Unconventional Redemption

Sleeve designs for the Manic Street Preachers singles Faster/PCP, Revol and She Is Suffering (1994)

“Art is, in fact, always viewed after the fact, from outside, seldom at the moment it’s created – I’d say twenty years after. After that, one finally determines what effect the work and the artist had. How people then will talk about me, or won’t talk about me, that’s what will count.” – Martin Kippenberger

For all three of the single releases that accompanied The Holy Bible, the band used artwork by Martin Kippenberger. Speaking about the German artist on the occasion of the opening of Jeremy Deller’s 1999 exhibition Unconvention, based around Manic Street Preachers’ cultural references, Nicky Wire explained:

“After The Holy Bible we were looking for a single cover for ‘Faster’ and ‘PCP’. If you remember, it was a Chinese or Japanese kid with a bottle of Coke, sucking on a straw. I’d only vaguely heard of Kippenberger before that, and I found it in a book. I thought it was perfect. And from then on, I really got into him. He’s not that famous. Obviously, in Germany, he is more. But he’s lived to the minute, the exact opposite to me, in every sense.” [1]

While Jenny Saville had only recently graduated from the Glasgow School of Art when her triptych Strategy (South Face/Front Face/North Face) was chosen as the front cover image for the album, Kippenberger had been active within the art world since the 1970s. Despite his prodigious output in a wide variety of media, and the role he played in supporting other emerging artists, his imposing personality and hard-living lifestyle often overshadowed the work – and even that was treated with scepticism by many, including such close collaborators as one-time assistant Michael Krebber who admitted ‘he made me want throw up’ on first meeting Kippenberger, finding his art ‘bad, blunt, and insensitive’. [2] Kippenberger’s reputation has only grown since his death in 1997 at the age of 44. Often overlooked for prestigious exhibitions that showcased the works of his peers both in Europe and America during his lifetime – and seen by some as more of a prankster than someone to be taken seriously – his work is now part of museum collections worldwide and the subject of hugely successful retrospectives, notably The Problem Perspective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles in 2009.

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Kippenberger’s childhood years were spent in the mining town of Essen-Frillendorf, in the Ruhr valley. While his family enjoyed a comfortable and highly sociable lifestyle, the surrounding industry, in which his father worked for a time as a mine director, was in decline – this would soon be replaced by the booming retail economy that would transform Germany. [3] Kippenberger’s disruptive behaviour and restlessness affected his school education but he saw himself as an artist from the start. After attending the Hamburg Academy of Fine Arts for a number of semesters he moved to Berlin, setting up an office, hosting events and building friendships with countless other artists, collectors, bar workers and gallerists. Kippenberger’s antipathy to staying in one place saw him visit and live for varying periods of time in many cities across the world throughout his life; from Germany to Spain, LA and Vienna. Unceasing in his artistic creativity, highly demanding of others, unashamedly honest, even openly insulting, Kippenberger invested all of his energy and his resources into his work. As Nicky Wire suggested, far from nurturing the sort of bedroom introspection preferred by the young Manics, Kippenberger was an extrovert. He moved continually, always enjoyed a riotous night life and made many ‘families’. Somewhat unusually, though, for someone who was the happy subject of countless photographs, and a dominating presence at public events, there is little recorded footage of Kippenberger and he granted relatively few interviews.

Through his use of caustic humour, wordplay, historical references, idiosyncratic recurring motifs, autobiographical elements and an enthusiasm for repurposing a vast array of media and everyday objects, Kippenberger left an enormous body of work – much of which was made with the help of assistants, students and friends, regularly turning out several paintings, or multiples each day. Kippenberger was liable to turn any conversation into a performance, any sketch or found material into a new piece – he bartered with artworks, too, typically in exchange for a lifetime of free food and drink at his favourite restaurants. While the relationship between his titles and visual content is often oblique, or else seemingly nothing more than a flippant pun or slogan, Kippenberger devoted himself to his own strict artistic standards. He often depicted himself and his personal failings – accepting of humiliation, following a ‘principle of embarrassment’ – and was quick to puncture artistic pretensions and hijack the comforts of consumerism, ready to unsettle any onlookers. Playful with tropes from art history, Kippenberger was equally unafraid to confront historical guilt.

Just as he was openly critical of his peers, self-lacerating in his self-portraits and unhesitant in breaking taboos relating to Germany’s past, Kippenberger also presented religious imagery in new, shocking ways – most famously in his numerous works featuring a crucified frog, one of which was the subject of a highly publicised protest at the time of a posthumous exhibition in 2008. It is unlikely that the Fred the Frog pieces were considered by Nicky Wire and Richey Edwards for any of the Manics single sleeves, but it is apt that The Holy Bible would include as part of its overall design concept the work of an artist who fearlessly used Christian iconography in subversive ways.  

