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Published 06/09/2016 email E-MAIL print PRINT

Regine Bartsch: ‘I’m drawn to these places where many people have lived before’

In her studio in southern Ireland, the German-born artist spoke about her recent exhibition and residency at David Parr House in Cambridge, Buddhism and the childhood experiences in Finland and Syria that continue to influence her practice



by MK PALOMAR

MK Palomar: What brought you to Ireland?

Regine Bartsch: I first came to Ireland in 1978. My textile professor at art school Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Hamburg was approached by a German businessman who wanted to make tapestries of the Book of Kells. I was hired to set up the Ballinskelligs Workshop [a tapestry studio] in County Kerry. I made the designs, trained women to weave and to dye the wool, and oversaw the making of the tapestries. Once the tapestries were completed, the studio closed, but just before that I was approached by Irish artist Pauline Bewick. She had read an article about the studio and my work there in the American magazine Fiber Art Now, and wanted her work translated into tapestry. These jobs were my livelihood and they gave me time to do my own work. I had a small child and was pregnant with the next. In 1981, before the birth of my second child, I moved 10 miles away from Ballinskelligs to Cahersiveen, where I still live now.

MKP: Can you tell us about the house where you are working, and your creative practice?

RB: I work in a house built in 1860 by my partner’s family in the market town of Cahersiveen. Upstairs, under the roof, there’s a huge modern open studio where I work. Downstairs is the shop, which I open up in the summer, and visiting artists come to do performances and installations.

The second floor has been the model for many years for a lot of my interior paintings. It’s an apartment furnished by my partner’s great-grandmother –untouched since she died in 1910. The furniture is from the 1800s. I like the traces that people leave behind in rooms: that’s what I like most about them – the marks people leave. I would happily paint in new houses where people have left a new mark of some kind, but I happen to know more people with old houses. There are generations of marks that have been left here. It’s a nice idea that all these lives – all these flashes of lives of all these people who have come through here. In their lifetimes, those pieces of furniture were important to them. Then they died and the next people worked here and sat at the same table, and sat on the same chair. It’s interesting – the chairs are all there, but the people are all dead and dusted. It’s an amazing thought. You think of the graveyards here and it occurs to me that the bones of all those people who sat on these chairs and sat at these tables are there somewhere under the earth. It’s interesting – it puts your own life into perspective as well. You’re only passing through, as they say.

I live in a very isolated, exceptionally beautiful landscape. It’s very wild and it’s a very wonderful thing to sit here in the wild and make meditations on landscapes. I don’t see it as doing landscapes to please people – but it is literally a form of meditation, and exciting – yet the subject itself is something you can sell to feed your children. I tend to do meditations on my environments: some galleries want interiors because I live in strange houses, and others might want landscapes.

MKP: Going back to the tapestry work. Did you primarily study tapestry at college?

RB: No, the first art school I went to was in Finland, and that was a general fine art course, with lots of life drawing and so on. My father was my first teacher. He was a very good artist himself: he had won a scholarship to study art at the university, and it would have been free for the whole of his further education in Silesia [then Germany, now Poland], but when the war started that came to nothing.

MKP: How did you come to be in Finland?

RB: Around 1955, my father joined the Goeth-Institut. Germany had a long history of wonderful culture, but that was flushed down the toilet after the second world war. The Goethe-Institut was founded in 1951 to promote German language and culture abroad after the war.1 Every year, there’s a list of people who want to leave and move somewhere else and you choose where you want to go – it’s a bit like musical chairs. So, first, we went to a small town in middle Finland (when I was about five). The winters were dark and I would ski to school through the forest. I could see the lights of the school when I went down the hill and it was beautiful. What a strange thing to do on your own when you’re very little, skiing through the forest in the dark (she laughs).

MKP: What age were you when you left Finland?

RB: I was 10 and we went to Damascus in Syria. I suppose it was a bit like heaven – the weather was wonderful, the sun was always shining. But there was political unrest. There was an embassy across the way from our house and partisans stationed themselves on the balconies above and below our house and shot at the embassy – and the embassy shot back. Our apartment was shot to pieces. We hid in a broom cupboard (me, my two brothers, my mother and father, although broom cupboards in Syrian houses were quite big, with a drain in the corner and room for the buckets to wash the marble floors. There were always soldiers on the streets, and tanks driving up and down, and guys everywhere with machine guns. And curfews – you didn’t have to go to school when there was a curfew.

MKP: Did you feel safe?

