© 2020 – 2022. 2chairs artspace

A talk with Bernd Reichert

Hi Bernd, nice to see you at 2chairs. Let's start with your background. What did you do in your previous life?

I don't see both aspects, which have been part of my life for the last 30 years, as separate items, they were heavily intertwined all the time. I generally saw my day job as a supporting act for my family and my artistic endeavours.

I came to Berlin in 1979 to study chemistry. I was interested in biology but no places were available, so I chose chemistry instead. Coming to Berlin is an entirely different story, as at the end of the 1970s you couldn't simply move into East Berlin, it was all about permissions, etc.

I met my future wife in 1982 and we got together to form a family and have children. Our first son was born in 1983, and our two daughters followed in 1986 and 1989. My wife worked and supported the family while I studied. I made my PhD in chemistry in 1989 and with the incorporation of East Germany into West Germany, I lost my job at the university.

Looking for a job and being unhappy about the way the "reunification" happened, in particular the sudden re-introduction of §218 into our lives, made us decide to look for a place to live outside of Germany. There were a few options, but we finally settled for Belgium in 1992, where I took a job as a scientific administrator with the European institutions. Initially, it was a five-year contract, but we quite liked it in Belgium and stayed for nearly 30 years, during which I worked in many different positions in the institutions. The jobs supported my family and artistic activities well and were mildly interesting at times. I always say that I worked for 8 hours, spent 8 hours with the family and made art for 8 hours. Thinking about weekends, holidays and the occasional sick leave for burn-out due to boredom, this might not be too far off the mark. And I didn't sleep a lot those years, 4 to 5 hours were mostly sufficient.

Since school time, my main problem has been that I can't stand hierarchal structures, which was also the reason I left my job in 2020.

That sounds very solid. How have you come up with the decision to be an artist?

I am a late bloomer when it comes to art. No family member has been an artist ever, and no supportive parents, grandparents or teachers. I have some very weak recalling of art classes at school which only left the feeling pressure and boredom. I spent my last school years at a boarding school where we created some kind of clandestine social club to counter the overly ideological indoctrination at the school. We would listen to music and read books which were not part of the official cultural doctrine in East Germany, not everything was on the index, but often difficult to come by and certainly not recommended by the system. Some people would write their own texts or poetry there, and as I wasn't interested in writing, I became the visual guy starting to draw.

But my real initiation wanting to become an artist happened in the early 1980s. Being in Berlin at that time and frequenting the protestant student group of the university, I heard a presentation by Dieter Schmidt, the leading East German art historian, on surrealist art and Max Ernst. Schmidt was already banned from public speaking and could only present in secrecy using Church settings. This presentation and especially Ernst's painting "The Attirement of the Bride" blew my mind, and I decided to paint in the surrealist style. Surrealism has deeply influenced me since.

Of course, that meant that studying art was out of the question. I wasn't interested in socialist realism, but more importantly, I didn't want to leave Berlin. The only art school in East Berlin was the Kunsthochschule Weissensee, which was the most ideological one of all. Besides places were very limited, rejections for several years were the norm (you had to prove your desire to be fully committed to becoming an artist, even at the price of starving) and I didn't have a suitable portfolio as surrealist style drawings and paintings were just suspicious and prone to immediate rejection.

In the late 80s, I was in contact with a number of artists in East Berlin, which were quite famous among the young generation as they had introduced performance art into the East German art canon and were part of the Permanent Art Conference in June 1989. Today they are mostly forgotten. But even there, I didn't get any encouragement, our understanding of what art is and for whom to create it, was just too far off. And they wouldn't accept any other ideas than their own.

So I buried the idea of studying art. The question came back from time to time over the years, but it would have always meant leaving Belgium and putting the burden of supporting the family exclusively on my wife, something we weren't ready to do.

Meanwhile, I realised that it was also the fact that I wouldn't have lasted long in an art school. I can't stand unfounded hierarchy (you are better because of your position not of your achievements) and the egomania in the art education establishments would certainly have driven me away anyway.

As painting is difficult if you have no training, I moved first to printmaking, building myself a printing press (the private possession of a press was forbidden in East Germany), and later works on paper in general, collages in particular.
What are your main pillars in artistic practice?

As far as artistic practice is concerned there is always a before 2014 and an afterwards. Until 2014, I made prints and works on paper, founded the Edition Mailwork@Brussels, created art books and a collaborative assembling magazine with original artworks called "Bizarre Cities". Collages had become my main artistic expression. But collages and art on paper weren't considered "real" art, and, therefore, I didn't manage to put the works into a commercial gallery, neither in Belgium nor in Britain, which was my main focus at the time. Working in a day job at the same time didn't really help either. So, I mostly created artist books from the collages and sold them at Book Art Fairs.