Kippenberger not only embraced an endless array of artistic media throughout his life – including photography, sculpture, posters, stickers, art books and paintings, as well as a remarkable series of drawings done on hotel stationery – but often transferred content from one medium to another, including images from newspapers, magazines and postcards. The linguist and art critic Martin Prinzhorn, who was a friend of Kippenberger’s, sees this as a fundamental aspect of his work:

‘One central motif in Kippenberger is the pretty radical way in which he made no difference between his own works and those of other artists. It was always easily possible that he would understand the work of others as though he’s made it himself.’ [4]

Martin Kippenberger, Fliegender Tanga (1982-1983). Image copyright The Estate of Martin Kippenberger, Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne

The cover of Manic Street Preachers’ Faster/PCP shows a detail from Kippenberger’s five-panel series Fliegender Tanga (1982-83), a painting of a young Chinese boy in a communist uniform drinking from a Coca-Cola tin through a straw. It was shown in his 1984 exhibition with Albert Oehlen and Werner Büttner, Wahrheit ist Arbeit. The image ties in with the band’s long-running critique of capitalism, consumerism and revolutionary politics in general more so than the lyrical content of the single tracks in particular. It does however evoke wider themes on The Holy Bible, specifically the failure of left-wing ideals and the negative influence of American culture across the world. As one recent article on the history of ‘normalization’ between China and the US explains: ‘This idea – that the more Chinese citizens drank Coke, ate McDonald’s and watched basketball, the more they would embrace American values and the more liberal the Chinese Communist Party would become – has had a surprisingly long shelf life.’ [5]

As with the band’s tendency to quote lines and riffs, absorbing and collaging a huge volume of images, words and music, Kippenberger’s art is full of pop culture, historical references, and stylistic impersonation, which in no way undermines the striking individuality of his work as a whole. In 1991, he told the writer Jutta Koether: “I always had a way of appropriating things by others when I thought that they were good, and of incorporating them into my own work… Unconsciously I continue to quote from things that other people do…” [6] Years later, his youngest sister Susanne commented that another favoured analogy was that of detox: ‘he had to swallow something but then he spit it out along with something of his own – he always gave more than he got.’ [7]

The Fliegender Tanga panel is itself based on a photo by the French photographer James Andanson. Working for the Sygma agency at the time, Andanson was given a rare visa by his friend the baker Lionel Poilâne and travelled to China, shortly before diplomatic relations between the West and the PRC were established, as part of a delegation to study possible economic opportunities. The added power of the original image, taken in March 1979, comes from its backdrop, which is not immediately obvious from Kippenberger’s painting: the Great Wall of China. Although staged (the Coke tin having been given to the boy, nine-year-old Hei Jiantao, by Andanson) the photo was seen as symbolic of a significant political and cultural development in the postwar era. [8]

James Andanson, First Coke in Red China (1979). Image copyright Sygma /Corbis

Looking over the wall

When Jeremy Deller organised his exhibition, taking cues from the artistic influences that run through Manic Street Preachers’ work, he included Kippenberger’s Vom Einfachsten nach Hause, which Wire admitted was his favourite work in the show, adding: “It’s the same idea [as] the cover to the Sex Pistols’ ‘Holidays In The Sun’ – A holiday in other people’s misery.”

Kippenberger is closely associated with the punk scene in Germany. He was involved with the Berlin club S.O.36, which hosted gigs by many punk and post-punk bands under his management in the late 1970s. Though Kippenberger was passionate about music, made record covers, and even played in a short-lived band Luxus, his wider musical taste was baffling to his peers, and he showed no evident natural ability as an instrumentalist. Moreover, Kippenberger’s proclivity for wearing expensive suits, his self-aggrandizement and his embrace of art-rock and free jazz bands, which S.O.36 would bill alongside punk groups, didn’t sit well with others. On one occasion he was targeted by the friends of a well-known figure of the punk scene, Ratten-Jenny. Severely beaten up by her gang, Kippenberger immediately transformed the incident into art – a photograph of his bandaged head later featuring on an exhibition invitation and also turned into paintings. Dialogue with Youth not only evokes such earlier masterpieces of unconventional portraiture as Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, and even Jenny Saville’s more recent depictions of wounded figures, but also the way in which Richey Edwards took the ‘4 Real’ incident from interview scenario to photo opportunity, raising Manic Street Preachers’ notoriety further in the music press (the same image of Edwards also now appearing on designer clothing items). Kippenberger likewise had an unerring talent for publicity and controversy, intent as he was on establishing his reputation through a self-aware manipulation of public events and the media environment.

