In the art exhibition “Building peace 2015” at Hegau-West welfare centre in Gottmadingen (D) conceptual artist Theo Dannecker (77) shows both recent and earlier, already well-known paintings and objects from his comprehensive and long-standing body of work. Since the Vietnam War the artist has been concerned with the theme of war or rather that of peace, peaceful coexistence, understanding of other people, other cultures, the dialogue with other cultures. Today, with an increased threat of war in a number of crisis areas in the world and flows of refugees arriving in our countries, his reconciliatory work for humanity, for justice, for just peace are more relevant than ever. In addition, his paintings, objects and installations are rare exceptions in today’s world of art, which is not often about building and maintaining our social values. The works of Theo Dannecker should be displayed in large halls, in town halls, schools and churches, in order to enable a wide audience to enjoy and discuss and be inspired by them.
Building peace is the main subject of Theo Dannecker, a conceptual artist from Zurich who lives his life consciously in this world. Building peace is the title of the first exhibition in the welfare centre Hegau-West here in Gottmadingen. A nice coincidence that this exhibition takes place here in the welfare centre whose staff contribute to peace on a daily basis through their assistance to their fellow human beings, by their care for those who are in need. Building peace must become the common topic of all of us if we want to solve the problems of our time, the crises, the wars and the resulting flows of refugees.
If you have mounted the stairs with me, you will already have got an impression of the abundance of issues that Theo Dannecker wants to address by looking at the paintings and objects there. On some I will seize in a brief overview of the exhibition.
For many years Theo Dannecker has been concerned with the issue of war and peace. Entering this exhibition there is the “Weinender Kopf” (Weeping head) from 1990, an expressive profile drawing, bewailing the state of humans who cannot live in peace with each other even after the end of the so-called Cold War. The dark gray plaster head, the “Mahnmal gegen den Krieg” (Memorial against war) from 2002, laments the victims of the battlefields of the past 25 years, in Yugoslavia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Congo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Libya, Syria, Yemen ... a long list, indeed. The memorial was developed out of a stone the artist found in Venice on the day the US began to bomb Afghanistan. In its destroyed parts it symbolises the suffering of war victims, in its protuberances and sinkholes the grimace of aggressors. The small stone, the found object, is an integral part of the memorial and illustrates the conceptual artist’s working process of, aiming at both a clear structure of composition and expression and intelligibility. Dannecker makes no secret of what inspired his work. Disclosing the process and genesis of a piece of art is rather a genuine part of conceptual art in order to enable a more precise perception.
Steles with black cardboard objects that can be opened, called “Die Schande” (The Shame), show the immediate harm and long term effects of recent wars: heavily armed soldiers shooting at fleeing children, leaving countless casualties, devastated and contaminated countries – and both the soldiers themselves as well as the native population, procreating malformed, children. “I remain silent, you remain silent, we remain silent,” conjugates Dannecker.
