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“All such crimes have one characteristic in common: they are perpetrated in the name of humanity, the class struggle, the liberation of the people, the right of the strongest, all at the discretion of the individual. They all have the same goal: the biological destruction of the enemy…”
What is described in this book happened in Romania after the Bolsheviks discarded the pretense that they were tender-hearted humanitarians bringing “equality” and “civil rights” to the downtrodden victims of the wicked “Fascists” and “anti-Semites.
In the arts there is one unifying factor that establishes reputation: the historical context. Critics and then historians look for trends, precedents, and convenient labels so that readers may more easily find links for what are set before them. Through various disciplines, the disseminators of curriculum shape opinion from an early age with certain reference points guided by an unseen arbiter of posterity. But historical contexts depend as much on personal perspective at any given moment—in which direction our attention is focused—along with the time and place at that particular intersection. Our gaze can only take in so much, and some artists elude historical and geographical contexts while creating independently, outside standardised parameters and under the radar. Occasionally, all too rarely, such an artist surfaces between the fast-flowing currents of national movements for which the undertow of time-place pulls in other directions. All free-searchers make similar discoveries that can only be wondered at and enjoyed within the sphere that is opened up.
The Polish artist Stefan Żechowski (pron. Ge(r)-hovksi) is a perfect example of these factors, who like the Czech T.F.Šimon or Russian writer Mikhail Artsybashev are even neglected in their homelands. Żechowski’s fate was to be born in a village preceding a world war that for the first time in 125 years signalled national independence from the yoke of a Prussian/ Austrian/Russian Partition, cruelly snatched away again after the next world war by an intolerant Soviet regime. Poland traditionally took its cultural vision from the West rather than Russia, but usually with a slight time-delay of a few years before taking hold from earlier models. Thus Romanticism, Symbolism, Impressionism, and Modernism had Polish exponents too, permeated by their specific geo-social and cultural experiences. Subtly inspired by the first two movements, irrespective of fashion, this was the complex location in tragic times where our subject lived.
Born on 19th July 1912, exactly one week and decade after another original artist-writer whom he admired, Bruno Schulz, he lived all his life in Newtown Street in Książ Wielki, a village near Kielce. He was the fourth and last son of Wincent and Florentyna, honest and industrious simple folk who in spite of isolated rural poverty ensured education for all their children. One became a teacher and another had artistic talent like Stefan, their lives cut short as victims of Auschwitz thirty years later. For an artist who became so fascinated, indeed mesmerized, by the female form, it may be significant that there were no sisters in the family, nor were more distant relatives mentioned as suitors. A girl at the same school, a one-storey thatched 17th century building, remembered that the future artist didn’t join in playground games but stood watching or else read and sketched, traits that never left the outsider all his life.
The first person to recognise his talent was the school headmaster in 1926, who allowed Stefan to draw portraits of those around him during class. Other teachers sometimes even bought the drawings for money or sweets. A developing theme for his work and philosophy from this time was the subject of hate, which he recounted in a diary written all his life. For example, one Sunday when out walking he heard screaming from a victim of mugging who was hit on the head by a stone, an almost biblical memory that he regularly reworked: he asked himself what does it mean, why do people hate each other so much? It was a question that could never be answered, perpetuated in local drunken fights that disgusted him and which featured, allegorically, from his earliest surviving pictures right to the end.
In 1929 the 17 year-old travelled the 60 kms to Kraków, the former capital that became the nation’s cultural heart, for an examination to enter the Ornamental Arts and Crafts School in Mickiewicz Avenue, appropriately named after the national poet he avidly read and portrayed. His still-partly surviving portfolio, with illustrations of another bard’s verse and country scenes that somehow fuse the uncanny with the actual, so impressed the Board of Directors that he was exempted from the theory exam. Indeed, they created quite a stir as a new discovery, which must have lightened the long trek home as he didn’t have enough money for the fare so had to walk the last 30 kms on foot. (The train ticket cost 7 złoty, he recounted 50 years later, the price of food for a week.) The parents’ joy was tempered by worry about how to fund his new life in the city. His diary says he was one of the poorest and youngest students there in his brother’s hand-me-down clothes, suffering hunger and deprivation as well as disappointment with the curriculum (the endless drawing of chairs and pots seemed like an insult) among classmates who included irritating rich girls bored with their new environment. He confessed hunger was the worst part as a developing awareness of the importance of his art transcended the constant humiliation, while school fees were successively reduced due to success. This developing individuality reappeared when he was called-up for the army, a nightmare that also involved solitary confinement on bread and water for drawing a caricature of his officer!