I was also part of an international Mail Art and Fluxus network and we would regularly meet somewhere in Europe or the United States to perform together and to exhibit our works.

In 2014, my best, probably only, friend committed suicide when turning 60. Another friend, who lived in Berlin, died of a stroke in his early 50s. But foremost, I was completely disgusted by the art market as I perceived it. This complete fixation on the tormented soul of the artist is the only quality criteria. I remember an exhibition in one of the leading Brussels galleries of a guy who had a hard childhood being abused by family members. His art was many similar drawings of the Reaper in some kind of childish style, and he was hailed as the raising art star. Also, the deformation and mockery of the human face and figure, including the bad painting movement, was so repulsive that I stopped creating art for a few years.

About around 2018, maybe by accident or fate, I discovered the realist painters of the late 19th century (Sargent Singer, Waterhouse, Bouguereau) and a bit later the painters of the Neue Sachlichkeit in Germany (Schad, Laserstein) and the Magic Realism in Italy (Donghi, Croatto). Where I would never really have looked at old art before, they now spoke to me and touched me deeply. There were two things I heard. Firstly, it is possible to create beauty with art, regardless of what the modernist doctrine and its kalliphobia are preaching. And secondly, if it is possible to create such beauty with painting, I wanted to become a (figurative, realist) painter. And that's the quest I am on since. A pursuit of truth and beauty.

And, of course, the overall situation as compared to East Germany in the 1980s has changed. Books, videos, online courses, and even online mentoring are available and allow one to study art by oneself. The lockdowns during the pandemic provided sufficient spare time. When the restriction was less stringent I participated in short courses, and in February 2022 I spent a month in a residency at the Berlin Art Institute, which helped to find a way through Berlin's art scene.

How do you usually research ideas? What is your approach? Are you doing a series or projects?

I generally think in series, although sometimes they are created at very long intervals. Some collages were planned as a series from the outset, and I am currently working on a series of portraits.

I don't like to think in terms of projects. Maybe this has to do with my scientific education and my desire to distinguish art from science. To me, art is a very different visual language than knowledge production. I prefer to talk about themes or areas of interest.

I am a visual hunter and gatherer, I constantly collect images, works from other artists, photographies and videos and store them on my laptop. And I constantly browse through this (electronic) archive. These images form the visual memory I draw on for my work. Very rarely I make direct use of these images in my work. Instead, they work as inspiration or a kind of general consciousness.
Kalliphobia in Contemporary Art - Danto, Arthur C, Art Journal; Summer 2004; 63, 2; ProQuest pg. 24

Please tell us more about the "Beauty is the only true protest". What artistic statement does stand behind your works? Could you please describe yourself as an artist?

The title is from a quotation by singer-songwriter Philipp Ochs "In such ugly times, the only true protest is beauty", which I appropriated some time ago. I like to paraphrase something the American painter Daniel Sprick once said: Life has been good to me, I can't paint ugliness, disaster or devastation. I am lacking those experiences to depict them properly in my paintings. It doesn't mean that I don't see the problems which exist in the world, but I can only depict convincingly what I have experienced.

The two paintings are from two broad themes I am interested in: "La marieé du vent" (the wind's Bride) is a homage to Max Ernst, with whom my whole interest to become an artist and painter started. But more generally, I am invested in the dynamic movement of the figure. I love modern dance and it inspires me a lot. These figures in movement are one ongoing series of works I am working on. I painted it during the Corona lockdowns in 2020, when we were confined to our homes and parks, etc. were closed.
The second one - "Portrait of Fatmanur Sahin, Violinist" - is part of an ongoing series of portrait paintings depicting mostly people I have encountered here in Berlin. When arriving in Berlin in 2021 I wanted to make myself a picture of the city and understand the urban landscape, which I think can only be done through the city's people.

As a painter, I am interested in the human figure. Our current world is far more volatile, unpredictable, changing and bitterly ironic than ever before. In my work I don't want to join the chorus of those who amplify these feelings as in our search for novelty in making art, the touch with beauty, sensitivity and harmony is often lost. Instead, I want to contribute to the creation of a counter-proposal. I want to achieve depth on the flat canvas; rendering the form to strive for realism in the depiction of the human body. I am looking for traditional techniques, even old pigments and applying them to modern paint media, like acrylic paint, which I often produce myself from raw pigments. Thus, I want to contribute to a way of painting, outside the modernist canon, which has always been present but is underrepresented in the contemporary art discourse.

I guess, you are experienced in getting feministic questions such as female body objectification related to your nude artworks. How do you respond to that?

In order to talk about this, we have to understand that we all have our own socialisation, which forms our very own belief system. We have to accept what Foucault said about the essence of discourse: truth –whatever that might be – is always a produced one, there is no absolute truth. And to insist that one's own truth is universally valid constitutes a form of violence. And often creates ideologies.

