Retouching, sex and renderings


Anselm Wagner


Photographic reproductions in books and the press were a hybrid of painting and photography during the first century of their existence. When using the half-tone process it was deemed necessary to deepen shadow, set highlights and tighten up the contour lines of the images in order to maintain the volatile contrasts this technique provided. Retouching was not only a utility, it also served aesthetic and ideological purposes: Motifs could be isolated, disagreeable objects or persons eliminated, irregularities and the tacky could be cleaned up and sugar-coated. Photographic material for printing thus possessed a “real” photographic body and wore a “false” painted mask, one which was ideally invisible and in extreme cases covered the entire image. The perfectly retouched imaged had to be a painting, and one with the effect of a plain and simple photograph; since the visibility of retouching instantly fudged the canonical index character and the claim to truth as the supposed attributes of photography. The invisibility of the retouch possessed a sexual equivalent: While photographs were mostly the work of men who were known by name and who acted in public, the retouching of the work was mostly the anonymous activity of women in the back room of the photographic studio; people who remained equally as invisible as every trace of their activity. Could it have been the affinity with make-up and the cosmetic that gave the re-touch job its typical feminine stamp? This notion was lent powerful theoretical by a discourse defining the natural and one that was equally as modern as it was misogynous. This declared the “unadorned” to be a synonym for “the real thing” and included in its interpretations the general aspersion of the latent “falseness of woman” and the art of seduction with its equally female connotation, all of which taken together seemed to make woman predestined for taking in hand the sugary lies of the re-touch, while man the unadorned created true, hard facts. The judgement passed on the re-touch and the made-up is ambivalent, however, since these both serve the ideal of beauty: The re-touched photograph is indeed untruthful, but it is at the same time purer, more perfect and in an ideal sense “truer” than a quasi naked and unadorned image retaining all its faults, inadequacies and dirt.


Klaus Schuster’s overpaintings of photographs are “dirty” in many senses of the word. Firstly some of the originals are from porno and S/M magazines, the traditional sphere of “dirt and filth”. Secondly these are all old numbers and the amateurish acting of those who took part seen from a contemporary perspective, is miles away from the artificial and sterile posing in the porno industry of today, all of which tarnishes these images with curiously old fashioned, dusty and smutty aura. Thirdly Schuster’s overpainting is in contrast to the traditional re-touch job clearly recognisable and does not serve the perfecting, but the deformation of the body. Noses run riot mushroom into huge trunks together with the body itself arms and legs or entire mountains sprout incongruously out of heads; women have the faces of cats of prey; men twisted clown faces; stilts thrust out of breasts and carry the entire weight of the body in place of the eliminated legs; a couple on the beach is transformed into a pair of birds with thickly curling hair; eyes overgrown with (pubic)hair; blood flows from eye-shaped wounds, in short: Beauty mutates to become the Beast.

Despite the obvious alienation, it is entirely possible to speak of retouching in the context of Schuster’s overpaintings. In the black and white photographs the transition from photography to painting is blurred, the real grows seamlessly into the unreal, the normal into the monstrous and not only is it subjoined, but it is eliminated (for example in a copulating couple everything of the man except a single leg has vanished). Schuster performs a crossover between all categories by means of his retouching work: Between man and woman, human and animal, animate and inanimate material. The growing together of the different body parts of a person is derived from the sexual congress of the bodies by the process of morphing familiar from computer graphics where one thing is gradually transformed into another: An attractive naked thigh can literally draw out its attractiveness at length, stretching up to the face of its owner and erasing it. The morphed extremities thus turn into vampires feeding upon their own body on which they suck with leach-like firmness and ultimately consume in its entirety. “Dirty” that is what these rank and malignant growths, penetrations and bodily excrescences are in their outrage against all norms and rules: “Dirt is matter in the wrong place.”

Next to these are works – very largely in colour – in which the mask and make-up principle is coarsely exaggerated. Thick and shrill are the colours that are applied over the original, turning it into a masquerade using as a means the energy - as brutal as it is childish - of Art Brut. “Dirty hands” stands here for a kind of finger painting (fat and ungainly shaped fingers are also favourite subjects for painting), allowing the body to wallow unfettered in the colour and flanking the quieter re-touch with screaming body painting.


Klaus Schuster presents his “clean” work next to his “dirty” work, the clean pictures generated on the computer and implemented as Lambda prints. Schuster’s Renderings are structurally related to retouching work: They look like photographs, but are designed entirely on a monitor screen (and to this extent are even more “painted” than a retouched photograph) and they pay homage as any re-touch work does, to the cult of the clean and the perfect surface. But the cleaning process is far more advanced. If the human body was exclusively at issue in the “dirty” work, it is lacking entirely in the “clean”; the “flawed human” (meaning the human as a flaw) has been eliminated. There is no tourist living in the “apartment”, no passenger sitting in the “business class” recliner seat and the “carousel” is waiting vainly for pleasure seeking customers. The abandoned emptiness of the places and objects illustrated has something weird and ghostly about it that has to do not only with the absence of personnel but also with the way the picture was made. The CAD process draws various coloured and patterned surfaces through spaces and objects constructed in perspective and thus forms a synthetic skin, creating a similarly artificial impression to that of a photographic wallpaper or plastic imitations of wood and stone surfaces. With this difference, that under the cheaper “real” material, quite literally nothing is to be found. In “Car (Shell)”, showing the bodywork only of a sports car, this principle of the empty shell is brought to a point.

On closer inspection the “clean” pictures reveal themselves to be just as dirty as, and perhaps even dirtier than the “dirty” ones. Schuster uses the world of imitations and renderings in his Renderings, to create from them the petty bourgeois atmosphere comprised of  the pragmatism of cold modern functionality and the hopelessly inept attempt to plaster over and prettify this functionality with a rustic patina – and thus to soil the “purity” of the modern and producing grotesque hybrid spaces in its place. The modern ideals of transparency, material justice and hygiene are juxtaposed in the suburban home by a brimming reservoir of window grating, blinds, curtains, structured wallpaper and wall-to-wall carpets, in which the filth literally nests, and the fetish of private existence appears to be protected by a sequence of covers, carpeting and where (in the figurative sense) retouching appears to be protected and aims to prevent every transgression and penetration. Schuster feeds his rendered interior spaces optically on the respectable interiors of his overpainted porno photos, so that they colour each other atmospherically and sometimes, as in “Pissing”, he gives a “clean” picture a “dirty” title. Conversely his retouching work and overpaintings can be regarded as a kind of carpeting and covering that seals over bodily openings and nakedness. The effect is that all of these maskings and concealments succeed in turning the home-making process into a thoroughly smutty and furtive enterprise.