Sergio Birga






Photo: Annie Birga





LL: The Paris gallery of Colette Clavreul on the Place des Vosges will be exhibiting works by Parisian painter Sergio Birga from January to March 2014. A good opportunity for Levure to talk to the artist in depth about his diverse oeuvre and his long career as an artist.


LL: You have enjoyed a long and varied career as an artist. You always had your own personal way of doing things, far from the dictates of fashion. For example, in the 1960s in your birthplace Florence, you were interested in German expressionist painting.


SB: When I was 19 years of age, I was walking past a book store when the cover of a book in the window caught my eye. I still have it today, “Expressionism” by Waldemar George with the most beautiful version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream on the front. I had already started painting portraits and landscapes when I was 17. I discovered the painters from the artists’ group “Die Brücke” (The Bridge), who worked in total contradiction to the two main trends in Italy at that time, the pessimistic Socialist Realism and Geometric abstraction. The vividness of the colours and the expressive power matched my mood at that time, the mood of a young man in a process of revolt. This orientation became stronger when, instead of reproductions, I discovered the real paintings at the 1964 Maggio Fiorentino Opera Festival – which takes place in Florence and covers a wide spectrum, bringing together music with the plastic arts, which happened to be dedicated thematically to Expressionism that year.





LL: And then your wish to see the still living German Expressionist painters was immediately fulfilled when you went on a kind of pilgrimage to meet them in person.


SB: I was filled with a passionate inquisitiveness. In September 1965, without sufficient knowledge of the language and armed only with a dictionary – but painters speak a common language when talking about their work anyway – I decided to look for Erich Heckel and Otto Dix in Hemmenhoffen on Lake Constance. This is a small town near Constance, a refuge for these inner emigrants from the Nazi era. At 83 years of age, Heckel still emanated a great sense of energy. I showed him my drawings, engravings and photographs of my paintings, which I later showed the others. He offered to do a generous swap with me, the young artist, and I gave him a self-portrait, a woodcut in colour, in exchange for the etching Des Todes Tod (The Death of Death), which was inspired by Hindemith’s music. I also gave Otto Dix a work of mine in exchange for Die Kapitalisten (The Capitalists) from the wonderful series Der Krieg/Toter/St. Clement (The War/The Dead Man/St. Clement). I admired his most recent pictures and he explained his painting technique to me.


At the beginning of 1966, I decided to continue my research. I met Ludwig Meidner in his modest studio in Darmstadt, surrounded by portraits á la Rembrandt. He died that very same year aged 86. These visits, which were short and intense, have remained in my memory until today. He read my palm and said that my excessive originality would bring me a difficult life in an increasingly uniform world. Shortly after that I went to Villeneuve in Switzerland, where Oscar Kokoschka lived. There were wonderful landscapes on his walls and he gave me tips on how to deal with shallowness and depth in painting. His humanist and philosophical words showed what a profound thinker he was.





LL: While I was researching your life I found a portrait that Otto Dix drew of you. How did that come about?


SB: In 1966, I visited Otto Dix again; of all painters, he is the one who impressed me the most. This time I was accompanied by Italian painter Sergio Ceccotti. It is a small drawing, completed quickly using a quill, erratic and to the point. I also did a drawing, but the scene in particular is what remains in my mind. And so I painted the tondo (round picture) Otto Dix beim Zeichnen meines Porträts (Otto Dix Drawing my Portrait), with the pine trees in front of his window and a detail of his painting Der Triumph des Todes (The Triumph of Death).





LL: And then 10 years later you returned to Germany, this time looking for Conrad Felixmüller. Why this trip?


SB: I had married in the meantime and my wife Annie accompanied me on this trip. Felixmüller painted a very nice double portrait of us in oil. He had fled from the GDR disillusioned, and lived in a studio villa in the Berlin district of Dahlem. He and his wife Londa were very welcoming. I was interested in his artistic career, because, like his friend Otto Dix, he had progressed from Expressionism to New Objectivity. It was a process of development I had been through myself at that time.




LL: Have the initial years under the influence of Expressionism ultimately disappeared from your understanding of painting?


