Rory MacLean meets Hans Scheib
‘I hope you don’t mind that it’s left over from the Christmas party,’ said Scheib, returning from the kitchen with a bottle of wine. He stepped around his remarkable creations, over the chisels and chain saw. ‘I think it tastes rather good.’
Hans Scheib is one of Germany’s most influential wood sculptors. Born in Potsdam in 1949, the son of a prominent East German communist, he grew up at odds with the system. From his earliest days he embarked on a personal, creative journey that brought him into conflict with the system, and propelled him west in the years before the fall of the Wall.
‘As far back as I can remember I dreamed about being an artist,’ he told me, pouring two glasses of vin de pays de Vaucluse. ‘I went to school, then high school, and finally Dresden’s College of Fine Arts, so that I could get a slip of paper that stated I was an artist. I needed that to protect me from the police calling me “asocial”.’ He added with a laugh, ‘I blame it on my grandmother for giving me my first pad of drawing paper.’
In 1976 Scheib found a vacant shop in East Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg and turned it into a studio. ‘At first I wanted to work in bronze. I made clay models and plaster casts but - I was a bit of an idiot back then - I found I couldn’t afford (or find) bronze in East Germany. So I started looking for a material I could work with, which I could afford. On the street I found thick wooden beams from demolished houses. No one wanted them so I collected them, painted them and started carving them, which - if nothing else - confirmed to the officials that I really was an idiot.’
At the time no other professional sculptor in East or West Germany worked with the material. So Scheib reached far back into history to find his artistic references, in Egyptian, Roman and 16th century Gothic sculpture. He did not discover the figurative wood carvings of the Die Brücke artists until years later as none of that work was held in East German collections.
‘Luckily I prefer my heroes to have been dead for at least 500 years,’ he joked, pouring us more wine. ‘Their ideas have passed the test of time and there’s no personal conflict.’
‘I was passionate about my art, not politics,’ he went on. ‘In my work I tried to interpret what was happening around me. So can you imagine what it was like to be told – at the age of 30 – that I could never see the world?’ he asked me. ‘I went crazy. I disagreed more and more with the regime, seeing the discrepancy between the dream and the reality. In 1985 I applied to move to West Berlin – with my wife, my children, my cat and my work. I think the authorities were happy to get rid of me,’ he laughed. ‘To start my journey into the wider world, all I had to do was cross the street.’
Scheib’s first year in West Berlin was difficult without money or patrons. But in 1986 a group show at the Haus am Waldsee, one of the foremost exhibition spaces for international contemporary art in Germany, launched his career in the West. Since then he has survived and prospered on his work alone, and by continuing to follow his own individual course.
‘When one is born in 1949 and grows up in the post-war period in East Germany, as I did, then German division, the Cold War and the Berlin Wall cannot merely be dealt with as a topic of interest or as a visual theme. They are life themes. It raises questions – also artistic ones – that need to be addressed.’
Behind us a pinewood block rose from the sawdust floor. Scheib had painted it with bold black, red and chalky blue lines and then, with chain saw and chisels, begun to carve from it a naked woman with fine tilted shoulders and a head of coiffed hair. The woman – like the other sculptures that surrounded her – had a shocking immediacy as if filled with longing and loneliness, frailty and sexual hunger, humour and tragedy. Often his subjects were drawn from mythology because ‘we have no better things’. He told me, ‘I take the subject into myself and work with it. This is a very old tool, and a good tool.’
Beyond his wooden carvings stood refined, waif-like nudes cast in bronze, a medium which he finally – in the West – was able to afford. Throughout his career Scheib has also produced many remarkable drawings, woodcuts and lithographs, as well as a series of paper cuttings to illustrate a satirical text by Jaroslav Hasek.
‘I’ve never know what I’m going to do tomorrow,’ he said. ‘When I came to West Berlin, no one did work like mine. I’ve kept on stepping into the unknown, towards the wide blue horizon of possibilities.’
In recent months Hans Scheib has been treated for throat cancer. The disease may have left him softly-spoken but it has not taken away his voice. This independent-minded, free-thinking artist will continue to strive to express himself, rising above both political and populist trends, interpreting with world with honesty, humility and humour.