Charles Rosenthal: The Cyclist, 1919, 1999.
ILYA KABAKOV (b.1933)
Charles Rosenthal: The Cyclist, 1919
Signed and dated 1999 on the reverse
Oil on canvas
121 by 181cm
The family of the artist
Contemporary Art Center, Art Tower Mito, Mito, Japan, Life and Creativity of Charles Rosenthal, August 7th – November 3rd 1999
Das Staedel, Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, Ilya Kabakov stellt vor: Leben und Werk von Charles Rosenthal, 1898-1933 (Ilya Kabakov Presents the Life and Work of Charles Rosenthal 1898-1933), 10th December – 4th March, 2001
Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland, OH, USA, The Teacher and the Student, Charles Rosenthal and Ilya Kabakov, 9th September 9 2004 – 2nd January 2005
Centre for Contemporary Culture, Garage, Moscow, Russia, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Retrospective, 15th September – 18thOctober, 2008
Cat Mito 1999, Ilya Kabakov. Life and Creativity of Charles Rosenthal (1898-1933), Mito: Contemporary Art Gallery, 1999 with essay by Eriko Osaka and dialogue between Ilya Kabakov and Yusuke Nakahara, ill. p.27
Cat Frankfurt, 2000, Ilya Kabakov stellt vor: Leben und Werk von Charles Rosenthal 1898-1933, Frankfurt: das Staedel/Stroemfeld/Roter Stern, 2000, ed by Sabine Schulze.
Ed by Toni Stooss, Cat. Installations I & II, Ilya Kabakov Installations 1983-2000, Catalogue Raisonne, Vol II: Installations 1994-2000, Dusseldorf, 2003
Ed. By Petzinger and Emilia Kabakov, Ilya Kabakov Paintings 1957-2008, Catalogue Raisonne, Bielefeld, Kerber, 2008, ill p. 34 cat no. 317
Cat. Cleveland/Bielefeld 2004
Cat. Moscow 2008, a)The Red Wagon b)The Alternative History of Art c) The Life of the Flies, d) On the ‘Total’ Installation, Bielefeld, Kerber Art, 2008
After the creation of several immersive installations in the late 80s and early 90s Ilya Kabakov’s position in late 20th century art as a pioneer of installation was assured. His iconic ‘Ten Characters’ and ‘Communal Kitchen’ installations are about characters who are otherwise not there, but personified by means of text, images or assembled objects. These absent people ostensibly represent figments of the artist’s own personality and together with a playful mood that Kabakov creates in these works, he has created an artistic universe so distinctive that it can be described as ‘Kabakovean’. Absence, and playfulness with some melancholy are all recognisably core Kabakovean qualities.
In the wake of these installations, Kabakov continued to work with series of multiple works, which he would assemble together into a single exhibition, playing the role of not artist but curator and creating an immersive experience for a viewer. With the Charles Rosenthal works which were first shown in Japan in 1999, a series to which the ‘1919’ Cyclist belongs, he put himself into the shoes of a fictional artist replete with fictional biography as a Jewish emigree artist at the beginning of the 20th century who died in the same year as Ilya Kabakov’s birth. With the Charles Rosenthal works, the role and identity of the artist himself becomes perhaps even more central to the interpretation of the work than previous works. Like the missing characters in his earlier installations, Charles Rosenthal, an alter-ego of Kabakov, is artist in absentia. This new work can be seen as a transition from the focus on ‘personnage’ to ‘pseudonym’.
Kabakov showed the Charles Rosenthal works, including the ‘1919’ Cyclist painting, as a complete one-man exhibition in Japan, Germany, the USA from 1999 till the mid 2000’s, and as a section in his 2008 Moscow retrospective where they were shown in the Garage Centre for Contemporary Art. The Rosenthal cycle is in some ways a somewhat underexamined part of his oeuvre, where the focus most often falls on his installation work, and yet this series marks a unique contribution to the history of 20thcentury conceptual art, emphasising the complex role and identity of the artist in the creation and understanding of contemporary art.
‘Charles Rosenthal: the Cyclist’ is a particularly interesting and unusual work in this group because it relates back to an early work on the same subject which Kabakov made in the mid 1960s called ‘Ride on a Bicyle’ (1966). Kabakov’s work is often self-referential, in this case he is intentionally revisiting an earlier subject, which has found its way back into his artistic consciousness. In this case, however, Kabakov tells us that this painting is not a new version by him, but an original work by Charles Rosenthal, which of course is untrue, it is a fiction. Here we can see something of the complexity of Kabakov’s own exploration of his artistic identity. If you compare the two paintings, the one done by Kabakov and the one done ‘by’ Rosenthal there is a conceptual shift, the paintings relate to one another on the surface, yet fundamentally Ilya Kabakov is a conceptual artist before he is a painter, so materially on the level of ideas and thoughts these two paintings are quite different.
This body of work by the fictional Charles Rosenthal undermines the value we subconsciously place on the importance of the artist. Our understanding of what an artist is or should be derives mostly from the Romantics which increasingly placed an artist into the centre of the universe, like a kind of God. It has been a most enduring and popular ideal, however, its hegemony is a myth. There are alternatives, such as the anonymous craftsman in spiritual visual art traditions; female artists who do not fit into the mould of lone, male artistic genius. During the Soviet times when Ilya Kabakov came of age as an artist living in Moscow, artists assembled themelves into underground circles and many had to resort to working in oblique ways to avoid censorship or even imprisonment; they lived a double life. Kabakov’s distinctive body of work the ‘Charles Rosenthal’ paintings and drawings can be seen to represent his deepest doubts about the identity of an artist, including the myth of the great man. In trying to turn away from his own ego, rejecting perfectionism and ambition, he creates instead something which is mediocre and questionable and yet touches the artist’s deepest questions about the role of an artist and the essence of art itself.