Michael Butler: Bold and Beautiful

Michael Butler came late to art—in his early thirties. He had been a wanderer and had known trouble, very serious trouble. Art both challenged and settled him; and his world changed. What follows is about him, and the interlinking of two works of art. One a canonical work by a Northern Renaissance master, the other a major work by a little-known Australian artist. Curtain up . . .

Initially trained as a printmaker (under Michael Kempson, Bruce Latimer and Rew Hanks) Michael Butler enjoyed the form, was thought to be thematically impressive, but technically a bit rough-around-the edges. Eventually he decided printmaking didn’t really suit—a bit stitched up, too many rules—so he circled back to what he loved most anyway—collage, drawing and assemblage.

Rated by those who knew his work (particularly artists) Butler was wary of the artworld and sniffed at the idea of being a “professional artist.” His love was the studio, and the peace and privacy it gave. He liked isolation. Sticking close to home (and the studio) paid dividend. He proved to be a disciplined, meticulous, and remarkably dexterous “artist,” who preferred the appellation “hermit.”

Writing in Runway Journal, issue 13: dead, 2009, artist Christine Dean noted “Michael Butler’s work is as bold as it is beautiful” and that he’d created “a large body of work that exists outside of the accepted spectrum of mainstream contemporary Australian art.” Arresting imagery, riotous decoration and lush finishes were Butler’s metier, withering social observation, and erotically charged “shock and awe” his stock-in-trade. Loving the compliment, he was once accused in the suburban press of “bringing perversion and filth to Liverpool [NSW].” What set his work apart was its intelligence, and power to lift or tear at your heart, punch at your guts, and tickle your fancy.

In 2004 Butler visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camps in Poland. Preoccupied with Nazi criminality and the Holocaust since adolescence, he’d long studied its history. His intention was to bear witness, to pay respect.

Butler was stupefied by Auschwitz—piles of hair, empty suitcases, tangled spectacles, footwear, prosthetic limbs, forlorn prayer shawls, all looted from those murdered by the Nazis. Birkenau was worse—a ruin of gas chambers, crematoria, barracks that stretched to the horizon. Auschwitz-Birkenau were necropolises for a million butchered innocents, each without a single grave.

Returning home Butler began to consider creating work about Auschwitz-Birkenau. The question was why, how? Reading philosophers Theodor W. Adorno and Hannah Arendt helped clarify his thinking.

Adorno saw “Auschwitz” as an unprecedented rupture in history, where Barbarism had triumphed over Reason, and demanded that artists admit culture’s failure and that they “work their way out of barbarism.” Arendt argued that “thinking” itself had failed; that what had once been thought “unthinkable” was in fact “thinkable.” Her view was that Nazi attempts to annihilate specific races of people (Jews, Roma and Sinti, Slavs), and murder communities they thought superfluous (Communists, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the disabled) were, uniquely, crimes against humanity. She too demanded people act to prevent the recurrence of the Nazi bacillus.

The seed of the solution was to be found in the Renaissance art so admired by Butler. Raised a Catholic, he had rejected the Church, but had retained a love of its art—particularly that of Hieronymus Bosch, and in particular his great altar triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1490-1510. It was this artwork that inspired Butler to create his Auschwitz altarpiece.

Working toward, sometimes against Bosch, Butler found moments of alignment and counterpoint with the Renaissance master to drive the conceptual development, thematics, and physical form of his work. Interested in the function of the triptych as a vehicle for elucidation and contemplation, Butler found its foldability and multi-panelled form offered scope to explore the conjunction of complex history and trauma.

In 2005 Butler commenced work on what would become the Auschwitz Altarpiece. For the next five years, as a devotional, he meticulously collaged thousands of swastikas as he built the work. It was grinding, laborious, physically taxing. When asked “Are you planning to cut a swastika for every Jew murdered by Hitler?” his reply “Yes, six million, and homos too.” Butler’s process was private and contemplative; it was emotionally taxing. He often wept as he worked. Hieronymus Bosch took twenty-years to complete The Garden of Earthly Delights. Butler took five to complete the Auschwitz Altarpiece.

