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I may have mentioned I was in Chicago this last weekend. The workshop was just what I needed, and here is how I know: three finished pieces in two days, and I started painting in my notebook. For some time I have known I need to integrate the various practices of my art, and to start painting in the scribbled notes I took during the slide show was definitely that breakthrough. At least one breakthrough. There are other arts, other notebooks of course, and other breakthroughs I could make, but I'll take this one.

The subject of the class was the work of Adolph Bernd, whose work is almost entirely unknown. Years ago the teacher Peter Thornton had seen a piece in a calendar, which had impressed him so much that on a visit to the Klingspor (museum of lettering arts in Germany) he mentioned the artist's name. The curator said "of course" but did not seem to think much of it. Peter began to take his German students to look at the museum's small collection, and eventually one of them was able to introduce him to Bernd's widow. The family has been eager and cooperative in arranging a show, Peter produced a small catalog, and is now looking forward to the possibility of another show, on this side of the water, and showing some different works.

There are hundreds of them, all fairly large watercolors mostly of single letters, of the most astonishingly refined composition. Bernd's exquisite use of color gives them very general appeal. Are pictures of letters "abstract"? that's what I've been asking for some years now. Bernd apparently spent decades of his retirement painting, for his own amusement, entirely unappreciated.

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Years ago I read an article in Calligraphy Review on Adolph Bernd, and the illustrations were so astonishing to me that I actually tried to copy them. My watercolor skills (and supplies) at that time were not nearly up to it (the image above I have mercifully reduced, which makes its faults less glaring). But last spring when I heard about this workshop offering, I started looking for that magazine. Last summer before the calligraphy conference I had emailed the bookshop supplier, John Neal, and he brought along a copy of that issue, from Winter 1989. The magazine has changed its name twice since then, and the artist has died. The article (presented in German and in English, which fortunately gave many pages that needed illustrations) is still pretty impenetrable German mysticism, but I have been studying up on symbolism and theory since then too. I am on the same page, you might say.

Here is one of my workshop pieces, actual size. Fifteen years later I still think this is rough work, but not what it was, maybe you get the idea. Practice, practice, practice. Sketch out composition, mix colors and lay down washes, what could be easier or more absorbing?

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( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 18th, 2006 11:29 pm (UTC)
Sep. 18th, 2006 11:55 pm (UTC)
I like it, but did you mean the layout and the word to be in ironic juxtaposition? For me, the lower right corner with its jagged edge and three open dots like a screaming face render it rather less than peaceful. Of course, maybe that's just me. It's beautiful nonetheless.
Sep. 19th, 2006 04:33 am (UTC)
ironic juxtaposition
No. Very interesting! I was thinking about it more globally, and also more specifically, but not that analytically. This was totally unplanned. Emotionally engaged, through the word, with the medium.

I wanted it to be round, and soft and blue and thus peaceful, but! the X was stepping out, into it, the world being what it is and all. The lettering is anxious, tight, traditional, except for that crippled X, reaching. The shapes in the middle of the P and A were complicated, so I made those oval blue seed things to show how they might be simpler, on a similar scale. There's a mountaintop. There is the triangle coming down (which has a symbolic relation to the star of David ya know). Then the round part needed a base to support it, to ground it. The triangles at the bottom right are spiky but they were sort of necessary... steps. If it turned out looking too Robocop, well that is peacekeepers eh. It is a bit of a surprise how much more it means than I thought at the time.

Peace is not an easy thing. There are pomes about that. When? Peace, wild wooddove, your shy wings shut, and under be my boughs (Gerard Manley Hopkins, he calls it "reaving" peace).
Sep. 19th, 2006 04:19 pm (UTC)
Re: ironic juxtaposition
I like the thought of the X "stepping out"--it really is! And the P and A are so cosy and tight with each other, almost like a yin-yang, enclosed in their own little circle and there's the bold X off on its own, going places. The more I look at it, the more there is to see. Brava!
(Deleted comment)
Sep. 29th, 2008 01:08 am (UTC)
Aolph Bernd/PeterThornton
Just today I completed a workshop with Peter on Bernd's decorated letters. Fascinating! For an artform that Bernd began on his retirement it is a shame it's not better known. Peter hopes to bring a show to the US one day. I would LOVE to see the originials!
Sep. 30th, 2008 10:04 pm (UTC)
Re: Adolph Bernd/PeterThornton
They were in Chicago this summer at the calligraphy conference at Naperville -- now that I think about it, those may have been prints, but full-size and very fine ones -- they were left mostly untended in a library exhibit for the week. Of course I have photos (as does anyone else with a camera who was there), as yet unfiled.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )