Eduard Bargheer - on the centenary of his birth

(Text to exhibition A49 from 19.10. until 20.12.2002)

A centenary celebration cannot but be retrospective and full of memories, and it is not least for this reason that my introduction is first and foremost a very personal one. I made Eduardo’s acquaintance at our home in Campione d’Italia at the beginning of the 1970s through my father-in-law, Roman Norbert Ketterer. Ever since the early 1960s he had been breaking his regular two-way journeys between Ischia and Hamburg in order to show his latest watercolours. It must have been in 1974 when he took me completely unawares by asking me to write a book about him and his oil paintings. Not only the public but also he himself found his oil paintings more difficult to relate to than his watercolours. "I was always on familiar first-name terms with my watercolours," he would say, "but never with my oil paintings." Evidently the time had come for his work to come under art-critical scrutiny, which meant on the one hand that my wife, Ingeborg, and I were to continue to sell his works as art dealers and, on the other, that I was to write about him in my capacity as an art historian. Whilst I had indeed studied art history, Eduard’s request turned me into a Janus, for from then on I was not only an art exhibitor and dealer but also a writer and archivist – professions difficult to reconcile at the best of times and tantamount, on occasion, to the squaring of a circle.

I began in 1974 by taping hours upon hours of interviews with Eduardo, for he was an absorbing and vivacious narrator. He himself was so fascinated by the actual recording of the interviews that he would even get quite impatient whenever our little daughter Alexandra, whom he loved very much, interrupted us. If I was to write about his paintings, it went without saying that I would have to familiarize myself with as many of them as possible. Of course, many of his paintings had already been exhibited on frequent occasions and illustrated in numerous catalogues, but without my knowing anything about their main and secondary lines of development I had no wish to attempt any interpretation or evaluation. Completely nebulous, for instance, were the works painted by Eduardo before 1945. While he had told me everything about his life during the years before the war, I did not get to know much about what he had painted, and what he was able to show me were forever the same examples in each particular instance.

To justify beyond all doubt my reasons for having to know absolutely everything about his paintings, and also to commit myself wholeheartedly to the project, I decided to produce an initial catalogue raisonnĂ© of Eduardo’s paintings as a basic part and parcel of the book I was then going to write.  Besides cataloguing all published and/or exhibited paintings and those paintings that were now in the collections that Eduardo was able to name, I recorded and photographed the entire contents of the studio on Ischia and then travelled with him to Hamburg and did the same in his fisherman’s cottage in Blankenese, although he had told me that I wouldn’t find much there. Just as I had done on Ischia, I searched every nook and cranny, pulling out canvases here and there, noting their details and photographing them. Finally we climbed the stairs to the tiny attic where his printing press stood. A large number of what looked like rolled-up paintings caught my eye, and when I asked him what they were, he replied: "Oh, they could be old canvases, but I’m not sure…" His reply naturally aroused my curiosity, but as one must never put an artist under pressure with things that have nothing to do with art – such as cataloguing, classifying, ordering etc. – and the evening was drawing in anyway, we decided to call it a day and went for a meal – just as we did in Forio at Maria’s – at a small restaurant below his house on the Elbe. We dined on plaice, fried in butter with bacon, and a bottle of white wine.

The next morning we set about unrolling the "old canvases".  What we unearthed was Eduardo’s entire early oeuvre from 1926 until 1939, which had been lying there, forgotten yet well preserved.  Each time I unrolled and smoothed out one of the canvases, Eduardo would ask me whether I considered it to be of any interest and he was highly astonished when I replied in the affirmative. This was the first time I had been confronted with the simple fact that for an artist only his latest work is of any significance, while everything that preceded it was merely the preliminary work for his present and, naturally, considerably more important work. Thus it was that I could obtain an overview of his entire oeuvre and publish a first catalogue raisonnĂ© of his paintings. When I showed him an advance, as yet unbound copy of the book in the spring of 1979, he could not believe that he had in fact painted so many paintings. All the same, he was happy about having rediscovered every single one of them. Sadly, Eduardo died suddenly on 1st July of that same year and was no longer able to see how his paintings were in fact appreciated – perhaps because of the book, perhaps because of the changing times – and how they were, and still are, being collected more and more.

