The Painter

Cerha in his art studio

The studio in Maria Langegg helped shape the painter: This is where Cerha created almost all his paintings over the course of his life. A small barn in the midst of nature, the studio is a site of artistic contemplation, organic life, and natural experience. 

Photo: Hertha Hurnaus

Paintings and sculptures; attic of the Cerha home; Maria Langegg

Foto: Christoph Fuchs

Friedrich Cerha has much in common with Arnold Schönberg, the “father” of New Music: His birthplace of Vienna, for example, and his positioning in the Austrian musical landscape. They also “moonlight” in the same activity: painting. It is not uncommon for composers to pick up the brush, but for Schönberg and Cerha, doing so is rooted in an irrepressible, urgent desire for expression that goes well beyond music. The priority is clear for both: first composing with sound, then composing with colour. Their positioning in public space, however, is different: Schönberg sought out contact with the Expressionist art scene, new at the time, and corresponded intensively with Wassily Kandinsky, who saw to it that Schönberg’s paintings were shown at the first exhibition at the Blauer Reiter in 1911. This brought him into the limelight of the art scene as a painter—and also into the consciousness of a wider public. No so with Cerha: His canvas activities remained concealed for decades, kept in a private space, though he was always active as a painter. “In the music scene,” he was “somehow noticed,” he says, and ultimately “slipped into the role of composer without specific intention.”“Debütant mit 90 Jahren… Dieter Ronte im Gespräch mit Friedrich Cerha“, in: Gundula Wilscher (ed.): Vernetztes Werk(en). Facetten des künstlerischen Schaffens von Friedrich Cerha, Innsbruck et. al. 2016, pp. 161–165, here p. 162 However, as he “lacked the ambition to find exhibitions for himself,” for a long time no one knew of his painted art. After decades of “invisibility”, a few paintings were shown in 1989 in an exhibition of the Salzburg Cultural Association. In 2007, almost 20 years later, Musikprotokoll Graz put on another exhibition, but the general public still remained mostly unaware of Cerha’s painting. It was not until 2016 that Forum Frohner in the town of Krems an der Donau hosted an extensive exhibition of his work. Art scholar Theresia Hauenfels carefully viewed the more than 1,000 pictures in Maria Langegg and curated the exhibition. The artist sums it up: “Now, at the age of 90, I am a debutant, so to speak.”


Painting as an Organic Expression of Life

Cerha’s studio in Maria Langegg

Photo: Christoph Fuchs

Whether with brush or pencil, on canvas or staff paper—the physical processes of both composing and painting can be described as a filling in of a purely material surface. It makes sense that the two processes can be experienced sensually in similar ways. When asked why he didn’t switch to digital notation—since it provides such a clean and flawless result—Cerha replied: “The directness is important to me. There should be as little as possible between my head and the writing down.”Daniela Tomasovsky, “Die Handschrift stirbt aus”, Writing is “about doing, about an organic expression of life” that conveys a sensory experience that cannot be felt through any computer screen.
Within this analogy of writing and painting, Cerha’s descriptions of the physicality of shaping can be broadened quite easily: The application of paint puts the creator into direct contact with the material and can likewise be seen as an “organic expression of life”. With Cerha, the reference points of production can also be expanded: His paintings are not only influenced by the colours he uses, but also by the way he attaches objects to them. And even more: This gathering of objects can be understood as an elemental part of his creative work. Behind this productive painter lies a passionate collector. Regardless of whether these things are part of nature or the human world, Cerha has been appreciating and preserving them since childhood.
Over time, his studio—a small wooden hut in the forest, not far from his home in Maria Langegg—became a gathering point. An aura of seclusion envelops the workshop. Some may be reminded of Gustav Mahler’s little composing hut in the midst of a forest glade above Lake Wörthersee: a site of extreme concentration, of the (mental) compression of material. In Cerha’s hut, one finds the countless materials he uses in painting. Scattered objects of various origins (often natural materials), half-used buckets of paint, pots and vessels, spatulas, brushes, pens, fabrics, boxes, wood and paper used to paint on, and unfinished paintings. Here, there is no room for organisation in the traditional sense, yet all the better for creative communion with nature. This is where it becomes clear that Cerha sees painting and design as a means of absorbing the world: Things find ways to come together, always in new combinations. They are redesigned, brushed over (not only metaphorically), and enter into symbioses with other things, sometimes with things that are seemingly opposite. This vibrant interaction of objects is Cerha’s major artistic theme.


Cerha’s studio in Maria Langegg, details

Photo: Christoph Fuchs

A Small Retrospective: Objects of the World

Cerha often painted and drew as a child. However, it was not until 1963 that he intensified his artistic activities, the same year that he purchased the home in Maria Langegg. “The house that we bought, complete with everything in it, had belonged to a Swedish aristocrat, and was full of more or less useful relics,” reminisces Gertraud Cerha.Gundula Wilscher, “Ein ‘sinnlicher Dialog’ mit dem Material. Betrachtungen zum bildnerischen und kompositorischen Schaffen Friedrich Cerhas”, in: Gundula Wilscher (ed.): Vernetztes Werk(en). Facetten des künstlerischen Schaffens von Friedrich Cerha, Innsbruck et. al., 2016, pp. 87–109, here p. 88 These abandoned objects were a treasure trove for her husband. He soon began integrating them into his works of art, thus beginning his long series of object paintings. An early example from this period reveals much about the artist’s character. Like most of the paintings, the piece has no title—a reflection of Cerha’s reservations about intrusive associations, something also characteristic of his music. The materials he used are typical: The surface material is a thick wooden slab. This is, already, an objet trouvé: The joints indicate that it was once part of a piece of furniture, but its exact purpose is not clear. This is also true of the heavy iron parts affixed to the slab, the notches and holes of which make reference to an earlier function. In an interview with Gundula Wilscher, Cerha explains how he had collected “wrought iron tools from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that didn’t yet have the perfect shape of today’s industrially produced tools, that still bore the visible traces of craftsmanship.”“Die Wurzel allen künstlerischen Tuns ist ja das Bedürfnis zu tun zu formen…” Gundula Wilscher in conversation with Friedrich Cerha, in: Gundula Wilscher (ed.): Vernetztes Werk(en). Facetten des künstlerischen Schaffens von Friedrich Cerha, Innsbruck et. al., 2016, pp. 167–174, here p. 168 This interest in such objects, ones showing signs of human influence, is palpable in his use of them for his work. The connection between very different things is also striking: Iron and wood are brought into a new context using jute fabric on the one hand, while thin, ochre-coloured scraps of fabric create a visual balance on the other. The scraps underlay holes and outlines or are playfully stuck on in geometric shapes inside of three iron rings. A stone in about the same colour is integrated as yet another mediating element.


Ohne Titel, 1964, mixed media on wood, 64.5 x 84 cm

Ohne Titel, 2013, mixed media on wood, 114.7 x 32 cm

Cerha’s visual art suggests that his relationship to the artistic trends of his era is somewhat ambivalent. The integration of found objects “began, according to his own statement, at a point in time before he had heard of object art.”Theresia Hauenfels, “Sequenz & Polyvalenz. Überlegungen zum bildnerischen Werk von Friedrich Cerha”, in: Gundula Wilscher (ed.): Vernetztes Werk(en). Facetten des künstlerischen Schaffens von Friedrich Cerha, Innsbruck et. al. 2018, pp. 111–117, here p. 112 Any conscious connection to the schools and trends of the day can therefore be ruled out. Nevertheless, certain anchor points can be found in art history. Most of Cerha’s paintings follow the principle of assemblage: Sculptural objects are positioned and affixed to a substrate. The result is a relief that extends beyond the confines of a two-dimensional image and, depending on the type of objects used, results in surfaces that protrude more delicately or aggressively. The collaging of heterogeneous, sometimes found elements became a basic artistic principle in Dadaism that pre-dated assemblage. In the art historical discourse, however, the term did not take root until the 1950s, when Jean Dubuffet began applying it to his own work. A decade later, the exhibition The Art of Assemblage (1961) at MoMa in New York popularised the term worldwide.
Timewise, the increased focus on assemblage coincides with Cerha’s beginnings in the field of object art—an observation that is indicative of his progressive, yet independently developed, fundamental mind-set. Other influences from art history can also be found in Cerha’s work without being too overtly foregrounded. Theresia Hauenfels compared a 1964 painting with the Arte Povera (“poor art”) that emerged in Italy only a few years later. The artists of this movement, like Cerha, worked with everyday materials (such as stones, wood, earth, ropes, felt, dishes, and pieces of broken glass), emphasising their expressive value. During the same time period, everyday objects also played an important role in Fluxus: They were used to shatter the boundaries to life—in music and elsewhere (think of, for example, Water Walk by John Cages, made with the “instruments” of hand blender, bathtub, bottles, radios, and more).
Cerha’s assemblages are similarly interested in the reinterpretation of familiar objects: With great imagination, screws, nails, coins, fountain pens, and razor blades are reassembled to create a new whole. Sometimes the objects stand almost on their own, remaining clearly recognisable for what they are. Sometimes they are almost “melted down”, as in a 2013 painting with a pile of small keys pasted over with glue to form a fermenting, muddy mass (left).
On the other hand, entirely different paintings use the geometry of the objects to integrate them almost imperceptibly into a structured play of shapes. The basic elements can usually be reduced to only a few denominators. The dying of the wooden panels emphasises the artist’s interest in structure, dividing the image space, and creating a context with what is glued onto it. “For me,” says Cerha, “there is a dialectical relationship between the foundation and the objects. These are simply two levels that each stand for themselves, so to speak.”Theresia Hauenfels, “Sequenz & Polyvalenz. Überlegungen zum bildnerischen Werk von Friedrich Cerha”, in: Gundula Wilscher (ed.): Vernetztes Werk(en). Facetten des künstlerischen Schaffens von Friedrich Cerha, Innsbruck et. al. 2018, pp. 111–117, here p. 112


Ohne Titel, 1987, Mischtechnik auf Holz, 60,5 x 18 cm

Ohne Titel, 2009, Mischtechnik auf Holz, 29 x 11,5 cm

Ohne Titel, 2009, mixed media on wood, 114.7 x 32 cm

As in Cerha’s musical work, his visual work contains oppositional ideas. The strictly geometric compositions contrast with images that are characterised by having almost no sharp contours, instead left consciously shapeless. Here, the sculpturality fades into the background or even disappears entirely. Instead, an openly appealing, expressively powerful path based on organic imagery is realised. Colour becomes a dynamic element, as seen in a 1970 painting in which Cerha poured large areas of paint onto a wooden panel, letting it flow down, a technique reminiscent of the informal painting of the 1960s. In Vienna Actionism, it was the large flow painting of Hermann Nitsch that attracted particular attention. He, too, poured buckets of paint on canvasses, creating an almost orgiastic effect. Cerha was, of course, familiar with Nitsch and his fellow adversaries, although by no means can his poured paintings be categorised as Actionism. The colour-rich splash and flow effects dominate the image, but are again only one element in a heterogeneous composition. The ground has been worked with a brush, the area split in half by a long, blue line. The upper part of the paintings is filled with earth and small stones (in some pictures sand is used). Three layers are superimposed one atop the other, yet without diluting the sense of spontaneity.

Ohne Titel, 1970, mixed media on wood, 92 x 50 cm.

Yet another counter-approach to this informal painting technique is condensed in a handful of representational paintings (just as Cerha also wrote tonal compositions, although they are part of his early work). These works are outnumbered by the quantity of the others, but they illustrate well the broad diversity of Cerha’s oeuvre. For these paintings, the motifs are drawn from nature. Plant forms, for example, appear in many paintings and drawings—something Cerha also thematised musically. “In the works on paper [there is] a continuous examination of the landscape that can be seen since the 1950s. The relationship between sky and water as the meeting of two surfaces along the horizon”Theresia Hauenfels, “Sequenz & Polyvalenz. Überlegungen zum bildnerischen Werk von Friedrich Cerha”, in: Gundula Wilscher (ed.): Vernetztes Werk(en). Facetten des künstlerischen Schaffens von Friedrich Cerha, Innsbruck et. al. 2018, pp. 111–117, here p. 117  becomes a motif. “Austrian” mountain landscapes emerge on pieces of cardboard, rendering them studies of spatial proportion at the same time.


