As the impact of the Second Industrial Revolution and its attendant degradation of the natural environment has increasingly shifted into public focus, there has been an almost compensatory yearning for images of an as yet unspoiled nature. These aesthetic re-imaginings of the natural landscape are, it seems, intended to ameliorate the destruction of traditional habitats and intact ecological systems, exacerbated by the profit-seeking imperative and mass consumerism. In contrast to classical landscape pictures, from the Middle Ages to the Romantic era, which in many cases revealed an ambivalence towards nature, Koberling’s profound affinity takes the form of a highly individual passion. What he sees, experiences, and feels forms the bedrock of an artistic output which attests to his extraordinary relationship with nature. As such, it is not an expressive gesture, but more an emotional habitus, without which the artist would succumb to the temptation to drift into the spiritual or inchoate. Painting . la Koberling is not an intellectual pursuit, but rather an intuitive one, which postulates a visual intelligence. Some may experience difficulty in gaining access to the pictorial space, as the artist dispenses often consciously with perspective and majestic vistas. Similarly, the pictorial structure does not adhere to the parameters of background and spatial depth, to which we are accustomed in classical depictions of landscape. Under this interpretation, Koberling’s output represents a multivalent approach to landscape painting, with unexpected intellectual perspectives, framed in everchanging painterly colour spaces. Koberling was born in Berlin in 1938 and spent the majority of his life there. He grew up in the labyrinth of the city’s ruins and witnessed first-hand reconstruction, division, and reunification. Perhaps it is a reaction to this urbanity, characterised by years of war and devastation which, since 1959, has inspired him to visit and paint in the remoteness of northern Scandinavia, specifically Northern Norway and in the tundra of Swedish Lapland. His first-ever painting, Self with Red Fisherman’s Jacket from 1963, is highly symptomatic of this influence, alluding at the same time to his great passion, angling, and above all, fly fishing. Both the self-portrait, and his series .Beach Workers,. created between 1982 and 1985, represent, however, the exceptions to his other works, which are devoid of human presence. Heeding an invitation from Dieter Roth, he became acquainted and fell in love with Iceland in 1977, where he continues to spend several months each year. A valley nestling in the eastern part of the island has become as important to him as hisstudio in Berlin. And it is out of the dichotomy between the hustle and bustle of the teeming metropolis and the tranquillity of the natural environment that this 2006 Fred-Thieler Prize winner draws his indefatigable creative energy.
When studying Koberling’s works, for example Block Lava – Daydream from 1980 or Field of Stones I–III painted four years earlier, one is sometimes reminded of the song of Aphrodite from Empedocles’ didactic poem .On Nature., of which sadly only fragments remain. Influenced by the Pythagoreans and the Eleatics, this visually evocative pre-Socratic philosopher describes in hexameter verse the geological process in which .fountains of fire., solidification, and the formation of lava and rock forged the rugged landscape and the seemingly barren wastelands characterising these regions. It is the poetic serenity infusing Koberling’s paintings, through which his own profound affinity to nature is manifested. This may prompt some to classify him as a Romantic, since the artist himself sees in his work the reflection of an idealized natural world. Consequently, it is probably no coincidence that one of his first exhibitions, held in the gallery of the legendary Berlin artists’ group .Gro.g.rschen 35,. bore the programmatic title of .Special Romanticism.. However, to reduce him to this would be simply wrong. Admittedly, landscapes and nature are not the most popular motifs in contemporary art. This applies particularly to the time in which Koberling first began to paint. However, in his figurative imagery, he remained rigorously consistent in his response to Informel and gestural painting. And the more he distanced himself from their descriptive portrayal, the more liberated he became in the painterly articulation of his own visual language. In Germany, Bernd Koberling has attained a singular artistic status and created a significant body of work. Independent of market trends and the attendant shifts in taste, he has marked out his own distinctive position.