Eduardo’s wish that I concern myself with his life and work led me to branch out in yet another direction – as a curator of exhibitions. I had partly grown up in Rome, where I met a great many artists and scholars who had emigrated to Italy after 1933. I had in fact encountered the astonishing phenomenon of an exile existence, and not least a Jewish one, that had long been ignored by exile research, which at that time was actually practised only in the former GDR. Again and again I suggested to the Goethe Institute and the Foreign Office of the Federal Republic of Germany that an exhibition be organized in the host country both as an expression of gratitude and as a means of drawing attention to this astonishing situation, an exhibition devoted primarily to those works of art produced in exile in Italy between the years of 1933 and 1945.  These official quarters showed very little interest and I could not help feeling that they were shrinking from the inevitable side effect of such an exhibition, for it would definitely draw awareness to the striking difference between National Socialism in Germany and fascism in Italy. It was not until the beginning of the 1990s that things began to change for the better: the then German Consul in Italy, a morally committed man by the name of Manfred SteinkĂĽhler, told me that a Berlin historian, Klaus Voigt, had meanwhile published a well researched book on the phenomenon of exile in Italy.  We were then able to join forces with Klaus Voigt in making detailed plans for an exhibition and succeeded, not least through the influence of Wolf-Dieter Dube and others, in winning over the German Foreign Office to the idea. Above all, however, it was Walter Jens, the then president of the Academy of Arts in Berlin, championed the idea behind this interdisciplinary exhibition. Thus it was that Klaus Voigt and I were able to mount this exhibition at the Palazzo della Ragione in Milan under the title "Rifugio precario" ("Precarious Refuge") in the spring and summer of 1995.  Both Eduardo’s works and the works of other exhibitors, including Max Peiffer Watenphul, Adolf Fleischmann, Werner Gilles, Rudolf Levy, Heinz Battke, Hans Purrmann, Emy Roeder and Felix Nussbaum, testified to what Klaus Mann described as the "…tough, indestructible vitality of art" following the liberation of Italy, a vitality capable of surviving even the most extreme situations.

Since his death, Eduardo’s oeuvre and his two houses in Forio d’Ischia and Hamburg-Blankenese have been managed by Dirk Justus and Peter Silze, to whom we are indebted for numerous exhibitions and publications, including a comprehensive centenary exhibition, accompanied by a lavish catalogue, at Schloss Gottorf in Schleswig, one of the museums of the Schleswig-Holsteinische Landesmuseen, and at Schloss Cappenberg (District of Unna), this exhibition being Schloss Cappenberg’s best visited exhibition to date. Following the early catalogues raisonnés of Eduardo Bargheer’s prints by Detlev Rosenbach and of his paintings by the author, new editions of these catalogues as well as publications on his watercolours and drawings are expected in the very near future.

So who was Eduardo Bargheer? Bargheer belonged to that generation of artists of Central Europe who by 1930 had developed their own characteristic style but whose work was unable to mature under normal circumstances due to the political and cultural darkness of the years between 1933 and 1945. Born in Hamburg-Finkenwerder in 1901, he was largely self-taught and developed between 1930 and 1935 a style mid-way between Magic Realism and Abstraction-CrĂ©ation, finding his inspiration both during periods of study in Paris and in the Hamburg Secession grouped around Friedrich Ahlers-Herstermann or Karl Kluth.  On his many distant travels he would explore the landscape as a medium of artistic expression, while his many friendships brought forth a plethora of portraits.  After 1933, he preferred Italy more and more, a country that was much freer than Germany, both culturally and humanly, and was to become a refuge, albeit an often precarious one, for Bargheer and many other fellow artists and intellectuals. Florence became his city and Ischia his landscape, and he sang their praises right up until his death. Curiously enough, those painters who sought refuge in Italy, including Bargheer, remained true to the figural after 1948.  In not following the trend towards abstraction, Bargheer was yet again an outsider. During the 1960s, from his house-cum-studio in Forio d’Ischia, Bargheer undertook many extensive travels to Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Mali, Senegal and, latterly, Greece and southern Italy, all of which left significant traces in his oeuvre. He died in his fisherman’s cottage in Hamburg-Blankenese in 1979.

