How It All Started
Across the whole piece of graph paper, two decisively drawn diagonal pencil lines connect the picture’s opposing corners. A large “X“, in the center of which a vibrant, two-piece scrawl of dashes distantly reminds one of a mustache. And on the bottom right corner of the paper, my mother’s note: Quint April 61 “Lord Jesus on the Cross.“
It was the first of my pictures that she kept.
In a color drawing from barely a year later one can recognize — again thanks to the caption— that the small stick figure next to a red something in a square must be Mary and the much larger figure in a sweater with colorful vertical stripes must be her son Jesus, who “is big already but they’ve left the manger sitting in the stable for now, in case Mary gives birth to another child.“
Dated “May 1963“ is a small pencil drawing with a crucified man, two buses and a number of small figures, almost all of them sporting visored caps and pistols: “Jesus has been nailed to the cross, the policemen are arriving with two ‘Black Marias’ and one policeman is shooting the man who nailed Jesus to the cross.”
But I also drew houses and flower meadows with gigantic sunflowers; a freight-laden barge crossing underneath a Neckar bridge; my way to school on the first day of first grade, an ambulance with flashing lights and a siren stopped at a red traffic light in the background.
For Mother’s Day, I gave my mother a self portrait of the congratulator: bolt upright and with a neatly drawn part, wearing gray Sunday suit pants and a white Nyltest nylon shirt, my left hand on the pants seam and a bouquet of tulips in the outstretched right.
As in all self-portraits, I drew myself with glasses and a scar on my forehead. A slanted red line which had been there since I had run into a car on the low-traffic street in front of our house at the age of two.
My mother often took us kids to the State Gallery in Stuttgart, and over time some of the paintings there became a bit like old acquaintances that I visited every once in a while and then, back at home, tried to copy from memory afterwards.
A whole series of drawings was dedicated to Henry Moore’s sculpture “Draped Reclining Woman” — simply called “Resting Woman” in the vernacular — and an unknown man who let his leashed poodle climb around on the bronze statue with the broad body and the minuscule head.
Special talent is hardly discernible in these pictures yet. If anything, I spent a little more time drawing than other children because — in a house without a television — we often drew when it rained and we were bored, which I still do not think is bad motivation.
In the living room, next to literary texts and encyclopedias, there were also two shelves filled with coffee-table books about Dürer, Rembrandt or Goya, including Pablo Picasso’s bullfight pictures and drawings by Wilhelm Busch and Heinrich Zille next to a few photograph collections.
My parents had brought the three oil paintings on the wall above the sofa from Turkey, sun-flooded city views of Istanbul, where they had met and lived for a while in a house on the Bosporus in the thirties and forties.
Apart from that, I cannot say much about my father in relation to pictures. I think he knew a few things about art history and also had a certain talent for drawing. Sometimes he sketched floor plans for magnificent, castle-like houses that he of course never built, and once or twice he showed me a few harmless drawing feats that he remembered.
But ultimately he was almost always at the office, and he also worked a lot at home, smoking one cigarette after the other from morning to evening and mostly living in his own world far removed from the everyday life of us children.
Michael was a new arrival in our class in elementary school. Michael was always drawing, during every free minute, also in class, and always into a large blue exercise book. He filled the pages slowly but steadily with hundreds of minuscule people, with dozens of meticulously elaborated ships or with a sky full of airplanes. He spent many days on one single spread. The fact that paper was a precious good not to be wasted became obvious when you watched him draw.
His mother was a sculptor, his father a painter and drawing teacher. In the area where, as I knew it, there should have been the living and dining rooms, there was a two-part artists’ studio at the Boltensterns’, which happened to also house a dining and a tea table.
This was the first studio I had ever set foot in. A large, luminous room with a bay window, filled with strangely charged silence. Small bronze tableaus showing groups of humans sat on shelves, and the walls were lined with incredibly minutely painted aquarelles of only two different formats: Vast, colorful and slightly other-worldly landscapes, city views or scenes at the sea, usually sun-flooded and populated by innumerable tiny humans and animals. On the father’s painting table sat hundreds, literally hundreds of new and used, thin and thinner aquarelle brushes in two large cups.
I do not know if that really has anything to do with it but nevertheless, to this day the brush cups that I have in my studio always have to be filled with far too many brushes. I would need years to use them up, maybe there are enough at this point to last me until my hand cannot hold a brush anymore. But these reserves comfort me.
