Jürgen Brodwolf: Origin and metamorphosis of a figure

(text accompanying exhibition No.6, from 29.11.1994 to 25.2.1995)

The question concerning the conception, development and meaning of the “tube figure” has been asked again and again. Back in 1984 I mounted two chronological tables alongside texts by various authors, one being a “timeline of the development of my tube figure”, the other a “table of various types of figure”. This “biography of an artist’s figure” is now to be augmented by a biography of the artist himself, for the one is certainly no longer thinkable without the other. We all remember the enormous imaginative capability we had as children of recognizing human and animal shapes in stones, logs of wood, branches and other natural forms. A pile of driftwood on a river bank, the broken branch of a tree or pieces of wood rotting away in a forest glade were all that was needed to conjure up no end of imaginary figures: father, mother, prince, king, witch, devil, dwarf. These were the figures that peopled our fairytales and our own individual worlds of make-believe. It is in them, too, that the origin of my later “tube figures” lies. I spent my early childhood without any brothers and sisters and playmates in a virtually unpopulated region, its woods and forests, meadows, bogs and ponds offering inexhaustible scope for play, except that I had nobody to play with. I made up for the absence of playmates with my fantasy figures shaped from pieces of wood, twigs and stones. These were later supplemented by tiny figures that I shaped from tin foil and used – mainly during the winter months – as characters in plays acted out on a stage fabricated from a cardboard box. Between these tin-foil figures and my first tube figures lay a gap of a good twenty years, during which the playfulness of the child gave way to the rationality of the adult. Nonetheless, the traces of these “childhood figures” remained stored somewhere at the back of my mind, like a code, ready to be triggered at any time by some optical signal from the outside. This optical signal was eventually given by a squeezed-out paint tube on the bench next to my easel. Through the altogether fortuitive deformations it had undergone during use, the tube had assumed figurative characteristics that were entirely in keeping with the archetype of my own “inner figure”. This far-reaching discovery was at the same time a rediscovery, for it took me back to my childhood, awakening memories of games and rituals with my early, primitive figures. Indeed, it was in this tube figure that I recognized a strong affinity to the figural relics of my childhood and, by the same token, rediscovered my true identity and my own language of form. Whoever sees this figure merely as an artist’s “trade mark” overlooks not only its archetypal, iconic qualities but also its phenomenal ability to transform itself constantly, an ability that for the past 25 years has brought forth and evolved ever new types and variations.

Jürgen Brodwolf

translated by John Brodgen, Dortmund


Jürgen Brodwolf: Works from a Collection

(text accompanying exhibition No. 34, from 15.3. to 17.6.2000)

The human being’s urge to collect seems to be inborn. Even children are not content until they are in possession of several objects of a kind rather than just the one. It is precisely the enormous variety possible within an individual genre of objects that seems to be particularly fascinating. The enthusiasm for collecting does not wane as one gets older but simply changes in its preferences.  Toys, for example, must later give way to more precious collectibles. The collecting phenomenon is particularly prevalent in our affluent society, a typical example being the Swatch mania that spread like wildfire only a few years ago. Not only the necessary financial means are at one’s disposal but also the necessary leisure and scope and, above all, the necessary connections and information, both national and international.

Works of art are likewise ideal collectors’ items, for they meet the aforementioned criterion of variety within a specific genre. Every collection reflects the preferences and intentions of its collector. A collection may focus, for example, on a certain group of artists, a certain style or technique, a certain theme or period. The criteria governing the collector’s choice of works may be more or less rigid, such that his collection bears the unmistakable mark of his own personality. Unlike public collections, which should seek to give as objective an overview as possible by including individual, representative works of different artists from different periods, private collections are rarely broad-based but rather manifest certain focal points of interest. While the works exhibited here are only part of a private collection, the collector’s concentration on the oeuvre of Jürgen Brodwolf, born in Dübendorf near Zürich in 1932, is obvious. A total of 45 works, dating from the period between 1962 and 1983, provide a representative overview of the artist’s work, indeed a veritable cross-section of his œuvre of the 1960s and 1970s, for his most important groups of works are each represented by at least one example, and in some cases by several examples of his work.

