Search This Blog

Friday, September 06, 2019

Artist of the Portrait

From the Vault Dept.: T.E. Breitenbach’s painting “Proverbidioms” took on a life of its own as it was discovered and studied by countless curious people. The poster was published in 1980; a decade later, I journeyed to Breitenbach’s castle to write the profile below. He has gone on to create more posters, more rooms in his castle, and even a couple of delightful stage musicals, one of which was filmed for PBS.


THERE’S THIS OLD SANTA CLAUS-LIKE GUY named Grumparar who first tipped off artist T. E. Breitenbach to the verifiable existence of the Nu Creatures. Like all of us, Breitenbach knew about them – they’re those fleeting images you see moving on the periphery of your filed of vision, images that vanish when directly confronted.

Photo for Metroland by Michael Ackerman
“I’ve spent the past five years cataloging them,” says Breitenbach, and his studio is filled with their likenesses, collected in groups that each reflect a particular range of emotion. Soon you’ll be able to find the information in a book that describes the creatures, Grumparar and, no doubt, a little bit of Breitenbach. In the meantime, take comfort in knowing that you’re not crazy to spot these things.

“If I have a fight with my wife,” he says, “then one sort of creature appears, the one who represents jealousy or stubbornness or whatever started the argument. When we kiss and make up, this little one who looks like a Latin lover appears instead.”

Breitenbach is soft spoken and very earnest-looking, like a professor or a priest. You can hardly doubt his sincerity. He seems too dreamy to be the same fellow who blasts himself with the sounds of Wagner or The Doors while creating heavily detailed canvases of high comedy. Thanks to the almost offhand idea of making a poster out of “Proverbidioms” he can afford to choose his projects. The poster – you’ve seen it on someone’s wall – is a collection of visual puns that shows our favorite sayings in horrifyingly funny literal settings.

The artwork of it – of any Breitenbach painting – is superbly detailed with a style that seems photorealistic until you see the touches of tiny exaggeration in color and line that signal his style. “I was going to be an architect,” he explains, “and went to school to study it. My father’s an architect and I learned a lot from him, enough so that school bored me.” He turned from drawing plans to planning drawings that expressed a then-brooding temperament. “This was back in the early ’70s when I thought life was pretty dark and hopeless.” He calls it his Boschian Period, when the allegories he painted were dark statements about man’s violent nature.

He began exploring symbols and archetypes and his paintings took on a surreal flavor that segued him into his Bruegelian Period, when “Proverbidioms” was born.

Another birth – his first child – brought him into an even more light-hearted (and -colored) period: Merry Melodies, with work that’s much more hopeful. “It’s all those children’s toys that did it,” he says. “They’re so unbelievably bright colored, and you get used to having all that color around you.”

As work on Nu Creatures continues, he’s also continuing an architectural project that shows yet another realization of a dream: in this case, a castle, an octagonal fortress built with local stone, designed and constructed by Breitenbach, who has spent each of the last ten summers erecting this massive monument in the Helderbergs.

“Is it possible to be truly creative?” he asks. “I don’t know. We’re always borrowing things. Is there a purely creative state in which all expression is completely original?” He stands in his studio and pauses to wonder, and you can see that little creature over his shoulder, impishly mocking the master’s expression.

Metroland Magazine, 31 May 1990

No comments: