Hans Theys is a twentieth-century philosopher and art historian. He has written and designed dozens of books on the works of contemporary artists and published hundreds of essays, interviews and reviews in books, catalogues and magazines. All his publications are based on actual collaborations and conversations with artists.

This platform was developed by Evi Bert (M HKA / Centrum Kunstarchieven Vlaanderen) in collaboration with the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp (Research group Archivolt), M HKA, Antwerp and Koen Van der Auwera. We also thank Idris Sevenans (HOR) and Marc Ruyters (Hart Magazine).


Bernd Lohaus - 2006 - In den beginne was het mes [NL, interview]
Interview , 5 p.


Hans Theys

In the Beginning there Was the Knife
In conversation with Bernd Lohaus

Ein wahres Gedicht ist an die Muse gerichtet
um zu verschleiern daß es an niemand gerichtet ist.
A real poem is addressed to the Muse to conceal that it’s addressed to nobody.

(Gottfried Benn, recited from memory by Lohaus)


In previous conversations with Bernd Lohaus, I was always struck by the contrast between the sobriety of his work (its ‘abatement’) and how well-read he is, his visual erudition and his fondness for anecdotes and stories. Today I am paying him a visit because I want to jot down some of his observations in his own words, so that outsiders can better understand how his work stems from a consistently sustained stylization and a quest for compact elegance.

First there is the matter and then there is the word. Or the knife. The knife is the decision, the line, the distinction, the standpoint. Night only came into being when there was light and the word. Before the advent of the knife, there was only a shapeless nothing. The architrave gave the nothing form. The nothing became an entry. The nothing became space…

In an earlier conversation, Lohaus had referred to an artwork in Genoa which made a deep impression on him. It was a tympanum decorated with a stone relief depicting the roasting of Saint Laurence (Lorenzo). The grate on which the saint is lying is cut out of the stone so that you can look right through it. The form of the grate returns in the gridded pattern of the large doors underneath. I ask Lohaus if he had been struck by the similarity of these grids.

Lohaus: Yes, of course. Both the doors and the tympanum are unheimlich schön, incredibly beautiful. They reach up. The grate is also a superb example of craftsmanship. Try cutting square holes in a stone! I know how to do it: first you drill a hole in the middle of where you want to create the opening, and then you take your chisel and cut in the direction of the drill hole, because the fragments need air to fly off.

- Recently you told me something about Rembrandt’s ‘Saint Bartholomew’. That work is famous for the impasto technique, which is particularly striking in the saint’s furrowed brow. I suspect that’s why you feel so drawn to this work, but I’m not sure. You won’t be indifferent to the knife either. Or the co-existence of the knife and the furrows, as if Rembrandt had sculpted or carved the work.

Lohaus: I have seen that work twice in the Getty Museum. The first thing that strikes me is that Rembrandt depicts the saint as an ordinary person, not at all as we imagine a saint. Dürer’s and Cranach’s saints look much holier. What interests me is the realization that Rembrandt must have been walking along the street when he suddenly thought, pointing to an ordinary man: he’s a saint. The second thing that strikes me is that Rembrandt cuts to the chase by placing a knife in the man’s hand. Clack! We know that the saint was skinned alive, but instead of depicting that scene or his attackers, Rembrandt places the knife in the saint’s hand. Timothy and Brutus conceal their knife in their garments. Here the knife is on show. That’s important.

- What you find interesting is not so much the idea that Bartholomew was just a human being and that he himself might have been a persecutor, but that Rembrandt concentrated the whole story into a single image?

Lohaus: Yes.

- And that a knife also happens to feature in the image?

Lohaus: Yes. Though it is more than a knife. The knife also stands for the threat to the persecutors which emanates from the saint. And that threat lies in his power with words. I don’t know what Bartholomew’s alleged crime was, but I suspect that he was killed because of a weapon he had other than the knife, i.e. the word. His word is like a knife. Yesterday I happened to see a documentary about Goebbels’ Nazi propaganda. No wonder people fell for it; what a rat-catcher!
Mackie Messer (Mack the Knife) hides his knife too: Doch das Messer sieht man nicht’ – ‘But the knife can't be seen.’ Do you know the version in which Brecht sings that song himself? I’ve got it here on a record. He can’t sing, but so much the better because then you can listen to the words. It’s a brilliant demonstration of his theory about the disruption of the alienation effect.

