‘Camp’ is difficult to define; like pornography, you simply know it when you see it. The most influential attempt to describe it remains Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay ‘Notes On Camp’. For Sontag, ‘camp’ is an aesthetic sensibility that emphasises artifice and exaggeration – a private code that subverts conventional ‘good taste’ so that the whole world becomes an aesthetic phenomenon; fashion, interior design and bad films are objects of connoisseurship no less than ‘real’ art.
Camp taste is a matter of enjoyment rather than judgment, and involves a love of marginal, slightly second-rate ‘high art’ on the one hand, and trashy pop culture on the other; irony, exaggeration, and above all ambiguity replace traditional standards of beauty and excellence. For something to be camp it cannot be taken too seriously; an extravagant spirit and a strong sense of fantasy are essential. The arbiters of camp taste, Sontag points out, are almost invariably gay men, though Oscar Wilde turns out not to have been one of them: apparently he didn’t love vulgarity enough.
Lukas Duwenhögger (b.1956) is both a camp painter and a painter of camp, but he has a serious side which also belies that frippery. Born in Munich, he has lived in Paris, Rome, Düsseldorf and Berlin, and enjoyed solo exhibitions of his work in Zürich, Malmö, New York and London as well as all over Germany. But having first spent time in Istanbul in 1969, when he was thirteen years old, his heart remains in Turkey where he has lived since 2000. His great subject is the emotional lives of gay men in a society where they are far from welcome.
You Might Become A Park, one of the first retrospectives of Duwenhögger’s work, concentrates mainly on his oil paintings from the past thirty years. Whilst he sometimes creates installations and occasionally produces collages, his real gift is as a painter, in a classical style and on a large scale. His subjects are usually moustachioed working-class Turks who recall figures from Degas, Manet or Toulouse-Lautrec. Duwenhögger’s version of modern Istanbul is haunted by nineteenth-century Paris: he looks for something like Belle Époque elegance amidst the faded atmosphere of barbershops, seedy casinos and tacky hotels. His waiters all have the glossy black hair of 1940s matinée idols, and take great pleasure in their old-fashioned uniforms. Duwenhögger indulges their fantasies and lets them play French aristocrats, at least in their own imaginations.
There are rarely women in these pictures. Duwenhögger’s 1997 canvas Da Rita is a surreal fantasy reminiscent of De Chirico (just with more Japanese cherry blossoms). Its most notable feature is a matronly Queen Victoria lookalike seated in a bath chair. Her eyes are weary; she puffs out her cheeks in exhaustion; and then you peer closer; Her Majesty turns out to be a man, a pantomime dame. Whilst there are the odd few fashion-model-type young ladies in paintings like Rezalet—Impertinence (1998), Duwenhögger takes little interest in them, preferring instead to pose men in womanly attitudes, particularly if they happen to be hairy, fleshy, and anything but epicene. In Big City Tenant (1986) a balding, bearded bear stands behind the front door of his shabby apartment coyly beckoning the viewer inside like an Oriental courtesan by Delacroix. His khaki shorts reveal a thick erection; his open shirt displays his hairy torso and man-boobs; clutched to his chest is a red-and-green tartan cushion that he fondles in a suggestive manner.
Voyeurism and half-open doors recur especially in Duwenhögger’s pictures of the 1980s. Men’s Tailoring (1985) cunningly adapts Degas’ brothel pictures of the 1870s to the setting of a shadowy Istanbul shop where a pale youth in white briefs sits in the lap of a large-bellied older man, and a smaller bald character peeks at their erotic game from behind a door, half-burying his face in a pile of blue-and-orange striped cloths. In the background a severe lady in a framed black-and-white photograph looks shocked at such goings-on. Composition is an essential feature of Duwenhögger’s storytelling: his subjects communicate in hints, and play hide-and-seek with one another.
Duwenhögger engages deeply and passionately with the history of art. Most of the time he wears this learning lightly; the viewer rarely needs to recognise his visual references to enjoy his pictures. Yet the sense of tradition grants dignity to his subjects. A bearded ice-cream seller in an apron is allowed to look little different from a portrait of a gentleman by Manet (Caspar, 2002). Even more Manet-like is The Hairdresser (1999): the subject sits on a counter by the sink in his shabby barbershop, looking like a dashing cavalier in his deep blue coat and grey trousers; a mirror beside him shows a bored, sleepy customer getting his hair cut. The composition recalls A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882; Courtauld Institute of Art), except that a cheap linoleum countertop stands in for Manet’s zinc.
And for all the wit of these paintings they sometimes savour of genuine sadness. Host With Champagne (1992) features a young man in a golden silk turban and gold maharajah’s frock-coat who leans on a stack of Champagne crates, weeping bitterly; he could be an Indian prince or the maître d’hôtel in a pretentious tourist restaurant; there are cheap blue flip-flops on his feet. But this is a rare instance of overt pain. Duwenhögger prefers to suggest emotion with wilting postures and dreamy eyes; all the atmosphere of wistful longing is undercut with a cheerfully artificial palette: ice cream in flavours of milk-chocolate brown, strawberry pink and pistachio green dominate these compositions, along with an insistently tropical deep blue the appears any time he wants to paint the sea.
As a cultured European who depicts scenes of Istanbul’s grubbier districts Duwenhögger may seem like a condescending Orientalist; but his purpose is to make the viewer ignore the dreariness of his settings. The End of the Season (2007–2008) depicts a thinnish, darkish young man in swimming trunks and flip-flops sunbathing with his dog on a concrete platform overlooking the Bosporus. There are tall gas cylinders behind them; ugly 1960s apartment blocks cover the riverbanks. Evidently this takes place in some depressing semi-industrial suburb of the city. Yet it takes a while to notice the fact, because Duwenhögger makes the scene seem as magically exotic as Gauguin’s Tahiti.
Indeed, perhaps Duwenhögger’s most skilful works are his landscapes; there is no clearer demonstration of his technical mastery as a painter. Roman Holiday (1999) is a beautifully textured rendition of a greenhouse in the Villa Borghese gardens in Rome: Duwenhögger manages to capture the park’s polluted atmosphere and occasional bathetic hideousness (white vans; cheaply constructed modern buildings; badly-maintained pavement) as well as the refreshing beauty of its ancient trees. The sense of depth and light in this painting is extraordinary. We Must Believe In Spring (2014), which features a pair of construction workers relaxing in the sunlight on an unfinished building, is a tour de force of colour and composition. Yet for all the manifest painterly nous of these pictures, Duwenhögger’s narratives with figures linger longer in the mind.
Perusal of Ill-Begotten Treasures (2003) may be the most impressive single composition in Duwenhögger’s oeuvre. This painting depicts some sinister types standing on a hill with what appear to be various stolen goods: one figure has draped a white fur coat over his shoulders and is looking at himself in a mirror whilst his companions play cards, watch the card-players, or simply sulk. The whole composition is reminiscent of various picnic lunches depicted by the Impressionists – though perhaps not Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863; Musée d’Orsay), as there is no nude woman to be seen. Is the viewer meant to think about that? Susan Sontag observes: “There is a sense in which it is correct to say: “It’s too good to be camp.” Or “too important,”
Duwenhögger’s vision is pure camp; his art is nothing of the sort. His paintings are too serious, too important and simply too good to count as mere skits of fey fancy. This is a painter of rare talent, intelligence and taste; he deserves an international reputation for what he has accomplished.