Leopold Bernhard - a Skulptor
"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words." J. W v. Goethe
(Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship bk. IV, 1)
The catalogue at hand documents the work of Leopold Bernhard (b. 1941 in Ottenschlag, Austria) during the course of his ca. 25 year career as a sculptor. For the most part, the artist's output consists of freely conceived figural sculptures, but there are also commissions e.g. for fountains and, most importantly, for five large scale figures for the Nürnberg Opera House.
Leopold Bernhard's first studies of nudes are produced while he is attending the Stockholm college of art (1966-1972). After an apprenticeship in carpentry in Austria and two extended stays in Paris, he acquires in Stockholm the solid artistic and technical grounding which characterizes his work to this day. From 1973 to 1978, he continues his education in the field of sculpture at the polytechnic university in Kassel. There he also holds first one-man shows of his sculptural work. Numerous subsequent exhibitions follow, primarily in southern Germany, in Sweden, and in Austria. In 1978, Bernhard settles in Nürnberg as a free-lance sculptor.
Early works from the Stockholm period, such as the portraits of his mother
( fig. 1 ) and a friend ( fig.
2 ) from the year 1972, reveal precise observation of nature, technical assurance and a blossoming sculptural talent. In the portrait of his mother, for example, Bernhard confidently models her individual features in terms of well defined masses with concavities and convexities, delimitations and transitions, while leaving tooling marks in the clay to unabashedly evoke the feel of furrowed skin. Bernhard, however, does not let it go at portraiture. We do not know the mother. What fascinates us is not only her image but also a universal quality we see in it, something we might describe as a steadfast, candid, and at the same time sensitive character. In other words: by delving deeply into the individual in his portraits, Bernhard draws our attention to the universal.
It seems to me that in these early years the portrait is further developed than the full figure, which frequently (in part for technical reasons) remains a study. In the studies, however, Bernhard is already feeling his way toward future thematic motives. With these exercises and with the portraits, he lays the groundwork for later sculptural work. To this day, the body and the head remain his principal subject matter. With the exception of a few attempts at abstraction, the human figure is always central to Bernhard's art.
Two or three years later, Bernhard arrives at a life-sized figure which is more than a study. For this purpose, he chooses an uncommon material, namely laminated pine wood - apparently harking back to his days as a carpenter. Noteworthy are, for example,
"Biedermann" (Because of its ambiguity, the German word
"Biedermann" is essentially untranslatable. It may mean an honest or upright man or it may imply conservatism, conventionality and even gullibility. It is sometimes translated by the word "bourgeois"., with both the positive and the negative connotations of that term. but it seems preferable here to simply retain the German word.)
(1974, fig. 3 ) "The Year of the Woman" (1975,
fig. 4 ) or "Seated Woman with Cat" (1976,
fig. 5 ). The seated figure of the "Biedermann" is simultaneously reassuring and disquieting. A fat and well-fed burgher is seated contentedly upon a stool. He appears quite harmless. And yet, the sculpture's bulging bulk threatens to burst before our eyes, to such extremes of roundness and fullness has the sculptor carved him. Bernhard uses this implicit contradiction to express the demonic nature of the "Biedermann". We may define it as the close proximity between self-satisfaction and danger and destruction.
The sculpture for the Year of the Woman ( fig.
4 ) from the following year celebrates the female body. The graceful subject appears to be cautiously accepting something with one hand. Hesitantly, the figure opens herself up. With the other arm, however, which touches the chest, she simultaneously holds herself back. Distance and limits are defined by the threshold of the arm. Charm, shyness and dignity are all implicit in this sensuous nude. In the sculpture "Seated Woman with Cat"
( fig. 5 ), Bernhard incorporates the figure of an animal into the composition. The cat rests on the woman's lap. It is stroked on the neck while being protectively clasped with the other hand. The woman, her eyes half-closed, is entirely absorbed with the animal. This is especially apparent in the way her body, simultaneously relaxed and full of
concentration, has disengaged from the back of the rocking chair. The cat becomes a part of the whole.