SB: Absolutely not. You can find clear traces of it in my entire graphic work, both in the drawings and the engravings. The Germans were not wrong in that: the French Cultural Institute in Dresden ran an exhibition of my woodcuts in 2010. I was finally able to see the wonderful picture Der Schützengraben (The Trench) by Otto Dix in a museum. And my paintings, engravings, the composition and the colours, even if somewhat tamed, certainly show traces of these roots, despite the fact that I come from Florence.





LL: There is a common theme running from when the Halles de Paris by Baltard were torn down in 1970 up to the contemporary reconstruction of Berlin’s historical centre: your interest in the transformation of large cities.





SB: I was always very much interested in the imagery of modern ruins, machines, great monstrosities, the red cranes against the sky, the concrete mixers, the diggers and silos, those dinosaur-like creatures that represent the conditions of the workers like an ephemeral architecture, scattered about the building sites like the slaves in Moloch from the film Metropolis.





There is prejudice and anger against property developers, who are destroying the old districts, doing away with green areas, attacking the urban fibre that has developed in the course of history. One of those pictures, which shows the construction of what was to become the Centre Pompidou, is titled Griff nach der Stadt (Snatching the City). And yet a city that rises up from its ruins, like Dresden or Berlin, and rebuilds itself in its historical tradition and with innovative architects gives me a positive feeling, and it is this feeling that I try and show objectively as a cityscape.





LL: Perhaps you would like to say something more about your involvement in religious art?


SB: I have never lost a certain Christian mysticism. I painted scenes of the Crucifixion, an Ecco Homo who brings up to date the dangerous people surrounding Christ from a contemporary viewpoint in a variation of Bosch, expressionistic in style. In the 1990s, when I found my way back to practicing religion on a very personal level, I was able to do commissioned work for various churches. I was very happy about this, my painting was like a prayer; it had a well-defined aim, and these works did not remain in my studio, but were assigned a social role and became integrated within an architectural context. Whether depictions of saints (Triptychon der Heiligen/Triptych of Saints), in the scenes from the Passion of Christ (Kreuzweg/Stations of the Cross) or in altars (Papst Johannes Paul II/Pope John Paul II, altar in Orveau), I depict figures and in doing so I remember that religious art was for a long time the Biblia Pauperum – the Bible of the poor – which conveyed the teachings of the Gospel using pictures. I try, in a very modest way, to remain within the tradition that leads from Frà Angelico via Maurice Denis right up to Chagall.





LL: The majority of your engravings are based on the stories of Franz Kafka. What is it about him that attracts you so much?


SB: I discovered Kafka in the second decade of my life in Edition Feltrinellii U.E. in a foreword by the poet Eugenio Montale, which prompted me to read him. I illustrated the visually impressive scenes from The Metamorphosis, The Trial and A Dream. A number of drawings emerged that preceded some prints from woodcuts. My paintings sometimes contain fantastical scenes, like Auf dem Friedhof (On the Cemetry), which was done after reading Kafka’s A Dream. When I ask myself about my need for Kafka, I find many different reasons: rebellion against the father who dominates the family, rejection of an impersonal society and technocracy, the anti-authoritarian aspect, the feeling of the absurdity of some situations, and the “modern melancholy”. And the power of writing that Kafka himself identified when he said that a book “should be an axe to break the frozen sea within us”.





Later on, as destiny would have it and without any warning, an old friend of mine, the writer and art historian Gérard-Georges Lemaire, who had already written a great deal about Prague, organized a large collective exhibition with Kafka as its theme, a travelling exhibition that ended in the Musée du Montparnasse. I rediscovered my old love, and turned once again to the stories and novels – wonderful texts like In the Penal Colony, A Country Doctor.





In 2004, an illustrative essay by philosopher Michael Löwy was released titled Franz Kafka. Der ungehorsame Träumer (Franz Kafka. The Inobedient Dreamer) (Editions Stock). In addition to other engravings, it contains my Porträt von Kafka 1924 (Portrait of Kafka 1924). This common thread remains unbroken, as a young and courageous German publisher, KLAK, will be releasing Kafka’s Short Stories illustrated with my woodcuts in 2014.




Traduction: Lindsay-Jane Munro (Berlin)











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