Ohne Titel, 1998, mixed media on cardboard, 22.5 x 35 cm

Ohne Titel, 2010, mixed media on cardboard, 21.8 x 34.9 cm

Material and abstract compositions, explorations of structure and colour, object art, informal or figurative painting—Cerha’s interests are not divided into specific time periods. Rather, it is characteristic of him that “series are not created in successive phases such as Picasso’s Blue and Rose Periods, which can be associated with specific periods of time, but occur instead in a ‘star-shaped’ emergence of basic constellations that can indeed be synchronous.”Theresia Hauenfels, “Sequenz & Polyvalenz. Überlegungen zum bildnerischen Werk von Friedrich Cerha”, in: Gundula Wilscher (ed.): Vernetztes Werk(en). Facetten des künstlerischen Schaffens von Friedrich Cerha, Innsbruck et. al. 2018, pp. 111–117, here p. 115This explains why works from very distant periods of time often appear to belong together—and why, on the other hand, highly different things are created within a narrow time frame. Cerha explains:


In terms of my work, the stylistic diversity, the different materials, and the way they are handled are often mentioned. […] And it is indeed true that works with very different natures were created at neighbouring times. This is due to the fact that in several phases of my development, I started with one point and followed it along various evolutionary paths that diverged in different directions. This means that directly comparing things that were created at the same time can lead to a somewhat perplexing determination of “diversity”. If one wants to pursue the evolution of a specific development […], one must therefore relate each work to earlier works along its development path in order to gain insight into the logic of the development line.

Friedrich Cerha

Cerha, comments on Drei Sätze for an orchestra,

It is significant that this explanation (excerpted from Cerha’s commentary on Drei Sätze for an orchestra, 2012) is not about his visual, but his musical works. However, it also applies to Cerha’s paintings and assemblages. This ongoing parallel work on music and painting also raises the exciting question of how they are connected.

A Dialogue of Music and Art

To date, Cerha has created more than 1,000 paintings and 200 compositions. Yet hardly any of his paintings explicitly refer to his music, and vice versa. Strictly speaking, there is not a single example of a one-to-one transferral. Certainly, however, a few connections can be observed—ones that are always rooted in the spectrum of a specific topic, and can thus be assessed as a twofold expression of the same subject.
A first interrelationship of this nature centres around a drama with which Cerha occupied himself for almost three decades starting in around 1960: Bertolt Brecht’s play Baal. Cerha did not complete his opera of the same name until 1981. But early on, when he was just immersing himself in the world of Brecht’s outsider, he painted two corresponding pieces: first, a relief titled Baals Frauen (Baal’s Women), an expressive exploration of the mistreated lovers of the antihero. Deformed faces are only vaguely recognisable, while thickly applied paints almost tempt one to touch the surface.


Baals Frauen, 1964

A few years later, a second painting: Now it is the protagonist himself that Cerha captures on the wood foundation. With a similar strength of expression, the crushing personality traits of Brecht’s character are made clear. In his notes from 1968, Cerha writes:

I painted a Baal head, on wood. He stares at the viewer from the front, with a low black forehead, money in his sticky hair, large nails digging purple skies into his temples, the screws of his fangs waiting to be let go and to take life, the gears of his nipples grinding forward on invisible insatiable drive shafts, blood-red juice oozing from the crooked corners of the mouth of his desires …

Friedrich Cerha

Cerha, Notizen zu Baal, AdZ, 000T0079/3

Cerha was already thinking of his opera, which he had not yet begun composing, when he painted the image, as can be discerned from an additional remark: He would like to see the piece “on a curtain or on the envelope for the notes. But they won’t want him: He isn’t pleasant, doesn’t invite one to consume an opera, he is ‘not socially digestible’.”Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 87