First exhibiting in 1929 with 12 more in the next 8 years, his first solo show in that city in 1930 included pictures of saints, perhaps a reaction to the school experiences. Icons, whether religious or cultural, were a constant motif. After graduation in 1932 he joined a little-known group, the Tribe of the Horned Heart, based on inspiration from the pagan, pre-Christian nation. He was fascinated with the art and ‘haughty personality’ (Ben Hecht) of its leader Stanisław Szukalski (1893-1987), whom he deemed a master though later questioned his personality and fell-out (much of his work was destroyed by the Nazis, including his own museum). They were on parallel paths, the elder painter having one of the most singular theories for art and mankind that there has ever been; his ashes were spread, significantly, on Easter Island. Outliving the disciple, his reputation revived around the same time in the 1980s and has been sponsored by Leonardo diCaprio. After leaving this group, who were somewhat against the tide when experimental movements such as the Artes (formed in Lwów then moved to Paris) held sway, Żechowski returned to book illustration which resulted in its own controversy. In 1936, on the recommendation of the artist Marian Ruzamski (1889-1945), he visited the writer Emil Zegadłowicz (1881-1941), a magnet for controversial cultural figures. In his rambling country mansion, among sculptures and wall-paintings of demons mouthing aphorisms outside an altar-room once used by a Christian sect, he shared a ghostly experience and ran shouting outside. While there he contracted ’flu and the family nursed him while becoming close friends, a rare experience for the loner described by another visitor, the Socialist Leon Kruczkowski whose book he later illustrated with Flemish-like detail, as ‘quiet, confident and hard-headed but not witty’.
Zegadłowicz was an individualist in a kindred vein, later completely ignored by C.Miłosz’s arrogantly-titled The History of Polish Literature in spite of writing an early study of Wilde and modern art movements, dramas and poetry including Chinese forms like Ezra Pound. His novels combine a daring exploration of inner drives and passions with awareness of Nature and folk customs of rural communities such as the Tatra highlanders. He told the artist that his drawings conjured in front of his eyes the doyen of Decadence who had died a decade earlier, Stanisław Przybyszewski (see Wormwood #6), an intriguing collocation as the three explored similar aesthetics. His guest confessed, shamefacedly, that he had read almost nothing by that writer who was once famous across all Europe, but in childhood wanted to read his 1890s novel Homo Sapiens until his brother took it first saying it was not for the young. Zegadłowicz was an important conduit for such material during the inter-war years, when for example he met Bruno Schulz and given a couple of drawings, which as we saw on our visit to the home are still lovingly kept by the writer’s daughter. She still remembers Stefan’s thick dark hair when he used to shave out in the garden during his stay.
The artist gave them 30 drawings as a gift and contributed 37 illustrations to the writer’s new novel, Motory (1937, The Motors). Due to those difficult times, when the establishment controlled the media, the novel was issued by a fictitious publisher that was the author himself, but soon almost all the 1,000 copies were confiscated and the illustrator accused of ‘anti-government rebelliousness and immorality’. The artist’s wish to be associated with this work is in itself significant—at first he was disappointed by the erotic scenes that were too naturalistic for his romantic spirit and view of love, but decided to choose only the fragments he personally liked. Żechowski usually preferred the classics of Polish and European literature from earlier periods, such as Dostoevsky, Edgar Allan Poe, Nietzsche, and the Romantic icons Adam Mickiewicz and Juliusz Słowacki (whose poem “Anhelli” he illustrated at school). Their evocative, almost mythic portraits reappear as a touchstone during the alienation of everyday life. Apart from a few short stories he read all Dostoevsky’s work, which he described as like going to a dark witch-world where the poor, innocent, ill and angry people dwell, a space very much occupied by himself too in the cramped village cottage at the end of a lane and round the corner from the surprisingly massive church. He spent a couple of months away from school with his work, buried in thinking about the sense and meaning of the world around him, but when he also read Poe (which was possibly illustrated by Odilon Redon) he felt himself losing the will to fight to change his situation. Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, translated by the Decadent writer Wacław Berent, sent the painter into raptures from its very first words.
The visual artists that Stefan Żechowski admired are also significant for an understanding of his own art—not for explication, because they primarily registered on his consciousness rather than the images and style, as with all true originals (in this respect it’s the same with the evocative art of the Quay Brothers, who first introduced us to the Polish master’s work in their studio). Apart from the already-mentioned Szukalski, whose strange creativity mysteriously ‘confronted’ the prodigy before emigration to America, contemporary artists are noticeable by their absence from his stated influences. At college he would be the first and last to leave the National Museum on Sundays gazing at the famous canvases of Szukalski, Artur Grottger, who died aged 30 and had a famous love affair with a female patriot, and Jacek Malczewski as well as his ‘teachers of light’: Leonardo da Vinci, Correggio, Rembrandt and Reubens whose work of ‘divine features’ also featured in Michelangelo’s sculptures. One exception to this pantheon was an interest in the more recent ethereal Symbolism of Arnold Böcklin. Before and during the war he created various cycles entitled “Childhood Memories”, “Dreams of Power”, “War”, “Summits”, “Hymns to Nature”, and “Ill Earth”, as well as essays on free-will, Christ and Satan, subjects that allow a glimpse into his thinking during the mindless engulfing of Europe.