I grew up in a time and place when the naked female body was perceived as unfolding its original charm, thus radiating unconstrained self-confidence. And I think my pictures want to show this feeling to a world which is greatly torn by inequalities, foremost of gender, on the one hand, and an ultraconservative neo-puritanism, on the other. Why paint "naked women"? Why paint humans? I would argue that for a human, the most interesting thing to "discuss" is a human being and its conditions. For what humans do to each other, it seems appropriate to remind us about what a human looks like (as a human not as a societal person).

Why naked? As soon as you put fabric on a human, she becomes a social, societal person. Clothes define status, group belonging, class, religion, wealth, etc. When I don't want to paint ("discuss") such issues, but "just" the human, I need to take off all societal aspects.
Besides this societal component, there's an aesthetic reason for me: nothing more complex and difficult than human skin or a human body. The complexity of forms, colours and shades on a human body is immense. And constantly changing due to breathing, relaxing, or tensing of the body. Many artists over the centuries have said that you can struggle with it for a lifetime without a chance to explore it completely.

Why female bodies? I don't think that I have to justify my love for women and the female form. It is like asking a seascape painter to paint mountains. Do you need to justify why you are a landscape painter? Sometimes you can interpret a painting of mine as depicting an interaction between a woman and a male body. In such cases, the male body is always a completely abstract shape. Why this is the case might be interesting to a psychoanalyst, for me it's like it is.
Do you feel any influence of art history, local context, or other discourses on your practice?

Yes, probably too much. I am a very analytical person, I like to study the history and theory of the artworks and art movements I am interested in. I think we are always created based on the creations and experiences of our ancestors and that it is futile to believe in the completely autonomous artist, who creates something completely new just out of her own imagination. For me, as a figurative realist painter, there is a long lineage of people who have explored the field before me. There is, of course, Jan Van Eyck. Seeing his paintings one wonders whether it makes any sense to continue the endeavour. But what interests me even more, was the discovery that there always was figure realist painting very much present, despite the fact that it was completely neglected by art history and art critics. Painters like Philip Pearlstein (1924-2022), Alan Feltus (b. 1943) or Francis Cunningham (b. 1931), just to name a few, have influenced me in my decision to paint the figure. But I also like to see my work as following Clemens Gröszer (1951-2014), an East Berlin painter, whom unfortunately I didn't meet in 1980 and who died prematurely in the same year I stopped making art for a few years.

You came back to Berlin a couple of years ago. What do think about the Berlin art scene? Has it changed? What do you find the most attractive and the most problematic here?

Did I come back? I came to Berlin, but is it the same city we left 30 years ago? Certainly not. Berlin is constantly changing. And although we visited frequently, this Berlin feels different. When we decided to move here, I wasn't expecting much. I planned for at least three years without any exhibitions, maybe virtual ones which became popular during the pandemic. But surprisingly, I very quickly found a space to exhibit and did so several times including a solo show last summer. Participation in other spaces has followed since.

Berlin art scene is a very labyrinthine jungle. There is so much opportunity in Berlin; at the same time, artists see each other as competitors instead of collaborators. Galleries, project spaces and fellow artists simply don't answer, not even with a courtesy answer. Everybody pretends to be super busy but at the same time complains about being neglected or treated unfairly.

But I was lucky again, and were there at the start of a group of mostly foreign artists who like me looked for company and support while trying to find a way through Berlin's art jungle. And of course, a project and association like 2Chairs is highly important to identify opportunities, combine forces and make ideas a reality.

Please share your plans and probably details about your "Salon des Artistes".

Following up on my perception of the Berlin art scene, I wondered what I could contribute to making this journey easier. So I created the Salon des Artistes, a monthly meeting place for artists in our apartment/studio in Halensee. In addition to the artists, we invite an art meditator, gallery director, curator, critic, art historian, etc. People who work with and for artists would present their take on Berlin's art scene.

Or, on a more conceptual level, you could see the Salon as a situationist performance in the style of Guy Debord: "Depending on what you are after, choose an area, a more or less populous city, a more or less lively street. Build a house. Furnish it. Make the most of its decoration and surroundings. Choose the season and the time. Gather together the right people, the best records and drinks. Lighting and conversation must, of course, be appropriate, along with the weather and your memories. If your calculations are correct, you should find the outcome satisfying."

In the same way, you could see the portrait series as drawing a psycho-geographic map of this city. Artistically, I think I will continue the ongoing portrait series for a while. And I am currently also thinking about a series of narrative paintings. I would like to work myself off some art history and to see how these references will look like in today's context.

And for the Berlin art scene, I hope for a return of an artist-led art fair. This city definitely needs one.

Many thanks for talking, Bernd! Looking forward to seeing your next exhibitions!