RB: Yes, totally. I was never afraid. My parents provided a happy and very stable home. They were refugees from Pomerania and Silesia, who fled when the Russians advanced from the east. (Between three and five million civilians were killed in that area at the end of, and after, the second world war). My grandfather and other members of the family died in concentration camps, but my parents both got to Hamburg. We were a big family – uncles, aunts and grandparents all together in a small house. I only have the best of memories, although there was no heating and no food. My grandfather and my father, who were both tall men, each weighed 46 kilos at that time.

MKP: How did you get food?

RB: There were care parcels from America – you had to queue.

MKP: Do you remember queuing for food?

RB: No, you see my parent’s policy was not to involve us in anything upsetting or negative because their lives had been so upset and traumatic that none of that was ever brought to us. They were total idealists: the whole world, when I grew up, consisted only of art, theatre, music, poetry and literature. But I think my father joined the Goethe-Institut because he did not feel at home in West Germany, and nor did my mother. It wasn’t their home, and the West Germans had had their own homes bombed out so they weren’t happy to have one million refugees stomp into their homeland.

My parents’ big passion was archaeology and, all the years I lived in the Middle East, we did endless traipses to archeological sites, one amphitheatre after another. My dad would pick a series of places – like crusader castles in southern Turkey – and our family would go to a hotel in the area and visit the sites. Then, in the evening, in the hotel room, he’d read to us about each of the places we saw. As a young one, once you’d visited a place, you’d want to know what happened there. We had a fantastic education in history and culture, and I became very interested in Middle Eastern patterning and mosaics – repetitions. My father said to me when I was very little: “Don’t ever be dependent on a man; you must always earn your own money.” That’s why I studied textile design. Textiles sounded as if one could make a living and it wasn’t wrong for me because of my interest in Middle Eastern and Finnish design, but, when I did my MA, I asked a fine art professor if he’d be my mentor. He saw my folder and took me on. I think he was interested in my different cultural experiences and influences.

MKP: Recently, you have undertaken a number of residencies, and the works that you have made have become installations and exhibitions. Can you tell us about the work you made at the Aldeburgh Beach South Lookout Project in Suffolk?

RB: The works I made there were installations based on the subject that I always work with – the cycle of life and death, and how the human mind works within that, how we utilise our lifespan in this world, how we perceive, and how we form our world through the patterns of our perception and our resulting actions. In Buddhism, it says that with our thoughts, we make this world. Wars are based on thought: “I don’t like him”, “I want to possess what he possesses”, or “I don’t like his religion” are all thoughts. Our environment is created with our thoughts, too. Except for natural occurrences, such as earthquakes, we at the top of the food chain create everything about this world with our thoughts. Caroline Wiseman [director of the Aldeburgh Beach South Lookout Project] asks for artists to do something very unusual, and that is terribly exciting for an artist. So the work was very much to do with how we utilise the different faculties of perception – hearing, feeling, seeing, tasting. I made experiments to see if such things can be put into a visual context.

My approach was: “I wonder if this will make a rustling sound?”, “I wonder if one could create a three-dimensional experience?” It was just this curiosity. Can it be done? Can I do it? Actually, thinking didn’t come into it that much, I just sort of immersed myself and experimented. The title of the show was Three Gates to More and Less, based on the fact that, by stepping out of the constant flow of thinking, hearing, feeling, seeing, doing, etc, out of the noisiness of our conceptual mind, we can find a gap in which we come to experience our true self. In Buddhism, there’s meditation where you just listen to sounds hitting your eardrum – nothing else. You don’t analyse them, you don’t wait for them, you just experience sound hitting your ear. And by doing that, it gives your mind an opportunity to open up to its true nature. In a way, you’ve limited your mind’s activity to a simple task – because, and this is a basic Buddhist thought – our mind is like the sun, and our thoughts and emotions are the rays of the sun, but we go about life thinking that the rays are the sun. We think that our thoughts and our emotions are our minds – but they are not, they are just the expression of our mind. So, how to get a taste of what our mind actually is, who we really are? There are different ways of working with it in Buddhism, which is to limit our senses. So these installations were about that.

 MKP: There’s a name that comes up in your biography a number of times – the poet and artist Daphne Warburg Astor, whose family has a long history of philanthropy and education.2 What is your relationship with her?

RB: She’s my friend and she’s also a mentor. She has opened so many doors for me, educating me to see art in a different way and introducing me to the work of artists I’ve never heard of before. As a working artist, it’s only natural that I have found particular subjects (such as landscape and interiors) engaging, and have developed my skills towards investigating these. Perhaps some people might interpret this focus as a limitation. So, residencies are an opportunity to explore different ways of working, to use different materials, to experiment with new mediums and dimensions. To be invited to a residency with a resulting exhibition is exhilarating: anything is possible, it is boundless.