Poland was soon placed in Stalin’s grip, there was no middle ground and little choice but to accept the regime’s Social-Realism or else be ostracised and starved if not imprisoned. From 1946-1949 Żechowski designed a series of thirty postage stamps on Polish culture along with sculpture-like portraits of Lenin and Marx (as well as Chopin, Paganini, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, and Plato), the following year receiving first prize at a national exhibition as well as the Gold Cross of Merit in 1955. At this time he illustrated a new edition of Emil Zegadłowicz’s most famous novel, Zmory (Nightmares) which was made into a film by Poland’s foremost director Andrzej Wajda, as well as the well-known Jerzy Żulawski’s On the Silver Globe. After the short-lived thaw following Stalin’s death in 1956, he withdrew from public life.
Three years earlier, while away, he heard that his home in Książ had been set on fire by a neighbour. He lost his diary, which involved 23 years of his life, drawings including some of the “Anhelli” series, and correspondence with writers and artists. The motive for the arson is unknown for sure, but when we visited the Muse of his art, his widow Marianna Żechowska, we could see that the home is still closely-bordered by other cottages. Almost unchanged from her husband’s portrayal, and the time when the younger girl used to supply him with books when working in a bookshop, she kindly showed us unpublished drawings from his prodigious albums along with decorated artefacts that are little known. The astonishment that the art provokes cannot be adequately conveyed in a narrative, but it is comparable to the shock that this wondrous treasure-trove of a lonely artist, whose ideal was to convey a unique vision, should be so little known in the world.
Some international notice did come, albeit sporadically, during his last twenty years. In 1964 he exhibited in Brussels then exactly ten years later at an erotica and fantasy exhibition in New York, for which he had won a scholarship, a rare achievement in Communist times. He was invited to stay but preferred to return to Poland, although some exhibits appeared in Sternberg’s renowned L’Amour sensual: An Encyclopedia of Erotic Art that has been periodically reprinted and Andrzej Banach’s Les Enfers (The Hells), both in Paris. In 1977 a television documentary “Hermit” was filmed with interviews in his studio, which is still screened today, showing the always clean-shaven, soberly-dressed man almost as incongruously placed among the art as the viewer. According to his wife, he didn’t smoke or drink, ‘his only addiction was women’. A selection of drawings, poorly reproduced, alongside his writings was published as an album in Łódź, Na Jawie (1981, The Undream), when a monthly pension was granted for his lifelong service to art by the city of Kielce. This belated recognition was only briefly experienced, as he died on the 28th October 1984 and laid to rest in the cemetery among the quiet fields surrounding his home.
At the beginning of the new century a better-produced, lavish folio with rare photographs appeared, Kusiciel Demonów (The Temptation of Demons), but against the wishes of the artist’s wife. Also of interest, with unpublished material from the family archive, is a concurrent exhibition catalogue by Kraków’s Historical City Museum. In 2002 the local school was renamed after him, and his widow donated four portraits at the inauguration ceremony; for the 25th anniversary of his death a ceremony was held there attended by local dignitaries.
It is said that his preference for solitude combined with an introverted nature contributed to the underestimation of his reputation that is only now being rehabilitated, yet it is extremely rare for any village artist to even be heard about outside their locality. Full of disdain for the low level of modern art, this master craftsman diligently worked in pastel, crayon, charcoal, pencil and oil in a deliberate archaic style that adds to the dreaminess, the otherworldliness of the vision. Too superficially it is sometimes labelled kitsch, but that term signifies degraded value, the sad substitutes for life fostered by banality and mediocrity: Stefan Żechowski’s art is a reaction to such objects of the world, such artefacts of atrophic modernism, it is an outpouring organic in its growth. The eternal verities are depicted to counter the incursive modern world, as did the admired Symbolists. One of the first diaries of R.M. Rilke, another advocate of the solitary way, defined art as ‘the means by which singular, solitary individuals fulfil themselves on a path towards freedom. What Napoleon was outwardly, an artist is inwardly. He creates to make more space within himself,’ and this applies to our subject.
It would be too easy to compare with kindred imbibers of infinity such as Odilon Redon, Alfred Kubin, Feliçien Rops or Aubrey Beardsley. Yet these originals do share a principle image of woman in an inner micro-cosmos or fantasy-world that in human terms is driven by the dynamics of extreme passions, which can manifest sexually or through its counterpoint of hate. To some extent there is the bond of a Symbolist-Decadent view of Woman as a Temptress, as Eve and Salomé, but She is also fundamentally a Muse for Man with the same burden. The fleshy women, as in the more staid forms of Bougereau, J.-A.Ingres and Rubens, are juxtaposed with the startling and often chaste beauty of nymphs, ethereal as their settings. It is human physicality in the space not of an ‘orthodox’ real world but the cosmos of the imagination and its own nature, exposed to a secret viewing. Just as the ancients preferred not to set figures in landscapes but in their own right, so Żechowski places them webbed in a personal prism of his own making, like a crystal. There is a complete, final absence of all the trappings of the so-called real world. The melancholy of the artist is let loose in a joy of the pagans, and each result touches unforgettably the viewer’s inner self.
