During the Ottoman invasion of Wallachia in 1462, Sultan Mehmed II– who had marched into the territory with an army of more than 150,000 troops–entered the small town of Târgoviste, in what is today known as Romania, to find a forest of twenty thousand Turkish men, women, and children, all impaled. The perpetrator; voivode Vlad III Dracula. The carnage earned the ruler the moniker Vlad ‘Tepes’, or the Impaler, by the local population. A little further afield in England, his numerous acts of heinous cruelty, and patronymic, would inspire the creation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. It also sowed the seeds of inspiration for identical twin brothers, and artistic collaborators Gert and Uwe Tobias.
Born in Transylvania, Romania, to a Saxon family, the pair of artists explore their cultural identity through mythology in their woodblock print paintings, ceramic sculptures, typewriter drawings, and watercolours. Having spent their childhood under Nicolai Ceausescu’s rule, the myths and misconceptions of Vlad Dracul, as he is known in Romania, did not initially colour their youth. There he was a historical figure, a hero, a warlord ruler who staved off the Ottoman threat and defended Christendom, albeit with a bloodthirsty cruel streak. It was only after years in Western Europe, having migrated to Cologne, Germany, in 1985–just four years before the iron curtain of communism was ripped down–that the well-known vampiric Dracula mythology of Hollywood was made known to them, and trickled into their work. “We played with this cliché about the land behind the mountains, Transylvania. We combined the movie titles of Dracula B-Movies with the iconography of folklore. These were our first large-format woodcuts,” the brothers explained.
Studying fine art under the German artist Walter Dahn, a member of the rebellious 1980s artist group, the Neue Wilde (‘Wild Youth’), the Tobiases worked individually until graduating in 2002 from the Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Braunschweig. After a joint project, the brothers explained, “We realized that in cooperation we could allow for things that we would not allow ourselves alone. The added value is that from the dialogue of the two positions a third emerges,” Uwe explains. Today like characters out of 17thCentury Brothers Grimm fairy-tale, they work and live together in their Cologne studio– a former potato factory.
Every woodblock painting is worked on by the brothers individually, with the other being brought into the process to add to the work like an exquisite corpse. With the completion of each piece, the brothers both sign the work with their initials, ‘GUT’ (which also means ‘good’ in German), signing off on what the other did. Although, they explain, “A certain amount of space is of course necessary to leave oneself and the others behind. It is important that each individual sees himself in his work,” it’s never clear to the viewer where the work of one ends and the other begins.
The core of the brothers’ artistic practice centres around large-scale woodcuts, a medium into which they have breathed new life. Working with a system of collage they draw inspiration from a diversity of materials. “All our work is based on the principle of collage. It starts with the fact that Gert and I work together. Our influences come from different directions, for example arts and crafts or art history or magazines. All these influences are transformed into our imagery,” Uwe adds. Surreal portraits of ghoulish long necked figures with stylised hair, large elfin ears and faces look as if they have been hacked together from different images, pillaged from B-grade films like Nosferatu or a Fritz Lang film, and movie posters. Their large woodcuts and wall paintings are littered with art history references from Max Ernst, German Expressionism, Russian Constructivism and Bauhaus.
Their recent Hong Kong exhibition at Ben Brown Gallery featured a series of nine woodblock prints on canvas, mixed media on paper, and four large hand-painted ceramic pots. Accommodating the smaller spaces of Hong Kong homes for local collectors a number of the woodcut prints are scaled down to portrait size, all executed in a palette of subdued sherbets and grisaille. This is a departure from the brothers’ darker and bold graphic works, but the prints still bear the floral and animal motifs that frequently occur throughout their body of works, and a recurring cast of characters from their self-created world that is dark, quirky, and humorous. The prints, all untitled and executed in 2017 marry beauty with horror. In one, a teal coloured sleeping femme fatale is watched over by an owl, while another with a carnivalesque mask-like face, reminiscent of James Ensor’s deathly figures, is visited as if in a haunting nightmare by a surreal moth creature and bird sprouting a bloom from its head. The figures, in their shades of grey and blue, and reversal of dark and light, resemble photo negatives.
Although neither brother has ever visited Hong Kong, the Tobiases drew from the region, and their imagination, for inspiration–– adding a phoenix here, an Asian floral motif (perhaps a Bauhinia), or a hairstyle adorned with hairpins suggestive of the Tang dynasty there. Contrasted with these motifs is the layer of geometric grids, which draw on modernist geometric abstraction. These make up the background of the larger woodblock prints, lending visual depth and spatial fragmentation to the works. The woodcuts have a roughly hewn, handcrafted finish to them–they are all hand printed –with uneven textures and outlines reminiscent of folk art. But unlike traditional woodblock prints, the brothers only produce two of each printed canvas, neither exactly the same as the other. The woodblock prints are composed almost like puzzles, layer upon layer of shapes, texture and colour, a juxtaposition of the handcrafted and the industrial.
Combining line, shape and colour with fairy-tales, the woodblock prints are at once exotic and folkloric, naive and modern. Like the mythology that inspires them– which blends fiction and historical truths– the Tobiases’ work too is a hybrid. Stitched together from diverse influences they create a surreal imaginary world, an escapist romp filled with dread and delight.