In all three full-scale figures, we are impressed by the warm hue of the wood and the striking pattern of its grain. In these sculptures, Bernhard can demonstrate his full capabilities. The treatment of the human figure manifests his admirable artistic skills; the way he works the wood shows his outstanding craftsmanship.
About the same time, around 1975, Bernhard undertakes a productive series of heads. They depart from portraiture and use generalizing forms to suggest distinctive types. Bernhard now works in stone, wood and bronze. In other words, he extends his range of materials. In these heads, there is no direct chronological development from relative realism toward abstract creations. We find anticipations, we find reversions, and always we find reaffirmative recourse to the fundamental natural forms. Among the most expressive works are the portrait of the artist's father .(1976,
fig. 6 ), the head of Jessye N. (1978,
fig. 7 ), the portrait "Prof. Herzog" (1978,
fig. 8 ) and the depiction of a new-born (1979,
fig. 9 ). The portrait of the father stands out because of the smooth, extenuated form of the back of the head. The ear is only suggested. The large mass with its flattened brow thrusts the face forward. It appears very intense: reserved, and yet sensitive. In formal terms, the next head, with its massive, similarly extenuated cranium, is very close. It is possible that, in this work, the unusual head-shape is intended to suggest a Negroid background. The ear lies as if still hidden beneath the skin. Ultimately, the face emerges from the front of the mass as a mysterious female head with large eyes and full lips, perhaps an exotic priestess. The speckled granite portrait "Prof. Herzog"
( fig. 8 ) is entirely different. It retains its relationship to a basic cuboid form. Although eyes, nose, and mouth, etc. are only very discreetly hewn into the stone, they appear nonetheless emphatic in this head of a man in repose, with nearly-closed eyes. A year later, Bernhard gives us a marble head of a new-born infant
( fig. 9 ) which is closely related in terms of its formal vocabulary. There is only a hint of the ear, the eyes, the nose, and the mouth on the rounded mass of stone - the child slumbers within.
The thematic motif "head" apparently preoccupies the artist during this period. In 1978, for example, he produces the "King" and the "Queen"
( fig. 10 ). The effect of the king's head is derived from the compact ovoid form, with its gently convex
horizontal cut-off at brow level. In the case of the queen, a few details suffice to characterize a face. Abstracting from these essentially stylised forms, Bernhard finally achieves, in the work "Discus" (1980,
fig. 11 ), a sculptural compactness which is reminiscent, in its economy of means and lucid vocabulary of forms, to the work of Brancusi. The head is reduced to a swelling disc.
A comparable development is to be seen in the full-figure. In the "Crouching figure"
( fig 12 ) from the year 1977, for example, the state of crouching (or squatting) is symbolized by a tapering layered clump of chunky, interlocking masses, which Bernhard compresses, so to speak without formal residue, into a single block.
As far as the depiction of head and figures is concerned, these works appear to have reached a degree of reduction where no further development would seem possible. However, as is often the case, ultimate forms bear in themselves a new beginning. At the same time that he is working on the concisely abstracted heads and figures just discussed, Bernhard begins, in 1978, to develop a new thematic motif: studies in motion, primarily based on ballet dancers.
Many artists of the 19th and 20th centuries have dealt with the subject "dance". Among the most notable are surely Degas, Rodin, and Nolde. Artistic interest in the dance has a great variety of bases. What fascinated Degas, for example. was effortless, elegant physical movement, whereas Rodin was apparently intrigued by the exotic eroticism of Cambodian dancers. For Nolde, wild ecstatic dance was a primeval form of expression. All of them depict how motion overcomes corporeal weight.
In his ballet studies, Leopold Bernhard attempts to approach the overall problem of "motion". To do so, he employs small figures of bronze or plaster in spaces defined by wire framework. In the process, he is confronted with the fact that none of the visual arts except film can depict motion in any real sense. All that can be depicted is a situation, a moment, or specific stages which are supposed to signify movement but are not actually motion. Motion is always related to spatial changes. Bernhard therefore consistently entitles his studies "Elements of Motion in Space"
( fig. 15 , fig. 16 ).
