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The only thing I can really paint well is anger

The history of the world as blood bath. East German painter Bernhard Heisig has been honoured and vilified by turns. Hanno Rauterberg pays him a visit on his eightieth birthday.

A strange place for someone like Heisig. The silence is so deep, the hills roll so softly, a stream, the Havel, snaking though them. Now in spring, it swells far beyond its banks, flooding meadows, fields and pastures, making it impossible to say where land ends and water begins. The overflowing landscape spills into his studio, lapping at the large windows. Only his canvases remain untouched. "Everybody thinks I'll suddenly become all romantic here in the middle of the countryside", Heisig mutters. But idylls are not my thing. I'm far, far too angry."

Bernhard Heisig: Bernhard Heisig: "Der Kriegsfreiwillige", 1982/86. Öl auf Leinwand. Sammlung Hartwig und Maria-Theresia Piepenbrock.
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2005
When Bernhard Heisig left Leipzig twelve years ago for an undulating backwater in the Havelland region of Brandenburg called Strohdene, many took it for a retreat. Heisig, the German war painter of the 20th century, fought for Hitler in Normandy at the age of 16, at 36 he was punished by communist leader Walter Ulbricht, and ten years later he was awarded the National Prize of the German Democratic Republic by Ulbricht's successor Erich Honecker. In 1986 he, an East German, painted West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. After the fall of the Berlin Wall he was defamed as informer and apparatchik. Heisig, who had always attracted polemic and controversy, then seemingly fled into solitude and retirement. "What a load of rubbish", he says, glancing mischievously around his studio. "A life on the sofa is impossible for me. I couldn't bear my own company. And I'd have a bad conscience to boot."

Heisig is obstinate, he always was. Each morning he leaves his old farm house at ten on the dot for his studio. He has been wheelchair bound since a fall a few years ago, and his hands are not what they once were either. But this doesn't stop him. He needs the smell of oil paint, the canvases that open the floodgates for him into another time, a history of war, turmoil and exploding emotions.

"It's terrible when a picture is still so naked like this" he says. "I'll paint it dirty quick." A couple of brush strokes, smears, endless dabs of paint and then he's lost in the jumble, until at some point something emerges, a figure, and then another. "They wander like that across the painting, sometimes here, sometimes there. And when I don't know how to go on, I sit down in front of the next painting and carry on there for a while." Layer upon layer, one painting emerges over another, screaming heads, atrophying bodies, great rumours, collapse and upheaval. "Unfortunately, I can't do anything else," he says. He has none of Gerhard Richter's cool distance, none of Werner Tübke's elegance. Heisig's work is a wild thrashing thing, a carnage of colour, hand-to-hand combat with art.

Often, it is historical material that attracts him, the Paris Commune, the old Prussian Frederick the Great, the battle of Breslau. And he always mixes himself into the streaks of colour, pushing his own memories of powerlessness, blood and harassment into the bursting frames. Sometimes he even paints his own face at the centre of the turmoil of images, an old face with a sailor's beard and water-blue eyes, the great seafarer of East German art. He has become the subject of many of his paintings recently, caught up in his world of metaphors, eschewing the present day.

But he was never someone to paint for himself alone, for the sake of his soul. "I'm no loner. I want my pictures to be seen. I want them to provoke." He says this with such certainty that one might conclude he was a painter of solutions, that his art was one of formulas and rousing public appeals. But his images mostly tell of doubt and despair. And they remain so nebulous and convoluted that it is barely possible to say what they are vouching for, what they are telling us. "It's just one of those things about art", he says reaching for a large plastic bottle of water. "It's one of those things", he repeats. "What is art capable of and what not?" Then he says nothing for a while and changes the topic.

He talks excitedly about his huge exhibition "Die Wut der Bilder" (the fury of images) at the Museum der Bildenden Künste in Leipzig and about the fact that Gerhard Schröder will be at the opening. "The best thing is that the pictures are going to Dusseldorf afterwards, into the lion's den. I can't wait to see what happens there." A element of trepidation is certainly at play. Dusseldorf is still the stronghold of West German artists, the abstract and conceptual artists for whom portrait and allegory belongs in the 19th century. "But maybe", Heisig says, with a twinkle in his eye, "maybe this will cause some friction. And friction is what an artist needs."

Not that he's immune to criticism. It hits him most when it is self-righteous and scathing, as was the case a few years ago when everyone was discussing whether he should be commissioned to paint a picture for the New Reichstag. But, people protested, he had been in the SS (something he never denied), he had been a Stasi (East German secret police) informer (which is not true), and anyway, it simply wasn't right that an East German functionary artist, who always "greased up to power" should be honoured by the state again. That got to him. He was never one to palliate or eulogise, he was never a regulation aesthete. He sought out proximity to the powerful, sure. But always to rub against them. Because his art thrives on friction.

