A construction site for peace

A construction site for peace

Book launch and exhibition of Swiss artist Theo Dannecker in Adliswil 2018

by Dr Vera Ziroff Gut

To mark his eightieth birthday, Theo Dannecker presents his lifework in a three-volume documentary, an art object itself. It was printed, numbered and signed in an edition of 100 pieces. It covers a working life, a period of 60 years.
The documentary is far from showing all of the artist’s drawings, paintings and objects, but it does contain a plentiful number of key works. On the basis of this publication, we can understand his development in drawing and sculpting during his studies, his inspirations from travelling, further education and study visits, which then lead to first successes and later to numerous exhibitions. But it also reveals doubts, crises and changes, which in turn feed into a continuous development dedicated to the most important issue of our time: building a peaceful world worth living in.

It all started in Adliswil

Theo Dannecker was born in 1938 in Adliswil, Zurichstrasse. He grew up as the youngest of four children of the Dannecker family. In Adliswil he attended the kindergarten with Aunt Marta, primary and secondary school, and then completed an apprenticeship as a decorator and upholsterer in Zurich. When asked, at what stage he consciously started to paint, he answers: Max, his older brother, was very good at drawing and skiing, he supported him in a way that he could learn both very quickly and well from him. In primary school – Theo adds modestly – there were colleagues who painted better than he did. But he was fascinated by painting and did not let it go. When in the new Kronenwiese primary school building the painter Fis executed the mural “Noah’s Ark” he had a great admirer in Theo and involved the boy in his reflections. As is well known, all species seek shelter on the Ark, and there are two ways to get in. In terms of the crayfish the artist asked Theo: Across which board did the crayfish get into the ark? Theo, of course, indicated the closest. “No,” said Fis, “the crayfish move backwards and therefore head for another board.” Theo mentions this childhood experience, because this answer made him realise that the artist not only paints what he sees, but reflects upon it too, and from that he concluded at the time: “I can do that too.” So the scene was set for him to become a painter.


To be admitted to the “Kunstgewerbeschule” (School of Applied Arts in Zurich), a folder with drawings had to be submitted and a three-day entrance exam had to be sat by the applicants. Theo’s folder caught the eye and showed that he no longer belonged to the preliminary course. Thus he was allocated to a class of more mature students, led by Heinrich Müller, a well-known painter from Thalwil.
This is where the documentation begins: It starts with a sheet from the drawing portfolio, showing a Violin and the drawing of a top hat with gloves and flowers (fig. 1). If we leaf a little further, travel sketches show what Theo learned during his study years. In Barcelona he spent the night in the youth hostel and painted a gouache picture of the mansion on the opposite hill in expressive colours. The water carrier and the farmer with his expressive profile (fig. 2) testify to the increase in liveliness and expressiveness. During his stay in Ibiza, the young artist retreated completely to solitude, convinced of reclusiveness being an indispensable precondition for the creation of great works of art. Back in Adliswil he made a statuette of the farmer (fig. 3). With this statuette and a few other objects and drawings, he applied at the Royal Academy of Arts in Copenhagen, in order to further develop his sculptural skills. He was awarded a scholarship for the class of Professor Eikoff, a Despiau student. But more than by the Despiau school Theo then was intrigued by Picasso and cubist art. In his free evening hours he sculpted a cubist venus after the 1908 discovered 30,000 years old Venus of Willendorf. In addition, he collected aluminum waste and used it to make the sculpture Dargebotene Hand (Helping Hand, fig. 4). In 1963, still based in Copenhagen, he participated in the competition about a sculpture for the cemetery of Adliswil. It was good to have a classical artistic training as a prerequisite for correct proportioning, spatial drawing and painting; but Theo Dannecker knew of course that the art scene had long changed. Kienholz e.g. had seized on issues such as discrimination and violence in his socially critical environments, and Joseph Beuys did his performances and as a sculptor called for social sculpture as a creative contribution to society and politics.
After a year of studying, when Professor Eikhoff sent Theo Dannecker’s best nude drawings to an exhibition, Theo moved on, in search of himself and his art, drawing on his trips, in the open air or, like classical artists, in museums.

Rauma drawings

In 1964, Theo Dannecker was awarded a scholarship by the canton of Zurich and went to Dublin. This is where the first Rauma drawing (fig. 5) came into being, which, as was confirmed by his Zurich artist friend Alex Sadkowsky at the time, could be seen as a very special achievement. In Zurich, however, nobody wanted to exhibit these masterly, spatially complex pencil drawings, which the artist presented in black boxes. Until a gallery owner advised him to turn to the well-known art critic and cultural editor of the Zurich quality paper “Tages-Anzeiger”, Fritz Billeter. Theo loaded his Rauma drawings in the black boxes on his moped and drove to where he hoped to meet Billeter. He recommended him a quite new gallery and wrote an excellent review under the title “Die Phantastik des Alltäglichen“ (The Phantastical of the Everyday). It states: “Theo Dannecker, born in 1938 in Adliswil, where he has returned to after long travels to the Mediterranean, Ireland, England, Canada, and the US, exhibits, to our knowledge, for the first time in Switzerland, and his drawings give rise to the most beautiful hopes. [...] Dannecker shows front views of houses, of floors, which he alienates and raises into the fantastic. Walls expected to be strictly orthogonal are distended into caves and hiding places; rooms become canyons and unfathomable shafts [...] At first glance, Dannecker might be seen as a soft Piranesi; but in reality, the fantastic and the surreal recede toward the mundane. [...] Coming from the demonic and the dreamlike, he breaks into the light, but not into the brightness of higher insight and transfiguration, but of the pointless trivial.” (translation Current Concerns) The comparison with Piranesi, the great Italian engraver of the eighteenth century, was quite true, because Piranesi’s Carceri etchings, architectural fantasies, had impressed Theo very early.
With this exhibition Theo Dannecker became known in one go. He sold well; now he was one of them. Several other exhibitions followed, together with other Zurich artists like Richard P. Lohse, Wilfried Moser, Otto Müller, Hans Josephson, Alex Sadkowsky and Max Bill.
The Rauma drawings thus play an important role in the development of Theo Dannecker’s work, it was through them he became known. But they also lead to a comprehensive image analysis and to a more conscious self-analysis and dissection of the socio-political problems of our time.

Contribution to a better world
In 1967, during stays in Canada and the US, Theo Dannecker was confronted with the student protests against the Vietnam War, and the problem of war and peace has not let go of him – both as a person and an artist – ever since. When he heard that in Zurich these issues were being discussed in groups of the individual psychologists Friedrich Liebling and Josef Rattner, he went there, participated and and asked his question - what he as an artist could contribute to a better world? Friedrich Liebling gave him a response that included a task for life, as every psychologically trained person can see: If he was looking for a way to find an answer to his question, then he must learn to better understand himself and his fellow human beings.
For Theo Dannecker this was the starting point for a psychological study in the broadest sense. He took up studies about the importance of early childhood development and education at home, school and in society, about the constitution of society and much more. As a result, he wondered if the Rauma drawings could be related to his early childhood impressions. At first they had been brought into being far away from Adliswil, in Ireland, in self-imposed loneliness. When questioned further, however, it showed that visual and emotional childhood impressions had been aesthetically processed, places of childhood, places of experience (“Erlebnisorte”), as he calls them: the birthplace on Zurichstrasse, the parents’ house in  Austrasse, the mural from the Kronenwiese schoolhouse, the long wards of the children’s hospital or the pipes of the Ritom power plant in Ticino. Many details appeared in these pictures. It was remarkable that in this series of images, man played only a minor role.
In two analytical photo spreads Theo captured the “places of experience”. Thus, new, complementary works were created, which explain contextual and formal relations. Theo Dannecker has moved on, dealing with human history and capturing every step of his development, doubts and insights in textual images and concepts, presenting them in exhibitions and making them accessible in this documentary. For a few years, he completely renounced pictorial representation and developed his conceptual art.
In 1972, Theo Dannecker opened a private art school in Zurich. Since then, he has been teaching drawing and designing, turning to the younger generation as a teacher and, as he calls it, doing basic research.
In 1973, for the exhibition of Zurich artists in the Aargauer Kunsthaus, he designed a text as a catalogue contribution that fascinated me as an art historian – at the time I got to know Theo Dannecker.  “As an artist, I have to understand my intentions and my actions exactly, so that I do not run the risk of contributing to the great errors that torment people.” (fig. 6)
This way of working which he had gained through the analysis of the Rauma-drawings has ever since been part of his creative process. To present a topic first of all out of the situation, out of a feeling that results from immediate life-context, to analyse it and, in addition, to check the composition in terms of flawlessness. And for quite a while, Theo Dannecker included this analysis right in the picture.

