"Bridges between East and West"
"East is East, and West is West, and
never the twain shall meet. Rudyard Kiplings 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; thats
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 sheeps, goats, horses and
wolfs 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 Bölls
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 tai chi chuan,
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 Bölls 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 Bölls 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 dont 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
todays 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 wont 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.