Theo Eble

(Text accompanying exhibition A48, 19.10. to 20.12.2002)

Theo Eble was one of the voices in that chorus of "Great Abstraction" that swept the world in 1948. It was a chorus that took up the theme of abstraction that had been discovered virtually simultaneously by Kandinsky, Picabia and Magnelli, though completely independently of one another, and, together with expressionism and surrealism, had marked the development of modern art around 1910.  The first attempt at propagating abstraction on a broader scale, primarily through the movement Abstraction-Création, founded in Paris in 1931, did not achieve any great dominance in the art world. The times were not conducive. It was not until the period from 1948 until 1968 that abstraction grew to become the prevailing style of the time. Indeed it was the very first style of the time to span the entire world and was impressively documented by Michel Ragon, Michel Seuphor et al. in the five volumes of L’Art Abstrait published between the years of 1971 and 1988. It was also, however, the last style of the time in the history of art, for since 1968 everything has been simultaneously possible and acceptable in art.  The world of art, hitherto ordered and regular, exploded in Big Bang fashion and today comprises countless art galaxies drifting apart in all directions.

That this was the result of "Great Abstraction" – a notion coined by Kandinsky – ought to give us cause for some reflection, and the abstract works of Theo Eble may indeed serve us here as a concrete means to this end. Abstraction was in no way just senseless daub and scribble, pure subjectivism or a flight from reality, to mention only a few of the prejudices that abstraction has been – and still is – up against ever since its inception.  On the contrary, abstraction became a "world language", for it was art’s only valid answer to the incomprehensibility of the Second World War, National Socialism, the Holocaust and not least the Cold War that began in 1948 and dashed all hopes of world peace.

The lightness and buoyancy of abstract painting today makes it easy to forget that it was ardently opposed in its initial years after the Second World War by those painters and their followers who had remained faithful to the figurative and the representational. Until well into the 1950s, art academies, artists’ societies and art critics were divided into two camps that defended their standpoints with every means at their disposal. Even Theo Eble’s teacher at the Berlin Academy, Karl Hofer, railed vehemently against abstraction. Hardly anyone today knows that this struggle went on for so long that abstraction was not fully recognized in the art world until Documenta 2 in 1959, when tendencies were already beginning to germinate in the studios of artists towards art forms that would ultimately be taking over from it.

Significantly, the fiercest criticism of abstraction came from the literary world, which naturally was unable to free itself from the concrete content of whatever it produced (unless it was pure poetry, of course). With Günter Grass at its helm, it argued that art, through abstraction, squandered its political influence and shirked its political responsibility. It was much rather the case, however, that through its abstraction art now conveyed a clear and valid political message, namely its "speechlessness" in the face of political events.  Indeed, it was precisely those artists that had remained figurative who allowed themselves to be misused or monopolized by the realisms of post-war dictatorships of both political extremes.

In particular it was Marie-Suzanne Feigel, the owner of a modern art gallery in Basle, who from the very beginning made a stand for international abstraction. Nonetheless, Werner Schmalenbach, in his introductory speech at the opening of one of Theo Eble’s exhibitions at her gallery in 1951, still had to concede that it was "certainly the case that, even today, abstract art is more attacked than appreciated." Despite this note of cultural pessimism in his speech of 1951, Schmalenbach argued convincingly in favour of abstraction, though at the same time warned against letting it get out of hand and – entirely in keeping with his future function as a museum director – stressed the prime importance of quality. In this regard his evaluation of the works of Walter Bodmer and Theo Eble in Basle was positive, indeed he ranked them "significantly high" on a relatively broad scale of comparison. Schmalenbach also likened his approach to Eble’s painting to the way he approached music, insisting, by analogy, that "he who has eyes to see, let him see." He saw (heard?) in Eble’s paintings a "human note", which was missing in Mondrian’s. He also spoke of "sound", "rhythm" and "musicality" and ended his speech by contradicting yet another argument against abstraction, namely that of its being intellectual, mathematical and heartless. "It is precisely Eble’s works," said Schmalenbach, "that convincingly prove to all of us that this kind of art is in no way intellectual, but rather very human and very artistic." Schmalenbach made no attempt at objective criticism in his speech and admitted, quite simply, that he loved Eble’s abstraction "very much".