What elements of motion can an artist show? Rodin devoted considerable thought to this subject. (Cf. Auguste Rodin, Die Kunst, Gespräche des Meisters, gesammelt von Paul Gsell, Leipzig, 1916, S. 55 ff). First, he concludes that photography can only show excerpts of movements. The artist, in his opinion, can do more. On the basis of his own sculpture "John the Baptist", he calls attention to a significant point. Photography, he says, is always bound to time, to the moment, whereas the artist is not. Thus, his St. John, although conceived as walking, stands with both feet planted firmly on the ground. This stance does not exist in reality, since in walking one foot is always leaving the ground. What Rodin is doing is attempting to combine several stages of motion so that, for example, the previous and the impending step are both implicit. The saint's entire body communicates this compression. The sculptor - or the painter or the draughtsman cannot, in other words, show a motion like walking in a literal sense but he can illustrate it in clear and vivid terms.
In Bernhard's studies, such as the work from the year 1978 ( fig.
15 ), we re-encounter Rodin's artifice. We see two figures, side by side, one slightly behind the other, executing a dance step forward. The advanced leg is slightly flexed. The torsos make a broad sweep to the left, dipping as they turn. The extended arms continue this motion. It is a stance full of movement and, as it would appear, the culmination of a series of movements. We do not merely imagine the rhythmic sweep implicit in this stance, we can actually see it. As in Rodin's "St. John", both soles are planted firmly on the ground, which is actually not possible in this position. In other words, Bernhard, too, is combining several phases of motion. He thus eliminates whatever is momentary and incidental. He fuses completed and coming stages into a dance step which is technically both static and artificial and at the same time extremely graceful. To this end, he finds positions where, in ballet, the climax and resting point of the dance coincide.
The same holds for other studies, be they individual figures or group compositions. In a three-dancer group, for example,
( fig. 16 ), we are struck by the extent to which the dancer, straining upward, almost achieves a state of suspension. There is nothing transitory about the figure. Permanence is more the word for it. It will always be the way it is.
Bernhard composes his dance groups in two different ways. Either he arranges like elements of movement in series, so that the individual figure acquires rhythmic motion from its place in a spatial sequence. Or he composes groups where the counterbalance of opposing energies creates a sense of movement to and fro. A careful look at these works reveals that Bernhard is illustrating a great deal more than his expression "segments of motion" suggests.
In a similar work which was produced much later (1993, fig.
17 ), he combines the earlier studies into the theme "Life Cycle". In the middle of a pyramidal space defined by metal rods, a mother dances for her child. The child watches, inquiring, smiling, marvelling. His arms are beginning to move. Dancing around this midpoint are a number of additional groups, mostly pairs
( fig. 18 ), all oriented toward the center. Life revolves around mother and child. The pyramid defines the room.
Bernhard provides his dancing figures with room in space. He encloses them within cubical wire frameworks which delineate and define the surrounding space and provide the dance, as in the case of the pyramid, with measure and proportion, limiting movements but at the same time sharpening outlines. There are no actual walls, but these spatial boundaries have the same effect. In the clearly defined spaces outlined by struts or wire scaffolding, the dancers acquire a life of their own. And that, in the last analysis, is what transcends the static viewpoint of photography: the vitality. It is the vitality of the dance in the poised but easy sweep of dancing bodies.
By 1978 - the year when he moves from Kassel to Nürnberg - Bernhard has developed a broad scope, both from a technical-artistic point of view and in terms of his thematic repertory. He has a command of the naturalistic likeness and the severely abstracted form. He remains faithful to his original themes, head and full figure.
During the 80s, Bernhard produces another sequence of heads. From a formal point of view, he is varying the material of the 1970s; artistically, he is gaining in compression. That is true, for example, for such works as "Japanese woman" (1985,
fig. 19 ), "The Thinker" (1986, fig.