What is particularly noticeable about these works is the fact that the artist himself concentrates just on one motif: the human figure. The figure has been the dominant motif of Jürgen Brodwolf’s work since 1959 and has meanwhile become the very feature by which his works are recognized. In the beginning these figures consisted of squeezed-out tubes with residues of oil paint and labels. Skilfully bent into "tube figures", they would be placed in certain situations – as in  "The Pit" (Cat. No. 1) of 1962, for example, which features a tube figure placed in a gully. Brodwolf liked to use such found objects in what might be regarded as a further development of the Ready-made. That a whole array of tube figures can in turn breathe life into another  found object is impressively demonstrated by Brodwolf’s "Bridge" (Cat. No. 5) of 1971: eight tube figures stand on the curved part of a mudguard.

The "Vogelbach Scarecrow" (Cat. No. 2) of 1970 is an assemblage of various materials. A tube figure is forced into the bottom corner of the assemblage by a menacing figure that towers over it. What is remarkable about this work is the use of unconventional materials that do not lose their actual functions and connotations – as paint brushes and pullover sleeves, for example – until the viewer observes them in the context of the assemblage as a whole. These "figure boxes", in which tube figures or lead figures, either seated or standing, are surrounded by the most diverse of found objects, were produced mainly towards the end of the 1960s and during the 1970s.  A further example is the "Votive Tablet" (Cat. No. 2) of 1976, in which is seated a lead figure wearing a shirt and surrounded by various shoemaker’s tools.  Like the aforementioned "Pit", there are also a great many other works that likewise come under the category of "assemblage", such as "Pyramid I" (Cat. No. 10) of 1972, "Bath" (Cat. No. 15) of 1974), "Letter Balance" (Cat. No. 24) of 1975, "Stone Foot" (Cat. No. 25) of 1976, "Rubber Dinghy" (Cat. No. 25) of 1973, "Hoe I" (Cat. No. 29) of 1977, "Funnel" (Cat. No. 28) of 1977 – works in which gullies, stove tiles, letter balances, stone, hot water bottles, weavers’ shuttles, hoes and funnels are removed from their actual contexts and utilized alienatingly as objects of artistic expression. The objects have lost their meaning and forgone their function; they are no longer used for weighing, keeping warm or weaving, but now serve as bases on which tube figures, partially wax-coated or bandaged, are mounted. In this way everything eventually found a new use at the Brodwolfs’ – a kind of artistic recycling, so to speak.

Starting out from the tube figures, Jürgen Brodwolf began to develop his lead figures and canvas figures at the beginning of the 1970s.  No longer bound by given sizes of tube, he was now able to work to different scales. This did not mean, however, that he had abandoned his tube figures. On the contrary, his tube figures served, by way of comparison, to relativize the respective potential of expression and the resulting dialogue of movement. In "Figure Sheet XI" (Cat. No. 13) of 1973, a bent tube figure in the upper left-hand quarter of the sheet seems to be lifting its gaze towards the lower, folded-over canvas figure, as though it wanted to take a closer look at its bigger counterpart. The bend of the tube figure inversely relates to that of the canvas figure, thus creating a togetherness in which the figures mutually repond to each other.

One might in fact consider Jürgen Brodwolf’s entire oeuvre as just one cycle, for the figural motif runs like a thread through all of his works. Precisely in a period marked by artistic diversification across a whole gamut of disparate themes, techniques and languages of form, one cannot but be impressed by Brodwolf’s consistent adherence to just one motif. Even more impressive are the imaginative, ever new and completely different ways in which Brodwolf, forever keen to experiment, brings his figures to life. Moreover, Brodwolf produces, within this consistently single-motif oeuvre, "sub-series", so to speak.  Examples from "Monuments of Art" (Cat. Nos. 18-22), "Figure Imprints" (Cat. Nos.36-39), "Figurations" (Cat. Nos. 34-35) and "Wounds" (Cat. Nos. 42-44) show how differently figures can be depicted on paper.  While found objects and tube figures dominate the earlier works, later works show, for example, figures shaped from wire gauze or even just imprints thereof. The figure as a paraphrase of itself. Every group, series or cycle of works is extended only for as long as all possible variations have been exhausted, any further variations being mere repetition.