Art of course stresses the primacy of the imagination, the inner-self, and here he obliterates the outer world to build on its ruins with a concentration derived from the primal source of the landscape-within. The various cycles focus on states of consciousness, the moods and passions derived from fragments of literary memory, woman in her various forms manifested and interior, sometimes in the peep-show owned by Death. Apostles and mythic allegories vie with Pan, bony angels with bug-eyed morphs twisting around their prey to be startled in Ensor-like mirror-play; in profoundly-titled dreams or nightmares are frozen the inhabitants of worlds obviously too small to hold more than themselves. There is a stunning uniqueness of each image, and while they parallel Goya, Bresdin and de Groux as if from a secret chamber in Huysmans’ A Rebours, there are no actual precursors nor any external referentials because autonomous, from the singular thread of one hypersensitive seeking to find himself in the unreal realm of human existence. There is not exactly standardised horror but its aftermath, its consequences, a profound and incomprehensible disquiet sensed without end or frontiers, a wandering of the earth as in the borderlands experienced by Blake. Like séance records, the light is from another, hidden source.
His deliberate, steadfast isolation formed the characteristics of individual style. From an early age he was determined to pursue an unconventional path, primed by self-study from endless hours in museums and libraries. He tells us in the “Hermit” film that ‘My intemperance of youth passed in a blaze of fervent, almost religious cults surrounded by the spiritual figures of the nation, the talented artists, martyrs of ideas, geniuses of justice, prophets of liberation. The brightness of the everlasting shone to help me face and eclipse the darkest moments of my life’. This evolution, always on the margins, had its own philosophical paradigm of Time: every given moment forms the continuum of eternity, whether in superb classroom scenes which seemingly derive from racial memory or on the curve of a planet’s rim. The world we share through observation of his art is saturated with inner light, as if escapees from Plato’s cavern. His astounding imagination, unusually inspired mostly from literature (like Redon and to some degree Mervyn Peake), is becoming increasingly available via the internet. The imagery is so rich that, in all truth, it defies description, at least outside the parameters of a book. Even then, during the night, it would seep out when we are unaware. For explorers of true art, it is not hyperbole to say that discovery is akin to a revelation. Stefan Żechowski’s tomb, among the meadows and orchards he left to tell their own story, bears the legend: ‘I dreamed my art’.
© Brian R.Banks & Marta Mazur, 2010.
With great concern, we observe the infiltration of the German Volk [with] an influx of millions of foreigners and their families, the infiltration of our language, our culture, and our national traditions by foreign influences. Despite the recruitment ban, the number of registered foreigners rose by 309,000 in the year 1980 alone; 194,000 of these foreigners are Turks. A little more than half of the number of children needed to maintain our [German] population are being born each year. In their neighborhoods and workplaces, many Germans already feel like foreigners in their own land.
The federal government promoted the influx of foreigners on the basis of [a policy of] unbridled economic growth that is now recognized as questionable. Up to this point, the German population has not been informed of the significance and consequences of these actions. For this reason, we are calling for the establishment of a politically and ideologically independent coalition whose task is to preserve the German Volk and its spiritual identity on the basis of our occidental Christian heritage. Standing firmly on the foundation of the Basic Law, we oppose ideological nationalism, racism, and every form of right- and left-wing extremism.
In biological and cybernetic terms, peoples are living systems of a higher order with distinct system qualities that are passed on genetically and through tradition. The integration of large masses of non-German foreigners is therefore not possible without threatening the preservation of our people, and it will lead to the well-known ethnic catastrophes of multicultural societies.
Every people, including the Germans, has a natural right to preserve its identity and particular character in the place in which it resides. Respect for other peoples also necessitates their preservation, not their assimilation (‘Germanization’). We perceive Europe as an organism of peoples and nations that are worthy of preservation and that share a common history. ‘Every nation is one unique facet of a divine plan’ (Solzhenitsyn).
The Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany is not based on the concept of a ‘nation’ as the sum of all peoples within a state. It is based instead on the concept of a ‘Volk’ [people], and of a German people at that. The federal president and the members of the federal government take this oath of office: ‘I swear that I will dedicate my energies to the good of the German Volk, advance its interests, and protect it from harm.’ In this way, the Basic Law prescribes the preservation of the German people.
The preamble of the Basic Law prescribes the goal of reunification. How is this to remain possible when the two parts are becoming ethnically foreign to each other? The current policy on foreigners, which promotes the development of a multiracial society, contradicts the Basic Law, which obliges all Germans of the Federal Republic to preserve and defend the living rights of our people.
What hope for the future do the hundreds of thousands of [guest-worker] children have if they are illiterate in both their native tongue and in the German language? What hope for the future do our own children have if they are being educated in classes with a preponderance of foreigners? Will the billions spent for the defense of our country have been worth it at the end of such a development?
