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Good is a Disaster

Each morning when Ingeborg zu Schleswig-Holstein enters her studio, she is balancing a huge stack of newspapers. The diligent reading of Germany s most important newspapers is a wellestablished ritual. »I am very interested in politics«, she states. »In my opinion, you have something to say only if you are wellinformed.« While imbibing printed matters page after page, she is enjoying a self-imposed break before the nervous energy which has been accumulating in the artist, will demand a way out and seek to express itself.

We are in her studio in Hamburg. A studio that resembles a sports hall, at least as far as its vastness is concerned. The glass ceiling allows the light to pour in and illuminate the paint-splattered floor tiles, creating an effect similar to that of a color-bursting desert right after a torrential rain. A whole row of large-scale paintings are leaning against the studio walls, awaiting their last and definitive brush-strokes. »I am constantly working simultaneously on several paintings«, explains Ingeborg zu Schleswig-Holstein and pours another cup of delicious Earl Grey tea whose wonderful scent she seems able to imbibe by the liter. »Being involved with just one painting at a time would be catastrophical. I prefer to steer things left, right and center and divide my emotions equally.«

Ingeborg zu Schleswig-Holstein is a delicate woman, remindful of something wrought in filigree. She is also confidently grounded in style and sophistication which inform her physical movements and her verbal expressions. Speaking about her work, she becomes increasingly intense, verbally finely-structured and physically present until she has condensed herself, it seems, into one expressive set of eyes inviting viewers and visitors to join her on a stroll behind the stage props of visible forms. It is an invitation of a special kind. Listening to her speak so openly about her creative agonies indicates not weakness but, in fact, a personality so utterly not vain to realize that the role of her talent is one of transformer for divine knowledge. You cannot help but feel humble yourself at this point;otherwise you risk falling off the board surfing the waves of inspiration. Anybody whose personality and character are dominated by vanity and egotism will never live up to the real task of the artist which the writer Franz Kafka once defined as leading an isolated mortal existence into the realms of infinite life. Ingeborg zu Schleswig-Holstein understands this and has taken his challenge on. Her studio is her battlefield. This may sound more dramatic than it actually is since the word refers simply to the constant examination of what constitutes a harmonious and consistent expression. The Greek philosopher Heraklit once said that nobody steps into the same river twice, meaning that everything is in flux at all times. Countering the raging river of life with still-lives of statues which have the power of symbols is the form of art that Ingeborg zu Schleswig-Holstein feels committed to.

In the 1980s she worked as Andy Warhol s assistant at his Factory. She was impressed by the easy touch the master of surfaces applied when it came to accentuating. »There were three of us«, she remembers rather gleefully, »stretching canvas, priming canvas, also painting on it.We assumed that what he could do we could do as well. But then he would walk past, changing a little bit here, improving a little bit there. The difference was astounding.What had been good before became brillant. Good is not good enough in art. In fact, good is a disaster.« The time she spent with Andy Warhol proved to be enormously instructive. »Not in the sense that he would teach you something«, she explains. »He was not the type to teach you. You took what you needed or you didn t. He certainly is one of the greatest artists of the last century which was something we failed to see at the time.We were simply too close. I would compare it to your own father getting the Nobel Prize and you thinking,boy, you struck lucky, Dad, didn t you, because how, as a child, you have seen your father being really difficult at home at times.«

That Ingeborg zu Schleswig-Holstein would later venture diametrically opposed to Warhol artistically by putting the outward appearance of things more or less on their head must be a result of the creative potential which was her very own from the outset. Even as a a child colors appeared in odd disguises.An eightwas red, a four was yellow. The five had a strange blueish-brown tinge which she did not like at all. »My fifth birthday became a serious problem«, she recalls. »I refused to leave the warm yellow aura of the four so I simply ignored my true age and claimed to be either four or six. Six is a light green.« Incidentally, her laughter sounds like a yellow canary.

