Harald Kern: Stairway to Heaven
Jul 25 - Aug 31, 2018
Stairway to Heaven

Stairway to Heaven

Stairway to Heaven

The staircase stands as one of art’s most pervasive symbols stretching across faiths, cultures and continents. Ever since the Ancients (from the early Egyptians to the Aztecs) built their stepped pyramids to glorify their Gods and Kings, the stairway was adopted as the ultimate visualization of the act of ascendance, an the journey of the earthly spirit to the heavenly realm and the inevitable counter descent towards eternal penance. 

It was the description from the Old Testament of Jacob’s Ladder (Genesis 28:12) “And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth and top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of god ascending and descending on it.” that inspired many of the souring staircases of High Renaissance painting. Here the stairway stood not only as the emblematic pathway to heaven but also as a central pillar associated with man’s spiritual progression towards the perfect balance and grace of God. A painting such as Vasari’s Jacob’s Dream painted in 1558 clearly depicts this hierarchical ‘Great Chain of Being’ with God at the top followed by the spiritual beings (angels) and the dreaming Jacob as representative of man lying in a lowly slumber at the bottom.

It was a theme that would transcend time and continue to hold a potent pull over the artistic imagination for generations to come. For the great Romantic poet and painter Wiliam Blake, for example, the ethereal stairway spiralling upwards into infinity became a metaphor for art itself and its ability to elevate the spirit towards the heavens.

 Give Me A Reason

The Age of Enlightenment and Reason saw the symbol of the staircase utilised as a metaphor for the quest for knowledge and the elevation of the mind through man’s secular achievements. In painter and poet Carl Spitzweg’s anecdotal painting Bookworm (1850), for example, the journey towards moral and intellectual progress is explored as we see a scholar standing on top of a stepladder reaching for a book on Metaphysics. 

Perhaps no other work of art defines the pinnacle of man’s achievements than Ingres’ great homage to the great artists of antiquity to the modern times, The Apotheosis of Homer (1827). Sitting at the top of a grand classical staircase, the apex of a compositional pyramid, the deified poet is receiving homage from forty-six great figures of antiquity and modern times. The figures from antiquity-painted full length and closest to Homer-include on the left the tragic poet Aeschylus holding a roll of parchment and the artist Apelles with his brushes and palette, and on the right the poet Pindar with a lyre and the sculptor Phidias with a hammer. Only two great men of modern times, Dante and Raphael, are included in this group. The other great men of modern times are shown lower in the painting in half-length portraits. Most are artists from the classical period-the century of Louis XIV-such as the writers Racine, Boileau, Molière, Corneille, and La Fontaine, and the artist Nicolas Poussin.

Move on up

Away from the highfalutin intellectual ambitions of the Enlightenment, the symbol of the staircase also implied a different set of ambitions entirely – that of power, status and social aspiration. The grandiose spirit of the Baroque across Europe inspired the construction of sweeping, monumental staircases creating a central axis from which the trappings of the upper classes could coalesce. It was an emblem ripe for critique and parody from a new generation of artist observers. In Thomas Rowlandson’s hilarious take on the Exhibition Staircase, for example, crowds of well-heeled art viewers at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition (an integral part London’s social ‘season’ and famed for its elegant design) tumble down stairs head over-heels much to the delight and derision of the audience on the side-lines.

In the 1930s, Surrealist photographer Man Ray provided a cool critique of baroque decadence by siting a blank-faced female Mannequin bedecked in full evening dress against the long shadows of an ornate, grand staircase. It is an image that questions not only the overbearing establishment of the time, but also a woman’s considered place within this.  

As the ultimate successor of the mannequin, contemporary photographer Cindy Sherman has positioned herself as an ever-evolving signifier of cultural clichés and social expectations of the feminine. The juxtaposition of woman and staircase has been a repeating theme across her series of imagined ‘Film Stills’ in the 1980s. The backdrop of the staircase endorses the sensibility of ambiguity and transition that saturate her staged mis-en-scenes.

And it was not only the female roles that were interrogated by artists, in a still from the subversive black-and-white film, Looking for Langston, directed by filmmaker Isaac Julien in 1989, a combination of newsreel footage and impressionistic scenes celebrate black, gay identity and desire loosely based around the artistic and cultural period of Harlem, New York in the 1920s. In film-noir style, the shadowy stairwell seen here provides the backdrop for a charged atmosphere of clandestine anticipation.