"I had two state commissions", he says. "One for the Palast der Republic (East German parliament) and one for the Reichstag. The second one was particularly odd." He shrugs his shoulders. "No one from the Reichstag visited my studio. They didn't seem the slightest bit interested in what I was painting for them. Strange isn't it? How am I supposed to paint something decent under those circumstances?" What he lacked was a vis-a-vis, a partner against whom he could test his imagery, sharpen his ideas.

And it is precisely this commitment to independence that outrages so many people about Heisig. He construes the autonomy of art differently, for him freedom comes alive only when won through sheer stubbornness. "Avant-garde," he scoffs, "has long been a pallid cliche. The idea of the artist as outsider and genius, a fountain of creativity, with no need for teachers or rules, spurting originality till he drops, is complete nonsense!"

To be integrated in a social framework, to feel ensconced in a tradition of art, is what was and remains important to Heisig. He doesn't want to stand at the edge of the playing field, painting pictures in the wings. Unlike many of his West German colleagues, he sees nothing objectionable in making connections, letting his imagination play with themes and ideas from other sources. He sought long and hard for kinship in the art world, and nurtured it, with Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, Lovis Corinth, Adolph von Menzel. It was a similar story with the state commissars for aesthetics. He was drawn by the prospect of dispute, although it often resulted in divergences and his being dumped in the end.

Bernhard Heisig: Bernhard Heisig: "Das Atelier", 1979, Öl auf Leinwand. Staatliche Museen Kassel.
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2005
Heisig's personal artistic biography is a story of vicissitudes: obstinate forging ahead and abrupt falling on his face. "I was a sort of child genius", he explains. "Even before I could read and write, I could draw brilliantly. So well that my father, a painter himself, found it almost impossible to teach me anything." Of course it made sense, once the war was over, to apply to art school. But the Leipzig art school wanted nothing to do with him, much to Heisig's disappointment. They finally accepted him years later, in 1951, but he dropped out, in disgust at the endless struggle to find an appropriate socialist style. He was "completely pissed off" he said at the time. But three years later, despite having abandoned his studies and being reproved for his lukewarm party interest, he was hired by the art school first as tutor, then as professor and finally rector. "No one else wanted the job at the time", he says today, because the party saw everything, investigated everything, and demanded faithful line toeing.

How should he, who always slipped over the line, who painted flying in the air, desolately and threateningly, advocate regulated cheerfulness? It was not long before queries were made into his "strong attraction to the amorphous, the destructive, the morbid", and his art was seen to show "symptoms of decadence". In 1961 Walter Ulbricht, the East German leader from 1953-1971, stumbled across one of Heisig's paintings depicting the fighters of the Paris Commune, but somewhat less heroically and pugnaciously than was usually the case in East Germany. Heisig's teetering forms, in uncertain, undefined poses, prompted Ulbricht to comment: "The Communards fought, they did not doze." Heisig then painted over the picture, which many interpreted as a act of penance. But they didn't know Heisig.

As early as 1956, he made derogatory remarks about the party's artistic policies, referring to "misguided souls in positions of responsibility." In 1964 he went a step further, saying in a public speech that in East Germany artists were treated "like children who are not allowed to go into the street, to prevent them from being harmed by the traffic". Heisig warned of "sterile provincialism" pleading for art that "makes waves, provokes, attacks". The functionaries attacked back with a vengeance. He lost his position as rector and was demanded to recant. To the disappointment of some, Heisig did as he was told and donned his sackcloth and ashes.

It was always like this. Bernhard Heisig was not the type to emigrate - either into himself or over to the West. He was a radical, but only for the moment. "Lob der gelegentlichen Unvernunft" (In praise of occasional stupidity) was the title of one of his paintings. Sometimes he would acquiesce to unreasonable demands, other times he would resist. As in 1968, when he was sent for improvement at the party school. "That was the end of it for me", he said. Without further ado he resigned from all positions and went it alone, collecting a wealth of frictional experiences on the way. Because in the numerous interrogations and clarification seminars he was compelled to sit through, he scribbled all over his notes, drawing the canker worm-like officials who presided over the sessions, stocky, knotted creatures who later populated his paintings.