Over the past forty years, a great many different interpretations of Jürgen Brodwolf’s figural motifs have been put forward. Some saw in them – especially in the bandaged ones – the enbalmed and mummified human body, preserved for eternity, while figures shaped from pieces of fabric often awakened associations with shrouds. Brodwolf’s figures in his so-called "figure boxes" were often construed as "enlivening codes of human existence". Seated or reclining on articles of everyday use, they not infrequently remind one of a doll’s house.

There is no doubt, however, that the figural motif in Brodwolf’s oeuvre may indeed be interpreted as the metaphor of a human being. But it is an androgynous being and makes its appearance in vastly differing poses: standing in "Bridge", seated and leaning in "Bath", reclining in "Weaver’s Shuttle", as a fragment in "Fragments" and, in the last-mentioned work, in a diversity of materials and dimensions as well. The figure with which Brodwolf confronts us is not so much an abstract human figure as an artistic one, a figure that crops up again and again in ever changing form. The figure is a fragment anyway, for it has neither a head nor arms nor feet. Added to this is its complete immobility, as its form is completely solid, even when it makes its appearance as a lead or canvas figure or in paper or watercolour. This, too, strengthens the assumption that the figure is not an anthropomorphous form but rather an artistic entity.

Jürgen Brodwolf’s curiosity and love of experimentation have never deserted him and have always enabled him to develop variations on a single theme untiringly.  His knowledge of the use and properties of different substances gained during his work as a conservator has certainly stood him in good stead and contributed much to the enormously broad spectrum of variations in his work. Indeed, Jürgen Brodwolf has waived thematic diversity in favour of countless variations on the same basic theme. His figural motif is an artistic symbol that can be used and combined in the widest conceivable diversity of ways, permitting a corresponding diversity of possible interpretations. May we all hope that Jürgen Brodwolf’s fathomless imagination will continue to thrive and surprise us with further developments of his figural motif in future.

Alexandra Michaela Henze

translated by John Brodgen, Dortmund


Jürgen Brodwolf – Figures

(text accompanying Exhibition No. 45 – from 14.3. to 15.6.2002)

In 1948, the year of the cultural crisis on the threshold of the Cold War, Jürgen Brodwolf began an apprenticeship as a lithographic draughtsman in Meiringen. In the immediate aftermath of the world’s greatest spiritual and material disaster, from which it was soon clear that humanity had learnt absolutely nothing, art became "speechless".  It distanced itself from the object, which by reason of its monstrosity now defied all possible representation, and instead put its trust in pure form and colour, namely in "abstraction", which had now spread like wildfire to become a "world language". It was into this autonomous, totally subjective and at times wildly exuberant world of pure form and colour that Jürgen Brodwolf found his way as a sixteen-year-old when, during his years of apprenticeship, he realized that he was born to be an artist, being driven more and more by an insatiable creative urge. During the second half of his apprenticeship, from 1950 until 1952, he attended the drawing class of Eugen Jordi at the School of Arts and Crafts in Berne. Born in Berne in 1894, this graphic artist, typographer, painter and wood sculptor depicted people at work, landscapes and still-lifes, was a died-in-the-wool socialist and was primarily interested in the simple things in life, in reality, in the concrete rather than in the abstract. Indeed, he even preferred to see himself as a commercial artist. It was in Eugen Jordi that Jürgen Brodwolf found his teacher.