Numerous works by Bernd Koberling from various creative phases are represented in the art collection of the NATIONAL-BANK. For many years, Tides I from 2002 hung behind my desk in the bank’s offices, a work which today is housed in our branch in Münster. However, Koberling and I only actually met in person relatively recently. It was on 19 April 2016, immediately prior to the opening of the Tony Cragg retrospective, .Parts of the World., in the Von der Heydt Museum in Wuppertal, an exhibition which was also made possible by NATIONAL-BANK. I was walking through the still deserted rooms, admiring the exhibits, when I encountered a man dressed in English style replete with an immaculately tailored tweed jacket, who greeted me warmly. It was Bernd Koberling, a close friend of Tony Cragg. During the subsequent evening invitation event in the Villa Waldfrieden, we crossed paths again, this time accompanied by Walter Smerling. As midnight approached, the collaborative idea of staging this show was born. It is, therefore, a great pleasure and privilege for the NATIONAL-BANK to be able to showcase the work of this extraordinary artist. My heartfelt thanks for translating the original idea into practice go to our longstanding and trusted partner, the MKM Museum Küppersmühle für Moderne Kunst and in particular to its dedicated director Walter Smerling, as well as to Christian Malycha for his congenial curatorial supervision. Both on behalf of the Executive Board and the staff of the NATIONAL-BANK, I would like to wish this exhibition every success commensurate with the high artistic standards which Koberling himself demands of his creative output.
Like a vast meteorite field, Bernd Koberling’s colours sweep across the canvas, appearing more as a natural phenomenon than the outcome of artistic intention. Titles such as Tides, Snow Warmth, or Sun Suns serve only to underscore the identity of the guiding spirit behind these paintings: For the natural world is the foundation and quintessence of Koberling’s images. An observation which applies generally to his entire output – from the works of the early 1960s, which were inspired by Scandinavian landscapes and which first garnered him acclaim, to the powerful images of the 1970s and 80s and the abstract and lyrical colour landscapes of recent years.
Bernd Koberling is a quite exceptional painter. A post-modern conservationist and innovator of painterly possibilities in equal measure. Someone who has continually reinvented himself, yet remained true to his lifelong theme: the landscape as a symbol of human existence. Someone who has contributed to the forging of a new painting culture and who, together with the “New Wild Ones”, wrote art history.
Someone who perceives painting as an open-ended field of research, and who begins each work uncertain of where the journey make take him. Someone who gives expression to the universality and timelessness of nature and who, with his paintings – at least according to my reading of his work – embarks upon a journey into eternity. His paintings hold a Utopian potential which expresses itself in the nowhere as everywhere – for Koberling, nature is nowhere as tangible as in the everywhere.
The most comprehensive retrospective of the works of Bernd Koberling to date, this exhibition in the MKM Museum Küppersmühle für Moderne Kunst showcases some eighty-five paintings from six decades – the culmination of a life devoted to painting. I am particularly delighted that we in the MKM are for the first time able to unveil more recent and current works, including paintings which Koberling has created especially for the exhibition. They form the heart of the exhibition and deliberately break the chronology of the presentation. With these late paintings, Koberling has opened a new chapter in his oeuvre, which is informed with the knowledge and artistry accrued from half a century of painting. These are images of motion and flux, in which every form bursts into colour and every brushstroke ignites into radiant blossom. And my fervent hope is that the visitors to this exhibition may also lose themselves in these pictorial worlds.
My sincere thanks go in the first instance to Bernd Koberling for his dedicated and close cooperation. I also wish to express my warmest appreciation to our curator Christian Malycha, who has supervised the exhibition and the catalogue with great expertise and passion. I am also deeply indebted to our numerous private and institutional partners for their support and the confidence they have placed in us. My heartfelt gratitude also goes to my team from the MKM and the Foundation for Art and Culture, which has organised and supported the exhibition with unstinting commitment and competence.
And finally I wish to extend my special thanks to Thomas A. Lange, Chairman of the Executive Board of NATIONAL-BANK AG and for many years a friend and patron of the museum. Once again, he has proven himself to be an inspirational partner who, with his commitment, has made this landmark retrospective possible.