Only active and viable German families can preserve our people for the future. Our own children alone are the sole basis for the German and European future.
Since technical advancement offers options (and will continue to offer more options) that make the employment of foreigners superfluous, the highest principle of economic management must be: do not bring people to machines, but machines to people.
Attacking the problem at its roots means offering focused development aid to improve the living conditions of guest workers in their home countries – and not here in our country. For the Federal Republic of Germany, one of the most densely populated countries in the world, returning foreigners to their ancestral homelands will not only provide social relief but environmental relief as well.
In order to achieve a broad public echo, we are calling upon all organizations, associations, citizens’ initiatives, etc., that are dedicated to the preservation of our people to found an umbrella organization open to cooperative and individual membership. Every group shall retain its full independence and autonomy. An academic advisory board shall ensure that the work of this coalition remains politically and ideologically independent.
A press office shall assume the public relations work.
For the HEIDELBERG CIRCLE:
Prof. Bambeck, Ph.D.; Prof. Fricke, Ph.D.; Prof. Karl Götz; Prof. Haberbeck, Ph.D.; Prof. Illies, D.Sc.; Prof. Manns, Th.D.; Prof. Oberländer, Ph.D., ret. Federal Minister; Prof. Rasch, Ph.D.; Prof. Riedl, Ph.D.; Prof. Schade, M.D.; Prof. Schmidt-Kahler, Ph.D.; Prof. Schröcke, D.Sc.; Prof. Schurmann, M.D.; Prof. Siebert, Ph.D.; Prof. Stadtmüller, Ph.D.
Source: “Heidelberger Manifest” [“Heidelberg Manifesto”], Frankfurter Rundschau, March 4, 1982.
Translation: Allison Brown
Mark Dagley interview with Natalie Rose Lebrecht
Natalie Rose LeBrecht, who released her first albums under the name Greenpot Bluepot, lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.
MD: Could you tell us something about your life? Where did you grow up and how did you first start playing music?
NRL: I grew up in Denver, Colorado and a few places in Iowa. I always loved music and as a child would sing into a hand held tape recorder, then play it on a stereo and record myself singing along with that, and repeat the process until I had a multi-layered piece with many vocal arrangements.
MD: How old were you then?
NRL: About 11. I remember now that I wrote a “Weird Al” Yankovic inspired parody of Brian Adams’ “Run to You” when I was 6 or 7. It was about doing laundry. There was a joke in it that cracked me up, and I thought it was clever, but my Dad and sister didn’t get it. I wrote some other song about being trapped in space, too.
MD: What about your cultural heritage? Where are your parents from?
NRL: My mother is from China and Taiwan, and my Dad is from Los Angeles and Chicago.
MD: Did your parents encourage you in any way?
NRL: I have a very private personality and tried to keep what I did to myself… I never really shared these tapes with my family or other people, so I suppose there was nothing noticeable to encourage. But, yes, they were nice parents.
MD: What artists got you interested in making your own music?
NRL: As a child I didn’t need outside inspiration. I had a lot of free time, and I played. It came natural.
MD: Did you ever study music, in high school or privately?
NRL: I had piano lessons for a year or two when I was about 11 or 12, but got kicked out of them cause I was apathetic towards my teacher and never did what she wanted me to. I also played trumpet and bells in middle school band, but again, was kicked out of the band for sabotaging a concert where we played Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera. Then I took singing lessons for about one month when I was about 12 ’cause I loved to sing, but the teacher was totally showbiz and told me the most important thing was to always sing with a big smile on my face no matter what. Needless to say I didn’t keep coming back to her. I was in a very Waiting for Guffman kind of context.
MD: That’s great! Do you play the trumpet on any of your releases?
NRL: No, the trumpet player in WARRAW is so much better than me – Pasquale Cangiano. Also, I gave away my old trumpet and am extremely rusty. It wasn’t good to practice living in apartments in the city – trumpet is a loud instrument, and I didn’t want to piss off the neighbors.
MD: When did you first start composing on the piano?
NRL: I had a synthesizer keyboard since 1996 or so and played that for years so I have been familiar with the keyboard layout for a while. But it’s not until recently (a few months ago) that I actually played a real piano, something which is quite different and amazing!
MD: I would have thought you had always played and grew up around the piano. Your compositions seem so wide in scope and centered around the tonalities of a piano.
NRL: Well, we did have a piano growing up, but it gave my sister and mother a headache when I played, so I kind of stopped. I suppose I felt oppressed back then, but now I totally understand and don’t blame them – my playing would be very atonal and dissonant and their taste is more for easy listening. Plus, I’m sure it’s quite annoying to have a kid banging on a piano while you’re tying to clean the house.
MD: What about vocalists? Were there any vocalists early on that influenced you?
