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Arno Breker, the Immortal One

By Dominique Egret

 Wigbert Grabert published an excellent art-book




Berlin/Paris/New York (bpb) The French art historian Dominique Egret has written the essay for the book "Arno Breker--a Life for the Beautiful"--Arno Breker--Ein Leben für das Schöne. The French book designer Claude Michel worked together with the famous European Publisher GRABERT in Germany. Wigbert Grabert has published this extraordinary book. It is illustrated with over 600 reproductions of Breker's work. In USA the book can be ordered for $60 (postage included) from: zavrel@meaus.com and in Europe from: info@europaeische-kultur-stiftung.org


Dominique Egret, an expert on classical sculptures of the 20th century, writes in the book:

"Auguste Rodin--the most important sculptor in the classical tradition in the early 1900's--had some famous successors: Charles Despiau and Aristide Maillol. Whenever we mention these three names, however, a fourth must also be added, one which is representative of that Parisian school for which human vitality was the focal point of artistic creation : Arno Breker. With great personal joy, I recall my first meeting with Breker, which was in Paris in the 1920's. Breker, who was two years younger that I, stood out because of his all-encompassing vision, his tolerance and his open-mindedness. . . At the time, I was working, among other things, on small sculptures made out of metal wire, which were secured to rotating discs, and which I set to movement to the accompaniment of German and Austrian military marches. Breker found my work interesting, although he could not stand military music. . . Todays, decades later, I can assert one thing without reservation: Arno Breker is the most important living sculptor in the classical tradition of our time." (B. John Zavrel, 'Arno Breker. His Art and Life', West-Art 1985) This long and especially complimentary quote was taken from an article written in the early 1970's by Alexander Calder, without a doubt the most famous American sculptor in the world. An estimation that is worth all the more for the fact that these two artists worked in the same studio in Paris.

An affirmation that modernity and classicism, contemporary art and realistic portrayal by no means exclude one another. As this millennium comes to a close, if one reflects--as does, for instance, the French sociologist Jean Baudrillard--upon the future of contemporary art and the continued existence of some false values, many will realize that so-called modern art has in actuality come to a dead end. Jean Clair, who as director of the Centre Pompidou and later the Musée Picasso, certainly cannot be accused of a fundamental anti-modernism, writes typically enough that "the sixties and seventies were a period of freezing up. . . Leveling off. Monotony. A fall into uniformity. Creativity seemed likewise to be subject to the great swindle of egalitarian dictactes. Gloomy regression. A single glance was enough to comprehend a whole group of artworks. Only one art for all and by all. The great abolition of differences: a monotone recycling of the formulas, whose meaning had in the meantime been forgotten." (Jean Clair, Considération sur l'état des beaux-arts. Critique de la modernité, Gallimard, Paris 1983)

Bad luck for one, good luck for another. Today, a vast and educated public that is tired of fads and false values seeks to find new sources of strengh in genuine values, and wishes to discover once again how a certain modernity has brought them back to the idea or pure concept of the Beautiful. These efforts can be thoroughly rewarded by the magnificent German sculptor, Arno Breker, who had an extraordinary life ("German-French sculptor" would be more apropos, for this descendant of French Huguenots once confided to me that he was able to dream in French, so vivid did his memories of Montparnasse remain yet fifty years later.)

Breker's whole life was dedicated to just this, the Beautiful, considered by Nietzsche to be the highest virtue of all. In so doing, Breker followed the path indicated by the eternal masters of European art: the Greeks Phidias and Praxiteles, the Florentine Michelangelo, the Frenchmen Daumier, Carpeaux (who exercised a strong influence on him), and Rude. As did the scholars of the Renaissance, Breker alluded first and foremost to our Greek heritage, the melting pot in which European aesthetics were forged. Greece and its legends provided him with themes for his work again and again. The mythology from the land of Homer (also the country from which his first wife Demetra hailed) became an inexhaustible source of inspiration: 'Prometheus' (193--37), 'Dionysus' (1935--37), 'Psyche' (1941), the 'Torso of Apollo' (1944), and later 'Ikarus ' (1969), not to forget 'Alexander der Große' (Alexander the Great), one of his last works, whose stance inspires greatness.

Breker is not trying to create ancient art or produce something of the old world, but to preserve its essence in different forms for a tradition must be carried on if it is not to die out. A reaching back to our roots, not a return to them. From the Greeks of the classical age, Breker fully assimilated a grasp of the tragic and harmoniously integrated it with a moderate Germanic romanticism. If Rodin immortalized the 'Thinker', Breker, with 'Der Verwundete' (The Wounded) -- a work that embodies a Nietzschean element as well as one of human tragedy, through its theme of the fall -- perpetuates for all eternity the fate of the vanquished man.

Breker conceives of his art as being for the people and understandable to them. His work is meant to adorn streets and plazas, facades and fountains. In his opinion, art means life. Rather than morbidity, scorn or contempt of the human body, the sculptor must above all arouse in his viewers a feeling of peace, joy, or an urge to heroism. As his friend Ernst Jünger wrote: "Every sculpted form contains something that the form itself does not have." (Ernst Jünger, Das Abenteuerliche Herz. Aufzeichnungen bei Tag und Nacht, Frundsberg, Berlin 1929) It is just this "something" that Breker captures. This can be seen in reliefs like 'Apoll und Daphne' (Apollo and Daphne) or 'Du und Ich' (You and I), which radiate in the true sense of the word.