Dannecker, however, does not make a stop at depicting the misery and war crimes. He always raises the question to himself and the viewer: “What does it take to overcome the prevailing chaos, in order to create a peaceful world?” Each art piece contributes part of the answer: In the current exhibition the artist first guides us to the art object “Voneinander lernen” (Learning from each other) created in 2015. It consists of the artist’s reflection on a passage from the 1991 text “Begegnung am Fudschijama” (“Ode to the Grand Spirit: A Dialogue (Echoes and Reflections)”) by the Kirghiz writer Chingiz Aitmatov. Aitmatov had chosen the Japanese philosopher and Buddhist Daisaku Ikeda, in order to contemplate his life and work. Both men tell their lives, express their thoughts, experiences, hopes and fears, exchange their personal memories and learn to understand each other even in their cultural differences; they admonish and think about ways out of the wrong tracks that politics is taking. Dannecker shaped two plastic heads made of pink ceramic; the material of similar type represents the common concern shared by the two men. Both are born in 1928 and experienced their youth during the Second World War – a time in which values were highly disintegrating. Both grew up in totalitarian systems: Aitmatov in the Stalin era and Ikeda in the super-militaristic Japan of the Second World War. Both account that a teacher had helped them to escape the scopes of ideological thinking and to deal with them. But whereas Ikeda already in his adolescence had found guidance in Buddhism and a teacher, he could really entrust himself to and who guided him over a long period of time, Aitmatov reported that the totalitarian regime of the Soviet Union demanded people to fully subordinate under the governmental diktat. But nevertheless Aitmatov encountered individuals who encouraged and helped him to go the challenging way of examining the totalitarian society on his own: “To my good fortune”, he writes, “I have met individuals since my childhood, who inwardly opposed the ideas of totalitarianism. They have given me their courage; they have taught me in spite of it all to stay a human being and to respect human dignity above everything else. I will never forget my elementary school teacher who once addressed the harsh words to me: ‘Never look down, when your father’s name is mentioned.’” It is important to know that Aitmatov’s father – one of the first Kirghiz communists in charge – was executed in Moscow, because he did not want to support Stalin’s expropriation. His family had to flee back to Kirghizia, hide in their little home village and live under miserable circumstances. Their father’s name was forbidden to be mentioned. That the elementary school teacher at the peril of his life broke the silence and mentioned the name of Aitmatov’s father in deep respect had remained a lifetime lesson in courageousness and courage for Aitmatov. This had given him a boost for his own involvement with his country’s society and all issues of humanity. Plenty of his contemporaries had not been able to step out of the shadow of the Stalin era. Aitmatov on the contrary played an active part in Gorbachev’s Perestroika and was the Kirghiz ambassador in Brussels since 1995.
Whereas Theo Dannecker formed Ikeda’s head of pink ceramic down to the collar and the cravat and worked a subtle smile into it, he shows Aitmatov’s reinforced backbone under the mournful head with a significant furrow by a double T-girder of steal. The philosopher and the writer are easily and clearly distinguished by either the metal rims respectively the pen holders in front of each bust. In between there lies a volume out of Aitmatov’s complete works – the “Ode to the Grant Spirit” – opened. The two heads face each other, but look also directly towards us – the viewers, who are tired of enmity, suffering and bloodshed. Dannecker comments on a white-coloured fir wood panel: “Who explains the mutilated public consciousness of our society to us” and on a red slat we read: “Let us try to overcome our speechlessness.”
From the work “Voneinander lernen” (Learning from each other) Dannecker leads us directly to learning as a prerequisite for peace. On a Styrofoam plate, a piece of ordinary building material, two large-format pictures are applied. They originate from the wallet “Wir Menschen und der Krieg” (We, the people and the war), which Theo had published already in 1977. On one picture we see a young teacher with a compass in his hand, who is obviously explaining geometric problems to an adolescent. The second photo shows two young girls who have got absorbed in an atlas, studying geographical problems together. The two pictures are interrelated by the text: “Only that person who is guided to independent thinking without force or violence may be enabled to establish a humane world.” These two thoughts, instructions for learning and the in-depth study and practice are once again extended by an object poised in front with the title “Was uns die Erfahrung lehrt” (What experience may teach us). A clear shape of an equilateral triangle in the primary colours yellow, blue and red is fitted on a conventional blackboard, not a computer. The primary colours can not be produced by mixing. Any other colour, however, can be derived from the latter and their mixtures. Thus, textually we learn something about the theory of colours. Dannecker has charged the three primary colours with meaning. He connects them with three fundamental principles of learning: Yellow, the brightest colour, stands for instruction and guidance. If the teacher – as seen in the photo above – explains a substance matter, if he guides the student to learning, it is then when the world of ideas and the mind of the child are being illuminated. It begins to understand. Blue as the constantly flowing water represents the continuous exercise that deepens a thought, a substance which is called knowledge that becomes the possession of the child. Red stands for the benevolence of the teacher who with his personality turns to the child for its promotion, enabling it to develop independent thinking and understanding content.
A simple find is added to the blackboard: a walking stick, stuck in a hollow cement block in front of the wall panel. Theo found it when walking. In its upper part, the bark is notched several times in proportions of 1:2:3, treated by a hiker with reflection, with a sense for order, measure and mathematics. Dannecker, who had noticed and precisely calculated the measure proportions, writes: “Very early there have been people who began to look at natural phenomena accurately and to abstract everything except the measurable, by which they reached the concept of numbers. About 325 B.C. it was Pythagoras.” The simple walking stick stands here as a symbol for number and order, for mathematics and for the content of that which has to be learned. Equally the small object next to it, a small piece of iron that displays the golden rule, a very harmonious ratio of measure, number and division already known in the ancient world.
Hence, the child learns acquisition, understanding and deepening of the respective subject matter through benevolent guidance and discussion. Learning without a clearly defined content, without a systematic build-up of knowledge – the technique of googling information or mere competence orientation – does not educate, educational researchers have found. Our children have to be trained, if they want to learn to understand our Christian western society, its structures and its values and to contribute to its preservation.
We have now seen Theo Dannecker working frequently with accidentally found objects and with simple building materials, with Styrofoam or wood panels, with concrete hollow blocks or bricks, clamps and double T-girders. When entering the exhibition you might almost have the impression that you are entering a construction site. In our perfect, high-tech design world that is a great exception, however, it has a profound meaning. The artist wants to push-start the viewer, to encourage him to deal with material, form and content. In contrast to non-objective painting that has dominated the entire 20th century, the content of his objects is particularly important to Dannecker. He makes clear statements, however, leaving the viewer enough space to read the texts, to understand the matter and to sympathise. His concern is always that the viewer be stimulated to engage intellectually and – if he lets himself in for it – to discover profound human values.
An oversized boulder placed on the terrace, is a manifestation of the sentence “Der Stein der Gerechtigkeit muss gewälzt werden” (The stone of justice needs to be rolled). An infinite loop represents the foundation of human rights: “Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar” (The dignity of man is inviolable) and a figure of a head in a cage whose mouth has been sewn up, tells us: “Keine Macht darf unsere Stimme der Gerechtigkeit zum Schweigen bringen” (No power is allowed to silence our voice of justice).
The economic structure of society is also being considered, for example, by the clay-modelled head of Wilhelm Röpke, one of the great German economists who had advocated the social market economy. As a young man in the First World War he was injured and supported the cause of peace and freedom throughout his whole life as a fierce warrior.
The foundations of our society, of course, include family and humanity. “Grossmutter ist krank” (Grandmother is ill) is the title of a painting showing the entire family assembled around grandmother’s bed with their daily activities: While a young woman is freshly bedding her, grandfather sits in a chair next to the bed reading from a newspaper. The grandchildren are playing on the carpet in front of her bed. Even a young painter has set up his easel and is portraying her. The importance of the family as nucleus and calm anchor of social life, providing protection, security and support to the individual, even when he or she is old and sick, is very beautifully expressed here.
“Das Samenkorn der Menschlichkeit legen” (Laying the seed of humanity) is the title of a large-scale painting depicting a young man and a boy, pushing together a woman in a wheelchair, this way directly practicing humaneness. The quite unspectacular way in which the large format figures are presented express a sort of calm and self-evidence, just as humanity is also being practised in this house, the welfare centre.
Of course, there are attitudes and character traits which make this completely natural aid impossible. Theo Dannecker does not hide them. They are manifested in the crimes interpreted in Pieter Breughel’s moral “Sprichwörter” (proverbs) or, as a tribute to Pieter Breughel’s “Angekettete Affen” (Chained monkeys), the object “Gier” (Greed) valuing mammon higher than man.
And yet, in this exhibition the title “Das Samenkorn der Menschlichkeit legen” (Laying the seed of humanity) means to find a way out of the inhuman wars, a way out of the plight caused by politics, a way of how to reconcile the peoples at war.
