TheCollector Interviews Contemporary Artist Toni Mauersberg

Toni Mauersberg, contemporary artist based in Berlin, offers us special insight into her artistic process—everything from asking big theological questions to considering which paint to use.

Mar 9, 2024By Anna Sexton, BA Int'l Relations, BA Art History, MA in-progress

toni mauersberg interview contemporary artist


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After being blown away by her artworks exposed at Art Cologne 2023, TheCollector recently sat down with the Berlin-based painter Toni Mauersberg. Born in Hannover, Mauersberg studied fine arts, Jewish studies, and religious studies in Berlin and Jerusalem.


Employing various painterly techniques, Mauersberg explores the different levels of interpretation that a painted image may contain, from its pictorial tradition to the process of its creation. She also uses her art to grapple with the question of how to live in a post-religious and post-rational era. Mauersberg is currently represented by Galerie Georg Nothelfer in Berlin.


In this interview, Mauersberg discusses the influence her education and upbringing have on her art, how she confronts questions of faith, and breaks down the more practical considerations that come into play with her current Pas de Deux series.


toni mauersberg photo
Toni Mauersberg. Image courtesy of the artist.

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When did you first decide to devote your life to art? Or is this the wrong question, as it wasn’t necessarily a decision?


I would say I decided a bit logically in my case. I quite like it when you see your life as a bildungsroman, when things make sense.


I came from a family that has nothing to do with fine art, though they are very bürgerlich and very academic. That means that we read a lot, discussed politics often, and listened to classical music, but at the same time, I never went to museums.


However, I have always loved to draw, so when the time came to ask myself, what should I study? I thought, “Okay, my mother is a philosopher, and my father is a carpenter.” So, we have, so to speak, someone very philosophical and someone very technical. The outcome must then logically be someone who combines the two skills well.


So, I applied to art school, but I wasn’t primarily thinking about whether one could make a living from it; that shouldn’t be the deciding factor.


My family was supportive of the idea, but they did tell me to maybe also have a plan B. So, I also studied Jewish Studies and Religious Studies and interned at newspaper offices, so I knew that, in an emergency, I could always write or do something in the humanities.


theorie and praxeus toni mauersberg
Theoria & Praxeus by Toni Mauersberg, 2021. Image courtesy of the artist


It seems like you combined the backgrounds of both your parents to embark on an art career, which can be seen as a mixture of these two disciplines. It’s great that you recognize the influence that had on your life. 


A professor of mine once told me, “You’re not an artist at all, you’re a contemplative craftsman,” which wasn’t meant as a compliment!


When I think about what I should do and what would be good to paint, I often think about what I’m missing, what I’m longing for. The pictures I paint are hopefully both handcrafted and well thought out.


erzli toni mauersberg
Erzli von Toni Mauersberg, 2024. Image courtesy of the artist


I sometimes think that in contemporary art, you have such a very independent language and jargon. And there are a lot of people who are very intelligent but distrust art because they think, “yeah, it’s just someone pouring paint and spattering it around.” But of course, it’s usually much more complicated than that. It’s just that it doesn’t come across so directly why a certain paint splatter is better than another and why that might be important.


So, I wanted to make things for these kinds of people—people who like to think, are very well-read and intellectual, but who still feel reflected in the form and who want to find their thoughts there. Comprehensible and yet surprising. This is my approach because it is what I often find myself missing in art.


saint sloth toni mauersberg
St. Fauli/Saint Sloth by Toni Mauersberg. Image courtesy of the artist


Let’s go back to your studies. You mention that you studied Jewish & Religious Studies as a sort of Plan B, but would you say they also influenced your art?


Art can be a means of reflecting on oneself, new aesthetic forms, or a particular theme. And religion, faith as a theme, will likely always preoccupy me. Faith has a really big problem at the moment, to be honest.


Quite often, when I tell people that I am a believer, I can see in their eyes that they are thinking of strange folks who sing around, pray to a diffuse projection, and don’t see reality, or of fundamentalists who want to harm other people, or of people who ring doorbells to get you to do something. And I think that’s a real problem because faith is actually something very beautiful that should make you a better human, but at the same time, it’s also extremely difficult to negotiate because it’s about unprovable, very emotional things. That’s why there is a centuries-old science of what God is like and what forms faith can take.


great great great grandfather portrait
Urururgroßvater by Toni Mauersberg. Image courtesy of the artist


I also think you have to choose your faith to some extent; an inherited, self-evident faith is not particularly stable. My family is hardly religious; I myself am not even baptized. My mother believed that children have to choose for themselves whether they want to be religious or not. My great-great-great-grandfather, however, was a Protestant pastor. His sermons still exist, in which he tried to explain Schopenhauer to his congregation. I once painted a portrait of him.


