Jürgen Tenz

Rory MacLean meets Jürgen Tenz

© Jürgen Tenz
© Jürgen Tenz
West Berlin was an island for almost thirty years. Despite generous subsidies from Bonn and Washington, the city was slowly dying, surrounded by communist East Germany and three-quarters of a million Red Army soldiers. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev once called Berlin 'the testicles of the West', boasting that 'every time I want to make the West scream, I squeeze Berlin'.

In those days many of Berlin's artists also received subsidies, many of whom – including for example the founders of the 'Neue Wilde' movement – left the island city as soon as they became successful. West Germany's patrons and collectors had much deeper pockets. Add in the influx of 'politicised' wannabe anarchist-artists and conscientious objectors – West Berliners were exempt from serving in the Bundeswehr – and the city's arts scene became particularly self-centered.

But not Jürgen Tenz. 'Loyalty kept me in Berlin,' the handsome, Berlin-born 72 year-old artist told me when we met in his Winterfeldt Strasse home and studio. 'In those days I believed that in the whole of Germany the only place that an artist could work freely was in this city. In Munich or Frankfurt, the critics would judge you. But not here. I loved – and love – this cosy, "little" Berlin.'

Bleistiftzeichnung auf Papier, Nr. 24 © Jürgen TenzAs a child in the occupied city Tenz had sketched fantasy worlds filled with threatening soldiers and battle tanks. His parents had wanted him to have a profession so he trained to be a machinist at Siemens. But the need to express himself was too strong. He began taking evening art classes and then attended the Staatliche Hochschule der Künste Berlin. He left Siemens to work for the German Research Foundation as a scientific illustrator, drawing in precise detail the archaeological discoveries then being made in Düppel and Spandau. After four years – and a brief flirtation with advertising – he decided to become a fulltime fine artist.

'I simply had to draw,' he said. 'I had to work out my imagination, to develop a portfolio.'

Veränderte Landschaft II, 1977, Federzeichnung © Jürgen TenzHis first body of work was at once classical and contemporary, a series of arresting, surrealist pen-and-inks that bring to mind Hieronymus Bosch in the machine age. In a macabre, damned underworld, perverse demons and dragons imprison and control nature, riding female nudes, turning flesh-and-blood into devilish robots. Human torsos surrender to the beasts, or struggle to break free of their bonds. On the horizon – like the ring of woods that surrounded much of West Berlin – are healthy, hopeful trees.

'The works aren't about Berlin; they are an expression of my inner emotions,' said Tenz. 'People are overwhelmed by technology, or by consumption and consumerism. Nature offers hope. The female nude symbolises the formation and preservation of life.'

The drawings were well received, buyers and gallerists calling for more of the same, but after five years Tenz was hungry for change. 'I was like the travelling opera singer who realises that he's thinking about the time of his next flight while singing an aria. The work had become too automatic. It was time to move on.'

Autokolonne, 1987, Gouache  © Jürgen TenzTenz's next series was about Berlin. As a keen urban cyclist he often bicycled along the line of the Wall, pausing at the transient communities that existed alongside it in Kreuzberg and Wedding. With broad brushes and bold primary colours, he created compelling gouache mini-portraits of the city: crisscrossing roads and bridges, S-Bahn arches, construction cranes, caravans, police cars and the occasional female nude.

'My language is my pictures,' he said. 'I am not a theorist. For me, ideas begin in the gut, are sorted in the head then come down my arms onto the canvas. Berlin and current affairs give me all the stimulus that I need.'

Tenz only went abroad once for work, travelling to France to collaborate on a collective project. 'Almost as soon as I arrived in Arcachon, I asked myself why I had come? I found it boring: the sea, the sailboats, the bugs. I returned to Berlin after three weeks, and completed the work at home. I needed my kiez and my daily visit to the café, my newspaper. A gallery-owner once said of me, "Tenz sits in his café and the world comes to him." I don't need to travel to be inspired. Everything is here: in my head, in my stomach, in Berlin.'

The 1990s marked a period of close collaboration with the dancer Vera Bilbija. Tenz painted hundreds of studies of her in broad black and red brush strokes which he used to shape and inform a series of dynamic hand prints. In these images figures float, drift and dance in the most simple and economical forms. Today Tenz has come full circle – or spiral – working once again in fine pencil, creating scenes of war and struggle, but now anchored in the real world of an imagined Syria or Ukraine.

His studio is neat and organised. His prolific life's work is filed in neat folders. Ink rollers are pegged to the wall in orderly rows. Brushes are clean and carefully arranged. A series of his own sculptures grace a shelf. His windows open onto bird song, lush trees and Winterfeldtplatz.

Frau mit Hut III, 1987, Gouache © Jürgen Tenz'When I work I feel free,' Tenz said, sweeping back his mane of white hair. He is a recipient of the ARAG Art Prize and sat on the Berlin-Tempelhof/Schöneberg Cultural Advisory Board for ten years. He is also a member of the Verein Berliner Künstler – the association of Berlin artists – the oldest art association in Europe. 'I follow my instincts, create what I want to create. I once had a gallerist who asked me to paint something in yellow. In yellow! I told him, "I only paint in yellow – or any specific colour – when I need it." Most galleries today only want younger artists who they can coach and shape for the market, or people from the international crowd. That's not me. I just do my work, as I must, as I am, here at home in Berlin.'

Rory MacLean
July 2014
Related links

Dossier: Media Art in Germany

History, tendencies, names and institutions