NRL: As a child I definitely liked Debbie Harry. Even now, I think she’s such an awesome vocalist. I saw her perform a few years ago at Tonic with The Jazz Passengers, and it was a magical show. I mean, she’s got “It”!
MD: Debbie seems to be a huge influence for many female vocalist of your generation. How do you feel about mainstream pop these days? Anyone out there that is even remotely interesting to you? I’m curious what you think of someone like Norah Jones for example or the American Idol spectacle?
NRL: I don’t have TV reception and don’t listen to the radio much. Usually I find pop music very irritating and mostly hear it in stores or restaurants, but today I was in a drugstore and heard an R&B song and the singer was really singing from her heart! It might have been Mary J. Blige, but I’m not sure. Anyhow, it opens my heart a bit when I hear someone playing music using theirs.
MD: What is success to you?
NRL: Pure unconditional love and a peaceful mind.
MD: Did you go to Art School?
NRL: I got a BFA in Intermedia Art from the University of Iowa.
MD: What is “intermedia art”?
NRL: Whatever it wants to be.
MD: That covers a lot of ground. Is it something like a cross-disciplinary approach for visual art, music, fashion, and performance?
NRL: I don’t even know. I studied it so long ago, and I’m not at all invested in the semantics of the Art world.
MD: What do you feel your practice is, then? Should we consider you a performance artist or a musician/vocalist?
NRL: I want artistic freedom from the confines of categorization. I am just doing my thing.
MD: Was your exposure to the historic avant-garde at the University of Iowa? Or earlier?
NRL: At the University.
MD: Was there anyone teaching at the University who had an impact on what you are doing now?
NRL: Professor Stephen C. Foster – a Dada and modern art scholar – was my primary teacher. I even assisted him for a while. Also, Estra Milman – a Fluxus and Alternative Traditions in Contemporary Art scholar. I assisted her, as well. I’m not sure what they are doing now. Last time I saw them they were living a seemingly fairy tale existence in a breathtaking Chateau in New England. They taught me a lot about historiography and Art Institutional theory (how the machine works), so that is part of the history of my process. But I am not working from an academic place at the present time.
MD: Was WARRAW your first CD-R release?
NRL: No. There were three before, and they are all out of print. And WARRAW was not a CD-R; it was an officially burned, high-quality CD with handmade packaging. I also released a full-length vinyl record album called Daymares and Nightdreams back in 2001.
MD: You seem to surround your artistic practice with word play. The best example is the palindrome found in the title of your CD, WARRAW. You reinforce that word play by switching the ‘R’s around and by the use of mirrors on the cover art. This creates a false doubled mirrored palindrome. The use of a mirror again in the cover art for Imagining Weather is once more very intriguing. Where does this interest in reflection, doubling and word play come from?
NRL: Gee, I’ll have to reflect on that!
MD: I wanted to talk about your vocalization pieces. Not surprisingly they seem to refer back to the first multi-layered recording experiments you mentioned at the beginning of this interview. Is this something you have consciously gone back to exploring?
NRL: No, I never thought in a linear fashion: “I did this when I was a kid, I should do it now, too,” but I suppose it is interesting that I am doing the same thing as I was when I was 11. My friend Eugene used to always say that who we really are is who we are when we are five years old. I don’t agree or disagree and, if I think too much about a statement like that, it becomes so abstract it means nothing. But, on the other hand, it’s fun to think of everyone you are relating to as a five year old relating to another five year old – well, it’s only fun if you’re having a good time with someone.
MD: When you perform these works they appear to be improvisation; are they? Are they non-verbal; is there a text? Both?
NRL: The vocal loop pieces so far have been improv. I enjoy performing them very much so long as no feedback begins to occur which it sometimes does. It’s nice to just be focusing on the voice and not playing an instrument, although it’s also very nice to play instruments. Sometimes I can really get lost in the vocal loop and that’s when I dig it the most- when I can get into a trance with it. But it doesn’t always happen, especially when there’s a lot of light shining on me. It’s easiest in the dark. I feel like doing a vocal loop performance right now…
MD: Do you see yourself as someone working in a modernist avant-garde tradition along the lines of someone like Meredith Monk or Joan La Barbara? Are you familiar with their work?
NRL: I have much respect for Meredith Monk. I look forward to hearing Joan La Barbara.
MD: But do you see yourself as someone also exploring the inherent parameters of a specific medium, abstractly exploring the elements of text and sound, or should your practice be considered more holistic, emotive and/or internalized? Explain.