Lovers reading

In 1994, when Theo Dannecker resumed figurative painting, his themes and his painting changed and he then formulated his theory, following Leo Tolstoy: “Art should create formal and spiritual order”. The artist vividly presented his new concept of art in his series of pictures “Lovers reading” (fig. 7) in his St. Moritz exhibition. Here, various painterly techniques are used to develop a vivid picture of a love relationship.
He chose a certain format and placed the lovers at the centre of his composition. In the first picture, the two figures are fixed almost abstractly with adhesive tape and executed in fast wide pink brush strokes. The two figures are embedded in a green nature, which is also briefly indicated with a broad brush. What is important: Already in this picture the woman is holding the book, a symbol of knowledge. Picture 2 concentrates on the naturalistic elaboration of the composition. The natural body contours are outlined with charcoal and worked out in pink. The man is prominently settled in the foreground in a natural position. The two persons have clearly taken on portrait-like features. In the third picture the relationship develops, the woman moves into the foreground, the man straightens up and turns towards her. The surrounding nature, the curved tree trunks and branches form a protective circle around the couple. The blue background, dense and compact, also suggests spatial depth and is complementary to the yellow bodies. The “disturbing” black rectangular frame says: the artist does not want to show an idyll, something else is happening here. Let us add what is written: they are reading Frieda Fromm-Reichmann’s publication “Psychology”. So the picture now says: Man, part of nature, becomes a mature individual only through his interpersonal relationships, through his dealings and relations with his fellow men, by getting to know the others. On the basis of eroticism, of mutual attraction, love is presented here as a mental and spiritual process, a process of education and human development, the result of which is a feeling of security and togetherness, i.e. happiness. The harmony found in the picture is depicted in panels four and five through various painterly concepts, in confrontation with the Zurich Concrete Art. And in the last picture the found harmony, the found order is dissolved into a two-coloured flat structure, yellow the figures and the nature green.

Studio Painting 1996

Theo Dannecker demonstrates his new conception of art, his conceptual and organisational thinking in his first Studio Painting of 1996 (fig. 8), on the subject of learning how to learn, to draw and to paint. Art is no longer created in solitude; it is taught and learnt. The artist presents his studio as an art school. The arrangement of the persons, the pupils and art students with the painter, who is their teacher, represent a first level of order: Within the circle there are those art students who are learning different techniques. The standing person in front on the left is using the classical articulated puppet for her drawing. The person standing behind her is holding up her pencil to take measurements. The male black-and-white figure, presented very plastically, is holding three chisels and a hammer in his hand; he embodies the work of a sculptor. The figure seen from the back sitting in front of the table is drawing the anatomical specimen of a stag beetle according to nature. Outside the circle are those concerned with art theory, art historical tradition and art education. Of course, it is very important to note what is read and what role models one deals with. The young woman is reading “The artist and his time” by Camus, a lecture rendered by Camus at the Nobel Prize ceremony in 1957. Here he warns the artist not to engage in a party programme; he should rather acquire an ethical attitude to his profession and to society.
At the front of the picture, stands Theo Dannecker as the teacher. With a string, he is pointing to the centre of the picture: to the beautiful self-portrait by Albrecht Dürer. Dürer wrote very encouraging words about creativity in his “Didaktika”: “No man can create a beautiful portrait out of his own imagination, if he has not filled his mind by means of much painting according to nature. This can no longer be called personal, but has become ‘art’, won and learned through that practice which germinates, grows and bears fruit.”
In a third room in the background of the picture, slightly above Dürer’s portrait, we see in perspective extension Theo Dannecker as a painter at his easel, in the gilet rouge favoured by Cézanne. There are many allusions to major fellow artists, to Rembrandt, Cézanne, to the artists of Zurich Concrete Art; and in all these allusions is expressed Dannecker’s positive view of the world, a differentiated, constructive view of the world and of man. In this studio art is not a secret; it is taught and learned. But if art is to endure, the fundamental social values must be included in this process.

We are at war

The second volume of the work edition includes the works of the mature Theo Dannecker, if we want to stick to art historical terms. I do not know how to express this in a better way, but it is life itself that Theo Dannecker paints now. Almost all the paintings show people, and sometimes there are even flower paintings like the homage to Manet.
But there is news, not long in coming: It’s war, delivered by a head that seems to have been borrowed from Picasso’s anti-war painting Guernica. Already in 1977, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, Theo Dannecker had designed his portfolio “Wir Menschen und der Krieg” (“We humans and war”). The Weeping Head (fig. 9 on p. VI) from 1990, an expressive profile drawing, was executed after reading Romain Rolland’s novel “Clérambault, the Story of a Free Conscience in War”. It expresses grief over the condition of human beings like us, who cannot live together in peace even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, after the so-called collapse of the Soviet Union.
The memorial against war (fig. 9 on p. VI), a grey-black plaster head, was developed from a stone the artist found in Venice on the day the Americans began bombing Afghanistan. He laments the war victims of the past 25 years in Yugoslavia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Syria, Yemen ... In its destroyed parts, its torn surface and its hollows, the head on the one hand symbolises the suffering of the war victims, and on the other, in its protrusions and distortions the grimace of the aggressors.

