Thursday, 20 December 2012

Artist Uncovered: Reinhard Behrens

The assemblage quietly catches your attention. As you get closer you begin to marvel at the expert drawing, at the 3D effect that raises the objects off the paper. Then you puzzle over the surreal juxtaposition of an old wooden spoon, the gnarled sole of a shoe, an undefined scrap of metal but also a carrot and an onion, all laid out formally below a quasi photographic drawing of an old house, standing empty in a barren landscape. You wonder at the story hinted at, you also wonder at the time and dedication invested by the artist on such mundane objects.

Carrots Onions and Rust coloured pencil 54x75cm
Art in Healthcare collection

This drawing and the other pencil and pastel works by Reinhard Behrens in the Art in Healthcare collection illustrate the artist’s talent as a storyteller, his predilection for commonplace rejects that his consummate drawing skills transform into works of art. They also refer to the German born artist’s early training as an archaeological draughtsman acquired during an excavation in Turkey one summer while studying at Hamburg College of Art. This trip far away from home was going to bring about the most defining moment in his life.

The Smith Sterling etching 89x70cm

Art in Healthcare collection

He tells us the story in his website, how while recovering from a sunstroke, he happened to notice in a local newspaper the account of a collision in the Bosphorus strait between a cargo ship and a submarine. The only word he could read on the page was the name of that ship NABOLAND. The submarine reminded him of the toy he had found on the North Sea coast the year before. On that feverish day, the coincidence of these events helped him evolve an extraordinary plan.  He would put all his artistic skills towards piecing together the existence of Naboland, the land of his imagination, through detailed accounts and documentation. This was 1975 and he is still pursuing this quest today.

Lochnagar pencil and pastel 74x104cm
Art in Healthcare collection

Behrens’ realistic style of drawing was inspired by one of his tutors in Hamburg, Rudolph Hausner, a prominent member of the Vienna School of Fantastic Realism. This group, formed in the aftermath of WWII, used the techniques of the Old Masters to achieve lifelike resemblance. Contrary to Surrealist painters like René Magritte or Salvador Dalí, they did not privilege the irrational but rather sought to merge it with conscious imagery by adding fantastic elements into their paintings. The results are dreamlike scenes that evoke convincing alternative realities. They thought of their paintings not as escape from reality but more as therapeutic means that allow you to forget for a while the conflicts you experience and to return to reality feeling stronger for it.

Lochnagar II pencil and pastel 69x99cm
Art in Healthcare collection

In 1979 Behrens came to study at Edinburgh College of Art on a one-year scholarship. He spent some of that time eagerly exploring Scotland and joined the Mountaineering club in order to climb the Highland peaks in winter to get a feel of what Scott's Polar expeditions might have been like. And although his English was not fluent yet, he was nonetheless charmed by the local wit. He would bring these Romantic endeavours, Man against Nature, explorations of uncharted territories, and the humour back into his studio where they would fuse into his imaginary worlds populated by a plethora of discarded objects picked along the way, bones, feathers and other precious detritus, and of course by the yellow submarine, the magic talisman which made these travels possible.
San Gimignano, Nowhere to land  acrylic and oil  171x122cm
image courtesy of R Behrens

After settling down in Scotland in the early eighties, Behrens travelled around Europe and to Nepal and became also fascinated by the desert, possibly as a relief from the monochrome snow, all the time pushing further the boundaries of Naboland with his illusionistic paintings, drawings and installations into which he invests the same obsessive attention to details. His installations purport to be replicas of the huts or sledges used during polar explorations and amaze visitors not only by their air of authenticity but also by their uncanny reduced scale.

Hunters in the Snow (after Breugel) acrylic and oil 122x171cm
image courtesy of R Behrens

Similarly the insertion of the yellow submarine, made airborne when it suits the topography, in his breathtaking copies of Old Masters force the viewers to double take. Is this not what we expect of artists, to shake us out of our ‘normality’, to make us contemplate other possibilities? Behrens uses ambivalence, humour and gentle satire to great effect. He even reinvented the origins of golf in an installation exhibited in St Andrews itself, the alleged birthplace of the game. The catalogue, a work of art in its own right, is supposed to reveal the rules but the text is mostly illegible, although written in English, due to the tight German blackletter handwriting the artist used throughout!
‘The Origins of Golfing’ exhibition catalogue
image courtesy of R Behrens and Fife Contemporary Art and Craft

Behrens has lived in Pittenweem on the southern coast of Fife since 1986. He has been lecturing at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design since 1995. Last summer I visited his house which he opens to the public during the town’s annual Arts Festival. I was able to admire his paintings and drawings – as well as those of the other talented members of his family - and was delighted to find that his front room is dedicated to an installation reproducing the interior of the submarine. This is in fact the film set for a stop motion animation that has been occupying much of Behrens' time lately. This short film 'Naboland News' pretends to be a recently discovered news reel of the submarine's travels. It involves penguins, desert scenes and the Himalayas. The film will not be released for another couple of years but you can have a preview by going to

In the meantime, the film set - installation allows you an insight into the living conditions of early 20c explorers. The lighting alternates between lit areas and shadows and every tin, jar, old photograph and scrap of fabric looks absolutely genuine. The more you look the more you become enthralled and forget about what is going on outside.
Thank you Reinhard Behrens for sharing your world-s with us!

Martine Foltier Pugh is a freelance writer and visual artist based in Edinburgh

Thank you to Reinhard Behrens for his information and for the permission to use his images
and to Diana Sykes and Susan Davis of Fife Contemporary Art and Craft for providing me with the catalogue cover for 'The Origins of Golfing'.

Naboland - the art of Reinhard Behrens
Fife Contemporary Art and Craft
The Vienna School of Fantastic Realism
RF Scott
Pittenweem Arts Festival 2013