Unlike The Garden of Earthly Delights, Butler’s altarpiece has no narrative: no beginning, middle, or end. Conceptual rather literal, Butler’s repetitive use of a single symbol—the swastika—suggests a vortex of documental fact; evidence of offence, proof of guilt, lists of victims, warrants of death.

A riot of religious symbols, Biblical references, and allegorical tableaux, The Garden of Earthly Delights is a feast for contemplation. Whereas Butler’s work is a spare dish that uses pictorial simplicity and decorative restraint to the imbue the work with a stillness that drives clarity and delivers emotional force. Almost Calvinist in its dignity, Butler’s altarpiece is never overwrought, and determinably not sentimental.

Butler’s Auschwitz Altarpiece and Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights are deeply cinematic in their story and style. Both explore similar themes: paradise and purgatory, eros and lust, temptation and sin, torture and death, dogma and doctrine, the downfall of Man.

Like Panavision, the Bosch triptych explodes from monochrome to technicolour. Whereas Butler’s altarpiece broods like German Expressionist films of the Weimar era —dark, anxious, full of distortion. This is unsurprising given Butler’s obsession with Deutsch “Stummfilm and Tonfilm,” silent and talkie films such as Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1922), Die Nibelungen (Fritz Lang, 1924), Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (Walter Ruttman, 1927), Die Dreigroschenoper (G. W. Pabst, 1931).

Abstracted and glued within the framework of worship the device of the swastika, as deployed by Butler, tells us much about Nazism’s confusion of ideology and lack of logic, its rigid structure and chaotic application. Butler’s twisted swastikas allude to the murders committed by the Nazis and their collaborators as they recall bodies dumped in mass graves, corpses on carts ready for hauling to the crematoriums, thousands of tangled spectacles Butler had seen piled high at Auschwitz.

Traditionally the outer panels of a triptych were painted in a grisaille to provide contrast to the unfolding colour within. Butler, however, ignores the convention, with both external and internal panels of his work identical in absence of colour and repetition of motif—the point being there is no variation, all is Hell with the Nazis. The outer panels of The Garden of Earthly Delights feature the face of God, and text from the Bible’s Book of Genesis. Butler’s Auschwitz Altarpiece carries neither; the message clear—the silence and indolence of the Church; there was no God at Auschwitz.

In 2009 Butler returned to Germany to undertake research at the Topography of Terror Research and Education Centre, and Deutsches Historiches Museum in Berlin; and to visit the Dachau and Sachsenhausen concentration camps. After this visit, the first iteration of the Auschwitz Altarpiece was completed, along with a series of associated collages he called the ”German work,” and were presented in his solo exhibition he who has butter on his head should not go into the sun (#1) at MOP Projects, Sydney in late 2010.

Butler’s Auschwitz Altarpiece reveals a fundamental shift from his earlier work. More confident in application, richer in thematic depth, the impetuous exuberance of earlier works was enriched by a deeper sense of intellectual discipline and philosophic engagement. What also increased was emotional intensity, and a growing sense of melancholy.

When Hannah Höch (whose work Butler greatly admired) was faced with the horror of the Nazis she withdrew into what she called “internal exile.” Her work reversed from political critique to explore the beauty of the natural world only. Michael Butler—minus the personal danger Höch faced, did much the same. After the experience of Auschwitz, he retreated within himself to attempt to make sense of its horror, and to try and expunge the demons it had raised within him. This was to continue, until 2017, when due to illness, his studio practice ceased.

As a young man Michael Butler thought he would never see The Garden of Earthly Delights or Auschwitz. When he did, the former moved him for its beauty, the latter broke his heart. Butler’s purpose in creating his triptych was to honour those who had suffered; and for those who might see the work to ponder why and how the catastrophe of Nazism had occurred and what had been lost.

In September 2022 Michael Butler died peacefully, in his sleep at home in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. He was sixty-two.

John Kirkman is a Sydney-based curator, gallery director and creative producer. He was Michael Butler’s partner for 32 years.
This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, issue 65 

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