Cerha’s home in Maria Langegg with Baal painting in the background

At the time he was making Baal, Cerha was also busy with another major project: the production of the third act of Alban Berg’s opera Lulu. The elaborate undertaking captured his attention for a total of 14 years, from 1962 to 1978, essentially—and one could almost say logically—rubbing off on his painted works. Berg’s opera came on the heels of the tragedies Erdgeist and Die Büchse der Pandora by Franz Wedekind, and tells about the rise and fall of a seductive protagonist. She ends as a poor prostitute on the streets of London, where she is murdered by her final customer, Jack the Ripper. A 1973 assemblage by Cerha bears the name of this killer. Two large objects, a leather glove and an iron chain with a long handle—the alleged tools of the murderer—are glued to the suggestive painting. The narrative, however, is only hinted at.

Jack the Ripper, 1973, mixed media on wood, 40 x 32.5 cm

The connection between music and art is much more evident in an ensemble piece Cerha composed in 1969 titled Catalogue des objets trouvés, in reference to the found objects that Cerha regularly integrated into his paintings starting in the 1960s. He uses the term that emerged through the Dada movement during the early twentieth century. French artist Marcel Duchamp’s objets trouvés (also: readymades) are particularly well-known. He even exhibited a standard urinal (Fountain, 1917) as a work of art, sparking a heated debate about the definition of art itself.
Cerha’s Catalogue implements musically what is presented visually by his assemblages: The presentation of found materials and their interaction with wholly different materials. On the topic of the transfer of his painting methods to his music, Cerha states:

I was trying—as with my paintings—to see “objects” in musical material of stylistically different provenance and to “compose” with them. This is based upon a special and earnest attentiveness to “things”, the things we come across, the things we live with—a gentle affection, a love for the objects. This creates a different relationship: not one of using something and carelessly casting it aside when it is no longer needed, but rather allowing a confidential closeness to develop.

Friedrich Cerha

Joachim Diedrichs: Friedrich Cerha. Werkeinführungen, Quellen, Dokumente, Vienna 2018, p. 110

“Each of the musical objects in the piece,” says the composer, “was equally important to me.” And this is how things that did not originally belong together come together: Stylistic allusions to the Vienna School (especially Anton Webern), to Erik Satie (with almost literal quotations), and to his own past compositions stand side by side with other imaginatively discovered musical objects.

Cerha, Catalogue des objets trouvés, autograph, AdZ, 00000074/101f.

Cerha, Catalogue des objets trouvés, Begin

Ensemble “die reihe”, Ltg. Friedrich Cerha

On a systematic level, the sound-image relationship also creates another fascinating phenomenon: the musical content of the drawn image. Unlike many of his composer colleagues—including Austrians—such as Anestis Logothetis and Roman Haubenstock-Ramati, Cerha largely refrained from including pictorial symbols in his scores. There are exceptions to this, in experimental pieces such as Mouvements or the orchestral cycle Spiegel. The “graphic notation” used there differs “fundamentally from all types of ‘musical graphics’ which, in the extreme case, are not musical, but rather a drawn composition that is interpreted musically.”Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 37 There is, however, an astonishing exception to this in Cerha’s oeuvre: He drew seven “graphics based on musical ideas” in 1973 and 1974. The title is chosen with care: It is neither “graphic notation” nor “musical graphics”, as Cerha distinguishes. The drawings are not intended to actually be interpreted musically, but are for viewing purposes only. In a way, they can be seen as a negative of the Catalogue des objets trouvés: If the catalogue is driven by an attempt to transfer a visual art principle to the music, then the drawings transfer a musical structure into the field of visual art. At the time they were made, Cerha was working in parallel on making a clean copy of his orchestral work Fasce. The sketches, made as early as 1959, impressively reveal how they refer back to similar ideas, a rare find in Cerha’s rich oeuvre.




Cerha, drawing based on a musical idea, 1974

Cerha, Fasce, sketches, pp. 20 and 21, 1959