I was born in 1960 behind the Iron Curtain in Eastern Germany. Now I am living on the surreal shores of Belgium.
Autodidact as an artist, but educated in various forms of printmaking (etching, relief prints, serigraphy) in Ireland (Francis Van Maele, Redfox Press, Achill Island) and Germany (Eva Pietzcker, Druckstelle Berlin,
Künstlerhaus Betanien, Berlin, and Ulrich Grimm, Magdeburg). After producing for many years limited edition prints, collages, and artist books, I stopped for a few years my art production and traveled the world
extensively. My focus is now nearly exclusively on paintings.
Some solo exhibitions:
Gallery Kaire-Desine, Vilnius (LT), 2005
Gallery Meno, Cultural Centre Jonava (LT), 2005
Musée de l’Art Spontané, Brussels (BE), 2008
Gallery 89, London (UK), 2010
Kunstwerkstatt, Magdeburg (DE), 2010 and 2013
Gallery ORT, Birmingham (UK), 2012
Cultural Centre, Minden (DE), 2014
Between 2014 and 2019 I traveled the world and showed less. “And God Created Woman”, Chopperchunky Gallery, London (UK) – virtual, November 2020
Group exhibitions 2020
In 2020 we have seen the shift from the physical to virtual space due to the Covid-19
pandemic, but still some participation took place in galleries and off-gallery spaces.
“20×20 art on paper”, Christine X Gallery, Sliema (Malta)
“Inner World”, Boomer Gallery, London (UK)
“The art of isolation”, Rod Kitson Art pop-up gallery, London (UK)
“Between Surrealism & Magic Realism”, Beam Collective Tel Aviv – virtual
Member Show, ORT Gallery, Birmingham (UK) – virtual
“The Quarantine Art Exhibition”, London (UK) – virtual
“Drawing from Life”, Chopperchunky Gallery, London (UK) – virtual
To use a quote by singer-songwriter Philip David Ochs: “In such ugly times, the only true protest is beauty”. In our search for novelty in making artwork, we often lose touch with beauty, sensitivity, and harmony. My paintings explore poses, constellations, movements of the female form. It’s a pursuit of truth and beauty. Still, the enigma remains. I see my work as a form of visual poetry. They tell stories, but it is the viewer who needs to decipher them setting them in context with her own inner world.
I grew up in a time and place when the naked female body was perceived as unfolding its original charm and thus radiating an unconstrained self-confidence. And I think my picture wants to show this feeling to a world which is greatly torn by inequalities, foremost of gender, on the one hand, side and an ultraconservative neo-puritanism, on the other.
My paintings should not be perceived as looking backward in art history but incorporating contemporary ideas and concepts while searching for the beauty around us. Or, with the words of painter Philip Pearlstein, to work with the human body as a “territory for abstraction”.
The viewer shall appreciate the sheer physical presence of the painting. No irony, no detachment, no artificial story. I believe in the singular image and that painting lives in the emotional power to portray the sense of being alive.
Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get into making art? What are your earliest memories of making art?
Bernd: I was born on a rainy day behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany in 1960, the year the Russian Pact created a wall dividing Berlin and cut off its vassal countries from the Western hemisphere. I guess this childhood had quite an impact on me, my thinking, and probably also my art.
Letting aside the usual “I have always created art, already as a young child”, which is nonsense because all young kids draw, for me it started around the age of 16. We were at a boarding school and a few friends created a group to read and discuss poetry and literature and to listen to classical music and Jazz. Maybe it was to compensate for a very restrictive and politicized education, maybe it was just adolescence. At least one became a poet, another one a writer and theater director, and a third one an acclaimed architect. I was the only one exercising visual art. Drawings in the style of André Masson and Yves Tanguy.
I didn’t go to art school but continued to work on my art, in particular printmaking and later collages and works on paper.
In 1982 I met my wife and we decided to create a family. We gave raising the kids and provide them with a decent childhood priority over any other ambition or passion.
Comes 1989, the downfall of the Berlin Wall, and our move to Belgium in 1992. At that time, prints were not considered proper original artwork, so I focused on “original” collages on paper and artist books.
In 2014 I had what I call my artistic burnout. Two of my artist friends committed suicide, another died of a stroke in his early 50s and my wife became very ill. I didn’t do any art, apart from a kind of travel diary and a few small colleges. But perhaps these events were only the trigger of a smoldering disgust towards the art of the late 20th and early 21st century. An art that is oscillating between trash art, which plays an adolescent, poorly staged revolt for an extremely rich and bored clientele and hardware store art that is completely overloaded with meaning and shallow concepts. In autumn 2019 I had sufficiently recovered to think again about what art represents for me: “In such ugly times, the only true protest is beauty” (P.D. Ochs).
It was paintings by Bouguereau, Sargent Singer or J.W. Waterhouse from the mid-19th century which urged me into painting. I was particularly touched by Henry Ossawa Tanner’s Annunciation. Not because of the topic, although I consider the scene to be one of the best dupe scenes in human history, told from a feminist point of view, but because of the mastery of depicting light. It became clear that I wanted to paint, figuratively.
