Kunstsammlung NRW
Imi Knoebel, Foto: Ivo Faber, © Kunststiftung NRW

Kaleidoscope of Atonement: Imi Knoebel Designs 3 New Stained Glass Windows for Reims Cathedral

Just a few days after installing his exhibition at the K21, an homage to the great Russian Supremacist artist Kazimir Malevich, Imi Knoebel inaugurates his latest project in northern France

Welf Grombacher reports on the newly created church windows for #32

In 2011, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung announced "the most extraordinary public commission ever awarded to a non-French - to a German - artist." The French had just asked Imi Knoebel to design six multicolored windows for the Cathedral of Reims. Now, on his own initiative, the Düsseldorf-based painter and installation artist has given the French government three additional church windows - as a gesture of reparation and atonement.

In 2008, Knoebel was initially hesitant when approached with the idea. "I don't have much to do with religion," the avowed atheist remarked at the time. But the honor was simply too great to refuse. Knoebel's new stained glass windows were meant for two chapels of the choir ambulatory, and would frame Marc Chagall's windows, which date from 1972. Of all places, in the coronation church of the French kings in Reims, destroyed by German artillery fire in 1914.

Gerhard Richter had already refused the commission. Whether because he didn't want to compete with Chagall, or because, having already designed windows for Cologne Cathedral, he didn't care to be classified as a religious artist. Imi Knoebel deliberated before arriving at a form that is reminiscent of his "Messerschnitte/Rot Gelb Blau" (Knife Cuts/Red Yellow Blue) from the 1970s.

Knoebel accepted the commission, and taking up the collage technique developed for the earlier series, reworking his colored slivers in 27 colors on the computer - not unlike Henri Matisse before him, who worked directly with scissors to cut figures out of sheets of colored paper. For a period of three years he lived in the midst of his designs for the church windows, which hung on the walls of his living room. The result is a series of kaleidoscopic, richly associative abstract images. The multicolored shards emblematize the destructiveness of the war, and at the same time the constructive reorganization that followed it.

As an exponent of Minimalism, and probably the best-known contemporary abstract artist in Germany, Knoebel - born in Dessau in 1940, and a former student of Joseph Beuys at the Düsseldorf Art Academy - remains faithful to his oeuvre, at the same time producing a convincing solution that is well adapted to the site.

Like many of his colleagues, Knoebel came to regard a realistic pictorial idiom as no longer tenable after World War II. He sought new expressive resources, and turned toward Kazimir Malevich's Suprematism, which strongly influenced his abstract forms. Like his work in general, the three church windows Knoebel has now created for the Chapel of Jeanne d'Arc in the Cathedral of Reims are simultaneously expressive and constructivist in character.

They take up the ideas found in the six choir windows, but are more richly colored. "The iconography of the Old and New Testaments is completely retranslated, far from all of its contents. What is new here is the depth of chromatic forms," says the artist, for whom color is not nearly a chromatic value, but instead always also "light and atonement."

This gift as well is intended as a "gesture of reparation and atonement," and its realization was made possible by assistance from the German Federal Foreign Office, as well as by support and project organization from the Kunststiftung NRW.

Imi Knoebel's generous initiative has closed a wound. As Germany's Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier put it on May 11, 2015 at the dedication ceremony, in the presence of his French counterpart Laurent Fabius: "Shining in the light of this window is a new quality in the friendship between Germany and France."

No one could have put it more beautifully.

Text: Welf Grombacher
Editing: Alissa Krusch
Photos: Ivo Faber, with generous support from the Kunststiftung NRW

An ensemble of abstract forms by Imi Knoebel, juxtaposed with paintings and drawings by Kazimir Malevich, will be on view at the K21 until August 30th. The Malevich works are drawn from a generous donation that was received this year by the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen.

Imi Knoebel - Honoring Malevich

Additional photographs and information available at the webpages of the Kunststiftung NRW


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