Building peace

But Theo Dannecker does not stop at the graphic accounts of misery and war crimes; he wants to contribute to the construction and shaping of a peaceful world. “Progressing towards a humane society with the help of depth psychological insights into human nature” is the title of an exhibition that he is producing together with Urs Knoblauch and others. Dannecker’s theme is now “Building peace”. He creates an art campaign in form of 1000 numbered and signed wooden tablets displaying this inscription, which he distributes all over the world in the course of 10 years. One of these tablets can be found with the Moscowitz couple in Israel, one on the counter of the electrician’s shop at the Kreuzplatz in Zurich, or one at the Fazer cafe in Helsinki. Under this motto, however, he also organises numerous exhibitions with an ever-changing focus. He creates images of human development and of the family, which on the one hand provides emotional security (fig. 10), but also demands humanity (fig. 11) and the assumption of responsibility. Other pictures are dedicated to the school, to learning, to education, to the importance of the primary school in building direct democracy, and others again are dedicated to the cooperative, to self-sufficiency, to independence, to the economic and political construction of society, to the Swiss Confederation, and to the Swiss model. Theo Dannecker never forgets his fellows, those in need.

International law applies to everyone

Under the title “Building Peace – International Law Applies to Everyone” (fig. 12), Theo Dannecker shows an example of how humiliated and severely aggrieved peoples might be given back their dignity through the conclusion of peace. In the main picture, representatives of the western world meet representatives from Afghanistan, Iraq and from African tribes. In this historic meeting a Western politician comes to meet an Afghan with the words: “We have done wrong”. So the first step is from the West. The admission of guilt, the willingness to make amends and to listen to another and to understand one another” are mentioned here as prerequisites for a genuine peace agreement.

2006 Studio painture

If we ask Theo Dannecker how he got there and how he came to be so certain in his will to create peace without war, without preventive wars, then we can find his answer in his 2006 Studio Painting (fig. 13). Here he has gathered all those people around him who encouraged him in the idea of “creating peace”:
Immanuel Kant, for example, the German philosopher, called his writing of 1795, in which he developed a first sketch of international law, “Perpetual Peace”. It is regarded as the most important treatise on war and peace in the German language. He concluded with the remarkable sentence “that perpetual peace is not an empty idea, but a task that must be solved bit by bit”. At the right image edge of Dannecker’s studio picture, Kant sits at at a table. Friedrich Schiller, the partly cut-off figure viewed from behind standing near him, was a great admirer of the philosopher and was initially fascinated by the ideals of the French Revolution. However, when he learned of the executions, he turned away in outrage and disgust and even wrote a pamphlet defending Louis XVI. Thus he is portrayed here not only as the poet of personal and political freedom - as whom we all know him - but also as a man of balance. Close behind Kant the contemporary Heinrich Pestalozzi, pedagogue and social reformer, adds an important humanitarian accent to the protest against war with the aid he gave to surviving war orphans. He wanted to strengthen their whole person through a natural upbringing and education.

The importance of education for peaceful coexistence is pointed out several times in this picture. The two prominent figures in the centre of the foreground, the elegantly dressed humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam with his scroll and Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy in his modest white cotton garb, represent the pedagogical idea. So does Sibylle, Theo Dannecker’s wife and herself a pedagogue. Erasmus’ scroll quotes the beautiful sentence from his pacifist “Lament of Peace”: “Peace is hardly ever so unjust that it would not be preferable to the apparently most ‘just’ war”. Erasmus devoted himself to the education of the regent, later Charles V, in order to bring about a peaceful and beneficial policy; Tolstoy founded schools for his serfs, for the poorest, for the people. The contribution of artist colleagues Pablo Picasso and Francisco Goya and other personalities on the subject of “creating peace” can be supplemented here by the viewer. Here only as much: Theo Dannecker, the artist, is dressed in complementary colours to his wife Sibylle and is drawing a portrait of Käthe Kollwitz at his easel. Käthe Kollwitz - after herself losing a son in the First World War – worked for peace with all her might. Her famous 1924 poster “Never again War!” is well known.
So here in the studio painture people are gathered who, with pen and brush, in word and deed, protested against war, who contributed to the development of popular education, pedagogy, human rights, humanitarian international law, the founding of the Red Cross and the Good Services, and who deployed their vitality for political independence, for non-violent and peaceful coexistence.
Theo Dannecker has been performing his task as a man and as an artist for 60 years now, and he has fulfilled his responsibility in this society. With this work documentation he hands over his life’s work to us, so that we can gain inspiration and joy from it. And as he lets us go, he entrusts us with a task: Rolling the Stone of Justice.    •

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