But then there was the temptation of Paris. It was the centre of abstract painting and, when Jürgen Brodwolf succumbed to its temptation in 1953-1954, abstraction was in its heyday. While he won a Swiss art scholarship for painting in 1955, Brodwolf still needed some kind of employment in order to earn his bread and butter. During the following five years he worked as a fresco conservator, when he not only familiarized himself with the most important technical skills for his future oeuvre but also met his wife-to-be, the conservator Adelheid Überwasser, a native of Basle and a warm-hearted, versatile and highly talented young woman.

The two of them were already married by 1956 and moved into a former parsonage in a remote village, Vogelbach, in the uplands of the Black Forest. The house was very soon home to a large family blessed with the most diversified temperaments and talents. Jürgen Brodwolf worked in the large attic. While the first cultural crisis of 1948 had not been of any existential significance for him, for as a sixteen-year-old he had not been conscious of its causes and implications, the second one of 1968, with its struggle for a new realism, overcame him with full force. His abstract painting, which was without any existential foundation, no longer satisfied him. Just as Alberto Giacommeti continued to work on his figures until there was nothing left of them, unless they were taken away from him beforehand, Brodwolf would continue to paint his canvases, which manifested intermediate stages not unlike those of Giacommeti’s sculptures, until they were overly painted – darkened, even blackened, beyond recognition.

It was from a whole mix of figural conceptions – the often ghostly figures of the frescoes he restored, the lively, fidgety figures of his children, the beloved figure of their mother – that the notion of a new figuration, triggered by the playful squeezing of an almost empty paint tube, was to develop. It was no longer the figure of the human being. The human being had become a torso. There was no going back – it was the conception of a new realism, the conception of a new, changed human reality, a conception in which the entire subjective experience of abstraction also resided.

The manifesto published by the Nouveaux Réalistes in Paris in 1960 insisted that a work of art should be as objective as possible and produced with as few interventions by the artist as were absolutely necessary. In his consciously self-chosen diaspora, Jürgen Brodwolf fulfilled this requirement like hardly any other. Henceforth, found objects and other treasures formed the background and the compositional elements of his "figurines", the wooden boxes in which the happenings of his depicted worlds took place behind glass.  Firstly, however, the now awakening tube figure had to take up the fight with abstraction and force it, quite literally, into the "background". The few small surviving examples of the aforementioned overly painted canvases today serve as backgrounds for these "figurines".   

Surprisingly, Jürgen Brodwolf survived this long and exhausting struggle – like many, even older abstract painters in the 1960s – through the iron discipline of the draughtsman. Indeed, Brodwolf drew like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, namely incessantly! He could draw from memory, quickly and surely, any single one of the works he had produced at one time or another, even the entire inventory of an exhibition in rapid succession.  Thus the camera, for Brodwolf, was superfluous. He would draw around every text he wrote, never leaving it bare. His letters were words written into pictures or were pictures themselves. During his years of struggling for a new figuration, it was one of the hardest disciplines of drawing – the etching – that gave him the support he needed. His accomplishments in this discipline reached their culmination around 1970, whereafter the figurative assumed unbridled dominance in his work, developing in ever changing and surprising ways.