NRL: Well, I did get a formal education in art and the Western avant garde, so I have that language (and the language of categorization) embedded into my system. However, back when I was in school, I remember so many of the grad students and professors saying with a depressed tone that you learn Art, and then you have to unlearn it. The idea being that learning Art strangles your inner creativity (because your creativity becomes institutionalized). It’s not that I “unlearned” it, but I just stopped caring a long time ago about the institutional “dialogues,” “discourses,” expectations, categories, and structures of Art. Right now I’m more into beauty, the visceral, and creative outputs that strike at the primal level. I love to hear an intellectual mind express itself so long as it’s bullshit free – unless the BS is funny and intentional of course (like Colbert). I love to laugh! The problem is, in my opinion, art school teaches you to BS until you don’t even know that’s what you’re doing, and you’re just an automaton with a formula climbing the ladder of Creativity. Right now, I’m not so interested in playing Ivory Tower games – they don’t end suffering, they temporarily ease boredom. Now, I’m not saying that beauty ends suffering either – beauty is subjective and a dualistic concept. But geez, life is so hard for almost everyone I know, and I live in what is still considered a wealthy country that is not in a war zone. I mean, we all deal with so much oppression on a daily basis. Even billionaires can’t buy themselves and loved ones a longer life forever – yes, they can get the best medicines and doctors, but that still doesn’t make for immortality and the end of their suffering. Our bodies fail us, our healthcare systems are corrupt, unexpected bills come up, we loose friends and loved ones, we have to struggle with power, nagging bosses, the mortgage, husbands and wives and friends that drive us crazy yet we are too attached to sever ties, loneliness, boredom, anger, depression, addictions, the phone company, Apple not sending us our money after completing the mail in rebate, computer upgrades, car repairs, violence, etc. I was watching a documentary on insects yesterday, and they have so many struggles too! It seems like nature on Earth is a state of war, with a survival-instinct seed dominating every being. Sometimes the only non-destructive thing that can revive a person from the most existentially-tormenting of days is beauty or good comedy. Unfortunately, my sense of humor hasn’t been that great since the Bush administration went to war on Iraq – not that I’m directly blaming Bush for my not being funny anymore – perhaps it’s just a coincidence.
So to sum up a long ramble which I wonder if anyone is still reading, I hope to help people experience some majestic beauty through my music. I know, beauty is subjective so not everyone will think my music is beautiful, and that’s ok – some will find it abrasive even, but I know that some will find beauty in it, and that is what I hope to offer as a service to others (since I’m not funny anymore ’cause of President Bush).
MD: Can you mention some of the books or writers you responded to early on?
NRL: I didn’t develop a taste for literature until my early 20’s. Andy Kaufman wrote a brilliant work of fiction but died before it was finished. The book came out nonetheless around the same time as Man on The Moon with Jim Carrey but is out of print now. It is called The Huey Williams Story, and it is my favorite book. Of course, I haven’t read it since I was 22, but, when I read it, it was the best thing ever! I cried when I finished it for two reasons: I was intoxicated and my supply ran out, and Andy died and didn’t get to finish his vision. He was such a master of form and would really pull the veil from your face over and over, so I was upset that I didn’t get to know what he had planned. I only know one other person who has actually read the whole book (an ex-boyfriend I gave a copy to) – it’s kind of obscure, I guess. I love Andy Kaufman! I also really like the writing of Paul Bowles. His writing is very musical. It makes sense that he was also an accomplished musician.
MD: Indeed, and critic and painter. Your recent CD, Imagining Weather, contains a two part song called “Sahara”. This piece contains some very specific imagery. As it seems the centerpiece of the release, could you explain this song in more detail?
NRL: The song and music explain themselves.
MD: But for someone reading this, and not having the music to reflect upon, how much of an element of fiction is involved in the text to this piece? And how much room is there for, say, surrendering to a more psychedelic textual experience?
NRL: That depends on the subjective experience of each individual listener.
MD: When did you move to the East Coast?
NRL: The year was 2000. I moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn (corner of Roebling and Grand), and my rent was $275 a month. I bet now it would be $800 for the same closet-sized room.
MD: Where were the first places you performed here on the East Coast, and what was the response?
NRL: My first performances were at the Knitting Factory, and the response varied depending on the individual audience member.
MD: But you felt it was a positive experience or…
NRL: I remember polarizing people. I did much more ballsy performance art back then. People would respond by saying, “That was bold.”
MD: Do you feel part of any musical community?
NRL: My friend Kristen and I hang out sometimes and sing and play instruments. We also play solo shows together and plan to tour later this year in Japan. She is very supportive and helpful and nurturing. I look forward to making more and more friends like Kristen – she’s a gem! I do have random great friends who are also extraordinarily talented musicians, but I don’t usually join forces with them directly through music. I definitely look forward to building more music community as time goes on.
MD: What would be the main difference between those early shows to what a listener would hear now seeing you live?
NRL: Oh, they were very different. I’ve gone through a few different phases, but the early NYC performances were multi-dimensional Andy Kaufmanesque trickery exercises. They often would start out so intense, political, and dramatic and then unravel into complete absurdity and mass laughter. My performances were a lot funnier back then (before the war). My most recent performances have been devoid of shenanigans, razzle dazzle, hand made gifts, audience participation, and show-womanship. But I think my work is really maturing, and I feel great about that. I’m mostly giving intimate music concerts where I sing my heart out and play piano, harmonium, maybe nylon guitar, and then do vocal loop stuff. The pieces are usually long (10 to 35 minutes), so the listener can go deep in, as they don’t have A.D.D. I’m also winging it much more. I don’t have a completed plan for what I’m going to do or play, and then I just get on stage and see what happens. That’s what I’m up to now. I’ve always tried to challenge myself as a performer or else I get too bored to perform.