In the difficult and thankless exercise of a portrait bust, too, a genre that is little known by his critics and admirers, Breker's sensitivity, extraordinary skill, in short, his genius as an artist, shine through. Unlike many others, Breker is not content to merely reproduce the outer shell of reality, but also incorporates the spiritual dimension, the hidden form, of his model, something which only the great artists are able to do with clay. "Arno Breker", wrote Paul Morand, member of the French Academy, "is a sculptor whose studio is the world: From Europe to Africa, from Düsseldorf to the Amazon, the wonderful bronze figures and portrait busts to which his powerful chisel give life, make him the iconographer of his time."

With several hundred portrait busts (Breker himself was unable to give the actual number), Breker -- and this is one of the things given special emphasis in this book -- has created the largest gallery of busts in the second half of this century. And this with an astounding variety in the choice of models. Young friends like German painter Otto Dix (1920), one of the leading representatives of Expressionism, or the great German-Jewish painter Max Liebermann (1934), friends from the Parisian School (Vlaminck, Dunoyer de Segonzac), or the master Aristide Maillol. Later, the Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali (1974), the Austrian painter Ernst Fuchs, the American poet Ezra Pound (1964), the French actor Jean Marais, writers Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Ernst Jünger, the German art collector Ludwig, as well as the poet Jean Cocteau, his friend for forty years and an unfailing support to him. Yet to be mentioned is the portrait series of the Wagner dynasty, which anyone can admire today in Bayreuth. These penetrating portrait busts, which, due to their manly realism, always have an element of the Roman in them, all exhibit a penetrating psychology as well as an overwhelming skill.

This superiority, this ability to spiritualize his material, draws our notice to French sculpture and its influence on Breker, who wrote tellingly of Rude, known for his creation of the relief on the Arch of Triumph in Paris: "Of those who do sculptural decorations, there are few who approach the skill found in Rude's relief 'Die Marseillaise'." (Arno Breker, Im Strahlungsfeld der Ereignisse 1925-1926, Schütz, Preußisch Oldendorf 1972)

France, ancient Greece, and Italy during the Renaissance, these are the three pivots and points of attraction which, combined with a very personal style of sculpting, produced a work that can be summarized with the words harmony, beauty and spirituality.

Also making the artist stand out are his enormous intellectual curiosity, his extraordinary crudition, and his command of drawing, of the forms, and of his material. (It is often forgotten that he was also an architect, and after World War II, earned his living doing architectural commissions.) Moreover, he was a generous and especially fine human being. One need only have known those, or gathered the impressions of those who knew him or who turned to him for help in difficult times, in order to understand that Breker the man is second in nothing to Breker the artist. At the height of the war, Pablo Picasso, in danger at the time, is said to have spoken the following symbolic words: "Only Breker can save me."

Badly treated by history, when at the age of 45 he stood at the height of his creative power, it was only by dint of his astounding will power and faith that be was able to carry on without deviating from his moral and aesthetic principles, although a large part of the work which had until then escaped the air raids, was now thoroughly and systematically destroyed. Today the work of Arno Breker is experiencing a deserved renaissance, thanks to the strong suppore of his family and a number of special people like Joe F. Bodenstein, founder and tireless promoter of the Arno Breker Museum at the Castle Nörvenich not far from Cologne and Bonn.


Why this book?

This is the first comprehensive, international monograph to cover Arno Breker's entire development, from the early 1920's to his final works in the 1980's. And this over a course that is much more unexpected and diverse than most people today might imagine.

With three exceptions this volume of plates exclusively deals with Breker's sculptural art. Those who have cooperated in its production hope that soon there will be a further comprehensive monograph of Breker's graphic work.

This monograph was stimulated by the Breker Museum wishing to be able to offer a kind of catalogue to its visitors. Therefore all the works were reproduced chronically if possible. In the appendix the reader finds interesting informations concerning the technical details of the works and the bibliography.

This book closes for all time an unjustified gap, and will finally enable the enlightened art lover to independently evaluate and judge the entire oeuvre of one of the most significant sculptors of the twentieth century on the grounds of his work rather than on a biased and incomplete representation of it. Thanks are due to Wigbert Grabert and his assistant Claude Michel for the careful attention they have given to the creation of this beautiful volume of plates. We thank Mortimer G. Davidson who has agreed that we can use elements of his Breker biography and bibliography, published in the art encyclopedia 'Kunst in Deutschland', Volume 1.

That we can now feast our eyes on this aesthetic blaze, that our spirit can savor the special moment when we are carried away from the material world, we owe this to the gift which the artist has left behind for us.


Dominique Egret, Paris


In USA the book can be ordered for $60 (postage included) from: zavrel@meaus.com



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Copyright 2002 West-Art

PROMETHEUS, Internet Bulletin for Art, Politics and Science.

Nr. 85, Winter 2002