When I was 14, I had a Jewish stepfather, and that was actually the first religious style that won me over, and I slowly got into it from there. On the one hand, it is about personal feeling and then finding the right form to express them in life. There is a very beautiful theological concept developed in this way in Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers novels, about which I wrote my master’s thesis. It has a lot to do with narrative theory and about having as little dogma as possible; it’s a very abstract but very clear and very personal belief. You are, so to speak, the conscious protagonist of your own life novel.


black narcissus toni mauersberg
Dark Narcissus by Toni Mauersberg. Image courtesy of the artist.


Would you say your personal beliefs regarding faith are reflected in all of your artwork or only in certain series? Or when you approach the subject of faith, it is not necessarily from the perspective of your own beliefs but the idea of faith as a larger, abstract concept?


Both! But not in every case; it depends on the picture.


I painted a very large portrait this year, for example, of a friend of mine entitled Dark Narcissus. The thought behind it was this: If someone is no longer a believer, is there a tendency to put themselves in that empty divine place?


This is something that I observe in many friends, sometimes in myself too, and generally in the entire West, that you see yourself as the center of the cosmos. And then you can’t get away from this egocentric perspective, with all the negative consequences.


After all, we are responsible for our own actions, but we think of ourselves as so important that we suddenly blame ourselves for everything that happens. The entire West also feels responsible for everything that goes wrong in the world, and it is responsible, but not for everything.


I have a friend of mine who is exactly like that. I painted him with a gigantic black halo; at first glance, he seems to be looking directly at you. But when you stand in front of the painting, you realize that he’s not looking at you at all, but as if into a mirror and somehow also into nothingness. I tried to show on his face both this inner turmoil and this self-absorption. This painting would therefore be a current example of a painting that also addresses religious issues and imagery.


As far as my latest work is concerned, the Pas de Deux series, it’s not explicitly religious. There is, of course, a small footnote that God is a very abstract concept, as a fundamental interest in abstraction and the longing for a deeper knowledge of phenomena.


about certainty toni mauersberg
Über Gewissheit by Toni Mauersberg, 2021. Image courtesy of the artist


Your Pas de Deux series comprises 40 individual images that make 20 pairs. In each instance, one is abstract, one is figurative, and both are inspired by famous and not-so-famous artworks. Could you explain your concept for this series – where did the idea come from, and what do the pairs represent? 


An idea can take on very different concrete forms. And I had the intuition that the contrast between portraits and non-representational, i.e., purely painterly images, enriches both. All people can read faces—and then, in the next step, the painterly codes through which visual reality is captured. On the abstract counterpart, painting is then freed from the constraints of representation and can stand on its own.


In the course of my working life, I have painted my way through art history, so to speak. I first painted many portraits and biographical subjects, then many landscapes, including more symbolic dreamscapes, and it took me about seven years to begin to understand and appreciate abstract painting. The pleasure of reading the individual brushstrokes and the decisions made for the painting is much more meaningful than simply looking at the end result as a fixed image.


So, I also wanted to give an insight into the painter’s perspective through the juxtaposition. It is also about a mental movement when looking at it: In general, we painters have the problem today that there are so many images out there that move faster and faster, that can do more and more. So how does one manage to paint a still, static image so densely and so deeply that it can speak beyond what is actually depicted? What can be said with the way it is painted, with the gestures, and so on? I wanted to deal with these questions in order to paint abstractly.


It also raises the question of what you can actually say with abstract painting. What kind of messages can you send with it? How can the beholder read it? I can’t make any assertions, I can’t ask questions, I can’t tell anything directly. But there are still carriers of meaning and a kind of grammar—and these are precisely my research questions.


The rules of the game are as follows: Each pair must consist of an abstract painting and a portrait. They must be the same color and work together on a visual aesthetic level in painting style and composition. Collaboration means that there is either harmony or a clear contrast, preferably both at the same time. But no accidental juxtaposition.


the couple toni mauersberg
Das Paar by Toni Mauersberg, 2020. Image courtesy of the artist


It is also interesting that you’ve made the diptychs on wood – is that a nod to religious iconography or the Old Masters?