For Ingeborg zu Schleswig-Holstein, music is equally invested and notes swirl around to create a single color composition. »Shostakovitch is where it is at its most extreme«,says Ingeborg zu Schleswig-Holstein and it sounds, oddly, like a confession. At times, the color attacks are so powerful that she has no other choice but to flee.The Hamburg premiere of »Time Rockers« by RobertWilson proved to be such a powerful incident. »The stage was decorated in exactly the same shade of blue which I had been trying to eliminate all day while working in the studio. I had no other choice than to leave, unfortunately.«

Back then Ingeborg zu Schleswig-Holstein and Robert Wilson hadn t met. Today, they are friends. »I have often attended his rehearsals and also visited him in England.The similarity with which we both view colors is rather striking. Wilson works with light. What I do with a brush he does with light. It is fascinating and highly instructive at the same time to watch him.« Together, the director and the painter have created a stage set for an opera which is awaiting its premiere.

How the various arts can stimulate each other while interacting is an experience Ingeborg zu Schleswig-Holstein made when she worked with the Polish composer Augustyn Bloch. He was inspired by her cycle of paintings »Weg ins Licht« (Way into the Light) which she created for Hamburg s church Sankt Katharinen, to create his spiritual oratorium entitled »Denn Dein Licht kommt« (And Your Light Cometh) composed for grand choir, grand orchestra, and soloists. It premiered in 1988 during the Schleswig Holstein Musik Festival in the church of Sankt Katharinen. Working with Bloch entailed several trips to Poland. After visiting Auschwitz which caused a dismay she never before or since felt so intensely, she also visited the grave of the Polish priest Jerzy Popieluszko who was murdered in 1984 by the Polish secret police. The grave was then off-limits to ordinary Polish people yet it was illuminated constantly by hundreds of candles which people on their pilgrimage to the grave had left behind. Others who had not known the priest personally at all were holding wakes at the site.

»What Augustyn and I attempted to do was to create a requiem for Popielusko, a requiem for hope, which is founded on the victory of love, the immortality of man and the freedom which the love of God for mankind actually means.« Ingeborg zu Schleswig-Holstein decided on a room installation of twelve wooden crosses with borders in different colors and called it a meditation on the Cross. The image and sound composition entitled »Du sollst nicht töten« (Thou Shalt Not Kill) premiered in 1992 in Lübeck s church of Sankt Petri, once again as part of the Schleswig Holstein Musik Festival. By that time, the winds of change had finally reached Poland: Not only was the premiere attended by a delegation from the Polish parliament. The family of Jerzy Popieluszko came all the way from their little hamlet near the Russian border. The requiem, which was later also staged in Warsaw, was not the last collaboration between Bloch/Schleswig-Holstein. Two more works came out of this collaboration, »Empor« (Upwards, 1992) and »Ein Gebet für Danzig« (A Prayer for Gdansk, 1997).

But let me return you now, if I may, into the studio in Hamburg.The well-worked canvasses are happily stretching themselves beyond their confines in the shower of light provided by the afternoon sun. They look completely harmless and void of any danger at all. But the painter knows very well how treacherous their peaceful attitude is. Right now, she is beyond ignoring them but not for long. While my eyes are moving from one half-finished object to the next, comes the sudden comment: »Colors have a life of their own. They have the ability to stimulate each other but can also cancel each other out. I have to call them to order more or less!« This statement is accompanied by her trademark cheerful laughter. She finds her role of disciplinarian in the studio highly comical.

»When I paint, my role of mistress of the castle is a limited one«, she explains. »It is more like opening the cages in a zoo with the animals,fed by their urge to move about freely,consequently being all over the place. When I start on a painting, I am opening the color cages. My task is to put order to the ensuing chaos. But I never quite know in the beginning what this particular order will look like once it is accomplished. I can never figure out who does what. And who will win is completely out in the open. Sometimes, there is quite a bit of friction. But without this fight I could just as well forget about the results, because if there is no fight, nothing powerful will come from it in the end.«