Under the title “Frieden schaffen – das Völkerrecht gilt für alle” (Building peace – international law applies to all) Theo Dannecker developed an example how dignity could be given back to the humiliated and severely harmed peoples by making peace. On the main painting representatives of the Western world meet the representatives from Afghanistan, from Iraq and the members of African tribes. In this historic meeting as Danneker conceives it, the Western politician goes to meet the Afghan with the words “Wir haben Unrecht getan” (We have done wrong). That means the West is taking the first step. Confessing one’s guilt, the willingness to make amends, “Einander zuhören und sich verstehen lernen” (Listening to each other and learning to understand each other) is mentioned here as precondition for a genuine peace agreement.
Objects made of wooden slats, screwed together with clamps, wedged into one another are arranged around the canopy in the middle of the room, in which the bible passage from the “Bergpredigt” (Sermon on the Mount) is projected – “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled”. These objects symbolise character traits like “walking upright, bearing something, keeping together and penetrating” that are needed to achieve justice.
If we ask Theo Dannecker how he gets round to and where he takes the security from to want to build peace without war, without preemptive wars – contrary to what Western politicians tell us – Theo responds with his studio picture. Here he has gathered all those people around him who encouraged him in his idea of building peace”:
Immanuel Kant, for example, the German philosopher, entitled his 1795 writing, in which he developed a first draft of the international law, “Zum ewigen Frieden” (Perpetual Peace). It is considered the most significant treatise on the subject of war and peace in German language. He concludes his work with the remarkable sentence “that perpetual peace is not an empty idea, but a task that needs to be solved gradually”. In the studio picture Kant is sitting at the table on the right side of the picture. Friedrich Schiller, the semi-cut figure on the right side with her back turned towards us, was a great admirer of Kant and initially fascinated, like him, by the ideals of the French Revolution. But when he gained knowledge of the executions, he turned away from it indignantly and even wrote a defense of Louis XVI. So, in this picture, Schiller is not only the poet of personal and political freedom – as we all know him – but a man of balance. The contemporary Heinrich Pestalozzi, educator and social reformer close behind Kant, adds a weighty humanitarian accent to the protest against war manifested by his aid for the surviving war orphans. He aims at strengthening the whole human person by natural education.
The importance of education for a peaceful living together is repeatedly stressed in this picture. The two prominent figures in the centre foreground, the elegantly dressed humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam with the scroll and Leo Graf Tolstoy, in modest white cotton dress represent the educational ideas as well as Alfred Adler, whose book “About the meaning of life” Sibil, Theo’s wife and educator herself, is taking from the bookshelf. On Erasmus’ scroll, the beautiful sentence from his pacifist “Klage des Friedens” (Complaint of peace) we read the quotation: “A concluded peace is hardly ever so unfair that it would not be preferable to the apparently ‘most just’ war.” Erasmus devoted himself to the education of the regent, the later Charles V, to achieve a peaceful and beneficial policy; Tolstoy founded schools for his bondsmen, for the poorest, for the people. Alfred Adler, on his part, fundamentally explored the educational problem, the social orientation of the human being, the feeling of community.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I leave it to you to discover the contribution of the other personalities to the topic “Building peace”. Let me just add this: You will recognise Theo Dannecker, the artist, dressed in complementary colours to his wife Sibil’s, as he is just portraying Käthe Kollwitz, who – after she herself had lost a son in the first World War – used all her strength for peace. All of you will probably know her famous poster “Nie wieder Krieg” (Never again war) from 1924.
Here in the studio picture people are gathered who have protested with pen and brush, in word and deed, against the war, who contributed to the development of public education, pedagogy, human rights, international law, the foundation of the Red Cross and the Good Offices and who used their vital force for political independence, for a non-violent and peaceful coexistence.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Theo Dannecker, the artist, has done his job and the local welfare centre has practiced the idea of assistance for many years in its daily work. This obliges us, too. Let us seize on the artist’s appeal: Let us build peace at last. •
The Exhibition “Frieden schaffen 2015” (Building peace 2015) in the German municipality Gottmadingen was open from 1 to 21 November.
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