Talking about knives. What do you think of this?

Lohaus shows me a cartoon of two pigs standing side by side at a butcher’s counter, an arm round each others’ shoulders, and declaring sweetly: ‘Wir möchten gern zusammen in eine Wurst’ - ‘We’d like to be together in a sausage.’ The artist starts laughing uncontrollably: ‘Zusammen in eine Wurst! What do you say to that!’

I savour this unique moment. I don’t know anyone else who would laugh so heartily at this joke. Personally it wouldn’t make me laugh like that, but because of Lohaus’ enthusiasm I see what lies behind the joke. (Often I understand the work of artists better once I know why they laugh at certain things. I give a mysterious example of this in De Ligusters op de Sagittariuspromenade – The Privets on Sagittarius Promenade, an article about the work of Luc Deleu.) On the window ledge behind him are two biscuits baked together, which look as if they are kissing. They remind you of Brancusi’s The Kiss, whose entwined doubleness is echoed in the arm-in-arm piglets which would like to merge into a single form, one beam, one stone as yet unloved by Ruckriem: one death, one earth, one gaping void, one sausage.
The chtonic archetypal form of the sausage lives on in the vicinity of the butcher’s or the sculptor’s knife. Every individual is a split sausage. Every I is a longing for a you, for a we, for an everything, but a nothing. In the prints we look at together, it doesn’t take me long to find double or symmetrical images: a stylized, symmetric, African mask reminiscent of the face of Antea in Parmigiano’s eponymous painting, a symmetric paddle from Oceania and a double chair by Gaudi.

Lohaus: It is a piece of furniture for a conversation, not a discussion… I once saw a sarcophagus for two people. In Poitiers or Cluny.

- In ‘Vers une architecture’, Le Corbusier describes the Gothic cathedral as a neurotic solution to a badly stated problem, because the result doesn’t provide a clearly legible volume. But making the walls partly transparent, the buttresses reach upwards and above all outwards is totally functional. The growth of Jugendstil and the work of Gaudi also satisfy sculptural functionality. Or not? I am asking because your admiration of Gaudi’s chair made me think of this. On the face of it, your work wouldn’t suggest an admiration of organic architecture, but I can’t really see an antithesis. It’s always about functionality, a necessary form.

Lohaus: Yes, true Gothic is pure architecture. In Jugendstil nothing is superfluous. And Gaudi’s chimneys draw better than other chimneys!

- Which brings me to my next question. You knew Dali personally, didn’t you? I know you called on him in Spain and buttonholed him in the street. You showed him your drawings. Did you like his work?

Lohaus: I had seen wonderful drawings by him at Documenta in 1964. So when Beuys sent me off to do some sketching, live a little and rest, I chose Dali as my travel destination.

- I would like to talk about architecture for a moment… about what that word means to you.

(I point to a framed drawing by Lohaus hanging on the wall behind him. The work consists of a sheet of paper attached to another larger sheet with a strip of brown adhesive tape. The strip of adhesive tape covers the entire top edge of the drawing and so is the same width. The drawing is suspended, held up only by the adhesive tape. Under the strip of tape is a second, slightly shorter strip of tape, which creates corbelling on the left and right. I tell Lohaus that I know he sees his bronze sculptures and these drawings as a form of architecture, but that I don’t fully understand or see how: I cannot really relate what I know about architecture – for example that it often implies a fascination with things both large and small – to his work.)

- When we last met, you told me that the cavity under one of your bronze sculptures reminded you of a partially floating building you had seen in San Francisco. In this drawing I recognize the same cavity, the same space that is created at the bottom by the heavy, beam-shaped attachment at the top, but I don’t think I am seeing everything.

