Werner Berg on Canvas

The First Major Exhibition on Contemporary Art in Carinthia

On The Town | Marlies Burkhardt | July / August 2008

The wooded landscape of southern Carinthia (Photo: Darleen Johnson)

"These trees seem to be alive," said my friend Sigrid. "They seem to move along with us." That morning, three of us were driving down a winding road through the lush, sculpted Carinthian countryside near the Slovenian border. It is an enchanted landscape that has been the retreat of princes and inspired generations of Austrian artists and musicians.

This picturesque region was the adopted country of artist Werner Berg, a German expressionist painter, who purchased an old farm, the "Rutarhof", in the 1930s, and moved there with his wife and children in search for a world that was fresh and unspoiled. Located near the little village Bleiburg, Berg hoped to become self sufficient, earning his living as a farmer and painting as he chose.

Compromises were unthinkable for him in life and art, and to some extent, he succeeded. But at what cost, I wondered? Which was what we had gone on this little journey to find out.   A permanent exhibition of his work in the Werner Berg Museum in Bleiburg, suggests an answer to this question, and a new show opening Jun. 28, is expected to add some additional depth to it. The show, "K08: Emancipation and Confrontation," is the county’s first major exhibition on contemporary art and architecture of the port war period. It involves nine art institutions in all and in addition to Berg, includes works of Kiki Kogelnik, Maria Lassnig, Bruno Gironcoli or Cornelius Kolig. We drove past majestic forests in a pallet of blue-green shades, broken with  pastures of fresh grass. The colors were vivid and the odors of summer earth so intense; we inhaled the ancient scent of life.  This was what Werner Berg had probably seen when he had first traveled to this country and what must have been drawn him towards it. This was why he chose to live here, the beauty of the landscape a justification in itself, making up for the isolation, for the endless struggle to make ends meet.

However, it seemed to be a price worth paying, as he once admitted in a letter to his friend and fellow artist Herbert Boeckl.

"I am happy about the farm; even with the work and worry, I just wanted to give myself up to life, to win painting through it", he wrote in 1934. "Without disquiet the wheels stop turning. Being self-satisfied is deadly."

To art historians Berg’s decision came as "no surprise." Lower Carinthia, "was a region that still consciously cultivated bilingualism and the coexistence of different peoples, mixing the familiar and the foreign, a deep-rootedness in the past and curiosity with regard to the present," wrote critic Wieland Schmied, President of the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts in Munich.

Our vehicle smoothly and slowly moved along, across fields and over charming hills and passed huge rocks of sandstone. She was right my friend Sigrit, sitting in the back of the car, the trees did seem to be alive. No, it was not as if the trees had faces and mouths, although you could hear their voices as a slight breeze caressed their leaves – audible also to us through our open windows. What was tangible was rather the essence of life, the notion that we are surrounded by nature, living nature. The colors were so vivid and the odors of summer, of the earth so intense. It was the archaic scent of life that we inhaled. But the hot summers were difficult. "This season paralyses and oppresses me more than I would like to admit, Berg admitted in a letter to Boeckl, "and the weather takes care of the rest. We still have more work than hands, and we have also had quite a bit of bad luck and worry." The physical and the financial strain of farm life were often beyond imagination, still life and art seemed inseparably entangled.

"There is no art (and thus no life) beyond human commitment, and everything that we are subjected to meets us in the reality of space and time" Berg wrote, "and the meeting with reality must admittedly be new, strong and unsullied. Thus, we live here and praise the hard toils of the day, and precisely, at the times when they often stifle us." Berg, it appears, saw no alternative.

In the village of Bleiburg and finally came to halt at the main piazza, happy to give our feet something to do after this long drive. It was a lovely summer afternoon, still the piazza was deserted, just a fountain cheerfully spitting water into the surrounding pool. People are at home on Sundays in the country or at a "Gasthaus" having lunch with the family. So it came as a momentary surprise to us to see the commotion in front of one of the old houses on the square. It was Werner Berg Museum, I realized – what we had come to see.  The Museum is housed in the former post office, a 19th century Habsburg classic. In 1968, Gottfried Stöckl, an art lover, confectioner and friend of artist Werner Berg, suggested providing a space to house the painter’s large oeuvre. He had in mind something like the of the Edvard Munch Museum in Oslo, an artist Berg deeply admired.

I picked up a folder at the information desk on the right in the entrance hall, mesmerized by the expression on the rugged-face of the woman glancing up at me with half-closed eyes from under a white scarf. I looked up; my friends had already disappeared into the first room. Streams of light were streamed down from above right and I followed a stairway to the first floor. Light flooded the upstairs gallery, pouring in from huge windows, a whole glass wall, in fact, with a door leading out to a balcony looking down over the courtyard. Inside the door against white-painted walls, hang Werner Berg’s reflections of country life in Lower Carinthia, its people, its landscape and buildings depicted on oil paintings as well as woodcuts.

Berg created illusions, but at the same time, pictures that were so real that the vivid naturalness I felt a half an hour earlier was tangible again. I could feel his enthusiasm and the affection he must have felt towards this country and the people. Rooted in Expressionism, the paintings reveal the characteristic features, emotions and atmosphere of the people of the region in their rural look and landscape, especially the winter scenes. It was easy to become absorbed, oblivious as people moved on around me. I didn’t hear them, not even the children, although they were there.

All his life, Berg was looking for the "ultimate form" that he to reveal in all things.

"He most secretly strove for was to enter into myth, into a mythically and archetypically elevated existence," said Prof. Schmied from Munich. "He always recognized metaphors in nature, in the world around him, to show us the surprising and unsuspected, to preserve it, to keep it alive, at least in an image."

This is what I understood me as I stood there gazing in wonder at the paintings. The wonder is, of course, not the same for everyone. For me, it was in the naturalness, the minutely delineated traces of life’s hardness and joy in people’s faces along; it was in the melancholy of his wintry scenes, as well as the burgeoning of life in his spring paintings, in life as it really and naturally is.

"Shall we go?" My two lost friends were standing next to me all of a sudden. I hadn’t heard them coming.


K08:Emancipation and Confrontation

Werner Berg Museum 

10. Oktoberplatz 4 

9150 Bleiburg 

Tel.: 0043/4235/2110 

Jun. 29 – Nov. 2 

Tue-Sun 10am to 6pm 

Admission Fee: €8,00

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