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26 August 2020 | Interview

How the Collapse of the Wall Influenced the Art of Mathias Roloff

It looks like social media is an excellent place to discover new artists. So it happened with Mathias Roloff as well. Those colorful, surreal appearing landscape paintings sparkling with magical elements caught my attention. Long story short, I got in touch with him and met him in his studio. This is what we talked about:

Velártez: Mathias, for starters, let me ask a few simple questions: When and where were you born, and how was your childhood?

Mathias: I was born in 1979 in the eastern part of Berlin in the formally known German Democratic Republic. At the time of the Collapse of the Wall, I was ten years old. In the years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, I was able to consciously get to know the East German social system – in school and everyday life. I remember the turning point as very confusing. Many people around me were insecure and didn’t know what the future would hold for them. There were great upheavals, which, on the one hand, offered opportunities and, on the other hand, rejected much of what people living in East Germany saw as their identity. These experiences have a strong influence on my work – the two different social systems with their mechanisms and effects on the way people live.

Velártez: How did your career as an artist begin?

Mathias: As early as preschool, I painted and drew intensively, and from the age of 12, I continuously attended various artistic workshops and courses. In addition to school, I was able to present and sell my works, mainly paintings and drawings, in many exhibitions. In 1996 I won my first art competition.

Velártez: Ah right, you were in East Berlin during the Collapse of the Wall. How did you experience it?

Mathias: I was only 11 years old when the Wall collapsed. So at that time, I was already sleeping. The next day, however, there was chaos at school. Some students had gone to West Berlin instead of attending classes, and the teachers didn’t know how to deal with it. My mother, my brother, and I went to West Berlin for the first time on Saturday, November 11th, when we only had 4 hours at school. My mother wanted my brother and me not to miss history. For that, I am very grateful. But she had to bear some consequences for her actions. It was an outrageous scandal in the school board’s eyes, and so it came that they summoned her in for an interview.

Velártez: How did life go on?

Mathias: In the next two years, it got chaotic at the school. From one day to the other, the teachers were not allowed to tutor as authoritatively as before. The students took advantage of it and provoked whenever they had the chance. Besides, we questioned the curriculums. That was undoubtedly a challenging time. Of course, I am against the old fashioned, authoritarian teaching practice. But I also understand that it must have been hard to have to question one’s entire identity from the lecturers’ point of view.

Most people doubted the eastern Germans later, and I think that’s what hurt the older generation the most. Imagine that with the two countries’ unification, the Eastern Germans were forced to erase most of their cultural identity. Suddenly everything that came from the East was not good enough. It started with convenience products, went over to music and films as well as the entire language. However, the development also speeded up by the fact that many Eastern Germans themselves reached out for all that was new, previously unattainable, and set aside the known. Anyway, the realization came that a balanced mixture of both systems would have been more desirable.

As kids, we were thrilled at the beginning, especially about the sweets. In GDR times, they were somewhat in short supply. Well, funny that today we’re trying to ensure that our daughter eats as little of it as possible (possible). Nowadays, I regret that even with a non-material upbringing, I notice when the supermarket shelves are not fully stocked. One gets used to this abundance too quickly, which is also one of my favorite topics. The plenty is permanently surrounding us – colorful and shimmering – tempting us to consume.

Velártez: Do you miss parts of the old system?

Mathias: Absolutely not (laughing)! But I do not find the prevailing system, the ideal, either. Especially not when we see that we are exploiting countless people in weaker economies to keep our wealth. Also, our behavior has drastic consequences for the environment, which is heartbreaking to me. It is funny that the lack of consumer goods in the GDR strengthened our social life as a consequence. For instance, you would have to watch TV together cause most people had none. And above all, it stimulated creative thinking to find solutions to problems. But that doesn’t mean that I want the old times back (laughing).

Velártez: How was your experience during your development while you were still attending the art school?

Mathias: At the “Hochschule der Künste Berlin” (later University of the Arts), I looked for the right means of expression for my artistic ideas. The drawings played an essential role from the beginning. In Volker Stelzmann, I had found a sensitive and very committed professor.

Velártez: Why did you choose for your painting style?

Mathias: My artistic style is the result of years of work that builds on my artistic training. I include selected tendencies from art history. In terms of content, I primarily focus on personal memories and impressions. By working with the material, they subsequently develop the power of an independent work of art. The studio offers me an ideal retreat for this. Shielded from external influences, I work with neither specific (photographic) templates, nor the so-called prevailing zeitgeist in the art market. For me, this is the best opportunity to create a peculiar, emotionally touching, and timeless work.

Velártez: What do you want to achieve with your work? What are you trying to accomplish?

Mathias: Dreamlike, timeless atmosphere characterizes my artistic work. Conceived landscapes or groups of people construct pictorial spaces that invite viewers to zone out and connect emotionally with them. This way, the atmosphere created in the paintings should touch them open access to topics addressed with the image spaces.

Velártez: Why did you choose to paint these specific images, do they have a special meaning?

Mathias: I deal with the dependencies that the human individual is subject to in their actions in my work. In doing so, I investigate the extent to which the dualism of external influences and one’s values ​​contributes to a permanent shift in the moral boundaries that we have set ourselves.
Knowing that these limits exceed continually brings with it latent tendencies of melancholy and more profound conscience questions.
External influences can be interpersonal relationships as well as desires for consumer goods. I got to know both of them through my experiences in different social systems.

Velártez: Can we discuss your development from your early paintings to today?

Mathias: In the years before studying, I was very interested in the idea of ​​surrealism. During my studies, art historical movements such as Renaissance, Mannerism, Baroque, and New Objectivity and the so-called Leipzig School, of which my professor is one of the representatives, also influenced my work. After graduation, I built on this knowledge. Since then, I have been using facets of various art styles and epochs, provided that they serve to implement my artistic idea. In recent years my paintings evolved from a relatively monochromatic, dark-colored, quiet, and formal language into a very colorful and dynamic one and the dissolution of artistic genres and techniques.

Velártez: What can we expect from you in the future?

Mathias: It’s hard for me to say how my art will develop in the future. My current approach still holds much potential for me to deal with it further, both graphically and painterly. However, I could imagine that sculptural works could complement my artistic practice.

Velártez: What is it that inspires you, and what else interests you except art?

Mathias: I get inspired by memories, emotions, thoughts, and words. It’s hard for me to distinguish art from other things clearly. When I read a book, I immediately think of possible visualizations. When I listen to music or go to a concert, I think about transferring the energy that one absorbs in my work. So it is with many things.

Velártez: Which artists, moves and styles do you like the most?

Mathias: I adore Paul Klee, Pieter Claesz, Egon Schiele, Alfred Hrdlicka, C. D. Friedrich, Anselm Kiefer, and many more. In terms of style, I fancy Baroque, magical realism, and color field painting.

Velártez: The reality of art is that 75% of all artists make less than $ 10,000 a year with their artwork. On the other hand, there are a handful of artists who make millions. Jeff Koons is selling a Balloon Dog for over $ 45 million. Or Piero Manzoni produces 90 cans, each filled with 30 grams of his feces, that today get sold at auctions at prices above $ 200,000. Is art nowadays a joke ?!

Mathias: Art is not a joke. The examples mentioned could be seen as a mirror of certain facets of our society. There are enough examples of supposedly meaningless acting in social life. I focus on my art and its social relevance. The feedback from visitors in exhibitions, discussions with collectors, and purchases for public collections strengthen my assumption.