But he certainly painted plenty in the line of duty at the end of the 60s, with his Lenin, and his busy Brigadier. So it was not long before he was on the rise again. Heisig's work was also shown in the West, he was permitted to travel, and in 1976 he became rector in Leipzig for the second time. By now he was known as the greatest East German representational artist, alongside Werner Tübke and Willi Sitte. "I wasn't really", he says. "Of course, I wanted socialism, I still do. But not in the form it took back then. When I became rector for the second time, the first thing I did was to get the porter to store away all the state regalia. It was appalling, all that pageantry."

When SPD Chancellor Helmut Schmidt asked Heisig to paint his portrait for the Chancellor's gallery, everybody advised against it, saying he couldn't paint the politician who advocated stationing US nuclear missiles on West German territory. Heisig said he wouldn't turn down the offer, it was up to them to prevent it if they wanted to. But no one was prepared to exercise censorship of this kind.

"Oh well. And then there was the thing with singer/songwriter Wolf Biermann. Lots of people asked me why I didn't sign the petition against his expatriation (like so many other artists at the time). But then I didn't vote for it either, you know, as the party would have wanted. I kicked up a fuss behind the scenes, which seemed more effective to me.

So he has nothing to hide? Nothing that he can reproach himself for? "Well yes, sometimes I could have shown more guts. Too often I looked away when young people with their banners were plucked out of demonstrations. I should have clung hold of them", he says, suddenly quiet and reflective.

And in his art? Where did he show courage there? "I certainly didn't destroy anybody's career." Suddenly he's back on form again, eyes twinkling. "I was never in it just for the teaching." In 1985 he even managed to ensure that an unofficial exhibition in Leipzig that the authorities intended to ban, opened in part. "At least my conscience is clear where that's concerned."

Why then did he immediately hand back his numerous medals and state prizes in autumn 1989? What was behind this gesture? "I wanted distance", he says somewhat hesitantly. "It only became clear to me then what a pile of shit the state was." He wanted to break his attachment, annul the marriage.

He was used to being able to start anew, being given a second chance. It is one of the principles of his life and art to regard everything as reversible and temporary, and to regard himself as incomplete. He could never reach an end with his art, he is notorious for this. He has been known to sequester paintings that have been hanging for years in museums, and paint over them in his studio. "I've gone over a third of all my work", he says, grinning. "I just view my art differently today, I'm also more in control of my tools. Why shouldn't I change things?"

Bernhard Heisig: Bernhard Heisig: "Vaclav Neumann", 1979. Öl auf Hartfaser. Museum der bildenden Künste Leipzig.
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2005
Is he still learning, now that he's turned 80? "Of course", he says. "Maybe I'm even steadily improving. Many things are solving themselves inside me." And many things no longer agitate him as they did. His hunger for the new, the unknown has disappeared since moving to Strodehne. The younger generation, his successors in Leipzig, who are being hyped around the globe, no longer interest him." I'm obviously too old for that." He takes a long drink from the plastic bottle. "I can't allow myself to pass judgement. Neo Rauch did his master's in my class, well... But you know, I can't really get excited about it all. This success is eerie. The young don't believe in anything any more. Except success maybe."

What does he believe in then? What can his art achieve? We're back at this question again. "I don't believe," he mumbles into his beard, "I don't believe in grand statements, that art can make people better or whatever. But it can move people, I'm sure of that. But whether that changes much? No Goya or Picasso or Grünewald can put an end to the bloody nonsense in this world. Look at the example of history. Painters are inferior to every documentary filmmaker in this respect, they have much stronger chances."

This almost sounds like envy, like a certain despondency. This feeling accompanies him into the depths of his paintings. Their narrowness, their wild vertiginous spirallings also tell of an almost desperate attempt to show the many skeins of reality simultaneously, the contradictions and fluctuating truths. The excessive, the display of force is always a expression of failure – the inability to tell everything which must be told.

"It's terrible how quickly one gets used to pictures" he says. "An image with no death in it is no image at all. But before you know it, you get accustomed to the shock. A massacre is only really shocking when it's really happening. That is the sad truth." And consolation? Can art offer such a thing? "I envy people who can believe in God. All I have to cling to is a painting by Matthias Grünewald, the "Isenheimer Altar". It took my breath away when I first saw it and it still does."

Heisig can't let go of the suffering, the gnawing, the penetrating. He doesn't want to hear that his quiet paintings, the flowers and the portraits are often his strongest. "I find it hard to show my feelings", he says. "Just anger. The only thing I can really paint well is anger."

The large Bernhard Heisig retrospective "Die Wut der Bilder" can be seen until 29 May, 2005 in the Museum der bildenden Künste in Leipzig.


The article was originally published in German in Die Zeit on 17 March, 2005.

Hanno Rauterberg is an editor of the Die Zeit.

Translation: lp. - let's talk european