Scharein interviewed by Rory MacLean
Scharein set off at a run down the corridor of his Berlin home, dashing between studio and ‘travel dream room’, crackling with frenetic energy. I am fascinated by the process of how one becomes an artist. I like to unravel the long chain of events, unpicking the links of iron and gold, of thorns or flowers - to paraphrase Dickens - that lead a painter to pick up a brush or a sculptor to shape his vision in stone. But I had never done it before at a breathtaking run.
‘Here it began,’ he said, starting to pull out his earliest canvases, showing me the first links in the chain of his memorable life.
Scharein was born in Bassum, a town not far from Bremen in Lower Saxony. His parents were refugees from eastern lands lost to Poland and Russia after 1945. From those earliest days he – like his family – felt himself to be an outsider. He learnt to do things for himself, by himself. Even though money was very tight, he decided to study art in Hamburg, Saarbrücken and Berlin. At first he earned his living as a teacher but – as soon as he could afford it - became a full-time freelance artist.
‘At first I concentrated on learning my craft: how does one draw volume? What are grey tones? I learned to look, not at colour, but rather at the dark-light sequences.’
On the easel Scharein showed me realistic drawings from Turkey and Morocco – executed with superb technique – and then early paintings from the High Atlas, where he began to move toward the abstract.
‘I’d found it difficult to reveal my emotions in realistic works,’ he confessed. ‘Friends always asked me to explain my paintings and that inhibited me. To free myself I started along a path from the objective and realistic to the abstract.’
Before my eyes he flashed a series of paintings – reminiscent of Dali and Braque - to illustrate his development.
‘I developed my style in an intoxication of work, through a creative process, rather than through any theoretical formula.’
Scharein worked through a process of reduction. First, in 1970 he removed colour from his paintings, limiting himself to black squares on a white ground. Then he manipulated and developed the square to create both spiralling images and three-dimensional forms. Next, over the course of a decade, he reduced the squares to single coloured points. The outcome was his distinctive, trademark colour canvases, each of which is made up of tens of thousands of painted dots.
‘I have only these two brushes,’ he announced, waving them before my eyes, darting across the room to show his meticulous colour charts.
The vast, modern paintings which line the walls of his apartment burst with colour and light, evoking individual interpretations from viewers. A tropical landscape? A shadow on a temple doorway? Dawn in the desert? Almost any reading is possible as Scharein focuses on colour not form, and never limits the viewer’s imagination by revealing his sources.
‘In my paintings I want to convey the atmosphere of a place, the feelings that I had while travelling,’ he said. ‘Travel is very, very important to me as a source of inspiration.’
Scharein set off at a run for his ‘travel dream room’, a peaceful, contemplative space filled with objects from his many journeys: Burmese lacquer boxes, Nepalese singing bowls, precious stones from Madagascar and Namibia, seashells from the Seychelles. On the wall were hundreds of his photographs from around the world.
‘Music is also vital to my creative process,’ he said, returning to his studio and revealing his huge collection of classical CDs. ‘Gregorian chants, Mahler, Arvo Pärt and, above all, Maria Callas - I listen to them while I’m working. From Callas I learnt that an artist can “colour” their voice to encapsulate the emotion of an opera or aria. So I asked myself, “Why can’t I do this in my colour fields?”’ He added with a laugh, ‘If I ever manage to do it half as well as her I’ll retire.'
Scharein’s bold, modern work appeals to private collectors as well as corporate and government clients. His paintings have been bought by Daimler-Chrysler, IBM and the Reuter family. The German defence minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, recently acquired two canvases for his office.
‘I have an appetite for pleasure,’ admitted Scharein with a wry smile. ‘Since my childhood, there have been a handful of things that have served as conscious sources of inspiration in my painting. To formulate an image, I prepare myself by living, feeling, smelling, touching, suffering, seeing – and meeting new people. Here in Berlin I've created the conditions by cooking food, that is just as creative – though not as lasting – as my painting. For me, the most important thing is to enjoy a meal while getting to know my guests, surrounded by the pictures in my live-in studio. I like to show new pieces between courses, giving people an insight into my world – or worlds. In this sense, my appetite for pleasure does not only mean travel, photography, writing, cooking, or painting, but also experiencing fellow human beings.’
In addition Scharein has organised studio discussions on art, music and Maria Callas which have included Bundestag members Monika Grütters (CDU) and Gregor Gysi (Die Linke). Next year he plans to stage an exhibition during the Woman’s World Cup, in association with the aid agency Care International. Why?
‘Because my paintings are made up of points and points are round, like footballs,’ he answered with a smile. ‘Also because I admire Auma Obama, the President’s half-sister. I met her last year at a dinner at the American Embassy and she’s responsible for the Care project “Sports for Social Change”.’
I pause to gaze again at Scharein’s bold paintings, and reflect on his thoughts and plans, and as I do I realise – for him and his many admirers - that’s the point of art.