21 ), "Chinese woman" (1988, fig. 22 ), or "Mrs. Celli" (1992,
fig. 23 ), which are all essentially reduced to basic forms. In my opinion,
however, it is even more true for such essentially naturalistic depictions as the "Head of a youth" (1990,
fig. 24 ) and "The old man" ( fig.
26 ) of the same year. The "Head of a youth", to which is related another, similar, work
( fig, 25 ), depicts an 8 to 10-year-old boy. The hair is drawn down like a tight-fitting helmet to just above the eyebrows. The head is slightly bowed. From beneath the cap of hair, narrow eyes peer out a little sceptically into the world. The snub nose and a small smiling mouth are not as contradictory as they seem, for these are contradictions which are inherent in an awakening child or young adolescent. After the highly reductive, Brancusi-like works of the 70's, Bernhard now attains new vitality and freshness.
I regard the portrait of an old man ( fig.
26 ) in granite as a counterpoint to the "Head of a youth". Bernhard leaves the stone almost entirely in the form in which it was hewn. Working upward from the pointed chin, he merely adds a few "touches" to emphasize the narrowness and angularity of age. The brow emerges from the base of the nose; mouth, and eyes are barely suggested. The stone practically retains its natural form and yet, at the same time, it presents a portrait of great intensity. In one regard, an Egyptian portrait head is called to mind; in another, a prettification. The head has sought its place in the rock. Or: the rock has given the head its place.
In the first half of the 80s there are experiments in abstraction with very large sculptures made from wooden beams. These are still reminiscent of the human figure. To me, however, they constitute not so much a further development as a search for new forms of expression. These creations remain a transitional phase, as do several figures produced in 1988/1989: stretching nudes in wood or synthetic resins
( fig. 33 ), which are essentially decorative in effect. They seem more reduced in form than concentrated, and should probably be regarded as stylisations rather than as abstractions. The figures have a sleekness, both in material and in expression, which is otherwise not characteristic of Bernhard. Possibly a detour, as far as the sculptor's direction is concerned, but nonetheless an essential step along his way,
The extent to which the human figure is the starting point for Bernhard's art is apparent from the studies of nudes
( fig. 34 , fig. 35 ) which, since the very beginning, have accompanied, that is to say prepared the way for, his sculptures. With scant outlines and tersely suggested inner details, he quickly sketches stance, proportion
and particular shape as plastic masses. In this way, he provides himself with the general and specific prerequisites for his sculptures. The sketches may be directly understood in connection with two relief's: "Women on the beach" (1986,
fig. 31 ) and "Dance studies" (1988, fig.
32 ). The material which was developed in these (and other) sketches is picked up by Bernhard in the relief's and modified, in each case, to suit the specific subject matter.
Bernhard's work becomes increasingly well known during the 80s. As a result, he receives major private and public commissions. These include portraits, full figures, groups
( fig. 36 ), animals, fountains ( fig.
37 ) and also restoration projects such as the recreation of the Renaissance chandelier in Nürnberg's historic city hall. In 1993 he receives what is undoubtedly the most important and largest commission of his career, namely the reproduction of five colossal figures for the Nürnberg Opera House. These figures were originally created in 1905 by Professor Kittler (d. 1944 in Nürnberg) and were destroyed during World War 11. Surviving photos serve as a basis for Bernhard's work. Three of the huge statues (up to 18 feet in height) have been completed thus far: "Freya"
( fig. 38 ), "Hel" ( fig.
39 ) and "Noris". As reproductions, or better: as reconstructions, (since the old photographs provide only a very inadequate documentation of the original figures), these sculptures reveal Bernhard's excellence as a craftsman. At the same time, the artist has the opportunity to demonstrate his own outstanding sensitivity, even as he subordinates himself to the prescribed forms of the prototypes. His task is to create artistic coherence while imitating the turn-of-the-century figures with their characteristic pathos. Alone the already completed figures should suffice to convince collectors and officials that uncommon talents and skills are here united and offer themselves for future projects.
Whatever Leopold Bernhard, now 50-something, may have to offer in the future, one thing is clear: The body of work which is presented and documented in this catalogue sets a standard that is exceptionally high.