In any case, back then I soon took the seat next to Michael’s at the school desk and also had one of those large blue exercise books whose pages I filled, during every free minute, with little figures, ships or airplanes. To be sure, I very well saw the difference between his skillful, precise ease and my, as it seemed to me, comparatively cumbersome efforts. Nevertheless, he accepted me as a kind of travel companion and sometimes he even gave me praise.
The first woman I found so incredibly beautiful that I wanted to draw her exact way of making mooneyes at Omar Sharif in front of a glowing red sky was Julie Christie. The film “Dr. Zhivago” was age-restricted to twelve and ran at the Atrium Movie Theater for many months. But I was only nine, so the photo on the LP cover of the soundtrack was all I could look at while my older siblings were raving about the movie in front of me. They all went to see it multiple times.
My sister Imke guarded the single like the apple of her eye, so I decided to copy the image of Lara, who was so blond, who stared off so wistfully and had such full, wonderfully painted lips, for myself in a quiet moment when nobody else was home. It was all a bit embarrassing to me, too.
During one long, rainy afternoon, I was sitting by myself with a pencil and colored crayons at the living room table under the floor lamp and listened, again and again, to the “Zhivago melody” on our old LP player. I tried and discarded and began anew but it would not work out. In the end, I even traced her through thin paper by the window, a rather demeaning method for an ambitious artist-in-the-making at the time, but not even then Lara turned out even remotely as beautiful as I saw her to be.
When the others came home in the evening, all my attempts were in the trash can and I have never told anyone even a word about all this.
Again and again, it was my big brothers, one fifteen, the other ten years older than me, who impressed and inspired me. As different as they were, both made me realize that it is possible to copiously and seriously occupy yourself with drawing pictures; that you can play with colors and materials; that you can practice techniques and train your vision; and that you need not content yourself too quickly with a result. I learned that there were different kinds of paper for various paints, hard and soft pencils as well as good and not so good crayons. And that felt pens, which back then were the latest fashion, are really the worst thing to use for drawing and painting.
During the first high school years Mr. S., a drawing teacher who smelled of liquor and had turned bitter and mean over the years, tortured us with stupid drawing tasks, with his cynicism and endless extra work. No matter how much or little effort I made, he gave all my work a D, or a C on friendly days.
Today, at my vernissages, how often do I hear the sentence, “You know, I can’t draw at all.” And when I inquire how the person knows that so well, the answer is almost always the same: “Well, it was already like that in school.” It was a real possibility that I could have learned that in school as well.
In high school, I became friends with another Michael. His parents did not live far away from us, and in their generous Bauhaus-style home, there were the kinds of artifacts that I had only known from the museum up until that point. Vases by Picasso, sculptures by Lembruck or Barlach, and along the walls, all the great names of expressionism. Many of them were represented by multiple paintings. Whatever was visible on the walls, however, was only a small part of the collection which, as I only learned much later, encompassed 180 works by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner alone.
The house was like a museum, and yet at the same time, it was also a totally normal family home in which my friend from school lived with his parents, where we did our homework together, listened to music and smoked our first cigarettes. And when I picked him up for soccer games, I flew up the stairs to his room, past originals by Feininger, Macke, Nilde, Schlemmer and Schmidt-Rottluff, which his father, a noble old gentleman, had collected over the course of decades.
His father, whose name was Max, like the painter’s in my book “The Collector of Moments” much later.
At fifteen, I earned my first money with artwork. I painted the famous Che Guevara portrait as a series, using Plaka casein paint and A 4 cardboard covers that I had removed from the backs of writing pads in my mother’s desk, offered the paintings for two marks at school and let my good friends negotiate my price down to one mark.
And another fellow student left his impression, even though he had nothing to do with painting. Uwe came to our class from Essen, well-bred, well-versed in the Bible and sharp as a tack, but also a little plain. He played chess, knew history, collected stamps and Bible editions, had only good grades in all subjects but sports and was, as it seemed, a mere joy to his parents and teachers.
But then, from one day to the next, he suddenly gave away all his chess books and Bibles, grew his hair, wore jeans and parkas and smoked like all the rest of us.
However, Uwe was now also reading Beckett and Brecht and Jandl, and with great seriousness. He started writing poems and plays himself, successfully participated in a writing competition at age sixteen and took a liking to overwhelming his German teachers with ingenious and formally unconventional essays, for which he knowingly and uncompromisingly hazarded the consequence of, to him, unfamiliar bad grades. He also went to see plays all the time and naturally took us with him, as if alternatives did not even exist at all. And a little later, he staged his own plays, for which he rented out a real theater and committed, with great casualness, half of our class to the roles of actors, set designers and technicians.