The human figure, shaped initially from countless squeezed-out paint tubes, then took on life-size proportions in rolled lead sheet in 1972. By 1973 it was back in canvas, stiffened by soaking in glue and paint, and then, in 1976, in pure papier mâché invisibly reinforced, from 1982 onwards, with gauze. Brodwolf’s figures would also make their appearance as freestanding sculptures, but in most cases they related to a specific surrounding space – in a "box" as a figurine, peep box, relief or figure box. It was from these small "boxed" figures that Brodwolf soon developed his large indoor installations: "blown-up" peep boxes as in "Figure Ballet" at the Kunsthalle in Baden-Baden in 1972, or his outdoor "Figure Excavations" of 1976 or his landscape installation "The Forest" of 1983.  How sensitive and yet succinctly clear Brodwolf’s figural intervention was in both the landscape and the interior could be seen in the works he created for the recent exhibition "Sculpture ‘99" in the Villa Mettlen in Muri. The figure appears firstly as a sculpture in the half-round, as shaped from a paint tube, then as a papier mâché figure in low relief, like a fossil half-emerging from the stone, as in Brodwolf’s figure cloths, figure panels and reliefs of 1994. These reliefs served some years later as the backgrounds for Brodwolf’s almost life-size "sculptures" in paper, gauze and asphalt. Thus it was that formerly freestanding floor "sculptures" became "figure reliefs" in 1997 before ultimately acquiring their absolute autonomy as pure "wall sculptures". The small, flat papier mâché figure found its way again and again – in collage form – into Brodwolf’s works on paper, it most sensitive realization being achieved in the "Pigment Figures" of 2001.  These small paper figures were enclosed in "Shake Pictures" taking the form of two sheets of glass spaced apart and containing pigments, sand, grains and all kinds of granular material that trickled down over the figures when shaken, creating ever changing figural positions and colour configurations.

With the last "overly painted" canvases of the 1960s, not only created form – with the exception of the new figure – had receded into the background behind found objects, but the artist’s chosen colour had also disappeared. Things were left in their natural colouration, only occasionally being lightly tinted or veiled with gauze. It was not until the watercolours and the mixed media paintings of the 1980s that colour returned, very hesitantly at first, and then burst out "in full bloom" around the mid-1990s in the "Relief Paintings". Colour now asserted itself with great expressivity, as in the mixed media technique used for the "Song of the Nibelungs" of 1996, but above all in the pure-pigment "Shake Pictures" after 1998 and the "Pigment Figures" on paper after 2000.

As sculptures, as autonomous aesthetic objects, Brodwolf’s figures stand for the human being, the human being that lives, loves and suffers, the human being that experiences the world, dreams, delights in art, reflects upon life. They evolved from the artist’s love of the human body and, in "Sculptor and Model" of 1989, hark back to the Pygmalion experience. But that is not all. Indeed, Brodwolf’s figures would be merely literary ones if the above description stopped there. His figures are much more: they are highly abstract works of art, works of extreme radiance, aesthetic objects, both individually and in their entirety. The figure is the converging point of all of life’s experiences. It is the terminal point of memory. But it is in no way talkative, for it communicates itself only through its form and its colour. It cannot be, nor does it wish to be, beautiful. Any human being that experiences life, suffers hardship and physical pain is never beautiful. And yet it possesses the beauty of truth, of knowledge, of the sum total of existence. Brodwolf’s figure at times appears morbid, reminding some of an Egyptian mummy. However, the first impression is deceptive, for what at first glance seems to be morbid and mummy-like turns out to be an expression of fragility and timelessness.

In 1980 Jürgen Brodwolf bought a house in Vezia in the Ticino and since then he has been living and working there for relatively long periods at a time. On one of his long hikes there, he came across a disused lung sanatorium near Agra where he stumbled on some index cards – very personal index cards – of children who, during and after the Second World War, had been brought there from Germany. In his catalogue of the exhibition at the Mathildenhöhe Institute in Darmstadt in 1992, Jürgen Brodwolf writes about this distressing experience as follows: "For years after I attempted again and again to come to terms with these index cards, captivated by the dichotomic suspense and effect of these heart-wrenching and grotesque records of life-threatening diagnoses and life-affirming school curricula." No longer able to get the story out of his mind, Brodwolf had no choice but to reflect it through his art, creating places of memory, which he later called "memory stores". His installation "The Journey to Agra" featured the first "storage boxes", in which the found index cards of the young patients were archived between two sheets of glass, most of them bearing a cross followed by a date. The viewer was able to remove the cards from their storage boxes and read them.