I know little about East Germany at the time. How hard was it to express artistically at that time?
Bernd: I would opt for “different”. I wouldn’t qualify today’s situation where art is completely dependent on market forces as “easy”, especially when Facebook or Instagram think they can decide which art can be shown.
There were very few places to study art and the art you would be expected to produce should celebrate the state, the party, and the working classes, the so-called “socialist realism”. Modern(ist) art was declared decadent and unfit for the new socialist men, which means books and other material about such art were difficult to get. This was very much prolongation of artistic thinking during the 1930’s throughout Europe (from Stalinist Russia over France to Fascist Italy and Germany) but also by the regionalist painters in the US, like Grant Wood.
Admission tests for the studies were severe and it was expected that the aspiring artist would try several times to shows his determination. I was far too much influenced by some surrealist art I had seen (e.g. Max Ernst, Attirement of the Bride) and not at all interested in applying to study socialist realism, at that time even working after nature was too far of a stretch for me. So, I opted for natural science studies instead, in particular chemistry, which helped me a lot to manipulate matter during my printmaking attempts.
On the other hand, obtaining an academic degree as a trained artist was far less important than today, many artists came through other routes, illustration, applied art, or simple crafts. The goal was to enter the Artist Association, which was dominated by the party, but depending on the local situation of the respective branch would allow for some artistic freedom. In return, the association would provide for exhibition possibilities and commissions. No artist would get rich, but nobody allowed into the association would starve, it provided some kind of small universal income. Of course, any art too far away from the party line would be oppressed.
Commercial galleries did not exist, all galleries were State-owned and linked to the artist association. Rarely, but nevertheless, private, mostly artist-led, galleries existed and would be tolerated until their program deviated too much from the party’s thinking about how art should look like.
That art was so regulated and any Western art after WWII declared decadent and forbidden, didn’t mean we were unable to get information about it. The channels were simply more sophisticated, and any such art book was held in high esteem.
Some would argue that nudity of all kinds is inappropriate, what would your response to this be?
Bernd: That’s a difficult question in the sense that I cannot understand why somebody says it. What kind of miserable and misogynist upbringing must somebody have had to think that way? And yet, it seems to be the predominant policy on our major social networks. Of course, nothing is said that these policies represent the thinking of most of the users but rather the imposed belief system of the very few holding the handle on these tools.
To me, it is just a manifestation of fear to lose the power of oppression and exploitation. The naked body is such a powerful symbol of freedom. From Greek gods to feminist protest, I could go on arguing that the naked human body is the most beautiful, yet vulnerable, thing we have.
I don’t like very much such comparisons (all comparison is flawed), but it suggests itself: when you grow up under a totalitarian system, you understand that you cannot argue with those holding the power of the belief system. You can only try to fight it again and again, mostly in tiny unnoticeable actions, which over time bring the Wall down and the powers to be to collapse. So, also here, I paint and continue to paint the naked human figure, maybe (and only maybe) until these censorious moral beliefs and misogyny crumbles down as well.
How do you think people can use art in a way that normalizes rather than objectifies the female body?
Bernd: That’s another question I am thinking about a lot in my work. The concept of the objectification of the female body and the “male gaze” goes probably back to a TV feature from 1972 by John Berger “Ways of Seeing”. At least is the origin many texts seem to refer to.
Berger identifies a number of situations where he sees the male gaze exploiting the depicted female body thus objectifying it. Pointing for instance to the hypocrite differences made between an allegory or depiction of a mythical scene and a real woman throughout art history.
I grew up in a time and place when the naked female body was perceived as unfolding its original charm and thus radiating an unconstrained self-confidence. While I would acknowledge that that time was far from exercising gender equality to the full, there was a societal understanding of gender equality and the need to fight gender discrimination should it manifested itself too blatantly.
Also, when the model works for the painter and is enumerated for this, the two enter into an economic relationship, which is by its very nature asymmetric.
I am a male artist working with female nude models, I have to be aware of such questions. I try to give the women in my pictures personality to the extent of my abilities. The bodies are not idealized, I want to paint the situation ‘as it is’. Poses shall be natural, not stylized.
In this context, I think it necessary to note that for the painter there is more at stake. To quote an artist I admire a lot: Philip Pearlstein said that he sees “the human body as a territory for abstraction”. We have had all the modernist influences in painting, a different way of seeing than it was the case before the 20th century; and the human figure is the most sophisticated subject to paint when it comes to colors and their relations, light, and shadows as well as plains and forms.
You say you see your artwork as a form of visual poetry. Is there a message you are trying to send with each piece, or is it something else?
Bernd: This comment has two distinct origins. On the one hand side, I am observing that in the current art reception there is more emphasis put on the “story” of the artist than on the artwork itself. Without a good, compelling story you will not be accepted as a good artist. The viewer becomes a sort of psychoanalyst (sometimes, even more, a ‘concerned’ or ‘empathic’ voyeur) who looks for clues of the artist’s CV in the work rather than looking at the work. The result is that we see a lot of bad, or at least badly executed artwork, but where the artist’s story is an interesting one. I want my artwork to talk rather than my life story.