MD: What is you ideal performing situation?
NRL: For the kind of performances I’m doing now, my ideal is a comfortable, warm, intimate yet formal, clean, non-smoking place with great acoustics and a great sound system. The sound is the most important thing to me. If I hear myself sounding good, then that enhances the performance and I can get lost in it… if I think the sound quality is poor, then I cut the performance very short. I also want an audience that truly wants to be there specifically to receive music because they have a capacity to appreciate the experience. And I want the space to be very comfortable and non-distracting for the audience.
MD: Have you ever performed in Europe?
NRL: Yes, I went there to perform in 2005 and 2006. I really like playing in Europe! It’s exciting to meet people from other countries and hear their perspectives on the world. I find it very educational and look forward to going back to Germany this summer. I think I’m going to play a show in Hamburg and do some video work with a good friend. There’s just one big problem for me, and it’s that I’m allergic to cigarette smoke. It’s harder for me on a physical level to go out there. Even the health-conscious ayurvedic restaurant in Hamburg was full of smoke! Also, I can’t perform in a smokey environment, so it takes careful planning to play concerts in most of Europe.
MD: You have mentioned pure unconditional love as an ideal of success. Is this a spiritual condition? Can it be found in the here and now?
NRL: Better to ask someone omniscient. I’m still trapped in a neurotic ego mind. Tension swells in my body, and I develop health problems. I get in irritable moods. Let’s just say I’m not yet evolved enough to be preaching about anything, and I hope I’m forgiven if I ever do.
MD: Should we consider your music spiritual?
NRL: If it strikes you that way, then yes. If it doesn’t, then no. (Although I hope it does.) More recently, I’ve been getting audience responses saying they felt the music was very spiritual, and I take that as a very good sign to keep on keeping on ’cause my own vanity is not enough fuel to keep me working like it did when I was younger.
MD: It’s a tradition in DREAM Magazine to ask the artists being interviewed if dreams or dreaming have an influence on their work or life. You mention in the liner notes to your release WARRAW, that it is one very long song (like an epic dream). Tell us how dreams continue to influence your artistic production.
NRL: I love to dream! Many times I prefer dreaming to being awake. Since a baby, I’ve always wanted to get a lot of sleep and found it exciting to dream. I remember many dreams from years ago just like I remember experiences from waking life. I have many different kinds of dreams. Some of them are the personal ego, Freudian dreams that are obviously just about my outerself, ego, experiences and daily life. But other dreams really feel beyond the ego stuff, and that’s when I really love it – even if it’s creepy – I feel like I’m picking up on information I wouldn’t receive when I’m awake. Dreams speak the language of archetypes, and I love that. I think that kind of symbolic language is influencing my new direction of lyrics. I’m very interested in dreams and usually enjoy hearing about others’ dreams – particularly when they are surreal and wild.
MD: Do you have a ghost story?
NRL: I’ve had my share of supernatural encounters, especially right after I moved to the country into this 200 year old church recreation hall. That place turned out to be a very bad experience, and there was definitely a lot of intense psychic residue there – in fact, I was kind of scared to be alone there at night. The first night me and my boyfriend were there, I woke up to the sound of a grand event happening in the main space. It sounded like a crowd of 150 people hanging out. There was a window from our bedroom to the main space, and I had to psychically block it so no spirits would come into the bedroom (some were trying to get in). I didn’t want to wake my boyfriend up cause I thought that might induce a hysteria between us, so I let him sleep, listened to the party, and firmly told the spirits they were not allowed in the bedroom. Soon after that night, I consulted with a man I respect a lot – the man who wrote the films Ghost and Jacob’s Ladder and is also a meditation teacher – and he told me I did the right thing by firmly blocking the spirits from the bedroom. He then instructed us to open up all the doors and windows and demand all the spirits leave. So we did that. I think it helped a lot, but I still had a few more unpleasant numinous encounters before we finally had to leave – skunks moved under the foundation and sprayed us out. Looking back I think it was a blessing. I’d probably be insane if I still lived there. It was one of the worst times of my life, and I think the heavy psychic residue there really affected me negatively. And I still have a bit of post-traumatic stress disorder around skunks.
Photographic images of Natalie Rose LeBrecht by Mark Dagley
Transcription of an interview with Hans Strelow, the Düsseldorf art dealer, who was an art critic between 1960 and 1971, before opening his gallery.
In May 2014, Hans Strelow was kind enough to share some considerations about the dissemination of art movements after World War II. Two hours were recorded, and a brief selection is presented here.
Hans Strelow : the frontiers of post-war art