How did Theo Eble’s exhibition at this gallery come about? What were the events that led up to it? Born in Basle in 1899 and a student of the painting classes of the General School of Arts and Crafts in Basle from 1915 until 1920, the young Theo Eble moved to Berlin in 1922 in order to study under Karl Hofer at the academy of art in Berlin-Charlottenburg.  Theo Eble will certainly have been aware of the activities of the young Basle artists grouped around Ernst-Ludwig Kirchner, especially as these artists, as the group Red-Blue, also worked in the Ticino, a region which for Eble – and also for Karl Hofer after 1925 – had become a permanent attraction. Perhaps it had been Eble himself who had suggested that Hofer might also work in the Ticino. At any rate, Eble preferred Hofer’s more or less reserved realism to the tendencies of the Basle artists or, say, to Dresden Expressionism. Indeed, his style came very close to Hofer’s – see his Semi-nude of 1923 (Cat. 1) – and his Berlin scenes, such as his Savigni-Platz Berlin of 1925, showed, in terms of composition, form and colour, strong similarities, even down to certain naively metaphysical details, with the street scenes of Felix Nussbaum, who was studying at the academy at the same time.

In 1925 Theo Eble married the Berlin paintress Julia Ris and returned with her to Basle.  The "hard slog", that period between graduating from the academy and finally being recognized, had now begun. It did not end until 1931, when he was able to return as a teacher to the General School of Arts and Crafts in Basle, where he had first studied. He still taught there for a further two years following his retirement in 1965. He was an enthusiastic and, by the same token, enthusing teacher, although his work as a teacher did in fact impede his development as an artist. He resolved the problem by concentrating his teaching duties on just a few days in the week and leaving the other days for unencumbered working in his studio house on the Bruderholz in Basle, which he had built in 1957. In 1949 he had married his second wife, Elli Merkle, who was to accompany him and his work for the rest of his life until his death in Basle on 2nd May 1974.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, during lengthy travels and periods of stay in the Ticino and in Italy, Eble’s painting had become more and more objective and detached. The simple landscape, the simple life in the country and in the towns, the human being, generally more plain and ordinary than beautiful – these were the themes to which he devoted his painting, at first realizing them in the most luminous of colours. As one of the artists who founded the Basle "Group 33" in 1933, Theo Eble was soon producing his first works of abstraction. But these were but a slight, initial flicker in his oeuvre, comparable, say, with that of "Abstraction Création" in the entire history of art. In 1940, like so many artists of his time, he returned to a very naturalistic style of painting, as can be seen from his paintings St. John’s Bridge (Cat. 11) and On a Level Crossing (Cat. 12) of 1942 – paintings of a frontier city in the coldness of time.

Nonetheless, his paintings of that time did show signs of what was yet to come, hints of a developing interest in things viewed in close-up, of views within them and behind them. While his watercolour Il Faro, Sestri Levante of 1932 still represents a seascape, it is virtually hidden by a pile of stones, its crystalline structure dominating the entire composition. An even more impressive example is his watercolour Parsenn of 1945 (Cat. 16), which shows nothing but the sharp and jagged forms of a scree slope and the playful reflection of the sunlight on the facet-like surfaces of the stones. The subject matter and its recognizable depiction interested Theo Eble less and less.  His wish was to get a close as possible to things and to create new things from the visual experiences thus generated. By 1947 he had already decided to go completely abstract, beginning where he left off in 1937 with his early geometrical abstractions, but soon giving them that "human" touch – as in his Untitled of 1950 (not catalogued) – so admired by Schmalenbach.

During the 1950s and 1960s Theo Eble experimented – in what he called his "Research Series" – with endlessly changing variations on the themes of form and colour. But during the 1970s, like many others, he found his way back to the figurative and the representational, to a new, simple and extremely cautious form of representation, in his Trees and his Tree Trunks, for example, or in his Round and Angular (cat. 55-56). It was the simple forms that so fascinated him, like the gigantic links of an anchor chain on the fore ship, which he drew for hours on end, all alone, on a ship’s voyage and then later executed in oil on canvas (Ship’s Chains – Cat. 65-68). Or there were works that picked up from earlier times, like Stones by the Water, which harked back to his Sestri Levanti of 1932 and his Parsenn of 1945.

In a life’s work of consistent application and dedication, Theo Eble always made a valid artistic response to the times in which he lived, discovering and inventing images that have made these times recognizable and comprehensible. Indeed, it is through the indirect medium of Theo Eble’s art and its world of images that we are able to experience the respective spirit and mood of those times for ourselves.

Wolfgang Henze

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