ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Bernd Lohaus - 2007 - Six étamines [FR, interview]
A few words about the work of Bernd Lohaus
My first visit to Bernd Lohaus’ workshop was with Ann Veronica Janssens in 1995. It was a memorable day, interspersed with any number of unexpected occurrences. One of the things he showed us that day was the sculpture he had graduated with from the academy in Düsseldorf in the early 1960s. It consisted of two beams, neither longer than 60 cm, lying next to each other. Beuys had laid them on a table to display them. The first beam was actually one half of a diagonally cut beam. It had a wide base and a saddleback roof with a 90° angle. The second beam had a more pointed roof and was wider at one end than the other. The first beam was a ready-made. Lohaus had planed the second beam until it resembled the first beam.
“My parents were disappointed when they saw the fruit of my years of studying,” Lohaus recalled…
I remember how all three of us, Janssens, Lohaus and I, stared in silence at the two beams, their artistic power commensurate with the disappointment of his parents.
The second time I visited Lohaus’ workshop was exactly a year ago, in the spring of 2006. Impressed by a magnificent sculpture of his which I had seen in a church in Leuven, I suggested that I make a film about him and organize an exhibition. And so it was that we found ourselves in his workshop endeavouring to make a sculpture with two pallets, a couple of boxes and a few beams.
A year has passed since then. One of the three pallets has already been turned into bronze. It is a splendid work with the silver-grey patina of weathered cedar wood. The second pallet is in the making. The third is still at the experimental stage.
Tuesday March 27th 2007. It is nine o’clock in the morning. Lohaus and I shuffle our way round a sort of office adjoining his workshop. Cardboard boxes, some assembled, some flat, are everywhere, here and there a drawing or a poster hangs on the wall. On the mantelpiece are a couple of small sculptures. Lohaus makes coffee. I try and take a photograph of an amaryllis and of a small work I notice for the first time. It consists of two metal springs some 15 centimetres high and about five centimetres in diameter. One of the springs, the more robust of the two, is upright. The second spring is also upright, but sunk against its companion, its head half buried in his breast. The room is dimly lit. The stemless amaryllis, which is resting on the brim a low glass, lights up in the semi-darkness. Lohaus comes and stands next to me, holding two steaming cups of coffee.
“Six stamens”, he says. “Always six. Aren’t they piercing! And high up there, waiting longingly to be pollinated: the pistil. So beautiful… And they go on being beautiful.” He takes a dried amaryllis between thumb and forefinger. “They go on being beautiful. Do you know what an amaryllis stem looks like?”
“Yes, a thick stem.”
“Just look how little of it remains! And it’s still beautiful!”
I look at the downy, velvety surface of the dried-up flowers spread all round the workshop. Bernd paints flowers using watercolours. There is always a watercolour on his drawing table, finished or unfinished. Until that day, I had thought that the dried-up remains of his models were still there because Lohaus was too lazy to clear them away. Now I see how beautiful they can be if you look properly. It reminds me of a drooping, two-metre-long plant belonging to Kris Vanhemelrijck, which I know has been in his kitchen for the last ten years, mostly shrivelled, with just a few green leaves.
“I would prefer it you didn’t take too many photographs,” says Lohaus. “Yesterday I happened to meet a woman who said: ‘Oh, you are the bronze pallets man’, though they haven’t been shown yet. She had seen a photograph of them on your website.”
“That isn’t a photograph of the bronze pallet,” I say, “but of the wooden original. That photograph has been there for a year.”
“Yes, I know that photograph,” says Lohaus. “It helped me make the work. But I’d rather you didn’t publish any photographs before the work is finished. As long as I am still playing with the cubes, I would prefer those photographs to remain between us…
Did I ever tell you that my farther tried to teach me to count with cubes? He would put one cube in front of my nose and I would say: ‘one’. The same with two and three. But with the fourth cube I always said: ‘five’. That made him really angry. One day I threw one of the cubes in his face, witnessed by the whole family. It was a story they told over and over again. They thought it was pretty brave for a three-year-old. That was in 1943, before anti-authoritarian parenting of course.”
“Perhaps you would have preferred to play with the cubes with your father, instead of learning to count?”
“That could well be. Luc Deleu said the same once.”
“I’ve never seen this sculpture before,” I say, pointing to the two iron springs.
“That’s right”, says Lohaus, “it’s something I made as a student”. I found it in a box last week. It was displayed at a ‘Rundgang’.”
“What’s a Rundgang?” I ask.
“It’s what they call a ‘jury’ here in Belgium. The workshop was cleared out, the professor chose from the students’ works and put together a sort of presentation. So Beuys displayed this work.”
“The lecturer chose the works?”
“Yes. Once Beuys also laid my poems out on a table. He wanted to say: ‘Look, he’s a poet too.’”
“It is clearly a work of yours,” I say. “It consists of two similar forms which like to be close to each other. It’s nice to see how an oeuvre always seems to return to its origins.”