It was two positions that Uwe encouraged us to take. The one message was: have courage to do what you are interested in, what you believe in. Try yourself out and do not pay attention to what others think about it. The other one was — and there we listened to him much more closely than we did to some adults: books are important, theater is important, auteur movies are important. Bob Dylans lyrics are important but so are the words of the Greek philosophers.
I still remember how, after a long nightly talk with Uwe, I thought very clearly — or actually knew exactly: if you are serious and want painting to turn into something real, you have to immediately and really start now. We were just sixteen then, traveling with an Interrail ticket and spending the night at a 24-hour café in London because we had failed to reserve a spot at the youth hostel in time.
So I bought charcoal, oil paints and cardboard for painting — without knowing how you paint with those things.
First I copied, as well as I could, a few pictures from Picasso’s Blue Period, which I owned as postcards. Also, I drew everything I saw: the window of my room, an empty glue tube, a brass candleholder, my sister Imke typing on her typewriter, my friends when they came for a visit, and myself or maybe just a close-up of my nose. One drawing from back then is titled “Uwe’s Shoe”.
More and more frequently, I began to come up with my own pictures, to work longer on single ideas and often to try out several variations of one topic in the process. I took much more time for painting and tried to find real “images”. I painted surreal dream sceneries that had a remote connection with my own experiences but also — following newspaper images — starving children in Bangladesh or scenes from the Vietnam War.
I discovered that I could express things in my paintings which I did not dare say out loud or for which I had no words at all. That painting could upset me but also calm me down completely. Without being able to name it, the paintings, and especially the state of painting itself became a place in which I could be and feel secure. In which I was close to myself and able to explore at least a few of this confusing world’s questions in a little more detail.
Now my oldest brother, Rolf, who came to see us on some weekends, usually first came into my room and asked what new things I had painted. He closely looked at everything, encouraged me on some occasions and did not say much otherwise. And yet I noticed when something pleased him and when it did not. But what I felt most strongly was the fact that he took seriously what I was doing. And that apparently he thought I should continue.
He who could also have been a painter but then studied medicine, later calmed my mother and stopped her from urging me to make a more solid choice of profession after high school.
From very early on, he bought some of my pictures. And when he thought it should be possible, he contacted galleries and arranged my first exhibitions. Every once in a while, he still does both of those things, even today.
One more childhood image: In May of 1965, the Queen made a state visit to Germany and on that occasion, her large convoy went down Pischek Street not far away from our house. Elizabeth II., dressed in a stunning yellow skirt suit and wearing a hat of the same yellow on her head, was standing in an open Mercedes 600 Pullmann, next to Baden-Wurttemberg’s Minister-President of the time, Kurt Georg Kiesinger, who was smiling in a very Swabian way. Graciously waving her hand, she was driven past us as we were waving back.
I am not sure if it was really the Queen, or rather that breathtakingly gorgeous Mercedes — in any case I, apparently quite impressed, captured this event in a detailed drawing that I sent to my older sister Birte.
And this drawing tells of a skill which I do indeed seem to have had from a very early age. The car is drawn at an angle from above and it is almost flawless in terms of perspective — unusual for a seven-year-old. This correct execution of perspective was probably connected with a sight defect that an eye specialist discovered in me quite some time later: I do not have stereoscopic vision. I never discern but the perceived image of one eye, the other’s gets dismissed. When I try to see with both eyes simultaneously, two superimposed images emerge that slowly shift against each other, but not one unified image.
If you cannot quite imagine what is different there, simply try closing one eye and then pouring water in a glass without touching its rim with the bottle and without spilling. It is possible, of course, but it is much harder.
For drawing, this defect can actually be advantageous: I do not have to mentally rework the three-dimensional perception of reality into a two-dimensional image. Reality and image are much closer together for me than they are for normal-sighted people, and they have at least a very similar spatial effect. So, as a child, I did not need to study the laws of perspective drawing, they were already part of my visual experience.
Several years ago, I learned that a number of my colleagues, e.g. Reinhard Michl and Peter Schössow, also have a similar sight defect, with similar consequences.
And by now, there is even some scientific research about this topic: American medical specialist Margaret Livingstone has examined self-portraits and photographic portraits of a large number of great painters in art history and has been led to assume that Rembrandt as well as Picasso, Frank Stella and others only had one really well-functioning eye and therefore were not able to see three-dimensionally.
Her article on this, published in the New English Journal of Medicine, suggests the conclusion that humanity owes many of its most famous paintings not only to a divine spark, but also to a human sight defect that might, in more than one artist’s biography, have set the course early on in childhood.
Quint Buchholz (2007/2018)
(translated by Ulrike Seifert)