This centenary exhibition shows examples of what has meanwhile become a very rare early oeuvre. Above all, however, it shows paintings in the crystalline style developed by Bargheer in 1948, the lattice structure of which enabled him to dissolve and transform the landscape and the human being into something completely new. The following had happened: in October 1935, on the island of Ischia, Eduard Bargheer experienced the wonder of the south as a crucial event in his life, describing it on 20th October as follows: "Every morning, when I open the shutters and look down on Sant’Angelo, I am seized with the same joyful shock that the place really does exist, that I am not dreaming it."  And on 23rd October: "Tomorrow I shall have been here for 10 days and I have the feeling that they are going to be important for the entire rest of my life." But from 1948, before Bargheer could fully penetrate the island’s outward appearance and explore its inner structure, only brief visits were possible, though they did at least leave their mark on his themes and style. Everything that was small and detailed disappeared from his compositions, giving way to basic structures of form and colour. He liberated himself from the abstraction he had embraced in Paris in 1933, from the "Nordic Expressionism" of an Ahlers-Hestermann and a Karl Kluth, from his compositions of the North German coast and its mudflats, its moods that change with the weather and the times of the day. Drawing on the experiences he had gained in these early works with colour and form, he now set about capturing, with broad, sweeping brush strokes, the entire mood of the southern landscape and the southern way of life.

Bargheer’s experience of the "demonic" light of the south must have been similar to the astonishing experience Erich Heckel had in 1913 on a glistening summer’s day on the shore of the Flensburg Fjord, an experience that found exemplary expression in the crystalline lattice structures of Gläserner Tag (Glassy Day), a painting now kept at the Staatsgalerie Moderner Kunst in Munich.  Bargheer’s commentary on this experience has survived as the fragment of a text. It reads as follows:

"What is the task that this demon being and its environment has set us? Unsuspectingly, it has given us a measure for our efforts. It is through our emotionally laden wonderment at the intensity of the southern light, the miracle of colour and the severity of form that we come to realize that, while all human experience must start out from the material, the way to pictorial form is contingent on our recognition that the demon of light breaks the surrounding world into its crystalline elemental parts, which must then in turn obey the laws that govern the formal structure of the picture.  A complex layer upon layer of spatial experience and observation must interweave into a picture. Thus the simultaneity of time and space is abolished, while the relativity of impressionistic possibilities gives way to an absolute law of pictorial construction. When I said that the island has given us a measure for our efforts, I meant it as a being in every sense, as an existing thing and as a human being, the compatibility and incompatibility of both, the harmony and the tension.  Every artistic activity is based, beyond all doubt, on an idea that seizes the artist and never lets go, an idea that determines his life, makes him rich, but one that also burdens and impedes him, for he is at once cursed and blessed with an obsession to which he is forever tethered and from which there is no escape. And it is precisely this spiritual level that mirrors the primary life of the people of this island, who still live in and with its landscape, existence proper in terms of being, to which the artist can respond only with the intensity of his own being, with the presence of his entire personality. Above all else, however, one must beware of a risk for both the intellectual and the emotional side of being, namely that of habit. Every idea is at its most lively at the moment of its conception, its birth; but every idea carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction, the urge to become a system, a formula, a convention, a recipe that condemns the original idea to oblivion and its ultimate death. One must but have the courage to leave behind the safe haven of one’s achieved cognition and one’s established world of forms, to forever face the overwhelming and exciting challenges of new experiences and to venture out onto the high seas of uncertainty and never be content with what has already been invented and discovered. This must be seen as an ethical duty of the highest order, but if we add to it the modesty that is forever in awe of the wonders of being, we shall have created the indispensable prerequisites for that essential vitality of effort and grace of inspiration, without which the creative act could not harness the whole of existence as a testimony to the mind."

Dirk Justus and Peter Silze recently found this text fragment in Eduard Bargheer’s estate and generously forwarded it to me for its (probably?) first ever publication in this catalogue.  The text conveys the intensity of the artist’s creative experience, an experience as volcanic as the island that was to become his destiny. While Eduard Bargheer often gave free vent to his volatile temperament, the latter mostly found expression in the colours and forms of his oil paintings, watercolours, drawings and prints. The light and colours of the south, its landscape and its way of life are all captured in the crystalline lattice structures that make every one of us tremble at their sight, for we cannot but feel we are experiencing something for the very first time.

Wolfgang Henze

translated by John Borgden, Dortmund

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