“Yes”, he smiles. “Like a spiral.”
“Like a spring?”
“And how did Beuys display that spring sculpture? Were there other works on show?”
“Yes, the whole wall was covered. Sometimes he would add one of this own works. That’s how he showed the Fat Chair for the first time, hanging from the classroom door. The idea behind the ‘Rundgang’ was for the lecturer to justify to his colleagues why he had a student in his class. He had to defend his choice. I thought it was a good system, because some students were not very good at talking about their work.”
“You, for example.”
“Yes, I always talked incoherently.”
“Or so you thought then.”
“Yes, that was the impression I had. I still have, for that matter.”
“And your father was a lawyer. He could explain it well, I imagine.”
“Yes… He was a very lucid man…”
“Which might also explain the admiration of your sisters when you got angry with your father?”
“Well, yes, everything was very clear to him. While, for all his clarity, he got things wrong occasionally of course.”
“Is that the reason you were drawn to Beuys, because he radiated real authority?”
“Perhaps. But Beuys could also be very authoritarian. When he didn’t like a drawing, he would just tear it up. And if we protested, he made notes on it or improved it. His greatest quality was that he could tolerate a whole mix of budding artists with different talents. In one corner of the workshop you had Immendorf, in another corner Palermo and in the middle Ruthenbeck made his first Ash Heap. Then there was also a dangerous Dutchman who played with knives. I made things like the Coudrages, the two springs you have just seen, and those two triangular beams behind you.”
Behind me I recognized the two triangular beams of Lohaus’ graduation piece. They were just lying on the ground, half hidden by a pile of cardboard boxes. Only a real authority would have noticed them.
“Your desk is also supported by triangular beams,” I say.
“Yes, because it floods here sometimes. The beams come from orange boxes which I dismantled.”
We now leave the office and enter a large workshop, lit with newly replaced dormer windows. We go and sit in two folding chairs with linen seats and look at a work in the making: a large cardboard box folded flat, resting on a wooden pallet. The surface of the folded box corresponds more or less to that of the pallet, as if the forms had been made for each other. On our side, the fold in the cardboard is deep and dark.
“A sort of amaryllis,” I say, “waiting to be pollinated.”
“Yes, there is something feminine about it by comparison with the robustness of the pallet.”
I walk round the sculpture. On the other side, the folded but slightly raised cardboard box slopes beautifully, the front right-hand corner being at the lowest point and the back left-hand corner at the highest, like a gently cavorting kite. This slope recalls the sculpture in Middelheimpark and the sloping surfaces of sculptures like ‘Eupen’.
“Anny doesn’t like that truncated corner,’ says Bernd pointing.
“I think this sculpture is more beautiful than our first attempt, when we laid a large block of wood on the pallet,” I say. “I found that work too theatrical.”
“Yes, that is now this sculpture,” Bernd tells me. He tips an upright pallet into a flat position and places a short beam diagonally on top, a quarter of it overhanging the edge of the pallet. The beam is slightly too thick to be a beam of a pallet. (In actual fact, there are no beams in a pallet.) But it is slender enough to give the impression that it could have been a part of it. The work is like the birth of a beam from a pallet. It looks as if it has been deposited there by chance. I think it’s a magnificent sculpture. Something of the apparent simplicity and power of Lohaus’ work has to do with the fact that it can be completely imperceptible and then put together with two movements of the hand.
The three pallets will go on show in Stella Lohaus’ gallery in September.
“Won’t it be difficult to position these works?”, I ask.
“Probably not,” Bernd replies. “They can all stand in a row. It’ll work OK.”
After that we pay a visit to a warehouse in another part of the city, where I see scores of old works, including upright pallets supporting unprepared canvases featuring painted or drawn marks. And works made of ropes. And flat stones. And then the most famous works, with the azobé wood beams.
“Look”, he says. “I put this work together yesterday for the first time.”
The sculpture he is pointing to consists of three beams. The longest beam is lying right in front of us, vertically. Resting on the far end, on the right side, is a second, horizontal beam, like the load-bearing beam of gallows. A third beam is resting vertically in the gusset of both beams. That third beam is a few centimetres lower and a few millimetres too short to be level with the toes of the first beam.
“This sculpture is called ‘Beersel’”, says Lohaus. “I made it specially for the dark space in the Herman Teirlinckhuis. That was about a year ago. I was walking round among the beams at the company which sells this wood, trying to find the right pieces to make a sculpture. I put the sculpture together there and then, in my head. And yesterday I put it together physically for the first time. That’s why the beams are still lying on blocks, so that I can make any adjustments using a pallet truck. I’m pleased with it, but I would like to see if the shortest beam can’t be tilted to hide that notch. What do you think, can you handle a pallet truck?”
Montagne de Miel, April 1st 2007
Translated by Alison Mouthaan-Gwillim