Heinz Breloh: Intoduction to his Œuvre

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Intoduction to the Œuvre of Heinz Breloh

On the occasion of the vernissage for the re-erection of the Life Size / Lebensgröße sculpture at the Moltkeplatz on 13 March 2016, Prof Dr Manfred Schneckenburger gave the following introduction to the works of Heinz Breloh.

Introduction by Prof Dr Manfred Schneckenburger

From right: Prof Dr Manfred Schneckenburger, Mayor of the City of Essen Franz-Josef Britz, Dr Volker Wagenitz (KaM). Picture by Erwin Wiemer

Introduction by Prof Dr Manfred Schneckenburger

For two years, the Moltkeplatz may not have been deserted, but for many of its regular passers-by there was a gap: They missed a sculpture that ensured a special closeness and intensity to the ensemble. The work had been on the square since 1994, that is, long before the association KaM e.V. was established in 2006, which today ensures the preservation and progress of this exemplary project. Originally set up by the Essen gallery owner Jochen Krüper (Galerie Heimeshoff) and the Marl museum director Uwe Rüth, then made permanent on the initiative of the Wagenitz-family and their neighbors – against much resistance – this park, left out on the side of the road, is now one of the rare urban situations in Essen where outdoor sculptures bloom and flourish. A place at the intersection of public space, private commitment and structures that are also open to young, current art trends. One could also say: the most extensive, sophisticated, art-filled front garden. By no means only for Essen, but also far beyond.

As I already mentioned, a high level sculptur was missing in this open-air museum for two years. Today it returns to its previous – and habitual – place. From now on Heinz Breloh’s Life Size / Lebensgröße bronze sculpture is part of the park again. Reason enough to remember the artist who died in 2001! As I see, not only family members (warmly welcomed!) and residents are here today, but also quite a few friends of the artist. His partner, the photo artist Krimhild Becker, unfortunately died after him a few years ago.

Breloh was an exceptional sculptor. In 1989 he received the prize of the German Artists‘ Association, which was awarded to him by a majority of his colleagues. Nothing, except the sculptures themselves, confirms the high rank of this work more clearly than the esteem in which other artists held him – I believe without envy. For he was a sculpteur sculpteur, a sculptor for sculptors: in his work they found the inner substance of THEIR problems, THEIR core questions with the greatest intensity, vitality, radicality. At the same time, the obsessively sensual artist, guided by touch, movement and material processes, was also an astute analyst who thought a lot about his métier.

And that brings me to the sculpture that is the focus today. What does Life Size mean at Breloh? Certainly not a measurement with folding ruler and meter. Behind it is rather a process of creation which first came to full fruition in 1983 and which points to a new approach to the representation of the human being. The Cologne sculptor approached this millennia-old task of sculpture in a way that was as innovative as it was convincing and, ultimately, obvious: in a procedere that does not reproduce his model and certainly does not cast it, but rather brings it forth anew in a laborious act of procreation and birth. This sounds complicated, but it is not. For a better understanding, I will refer to a text that I wrote down, fresh from memory, shortly after a visit to his studio in 1985. To be there, to watch, was a privilege, because Breloh did not usually tolerate spectators. He did not see himself as a performer who was interested in the action, but as a sculptor who saw himself realized in the RESULT. Nevertheless, he gladly gave me his consent to the publication.

In the center of the room rises a block of wet plaster almost as high as a man. „In a fixed choreography, the naked artist walks around, dances around, touches, feels the soft plaster massif. As soon as he no longer feels the distance as distance, he throws himself with the WHOLE body, with legs, hips, chest, back, buttocks, head against, against and into the block. He embraces it with his arms, pushes through it with his knees, legs, feet, drives his head back and forth and thus grinds out a horizontal finish. He presses, twists, writhes in and against the block according to a precisely set program, plowing through the plaster on the inside, straddling it from the outside. He pulls his body trajectory ever more laboriously, ever more slowly through the white massif. This now rises up as if dissected by reefs and bays – until we realize that the gradually hardening projections and depressions correspond directly to the physical act of violence that the artist has just performed. The finished sculpture captures the body form as a negative volume, with distinct grinding zones and pressure points of smaller limbs such as thumbs or soles of feet.“

A virtuoso special form of the Life Sizes is the series Der Bildhauer als Sechsender (The Sculptor as a Six-Ender). Its basis is the same as in the Life Sizes, but the body contacts are aimed decidedly at the male extremities head/arms/hands/legs/feet/penis. However, the hands often do much of the marking through knob-like terminal reinforcements, so conception occasionally goes beyond the actual generating activities. Breloh can definitely also create a distance to his ecstasies.

