How It All Began
A large "X", drawn in pencil covers the entire page of squared paper and in the middle of it is a small two-part scribble. Bottom right there is a note in my mother's writing "Quint April 61 Lord Jesus on the Cross." It was the first of my pictures that she kept.
On a drawing done with coloured pencils just about a year later one can make out – again thanks to the description – that the tiny little stick figure near a red something or other in a square must be the Virgin Mary and that the much bigger figure in a colourful vertically striped pullover must be her son Jesus who "is already quite grown up, but they have left the manger in the stable in case Mary has another baby."
Dated May 1963 there is a small pencil drawing with someone crucified, two buses and a lot of small figures, almost all with peaked caps and pistols. "Jesus is nailed to the cross, policemen arrive with two prison vans and a policeman shoots the man who has nailed Jesus to the cross."
I did, however, also paint houses and flowery meadows with enormous sunflowers in them, a freight barge going under a bridge over the Neckar, my route to school on my very first day at school, in the background there is an ambulance with its emergency lights flashing, siren on and the traffic light is red.
On Mothers' Day I gave my mother a self portrait of me offering my congratulations. There I stand, back straight, hair neatly parted in my grey Sunday trousers and white Nyltest shirt, left hand on the seam of my trousers, right hand holding out a bunch of tulips.
I drew myself with a scar across my forehead and wearing my glasses, as I did in all my self portraits. A slanting red slash which I had had since running into a car aged two on the very quiet road in front of our house.
My mother often took us children to the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart and some of the pictures there became, after a while, like good friends that one visited from time to time and which I tried to paint from memory once I was back home.
A whole series of drawings were dedicated to Henry Moore's sculpture "Draped Reclining Woman" and a man who let his a poodle on a lead climb onto the reclining bronze with its broad body and tiny head.
A special talent is, however, difficult to discern from these pictures. I did, at least, paint rather more than other children as we – in a house without television – often painted when it rained and we were bored. Which I still feel is as good a reason for painting as any.
In our living room, besides the literature and the reference books there were a couple of shelves of coffee table books about Dürer, Rembrandt or Goya, Pablo Picasso's bull fighting pictures and the drawings of Wilhelm Busch and Heinrich Zille as well as a couple of books of photographs.
The three oil paintings that hung on the wall over the sofa, sunlit cityscapes of Istanbul, had been brought back from Turkey by my parents who had met each other there and lived in a house on the Bosphorus for some time in the '30s and '40s.
And that is about all I can say about my father in relation to pictures. I believe he knew a bit about the history of art and was known to have a talent for drawing. Once or twice he showed me a couple of drawing tricks that he knew. But he was pretty much always at the office and even at home he worked and smoked and lived in his own world well away from the daily routine of his children.
A newcomer to our primary school class was Michael. Michael drew the whole time, in every free moment and even in class, in his big blue exercise book. He slowly but steadily filled each page with hundreds of tiny people, with dozens of minutely detailed ships or with a sky full of aeroplanes. He drew for many days on each double page. Once you had watched him at his drawing you really knew that paper was a precious material that must never, ever, be wasted.
His mother was a sculptress, his father a painter and a drawing master. At the von Boltensterns, where I would have expected a living room to be they had a studio divided into two sections in which a dining table and a tea table still stood.
It was the first studio I had seen. A huge light space with a strange atmosphere of highly charged stillness. Small tableaus of groups of bronze people stood on the shelves. Amazingly delicately painted watercolours, done in only two different formats, hung in a long row on the walls: distant, gently coloured, slightly dreamlike landscapes, city streets or coastal scenes, mostly sunny and peopled with countless tiny people and animals.
Two large containers stood on the father's painting table filled with hundreds, literally hundreds, of new and used fine and ultra fine watercolour brushes.
I don't really know if it is because of those containers but in any case even today the glass brush holders which I have standing in my studio have to be perpetually full of too many paintbrushes. It would take me years and years to use them all. But I find having the supply there, ready to hand, soothing.
Well anyway, there I sat in those days, next to Michael on the school bench and had my own big blue exercise book whose pages I filled with small figures, ships and aeroplanes in every free moment. I could certainly see only too clearly the difference his precise, easy skill and my own, so it seemed to me, contrastingly laboured efforts. But he accepted me as a sort of travelling companion and sometimes even praised me.
The first woman that I simply had to paint just as she was because I found her so unbelievably beautiful, gazing longingly at Omar Sharif before a glowing red sunset, was Julie Christie. The film, Doctor Zhivago (cert.12) was showing at the Atrium Cinema for many months. But I was only nine, so the photo and the cover sleeve of the record of the film music was all I could look at while my older brothers and sisters enthused about the film which they went to see again and again.
My sister Imke guarded the single, which was the apple of her eye, so closely that I decided to draw the picture of Lara, so blond and so brave with those wonderful wide red lips, for myself in a quiet moment when no one else was at home. I felt really rather embarrassed about it.
On a rainy afternoon I sat for ages alone with my pencils at the living room table under the standard lamp and listened to the Zhivago theme tune again and again on our old record player. I tried, threw away my attempt and started again and in the end resorted to tracing it against the windowpane onto thin paper, but even then Lara was not nearly as beautiful as she really looked. When the others came home in the evening all my efforts were in the bin and I never said a word to anyone about it.