And I am grateful to Daphne Warburg Astor for supporting and encouraging me to undertake residencies and shows in the UK: in London (The Centre for Recent Drawing), Suffolk (The Aldeburgh Beach South Lookout Project), and Cambridge (David Parr House).

MKP: Can you tell us about your residency and exhibition at David Parr House, and who David Parr was?

RB: Parr called himself an artist-painter and he was employed with the Frederick Leach Company [Leach was a 19th-century master decorator based in Cambridge]. Parr painted big churches and houses around Cambridge and London, to the design of William Morris and his contemporaries. Tamsin Wimhurst (the chair of the trustees of David Parr House) was made aware of David Parr House when Parr’s granddaughter was living in it. It hadn’t been touched (very much like this house that I’m working in here in Ireland). Tamsin Wimhurst had spoken to Daphne Warburg Astor about possible programmes for the David Parr House, and Warburg Astor had recommended that there needed to be projects beyond the usual tours and so on – they needed creative interactions, interventions that brought the place alive. I was invited by Wimhurst to be the first artist in residence there.

I was there for two weeks in June 2015. I did a lot of sketches. I worked sometimes from early in the morning until late at night, filling sketchbooks with drawings of the interior of the house. And then I spent a year (here in Ireland) making paintings from those sketches.

MKP: Did being in David Parr House remind you of your place in Ireland?

RB: Initially – obviously, there’s a parallel to it – and maybe that’s why Warburg Astor recommended me. But then I started to contemplate the succession of artists – particularly artists with a spiritual background – and how we all are linked together. I started feeling the kinship to a succession of artists throughout centuries working with a spiritual intent or motivation.

MKP: Why?

RB: Because David Parr was working for Frederick Leach and they were working a lot with designs by William Morris and some of his contemporaries. Frederick Leach’s Company was commissioned to paint the interiors of a lot of the churches in Cambridge, some in London, and also some big houses, too. I spoke to Dr Ayla Lepine [a specialist in gothic revival and Cambridge architectural history and a trustee of David Parr House]. We were talking about spiritual backgrounds and she told me that William Morris’s designs are influenced by 15th-century textile and ecclesiastical designs. This resonates with me seeing myself as part of a chain of artists who work in this manner – that is, having a spiritual intent. It also links back to my own textile background and my childhood experiences of visiting those places of worship with my family in the Middle East.

I discovered so many links when I was working for this show – the textile link, the spiritual link, the literature link. David Parr House has quotes scrolled on the wall, some from Shakespeare. In my childhood, I was surrounded by literature – you could say the Goethe is the German equivalent of Shakespeare. I wrote all the quotes on to pieces of paper and put them up in my workplace and contemplated them and thought how lovely all this is. The way I endeavour to live my life, and David Parr did, too, and probably William Morris did – and the people from the 15th century whose work influenced Morris, they did too. And it’s a way of looking at life and actually trying to live like that – to translate it into our work – to translate it into how we conduct ourselves – what moves in us.

MKP: What are you working on now?

RB: I’ve just finished some large geometric drawings – again to do with cycles of life (all my work is about the cycle of life, really). I had an exhibition of interior paintings at the Taylor Galleries in Dublin, and I’m taking part in a show titled The Unsung Muse. It’s an exhibition of work by [BP Portrait Award-winner 2016] Clara Drummond and Kirsty Buchanan, and other artists, including myself, have been invited to respond to the question: “What is your muse?” It will be shown at the Peter Pears Gallery as part of the Poetry in Aldeburgh 2016 festival in November this year.

References
1. Named after the 18th-century German writer and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the Goethe-Institut was founded in 1951 as successor to the German Academy (Deutsche Akademie). Initially, it provided further training for foreign German teachers in Germany, later providing cultural events to accompany the courses. Since then, the programme has expanded in many ways.

2. Warburg-Astor’s father, Edward Warburg, taught art at Bryn Mawr College, the first college in the US to offer women graduate education through a PhD. He was also a director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York and a significant contributor at MoMA: he was a trustee and donated much of his extensive art collection to the museum. Warburg-Astor’s great-uncle, Aby Warburg, founded the Warburg Institute in Hamburg at the end of the 19th century. The institute, which was exiled from Germany in 1933, and is now based at the University of London, “is noted for its interdisciplinary research across the histories of art, science and religion to anthropology and psychology”.

 



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