Lohaus: It’s all to do with the division of the sheet of paper and the proportions. The literal link with architecture is the architrave. Do you know how the ancient Greeks manoeuvred architrave blocks into position? First they rolled a beam up and over a heap of sand of course, but then they raised the architrave slightly on one side by placing a large sandbag on it on the other side, so that the end of the beam was suspended a couple of centimetres above the capital. Next they made a hole in the sandbag with a knife to let the sand out of the bag. And then it started. (He performs a slow dance swaying to and fro with his arms and upper body to show how the stone beam was gently manoeuvred into exactly the right position on the capital.)

- Now I see the link between your drawings and your sculptures with heavy beams… Did you also use that sandbag technique?

Lohaus: No. But I do work with iron balls. I rest the beams on a ball so as to be able to move them gently and precisely. I left the ball in one work as part of the sculpture. I showed it in Liège in 1987.

- The image of the sandbag also reminds me of the sausage and the knife.

Lohaus: You’re right. It occurred to me, too, while I was telling you about it.

- You also like architecture with small light openings high up in the space. For example, there’s a black and white photograph of the interior of a chapel by the architect Peter Zumthor hanging in your living room. You see a black hollow with an arch of light above, a light bridge, an architrave made of light.

Lohaus: Yes. Le Corbusier also designed beautiful spaces like that. I think his best example of that is in Évreux. But Ronchamp is really beautiful too. In Andorra I once saw a Romanesque church with a very high, narrow window, divided right down the middle by a very fine column. Unheimlich fein

(We are silent.)

Lohaus: An important word in my work is ‘frech’. It means something like ‘osé’ – daring, but it goes further than that. Einstein famously stuck his tongue out. That’s also ‘frech’ in the sense of ‘cheeky’. I use the word in a slightly different way. You feel that what you want to do is daring, but you take another step, you try to step over your own shadow. Clack! Nicht? And then it comes: Pourquoi pas? Warum nicht? You feel this with Monet’s first haystacks and the first still life in the history of art in the Musée d’Unterlinden, painted in 1470. And the first flowerpiece, by Altdorfer, in the Pinakothek in Munich. You also feel it in Bouts’ Annunciation in the Getty. That red curtain, that red surface: unheimlich schön. On the left you have that small column which cuts the window vertically down the middle and counterbalances the red surface.

I find some works intoxicating. Ich kann mich dafür begeistern – They fill me with enthusiasm. Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Ezra Pound’s Cantos. Some odes give me a fantastic sense of fulfilment. Recently I gave the Cantos to a friend who also has cancer. The beginning of À l’Ombre des jeunes filles en fleures [Within A Budding Grove]! The train journey and the milk-girl flushed by the glow of morning. Or the description of the clouds of dust on the road and the harmonizing colour of the ripe corn! As a boy, I walked the two and a half kilometres from school back home, along roads of sand-coloured loam and I saw clouds of dust just like that… Or that description of a Monet at the end of Le temps retrouvé [Time Regained]!

- In romanticism the artist looks for ecstasy to forget himself. In an article about your work which you recommended to me, the author describes your work as creating an absence. You agree. Do you mean that in the sense of Marcel Broodthaers, whose work is filled with a deafening, lonely silence, or in the sense of an absence of anecdote or biography?

Lohaus: Both. Not anecdote, not biography: pure being. The author of that article is an authority on the work of On Kawara.

- Who creates the illusion of a biography?

Lohaus: Yes, but in his boxes there is always a cutting from that day’s gazette. You don’t need to read it. You remember at a glance the atmosphere of a particular moment, of a particular era. My work retreats even further.

- That’s exactly the way it comes across. Its generosity lies in not being clothed in reasons, in the way the naked form and the naked material offer themselves up. In fact, in that respect it leans more towards Carl Andre, who combines a similar formal tautness with a love of materials and an involvement with the space.

Lohaus: Yes, I think so too.

- Donald Judd wrote of Giacometti that he was one of the first artists to make sculptures that activated the space around them.

Lohaus: That is certainly true when it comes to Giacometti’s cat. Viewed side-on, you see a trestle table. In profile all you see is the line of the tabletop. I don’t think our Judd was far wrong.

(We are silent.)

Lohaus: How about we listen to Brecht?

Montagne de Miel, March 9th 2006


Translated by Alison Mouthaan-Gwillim