A whole new world

Bauhaus, the 20th century's most influential school of art, architecture and design in Dessau, Germany encompassed politics from democratic socialism to communism and was famous for its visionary integration of architecture, technology, art and design. In the painting, ‘Bauhaus Stairway’, renowned German artist and teacher Oskar Schlemmer’s gridded structure, streamlined modular bodies and predominant palette of primary colours capture the schools vibrant, indomitable design spirit to assert a vision of a new society. The staircase itself with its precise lines and clean curve is a central component of the composition embodies their program of progressive ideology and forms a brilliantly lit stage for the figures above to pivot throughout the space.

If the rigorous ideals of Modernism were destined to fail in the long term, the architecture of the Bauhaus remains preserved today as a living legacy to these ambitions. Using his signature blurred, dreamlike photographic style, Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto’s image of the stairway at the Bauhaus building from2013 is a romantic homage to a lost age and all it promised. Time has stopped in a perfect confluence of light and shadow, of form and function.

World in motion

Artists also used the staircase as an entirely formal too as a pivotal articulating point for composition and as the basis for brilliant dynamic effect. In Marcel Duchamp’s profoundly influential depiction of a body in motion, The Nude Descending a Staircase (1912), for example, the ephemeral is literally encapsulated in the painted surface. As the figure moves down stairs in time-lapse, Duchamp effectively merged the cubist style of shattered picture plans to the kind of painting done by the Italian Futurists where the perceived world is represented in constant motion. 

We’re on the road to nowhere

The notion of the staircase as a logical, linear connecting point between point A and point B offered tantalising possibilities for perceptual disruption by the artists of Surrealism. In 1936, René Magritte’s celebrated painting, Forbidden Literature (The Use of the Word) shows a lemon yellow staircase leading up to blank wall, its raison d'être absurdly thwarted on its illusionistic stage. Whether this is read as an ominous symbol of the pseudo-sexual subconscious, or as existential angst, the idea of the ‘staircase to nowhere’ has become one of the most ubiquitous images of modern times.

Most dazzling, perhaps, is the celebrated Ascending and Descending (1960) by EC Escher, with its two ranks of human figures trudging forever upwards and eternally downwards respectively on an impossible four-sided eternal staircase. It is the most recognisable of EC Escher’s “impossible objects” images, which were inspired by the British mathematician Roger Penrose and his father, the geneticist Lionel Penrose as well as his admiration of the existentialist writings of Dostoyevsky and Camus.

In a letter to a friend while he was working on Ascending and Descending he explained: “That staircase is a rather sad, pessimistic subject, as well as being very profound and absurd. Yes, yes, we climb up and up, we imagine we are ascending; every step is about 10 inches high, terribly tiring – and where does it all get us? Nowhere.”

It is a sensibility with many echoes in the contemporary. The winding steps of Peter Coffin’s Untitled (Spiral Staircase) are moulded into a circle, itself a symbol of the eternal and timelessness. 

On a monumental scale, Olafur Eliasson’s 9m high public commission, Umschreibung, installed in the atrium of an office building in Munich in 2004 has two spiral staircases that interlock with each other creating a continuous loop in the form of a double helix. Umschreibung – which can be translated as ‘circumscription’ or ‘periphrasis’ – proposes a movement without destination, a space defined by motion rather than walls.

Baby when you’re gone

Elsewhere the staircase is notable for its very absence. Rachel Whiteread, an artist who is famed for her sculptures of the negative space between objects, created her grand-scale free-standing sculpture Untitled (Stairs) in 2001 – a rotated cast of the interior space surrounding a staircase and three square-shaped landings as the stairs zigzag down the stairwell. 

Whiteread’s casting process has transformed the stairs into a ghostly abstracted geometric composition that combines physical familiarity with a conceptual conundrum – that of trying to envisage the original structure from which the new object has been derived. 

Similarly, Korean artist Do Ho Suh has created a number of works based on his personal memories of architectural spaces, both of his parents’ traditional Korean house in Seoul and his own apartment in New York. Using intricately stitched, richly coloured see-through gauze suspended from the ceiling, the phantom staircase is transformed into a romantic abstraction that remains steeped in nostalgia. 'The space I'm interested in is not only a physical one, but an intangible, metaphorical, and psychological one,' he has said.

The creative team of Elmgreen & Dragset are world-renowned for their pointed critique of the power structures of society through humorous, sardonic and often controversial sculptures and installations inserted into public and gallery spaces.  Social Mobility (Staircase) installed at the ARKEN Museum in Denmark in 2005 uses the broken stairway as a singular pun on the limitations and false promise of the state and misplaced aspirations. At the top of a broken pathway to a better future, the official looking doorway titled ADMINISTRATION leads nowhere.