The wood is sometimes also covered with canvas; it really depends on which surface I need. I researched a lot, and at university, we had the opportunity to learn about old painting techniques. I also use very different techniques, depending on what is desired. I like wood as a surface simply because it’s hard and even. It’s good to have a stable base for finer pictures, and there are good restoration options.


I mostly use oil paints—for the look and because they dry slowly, but also because, with acrylic paints, you don’t know exactly how long they will last. Oil paints can last for several hundred years if you don’t put too much oil in them, which then turns brown, or do any other gimmicks.


I am also fascinated by this longevity: Here in Berlin, there are Egyptian mummies whose portraits are painted with wax on wood that are well over 2,000 years old and very, very realistic. It’s very eerie to have a mother and her two children looking at you, and you know that they’ve been dead for over 2,000 years.


One Day the Sadness Will End by Toni Mauersberg, 2024. Image courtesy of the artist


On a similar note, how important is the medium for you in your work in general?


It’s very important. I always liked it when you don’t call yourself an artist in general but specifically a painter. I always need rules and restrictions; in this respect, it is also a pragmatic decision to opt for two-dimensional painting. You can depict anything, but at the same time, it is always abstract, a sphere of its own.


But I’ve also done some painterly works that also had an extension with photography, text documentation, or performance, where, for example, it’s about what happens when I paint another person and how they find it.


long goodbye toni mauersberg
Der lange Abschied (Abendland) by Toni Mauersberg, 2021. Image courtesy of the artist


And how important is color for you?


I’m not the biggest color-sensitive person, but I still really like to immerse myself in it, and I have my favorite hues. At the moment, for example, I have a problem. I am currently preparing an exhibition of drawings, and I need a very lightly tinted paper. For earlier drawings, I had too strong a shade of gray, and now all the papers I find are too white.


Furthermore—this may sound a bit esoteric—color is this prototypical material per se, and how you treat color perhaps also has to do with how you deal with things in general: you can handle it violently, very sensitively, or a bit cowardly, but you can also try to force perfection very slowly, or you can be very charming with it, elegantly letting the gaps speak for themselves.


How do you see your art evolving in the future?


Going further! So, I have staked out a theme when I say that my art should be about the state of faith on the one hand, there is still a lot to do in terms of content.


But I would also say that this is also still my mission: How can we make this production perspective in art clearer to people so that they understand not only what the finished picture is but also what it means to paint a picture when they see it? In this respect, the Pas de Deux series will definitely continue.


I am also currently working on a series of drawings. It’s a bit more open and also more narrative, freer and explores a bit the conditions of the possibilities of drawn images. But it’s not finished yet.


invitation to my genius toni mauersberg
Invitation to My Genius by Toni Mauersberg. Image courtesy of the artist


Are there any major projects for you on the horizon?


I’d love to write a doctoral thesis! However, we’ll have to see about that. There is actually a semi-theoretical, semi-practical doctoral program for artists. And I suspect that many art historians lack this [practical knowledge].


For example, if you speculate why the artist used orange in their painting, what is its significance? Sometimes, the answer is simply that the artist’s red paint tube was just empty, and all they had left was orange. So I know that’s, of course, enormously speculative, but I still think it would be enriching to include more of the painter’s perspective in this dialogue.


For every artist, their work consists fundamentally of decisions: Do I do this? What am I dealing with at all? Then, do I do this? Or better that? And why?


those are the rules
Das sind die Regeln by Toni Mauersberg, 2024. Image courtesy of the artist


This applies to all disciplines, for example, film. There’s a book I really love called Story, written by Robert McKee. It’s simply a manual on how to write a screenplay, and once you’ve read it, you’ll understand every movie completely differently. You suddenly realize what decisions were made and what problems every screenwriter inevitably faces.


You always see how they solved them, and you also understand why a movie doesn’t work or why it works. I think you can enjoy the work a lot more when you see the good work. When you have that context, the magic is not diminished.

Author Image

By Anna SextonBA Int'l Relations, BA Art History, MA in-progressAnna holds a BA from the University of Washington in Art History and International Relations and is currently based in Strasbourg, France. She has worked in several museums and art galleries in the Seattle area as well as abroad. She is currently completing her Master's thesis on the spoliation and restitution of Nazi-looted art in Strasbourg. When she is not writing & researching, Anna enjoys dancing ballet, learning languages, doing crosswords, and drinking tea.