Texte über René Böll  

Sigfried Pater
"Bridges between East and West"

"East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” Rudyard Kipling’s quotation was refuted by the cultural attaché to the German embassy in China when he in March 1996 officially opened the first of a series of exhibitions in Beijing displaying the works of the painter René Böll from Bornheim in Germany. He has succeeded in making "an outstanding contribution to the cultural exchange between Germany and China.”

Through being occupied with traditional and modern Chinese ink painting techniques Böll succeeds in forging a cultural link, which he takes as a compliment and also as acknowledgement to China. He is one of the very few Western painters who is opening himself up to the distant world of Eastern art.

Since the beginning of the 1970s he has been very interested in Chinese ink painting, particularly in the early paintings of the Song, Yuan and Ming Dynasties, which he immediately felt enthusiastic about from the first time he saw them.

Böll has succeeded not only in acquiring a feeling for the technical peculiarities of Chinese ink painting, but also in transferring to his own work characteristic phenomena, such as the different variants of brush-calligraphy, without merely imitating them.

Just like traditional Chinese artists, he does not paint directly according to nature and has no need for "models”. Still, this artist makes numerous trips taking him to regions with visibly powerful landscapes: Ecuador with the Andes, the jungle and the Galápagos Islands; Ireland, in particular Achill Island; Kenya; Russia; but also the countryside back home as well as his garden are inspirations for him. "The landscape that particularly appeals to me, is that of the Arctic and the Antarctic; that’s where I would like to go to experience snow and ice intensely,” says Böll. His relationship with nature is closer than that of many of his colleagues. He views the subject attentively and records his impressions in sketchbooks in order to absorb them in a concentrated way. Later, in the studio he paints from memory, completely free. In the course of this, naturalistic forms recede into the background and lose importance. Thus Böll attempts "to paint without intent and purpose” – in the tradition of the Daoist Wu Wei, the concept of "non-action” or of "not demanding”, in order to express his soul and feelings. In this way pictures are painted as if done in a trance. He is best able to achieve this at night or at dawn.

Böll knows how to handle the "four treasures of the studio”, as they are called in the Chinese tradition: brush, paper, ink and ink-stone. Ink painting does not allow for any corrections and improvements afterwards, it demands spontaneous, fluid execution of brushstrokes, precise thinking and first-class technique. René Böll possess the spiritual and physical self-discipline necessary for that.

Böll uses Chinese ink which, in the words of Huang Binhong, has to be as dry as an autumn wind when using the "dry brush” technique, but at the same time as moist as spring rain. He has acquired the four different basic techniques of applying ink, in addition to "dry” also moist, light and dark, which constitute the basic skills of painting with ink.

In China, he bought many ink-stones which are made from different materials – mainly from the glistening oil-soot ink and the less shiny pine-soot ink. He also uses, as Chinese painters have advised him to do, an ink more than a hundred years old, which is particularly well suited for the greyer tones. Böll almost exclusively uses ink which he has ground himself, which has a finer grain and allows more variations in tone. The very grinding of pigments already means an important attuning to the work.

However, it is not just the materials but also the work process which require concentration and precision. The use of the brush and its touch demand from the artist the considering of "space” and "time”, where "space” means the way in which the brush touches the paper, which in turn depends on the type of the brush tip and the angle at which the brush is held. The Chinese brushes for painting and calligraphy are made from very different types of hair including sheep’s, goat’s, horse’s and wolf’s hair. "Time” means the speed with which the brush is moved across the paper . When using the lightly glued and, therefore, highly absorbent Xuan paper, the stroke becomes broader the slower it is performed. Moreover, the ink allows gradual transition and variation in tone from the most delicate grey to the jettest black. The basis for this type of painting is the use of a particular Chinese Xuan paper, which in the West is only very inadequately referred to as "rice paper”.

The art critic and painter Lao Zhu emphasizes that: "René Böll’s brush technique comes from a subterranean level, he sees the cave of a mysterious spirit, a skeleton hidden beneath waves, inside the mountain slope, in the hills, on the earth, or in the shade of the sunlight.”

These years of being intensely occupied with the meanings and techniques of Chinese painting and its impartment by Chinese artists allowed Böll to achieve pictures which are also widely acclaimed in Chinese art circles. He becomes absorbed in Chinese philosophy, reads Chinese poetry, meditates, and practises t’ai chi chu’an, the so-called shadow-boxing, and qi gong, the Daoist gymnastics.

Liu Xiaochun, a well-known art critic, commented that Böll is penetrating deep into Chinese culture and comprehends it. This attitude distinguishes him completely from the other artists who dealt with Far Eastern art. He writes: "Artists like Hans Hartung, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, Jackson Pollock, Pierre Soulages, Antonio Tàpies and others used Far Eastern art as a kind of quarry, but they paid little attention to ink technique and the philosophical backgrounds.”

This unity of philosophical background and constant perfecting of the ink painting technique also enriches Böll’s oil paintings and watercolours. His oil paintings show reverence for nature, and radiate quietness and solitude. Earthy, warm colours or cool, bluish tones blend into celestial brightness and shining, often reddish light.

Böll compares the art of the painter with that of a pianist: "One has to internalize the finer points of the painting technique in such a way that one can then apply them freely.” For him, this means not only having the correct brushstroke but also knowing about the chemical and physical properties of the various substances. "For example, oil paint dries by absorbing oxygen and not through evaporation. White lead dries in one day, other colours need two weeks or longer.”

For that reason, he works on several pictures at the same time in order to keep to the drying time and to make optimal use of the specific effects of the individual pigments accordingly. For the underpainting of his paintings on canvas he uses various basic elements like egg, oil, wax-soap, casein, resin and gum arabic, sometimes also acrylic dispersion. Böll prefers earth colours and mineral pigments, and keeps a stock of several hundred pigments which he has been collecting since his youth.

Each time these pigments are freshly ground and used up straight away. Apart from natural yellow, red, brown, green and black earth colours, he also uses ground minerals like orpiment, vermilion, different coloured jasper, and micas, some of which look like gold; also lapis lazuli, coral, malachite, pyrite, realgar, sodalite, vivianite or synthetic metal compounds. He also uses a great number of modern organic colours originating from petroleum chemistry. However, these are mixed with other pigments, namely plant colours which display a larger spectrum and are not as "garish” as most colours used today in industry, advertising and art. In this way he tries to obtain vivid yet permanent colours similar to plant colours used in the past, particularly by book illuminators, which unfortunately are barely colour-fast to light. It makes a difference to him whether a colour is manufactured synthetically or whether it is thousands of years old.

On top of this underpainting, the picture is built up in many varnished, semi-opaque or opaque layers using oil colours produced in a way similar to handcrafted colours, as well as oil colours freshly ground each time whenever special tones are needed. The varnish, the adding of different transparent layers on top of each other, plays an important role in Böll’s paintings. Through the varnish he can use both the additive and the subtractive blending of colours in his paintings. He has always been intrigued by how Rembrandt managed to paint these lights and darks. The paintings by Rubens, constructed in several, very thin layers, applied in such a fluent and easy manner, have particularly influenced Böll as regards painting technique and have characterized his way of working. If we look at the originals, we see how lightly, how confidently and how vividly the colours have been applied. The spontaneity of the way the brush is moved by both artists bears resemblance to that in Chinese ink painting.

Böll has intensely studied the mixing of colour. He is less interested in theories on colour than he is in the considerations of how he can change a given colour by mixing it in such a way that he obtains exactly the tone he wants. When it comes to the actual process of painting the mixing is done intuitively. He says that you have to have internalized colour and technique in such a way that you don’t have to think about them. Many of his watercolours are also painted in several layers. Apart from ready-made watercolours, he also uses relatively coarsely ground pigments – similar to the way he also uses them for oil painting. These pigments are soaked into the paper in a very fluid way with gum arabic, through which almost three-dimensional effects are achieved.

"I do not put a few colours on my palette in the morning like most other painters do, but for every place in the picture I put the colours on fresh and often mix them directly on the picture,” the artist remarks.

His pictures invite us on journeys of discovery through space and time. We travel along these landscapes that are representational but also landscapes of the spirit. The absence of distracting details shows us a new world far away from influences of civilization. But this emptiness is but illusionary. A landscape of what is essential, based on quietness and solitude, reveals itself to the beholder. "For me Stone Age painting is as current as today’s painting –and so is Eastern painting thousands of years old.” There is no such thing as limitation by time for him, and he is convinced that painting won’t end nor could there be a substitute for it.

Thus with his original and expressive art, a symbiosis of East and West, René Böll shows the way so that artist and beholder can discover together the wide space and infinite time and linger there.

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