It was, again and again, my elder brothers, one fifteen, the other ten years older than me who inspired and motivated me. Even though they were very different I could see from both of them that one could be serious and experimental about painting pictures. That one could play about with colours and materials. That one could practice techniques and observation. And that one should not be pleased with the results too soon.
I learned that there were different papers for different colours, hard and soft leaded pencila and that coloured pencils varied in quality.
Mr S. smelled of liquor and had become bitter and spiteful over the years. As our drawing teacher at the grammar school he tormented us with stupid drawing exercises, with his cynicism and endless punishment tasks. It made no difference how much or how little trouble I took, all my work was marked 4 or, on better days, 3. Like so many people, in school I nearly learned that I could not draw.
At school I became friends with another Michael. His parents lived not far from us and in their generous Bauhaus-style house there were artworks of the sort which I had only ever encountered in a museum. Vases by Picasso, sculpture by Lembruck or Barlach, and all the great names of the Expressionist period hung on the walls, most of them represented by several paintings. The house was like a museum and yet at the same time it was a completely normal house in which my school friend lived with his parents, where we did our homework together, listened to music and smoked our first cigarette. And when I fetched him to play football I ran up the stairs to his room past pictures by Feininger, Macke, Kirchner, Nolde and Schmidt-Rottluff which his father, an aristocratic old gentleman, had collected for decades.
His father was called Max, as was, later on, the painter in my book "The Collector of Moments."
I first earned money from my art work when I was fifteen. I painted a series of the famous Che Guevara picture in poster paints on A4 cardboard filched from the back of the writing paper blocks in my mother's desk and offered them for sale at school for 2 marks. I let good friends have them half price.
Aged sixteen I bought drawing charcoal, oil paints and painting boards, without really knowing how to use them. First I copied some postcards I had of pictures from Picasso's blue period as best I could.
Then I started working for longer on a single idea and often tried out several variations on a single theme. I took time to paint and tried to compose proper pictures. I painted surreal dream scenes, but also - from newspaper photos – hungry children in Bangladesh or scenes from the Vietnam War. And self portraits, again and again.
I discovered that I could express things in my pictures that I did not have the confidence to say out loud or which I had no idea how to express in words. I discovered that painting could agitate me, but also really calm me down. Without me actually knowing or expressing it, the pictures and above all the act of painting itself created a place where I could be and feel that I belonged.
My oldest brother Rolf, who visited us sometimes at the weekend, usually came to my room first to ask if I had produced anything new. He looked at everything carefully, encouraged me in some areas and otherwise didn't say much. But I could mostly tell when he liked something and when he didn't. Above all, however, I realised that he took what I was doing seriously.
Rolf, who could also have been a painter but who had instead studied medicine, later calmed my mother's fears and persuaded her not to pressurize me into pursuing a more stable profession. Right from early on he also bought my pictures And when he thought the moment had come it was he who established contacts at galleries and helped to arrange my first exhibitions. And he still does both to this day.
Here's another snapshot from my childhood. In May 1965 the Queen made a state visit to Germany and her large convoy drove down the Pischeckstrasse not far from our house. Elisabeth II, dressed in an unbelievably yellow outfit topped with a hat in just the same shade of yellow, stood in an open Merdedes 600 Pullman beside a Schwäbishly grinning Kurt Georg Kiesinger, at that time still the prime minister of Baden-Württemberg, and allowed herself to be driven past waving graciously at us, as we also waved.
Really pretty impressed, I captured this event with an accurate drawing which I gave to my big sister Birte.
And this drawing demonstrates a skill which I may have developed rather early on. The car is drawn slantwise from above and with almost perfect perspective – unusual for a sixteen year old.
This accurately rendered perspective could have something to do with a defect in my sight which was diagnosed by an ophthalmologist a short while later: I have no depth of vision. I only interpret the visual information seen through one eye, to the exclusion of the other. If I try to see with both eyes at the same time I see two overlapping and slowly converging pictures but not a complete picture.
If you have difficulty imagining the difference, then simply shut one eye and then try to pour water into a glass without touching the glass with the bottle and without spilling anything. It does work, but it is much harder to do.
However when drawing this defect can be a plus. I do not have to translate a three dimensional impression of reality into a two dimensional image. Reality and picture are much closer for me than for people with normal sight and have what is at least a very similar spatial effect. So as a child I did not need to grasp the laws of perspective drawing, they were already a part of my visual experience.
In recent years I have discovered that several of my colleagues, Reinhard Michl and Peter Schössow, for example, have a similar visual defect with similar results. And there is now a scientific study: the American doctor Margaret Livingstone has analysed the self portraits and photo portraits of countless famous past painters and has come to the conclusion that Rembrandt, Picasso, Frank Stella and others all had only one eye that worked properly and as a result lacked depth of vision. Her article in the New English Journal of Medicine sets out the probable conclusion that mankind owes many of its most famous paintings not only to divine inspiration but also to a human sight defect which might, in childhood, have already determined the course of the lives of some artists.
Quint Buchholz (2007/2009)