From this it was but a logical step to the most horrific chapter in the history of humanity, the Holocaust of the Second World War. "Lieberose" of 1990 [the title is the name of a concentration camp in Brandenburg – translator’s note] was Jürgen Brodwolf’s first installation on this theme. The figures are branded with numbers. Contained in the sheet-metal pull-out "archive boxes" are the precise records of the transport routes of the Jews, their final destinations and their last footsteps to death. Further installations on the theme of the Holocaust were to follow, a typical example being "Erfurt Synagogue", which Brodwolf produced in several variants between the years of 1995 and 2002. Following his first visit to a former concentration camp, Theresienstadt, in 1994, he produced a 15-part cycle of works entitled "Theresienstadt – Wound", a mixed media and collage compendium showing the different ways of wounding the human body – Brodwolf’s figure – in a manner which, while only indirectly showing the bestiality and perverseness of the perpetrators, nevertheless shocks and frightens the viewer, not least because the paintings are in themselves works of uncommon beauty.

In 1990 Brodwolf also began to produce "archive boxes", whole libraries in fact, of his own artistic past, of the history of the development of his figure.  In such installations as "Archive of Drawings", not just drawings but also watercolours, collages and etchings, sandwiched between removable double sheets of glass, spanned the artist’s development from its very beginnings right up until the present day.  The exhibition catalogue accompanying his exhibition at the Brusberg Gallery in Berlin in 2000 describes these installations as his "memory stores against oblivion".  One circumstance stood Jürgen Brodwolf in good stead for the documentation of his own history: in all phases of his creative life, Brodwolf had produced countless figures in all techniques without any immediate intention of using them for specific works. Thus it was that he could – and still can – draw from this enormous stock of material. Typical examples are his "Figure Typologies", in which figures from among the first ones of 1959 confront those of the respective present. Another large stock from which he could draw were his works on paper, from which he not only compiled his large archives but also his smaller archive boxes, such as the "Seven Pictures for Seven Days Storage Boxes". But with the inception of his ever-changing "Shake Pictures", with their strong colouration through the incorporation of pigments and other granular materials, the simple shelf was no longer suitable, as the displays of "Shake Pictures" had to be viewable not only from all sides but also from constantly changing angles. The solution, devised in 1999, was an open triptych-like metal shelf – a kind of "altar piece".

Despite the fact that all the children, meanwhile grown-ups, had now moved out, the former parsonage in the Black Forest village of Vogelbach had become too small for Jürgen and Adelheid Brodwolf. The house was also a very long way away from convenient road and rail connections. In 1995 they seized the opportunity of buying the large former hospital in Kandern. This, too, was a journey into the past, as all their children had been born there. Neither the exterior nor the interior of the building was renovated, or even repaired, in the usual way. The conservators Jürgen and Adelheid Brodwolf simply "stripped" the interior walls and uncovered many a long and bizarre story. The walls of some of the rooms had the aura of ancient frescoes, as in Pompeii, while others documented the previous history of the hospital. Wherever one looked, one’s eyes fell on modulated surfaces that formed the backdrop of where the Brodwolfs lived and worked – or where, on the entire ground floor, the "basic" stock of Jürgen Brodwolf’s works was installed. Adelheid Brodwolf, the courageous, forever active and altogether critical companion of her husband’s work, was able to enjoy this new, spacious and future-oriented situation for only three years, for she died completely unexpectedly in 1998. Since then, this former hospital, which by now does indeed merit the name "Brodwolf House", has also been dedicated to her memory, to her history – or, to be more precise, to the history of her portrait. Brodwolf had already been preoccupied with women’s portraits for a number of years. In 1991 he dedicated an "Asphalt Book" to Eleonora Duse and, in 1994, such a one to Meret Oppenheim. Likewise dedicated to the latter was an installation comprising 40 monotypes.

In the final analysis, Brodwolf’s manner of dealing with history, and with his own personal history, too, may be described briefly yet succinctly as follows: total, incessant preoccupation all the way through to the ultimate realization of the work of art.

Wolfgang Henze

translated by John Brodgen, Dortmund

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