The German painter weaves powerful narratives where literature, mythology, and symbolism intertwine.
by Gabriella Mazza
Welcome to the haunting mystique of Sabine Bachem. A figurative oil painter from Germany, she creates vivid dreamscapes that hover between Surrealism, Romanticism, and Magical Realism. Drenched in symbolic meaning, her narratives pack an emotional punch that connects viewers to the otherworldly, where reality blurs and the enigmatic takes center stage.
Bachem is fond of mythology and great works of literature, which she has referenced numerous times throughout her career. Her paintings have found fertile ground in Dante’s Divine Comedy, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the seven deadly sins, which she depicted as personified by commanding female figures. Her series inspired by Dante’s Inferno features various circular objects–rings, lips, or holes–that represent the different circles of hell. The objects are painted over old illustrations from medical, zoological, or architectural journals or even musical scripts, which confer a somewhat fabled and enigmatic quality to the compositions.
Her versatile thematic inquiry is paired with a curiosity for pushing the boundaries of traditional supports and mediums. Bachem studied at the Steiner Waldorf School in England, where she briefly moved with her family. There she trained in figurative oil painting but also experimented with woodworking, copper bashing, and honey wax sculpting. Although partial to oils, she likes to deviate from the norm, sometimes hanging paintings unstretched from a rod, painting over old prints, or cutting holes of various shapes into linen canvases (“so they can breathe,” as she jokingly says).
Bachem’s most recent body of work comprises a series of triptychs that delve into the intricate relationship between culture and nature. The panels weave an ongoing narrative that juxtaposes images of idealized natural beauty with the equivocating interventions of humanity. The collision of the natural and the artificial within these compositions gives rise to themes of death and destruction, symbolized through the depiction of debris piles, marooned boats, and poignant close-ups of animal and human skulls.
Bachem’s apocalyptic visions bear much resemblance to the Romantic masterpieces of Caspar David Friedrich and Eugène Delacroix and their tumultuous portrayals of shipwrecks and stormy seas, such as Friedrich’s The Sea of Ice (1824) and Delacroix’ Christ on the Sea of Galilee (1841). Like her predecessors, Bachem creates almost preternatural habitats that are remote, mysterious, and bear a sense of foreboding. She amps up the dramatic pathos with stark contrasts of light and dark, whereby patches of warm, ethereal glow suddenly plummet into brooding darkness. By exalting emotion and sensory experiences, she appeals to the viewer’s passions rather than reason, leveraging imagination as a gateway to spiritual transcendence.
Bachem’s paintings reveal two radical facets of nature. In the first triptych panel, virginal landscapes that stretch out into the horizons, sprawling magenta and purple skies pervaded by massive clouds, and lakes that shine an almost supernatural light celebrate the magnificence of the natural world. As the narrative unfolds, as a result of humans’ gross abuse, Mother Nature unleashes its destructive power on the artificial, a harsh yet necessary lesson for humanity’s capital crimes. “Man tries to push nature away and when it gets too bad nature’s fury comes,” she explains. “On the one hand, there is this beautiful nature, idealized, idyllic, which doesn’t exist, on the other side culture that keeps on tearing things down and building something.”
Bachem articulates her artistic focus as an ongoing exploration of the human mind’s tendency to impose structure when confronted with the peripheral environment. This innate impulse leads to the construction of artificial yet psychologically comprehensible patterns. This process of ordering serves as a mechanism, facilitating the transition from the unfamiliar to the familiar, from fear to the comfort zone, and from nature toward culture in the intricate tapestry of human experience.
She says, “My artistic preoccupation is a continual engagement with the structure of the human mind which, confronted with the peripheral environment, automatically begins to order, constructing an artificial–but for human psychology–comprehensible pattern. This process of ordering is a mechanism that bridges the passage from the alien to the familiar, from fear to the comfort zone, and from nature to culture. In my surrounding environment, I am constantly on the lookout for motives that mirror the human condition, that is, the zone that emerges when culture nudges up against nature.”
Bachem’s paintings are hypnotic to look at and it’s hard not to get caught in the allure of her Delphic characters and electrical palettes. Yet beyond the hallucination and the fantasy, there are concrete messages very much anchored in today’s social fabric, such as women’s disempowered perception and humans’ destruction of natural resources. Like a Grimm’s fairytale, Bachem’s visions evoke a kind of adulterated beauty. There is something sinister about the dream. Gorgeous as they may appear, the glorious mountains, lush rivers, splendid animals, and majestic deities cast a looming shadow; as if it were all too good to be true.
Bachem’s work is currently displayed at Agora Gallery, as part of the Lucid Dreamscapes exhibition, which will run until October 24, 2023.
Gabriella Mazza is an Italian-born visual artist, writer, and linguist based in New York. She has worn many hats in her career working for artists, art fairs such as Frieze, Scope, and the SPRING/BREAK Art Show, and local arts organizations, for which she curated and planned exhibitions, open studios, and gallery crawls. She is an active member of New York City’s art scene and finds ever new ways of expanding as an artist and contributing to the community at large. Selected exhibitions include SVA’s ContinuED Project Space, Local Project Art Space, and The Factory in New York and the Satellite Art Show in Miami. You can find her on Instagram @gabriellamazza_arte