideals, his roman virtues and longing for republican freedom. Marat is indeed the fighter for freedom treacherously murdered in the bathtub for his ideals. He writes to the last. His arm hangs down with pen in hand. One sees his noble face en face. Even death can not take away his noble ideality. Esmann's woman has no pen in her hand. One sees her face from the side. But she has kept the memory of tragedy in her unmannered body. Irrespectively of whether she can get up or not, she awakens hope in the spectator and calls him to reflect upon life. Only if we reawaken tradition in us, will we have a chance to sense the tragedy that comes when we and our dear ones in vain try to sacrifice ourselves for our ideals. Esmann's small and still intact children will only have a chance to evolve their own identity if they experience adults with that sense in themselves.