Secondly, my artwork before 2013 was often text-based. But it was not the meaning of the text which was the art but its visual arrangements. Texts, the language in general, have a quite different impact on us when we cannot decipher it. The visual appearance of the text is what creates a specific impact in the viewer’s mind. She has to view rather than to read and follow her own narrative evoked by the visual image.
I want to apply these thoughts also to my current figurative paintings. As the artist, I don’t want to present a narrative to the viewer, where the image, the title, and my ‘story’ take all the thinking away. I only provide the viewer with a visual impression, an abstract representation if you so want, which shall evoke something in the viewer, who creates a private narrative from it.
Could you walk us through your process? How much planning do you do before you jump into creating an artwork? If you do, what are you trying to solve at each stage of it?
Bernd: I keep a kind of mood or idea “book” all the time. It’s a couple of folders on my computer and printed images all over the studio. Images of any kind, other artwork, photos I took, etc. find their way into it. I often browse through them and sometimes rearrange them into a more specific folder, e.g. when looking for inspiration to paint a model seated in a Rococo chair. I don’t do preparatory sketches or color studies, the image is developed directly on the canvas. I have a general idea, like the seated nude. The exact pose is discussed and agreed with the model. If it is a new model I would dedicate one session to general life drawing to get an understanding of the person in front of me. Otherwise, I start to draw directly on the prepared canvas with charcoal. I prefer smooth surfaces, so the canvas or wood board is painted with three gesso layers and another three layers of acrylic primer, sanded in between. Before use, the canvas is tinted with some color, mostly burnt umber or a neutral grey. I use exclusively acrylic paint but I also use a retarder and a stay-wet palette, which mimics to quit some extend the behavior of oil paint.
After the initial charcoal drawing on the tinted canvas, I apply an underpaint, burnt umber, or Terra Verra. Onto this underpainting will follow a good number of paint layers trying to build the depth and the color scheme of the body.
If the painting finds a collector, it is sealed with a high gloss varnish, otherwise, I would leave it open allowing me to come back to it at a later stage.
What’s the most challenging part of your artistic process? And how do you overcome it?
Bernd: Representing the human body is always a challenge. Many painters throughout the centuries said that it is a task that cannot be completely achieved. Still, I agree with them that it is the most satisfying thing to try. There is so much detail, shape, and colors to observe, digest, and turn into a painterly representation. It is a dance between having too little detail in the painting, adding more, creating a mess due to too much detail, simplifying, and starting the next dance round.
How do I overcome it? Trying again and knowing to fail, but trying again. And, of course, hoping the viewer will not see all the flaws I see in that painting (or graciously ignoring them).
What is the work you’ve done that you’re the most excited about?
Bernd: The one I am working on.
I see painting like climbing an 8000er mountains. After a while, you can’t go further, lack of experience, stamina, and endurance. The painting is the camp you erect at that position. When you are better equipped or in better shape, you will come back and attack the next peak on the way. But you start in the valley, again and again.
Who are a few artists/people that really inspire you right now, and why?
Bernd: Somebody I admire and has studied quite a lot recently in Philip Pearlstein. He is a contemporary of the AbEx painters and even shared a room for a while with Andy Warhol. But painting the human body all of his life. Somebody who knew everything about modernism but remained faithful to his one interest, the nude human figure.
And then there are a number of living painters, I admire for their great skills. And I still hope that I will have the chance to meet and learn from them. Joshua LaRock and Nick Alm, just to name two. Both are incredible portrait painter, and I am inspired also by Nick Alm for his multi-figure compositions.
Do you see your art as serving a purpose beyond art?
Bernd: The rose is without ‘why’; it blooms simply because it blooms. It pays no attention to itself, nor does it ask whether anyone sees it. (Angelus Silesius, 1687)
I am very suspicious about art which wants to be more than art. Causes change in a blink of an eye, and what seemed right is wrong just now. A sentiment certainly also triggered by the strong politicization or AgitProp of art during my youth. Although I think that in the 21st-century art should be separated from belief systems and religions.
For the viewer or collector, it is different though. The work might recall a memory, creates some emotions, deems the right thing to invest money in, or has the right color to cover a stain on the wall while matching the sofa. But don’t blame the painter for your emotions or actions. I try my best to make good art, to celebrate the human figure, and put beauty into our world. This is already difficult enough.
What are you currently working on, and what’s next for you?
Bernd: The way I am painting is a slow process, so there are constantly a good number of works in the studio which could use some attention. But knowing that I paint at a slow pace and hoping that there will be some “normal” next year, I have started two larger pieces (“larger” for my standards: 50×50 inches) which shall be the centerpieces of an art fair in Amsterdam in summer 2021.
Until then most of our life will be remote, I guess. In that sense, I will have a virtual solo show at Chopperchunky Gallery (chopperchunky.com) in November with paintings that were mostly created in 2020.
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