So it is not surprising that the Life Sizes as a whole were not natural for Breloh from the beginning. Born in Hilden in 1940, it took him almost four decades until, after a year-long stay in the hothouse of the New York art scene, he decided after 1980 to base his work entirely on material processes and to set his own subjectivity against it. In 1983 the first Life Size emerges from the physical interaction with the material plaster. In sculptures (like the one on Moltkeplatz) active bodily actions and passive plaster base merge. The much later bronze casting then gives the dull plaster reflections and a gliding sheen – a lively play of light and shadow on the surface. Sometimes it took years before an opportunity arose for the expensive casting. We are therefore all the more grateful that above all those Life Sizes, whose creation is concentrated in the mid-1980s, have almost all found their way to the foundry. They represent a weighty legacy.

The artist himself relates this with the utmost matter-of-factness: „What confronts the viewer are large rounded forms with horizontal grinding marks that develop from a pedestal-like body.“ One cannot turn to one’s own works more soberly. Almost all Life Sizes, then, are tripartite, in that a taller towering central block is flanked by two lower humps. The passage of thighs and knees, the division of the middle of the body, the horizontal band of the head driven back and forth, in short, the counter-images of human anatomy return in variations.

These Life Sizes are a new step – one may pronounce the big word calmly – a big step in the history of sculpture. They turn away from the tradition since the Greeks. They reassert the position of the artist, who is not only a sculptor but, literally, the medium of his sculpture. The Life Sizes establish a primordial abiogenesis.

Breloh had read and taken in the sentence from his admired role model Alberto Giacometti: „Life size does not exist“. The size of a pictorial work, of a human being is nothing but a function of the distance from the organ of vision. Does Breloh take this into account, in that in the last dozen years that remained to him, he changed the mode of creation of his sculptures, clearly reduces their scale and with the Life Sizes From Afar a new type in the work … (here a line is missing in the manuscript) … of all its power and size, but are the hands with their many abilities and skills. Breloh calls them his „small sculptors“ and thus clearly sets them apart from the large, life-size sculptor, the medium of sculpture for instance on the Moltkeplatz. These „small sculptors“ model with fingers and pads. They perform a nimble pas-de-deux of pressure and counterpressure. The impulses of the whole body now flow into fingers and fingertips. Freed from the concentrated energy and the thrust of the body’s load, the material, mostly clay, now regains its own gravity. The natural gravity of the moist material clumps, sags downward, tilts away after the sculpting hands have driven it upward into the risky, sloping. Plaster or clay now spill out from between Breloh’s fingers like cascades falling down or fountains rising up.

It was necessary to refer also to this other Breloh: as you see, I am no longer talking about the real Life Sizes, but about their smaller siblings, the Life Sizes From Afar or, even smaller, even further away the Life Sizes On The Horizon. Because they characterize Breloh’s work in the last dozen years, I wanted to at least hint at this area, so that under the impression of the sculpture on Moltkeplatz you do not search in vain for knee prints and hugs in other works. These more distant Life Size sculptures avoid the measured pain of going to the limit of exhaustion against antagonism and resistance to the material of the hardening plaster. They are NOT a full-body trace, but HAND-writing.

However, there is something that sculptures large and small, close and distant, strictly related to the body as well as exuberantly dissolute have in common: they ALL seek the modeling gesture and contact with the pliant material. They use and need the pressure of the „big sculptor“ body or the „small sculptor“ hands. Almost like no other Breloh explores and enriches the procedures, conditions and aesthetic richness of modeling. Fully aware of new media, he concentrates on preparatory plaster, which in his work loses everything academic and tired, on archaic clay, which rises to become colorfully glazed terracotta, and on timeless bronze. He thus touches upon a mythical archetype of the plastic, indeed, a primordial form of the creative. It comes as close to early childhood activities as it does to the mature modeling art of a Rodin and Medardo Rosso. Few sculptors work so authentically in harmony with their material, with volume, spatial and human image. For only few hold on to the human body as the measure of all things with such passion AND precision. With the mature Breloh, sculpture is not in a crisis of identity, for he unconventionally reinvents and elaborates the sculptor’s approach to the representation of the human being. In doing so, he preserves the much-invoked image of man in sculpture – an image of man that has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with occidental commonplaces. Rather, it has to do with a very close, sensual interaction with himself and the material. And in this way he creates an art as a tangible counterforce to digital abstraction. A buzzword of the hour is: body loss. The impression is replaced by the push of a button. The contrast between this world of apparatus and Breloh’s art could not be greater.

Thank you!

Prof Dr Manfred Schneckenburger

Manfred Schneckenburger († 2019 in Cologne) was – among other – Rektor of the Kunstakademie Münster and – twice – Artistic Director and curator of the ‚documenta‘ in Kassel. Up to his death he was a member of the Artistic Advisory Board of the association Kunst am Moltkeplatz KaM e.V. Essen.

For the entry on the Vernissage on 13 March 2016 (in German) see here.

For the start page of Heinz Breloh´s work at the Moltkeplatz see here.