Ingeborg zu Schleswig-Holstein prefers to fight it out at night and amidth complete stillness, finding herself surprised over and over again by the temperament of the colors. »Yellow, red, white they possess different tempi. Blue has none, blue is stagnant. The various speeds add movement,« she finds, »therefore they have an energy that cannot be switched off.« The level of correspondence between colors exists on a time-scale but Ingeborg zu Schleswig- Holstein also notices their correspondence on the level of value. »Red is much stronger and expansive than blue. Blue has to hold red without dominating it and there must exist a way to bring in red without killing blue. It is not easy to master such powers. Colors are there to stimulate each other instead of getting into each other s way or even destroying each other. Colors provide energy, much the same way than vitamins do.«

Whether an artwork is a success or a failure is a decision the artist prefers to make herself. »The only decisive factor is what I myself know, never mind how much other people may like something.« If other people like it so much that public hymns of praise ensue her alarm-bells go off as a result. »Sometimes I devote years to one particular topic. And if that topic finds acceptance all of a suddenI have to quite literally run and run fast. Acceptance is my gauge for danger.«

She likens the creative process to the work of an explorer.The point of departure is where the result of her previous work has brought her. What has been established, for a tiny moment, as the valid result is now feeding-ground for something new. »But then everything turns out to be different, complicated, alien,« says Ingeborg zu Schleswig-Holstein, »the search is starting anew with all the feelings of being lost, insecure, desperate. I have to descend deep into this valley and only when I have come out at the other end,has the painting become the opponent, demanding and receiving a personality of its own, asking, there is no other way of putting it, for its own free will. I pretty much end up asking the picture where it wants to go. It becomes the one who is providing answers. An artist does not invent , he discovers.« Images with which she has made her peace, will receive the stamp of quality which is her signature. The signature removes such images from the arena. »But sometimes it happens that I put them back in and remove the signature. I tell myself that I can do better. The fact is that I am not very good at accepting final stages.«

Downright sceptical becomes her attitude should the work on canvas produce an exceptionally well-made part. There is only one thing to do now: paint it over! »Otherwise I will end up in front of it like the rabbit watching the snake constantly worrying about destroying something exceptional. If details take over the work that is still to come, then this is not beneficial for the painting. If I paint something over, it is not gone forever, it is simply no longer visible. It serves what accidently remains, as if it were humus soil. In fact, this humus which shines through, defines the personality of a painting.«

Ingeborg zu Schleswig-Holstein is aware that her paintings are unique. Nobody will ever be able to copy them. »Because of my height« and now she looks down at herself in mocking gentleness, »they possess a characteristic style and flow. Every swing and flourish the paint-brush makes is a result of the length of my arm. If I was taller, my paintings would look different. Imagine a cello-player would his fingers grow over night, he would have to learn to play the instrument from scratch.«

Has she ever experienced a creative crisis like writers unexpectedly experiencing writer s block? She shakes her head, gently, as if she has never before pondered this question. »No«, she ventures after a while, »of course there are less productive times but I have never experienced a creative abyss.« Naturally, her paintings reflect what happens around her. »When my father died, I only painted in white.«

How brillant her paintings actually are, becomes apparent on a visit to Hamburg s church of Sankt Katharinen, a gothic basilica built in brick dating back to the 15th century. In the late 1980s, the blind windows in the clerestory of the nave received a cycle of paintings in which she aimed to make the original course the light would take visible again. This work was, interestingly enough, not a commissioned piece. Rather, Ingeborg zu Schleswig-Holstein fought for it. »I looked at the church and discovered its blind windows. I then presented my ideas and was finally given the go-ahead under the premise that I would take my paintings down after three months should people not like them.« There was no support to speak of: The bishop, the ministry of culture and the curator of monuments were only prepared to let her know that they would put nothing in her way should she agree to these working conditions.

In fact, the paintings turned out to be very successful, hanging to this day and having become an integral part of Sankt Katharinen. And one day Ingeborg zu Schleswig-Holstein received a call from the very influential Hamburg-based banker Erich Warburg who wanted to let her know how much her work helped him through a memorial service held in the church.What nicer and more impressive compliment for one s work is there?

Ingeborg zu Schleswig-Holstein quotes a psalm from the Bible: »Oh Lord, please teach us to remember that we are mortals.« Another cup of the wonderfully scented Earl Grey is poured while she adds: »If at the end there is nothing left but love, I should think that a very good outcome indeed.

Dirk C. Fleck

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