Left: Vincent Van Gogh, Self-Portait with Bandaged Ear (1889). Image copyright The Courtauld Gallery, London. Right: Martin Kippenberger, detail from Berlin By Night (1981-82). Copyright The Estate of Martin Kippenberger, Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne

One can imagine seeing phrases like ‘raus – raus’ and ‘fila – fila’ on a Kippenberger canvas, or that his brutal wit would have made much out of the connotations of ‘lebensraum’, given postwar Germany’s steadily increasing living standards. Kippenberger’s dark sense of humour is more in keeping with the Sex Pistols than the sombre response to the Holocaust found on The Holy Bible. ‘Belsen Was A Gas’ might easily have been the title of a painting or photograph by the same artist who purchased a gas station in Brazil for Tankstelle Martin Bormann – referencing Adolf Hitler’s deputy – so that he might install a telephone line and answer business calls with, ‘Bormann, Gas’.

Unafraid of bringing questions of Germany’s war guilt to the forefront, at a time when non-representational art was favoured and the crimes of the Second World War were passed over, Kippenberger also raised questions about abstraction, interpretation and controversy as applicable to visual art. With the best will in the world I can’t see a swastika… shows a jumbled arrangement of beams painted predominantly in greys, reds and white. It pre-empts any criticism along the lines of cheap provocation through the depiction of National Socialist symbolism, while at the same time poking fun at commonplaces in responses to contemporary art.

The legacy of totalitarian regimes is also alluded to in the painting that was selected by the Manics for the cover of the Revol single, released just weeks before the album in August 1994. Sympathetische Kommunistin (Likeable Communist Woman, 1983) adopts the Socialist Realism art style of the Soviet era. In this case a more obvious link can be made with Edwards’s lyrics, especially the comparisons drawn in the first verse of ‘Revol’ between the arc of the Soviet Union following the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the start and eventual break-up of a romantic relationship. Kippenberger’s portrait is imbued with the optimism of revolution with no sense, except in the viewer’s mind, of the catastrophes that such attractive appearances betray. [9]

The painting used for the cover of the She Is Suffering single – for which the French title given in the 1991 Taschen monograph on Kippenberger’s work, Des tètons, des tours, des tortellini, was selected – also forms part of a larger series, Null Bock Auf Ideen (created in the same year as Fliegender Tanga). As with the single panel used for Faster/PCP, to see the piece in its original context is to be struck by the simultaneous coherence and inscrutability of Kippenberger’s colourful, confrontational art. Again it is hard to discern any specific connection between the song’s themes and the artwork save for a sort of irony similar to that which Wire appreciated in the Sex Pistols’ ‘Holidays in the Sun’ seven-inch cartoon; the smiling woman, and what appear to be buckets and sand, suggesting pleasure against the ‘suffering’ of the song title; and a counterpoint not only to Kippenberger’s looming brick towers but also Jenny Saville’s obese model in Strategy.

Truth is work

“He was exposing our weaknesses to show us some kind of essential truth about ourselves. It was often an uncomfortable truth.” – Susanne Kippenberger

In 1994, just as the Manics were recording The Holy Bible at Sound Space Studios in Cardiff, Kippenberger was exhibiting what would come to be regarded as one of his major works: a football pitch-sized installation inspired by Franz Kafka’s America, the German-language writer’s unfinished novel. Comprising a number of interview tables, and incorporating long-standing motifs and themes across a multitude of objects, including specially commissioned books, and works by other artists whose pieces Kippenberger had collected, the installation was considered by the artist himself to be his masterpiece. Mentions of Kippenberger’s work by the band members, or interviewers, in connection with The Holy Bible are few, but the singles nevertheless encouraged an interest in Kippenberger’s work at a time when he was still dismissed vehemently by a number of writers. The contractual agreement with Kippenberger can be seen among the archival materials reproduced in the twentieth anniversary reissue of the album. It confirms the 900 Deutsche Mark fee for which the band were given permission to use the three artworks in perpetuity, as well as a request by Kippenberger’s assistant Johannes Wohnseifer for copies of the single sleeve designs for Büro Kippenberger’s records.

Nicky Wire’s interest in Kippenberger’s work evidently continued. He used a quote by him for his 2006 solo album I Killed the Zeitgeist: “I’m rather like a travelling salesman, I deal in ideas” – a statement rooted in the culture of capitalism (in which ‘everything’s for sale’), which nevertheless gestures towards a curiosity and independence of mind. Whether the Manic Street Preachers album was known to Kippenberger or not, in 1995 he produced a large-scale, six-panel painting that perfectly complements its ideas and conceptual design. I Am Too Political features a naked, obese woman similar in appearance to one of Saville’s overweight models. The text across the artwork is painted in Greek, suggesting at once the importance of language, the birth of democracy and the unhealthy state of the body politic today.

Martin Kippenberger, I Am Too Political (1995). Image copyright Saatchi Gallery

Kippenberger’s own physical health was irreparably damaged by years of heavy drinking and he succumbed to liver cancer in 1997. But his ability to stoke controversy persisted. In 2008, when one of his crucified frog sculptures was shown at the Museum for Modern and Contemporary Art in Bolzano, there was a significant outcry, and newspapers reported that the Pope had called for a ban. As Kippenberger’s sister Susanne recalled: ‘A politician went on a hunger strike, protesters stood praying in front of the museum’s doors, other Catholics spoke up for artistic freedom…’ [10] In truth, it was not the Pope who joined the voices of protest but rather the Vatican Secretariat of State. Kippenberger never renounced the church entirely; or a sense of belief. According to some of those who knew him best, art was a matter of faith to Kippenberger and he was after the truth any which way he could through his art, whether that meant grappling with banalities, trash and pop culture, or historical and hallowed images.

In the same year as the critically acclaimed MOCA retrospective The Problem Perspective, Manic Street Preachers released Journal For Plague Lovers, featuring music based on lyrics left by Richey Edwards, once again using cover art by Saville. No singles were released at that time, but there is no doubt that another of Kippenberger’s pieces would have suited the personal themes, black humour and post-punk sound of the band’s songs. While promoting Futurology in 2014, Wire again made the connection between Kippenberger’s work and the band’s own, through a curious chain of occurrences on a trip to Italy:

“I was back at the hotel and the turn-down lady hands me a book, Futurism In Bologna, I thought ‘this is a nice service rather than changing the pillows’. I read that and realised that the first Futurist exhibition was in the basement of the hotel we were staying in, and then realising we’d been talking about the two towers in Bologna and that’s the front cover of ‘She Is Suffering’ [back in 1994], which was painted by Kippenberger, the German artist, because he’d been obsessed with these two towers in Bologna… It just sums up everything that’s good about our Greil Marcus Lipstick Traces life, when the dots are joined…” [11]

Notes:

[1] ‘Interview: Nicky Wire’, http://www.manics.co.uk 1999. Accessed at: http://www.foreverdelayed.org.uk/msppedia/index.php?title=Interview:_Nicky_Wire_%26_Jeremy_Deller_-_www.manics.co.uk,_20th_December_1999 (2 January 2021)

[2] Kippenberger, Susanne Kippenberger: The Artist and His Families. Translated by Damion Searls (J and L Books, 2013)

[3] Among the souvenirs that Kippenberger’s well-travelled parents showed the family were recordings of Welsh miners’ songs. See Kippenberger, Kippenberger.

[4] See interview in von Perfall, Josephine (ed) Kippenberger and Friends: Conversations on Martin Kippenberger (Distanz Publishing, 2013)

[5] Fahs, Ramsey ‘How Coca-Cola Came to China, 40 Years Ago’, Los Angeles Review of Books China Channel. Accessed online at https://chinachannel.org/2019/02/06/coke-in-china/ (14 January 2021)

[6] Martin Kippenberger in conversation with Jutta Koether, Flash Art International No. 156 January-February 1991. Accessed online at https://flash—art.com/article/martin-kippenberger/ (3 January 2021)

[7] Kippenberger, Kippenberger

[8] Setboun, Michel and Cousin, Marie (eds) 40 ans de photo-journalisme. Génération Sygma (La Martinière Editions, 2013)

[9] Interestingly, the woman is depicted wearing a budenovka, similar to that worn by Richey Edwards during Manic Street Preachers’ trip to Bangkok in April 1994.

[10] Kippenberger, Kippenberger

[11] Burrows, Marc ‘Dis meets Manic Street Preachers’, Drowned in Sound 13 July 2014. Accessed online at https://drownedinsound.com/in_depth/4148004-dis-meets-the-manic-street-preachers (9 January 2021)

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