A Rare Symbiosis
The German painter and writer Hans Werner Geerdts has been living in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh for more than sixty years. His art has made its presence felt throughout the country. Christoph Leisten presents this portrait of the artist on the occasion of his eightieth birthday
There are many good reasons which might lead an artist to make his home in a foreign country. In our day and for artists from western cultures, a yearning for something entirely different from what they're used to may often have a lot to do with it.
An involvement with the unfamiliar can lead to major artistic innovations, but it can also lead to a kind of cultural invasion and occupation: all too often one's own culture will be thoughtlessly imposed on the unfamiliar, so that the unfamiliar culture may be sucked dry, rather than absorbed.
What emerges may be a bland art stuck somewhere between the two worlds, an art which lacks cultural authenticity as much as it lacks personal truthfulness. Those are big words, but it's exactly those qualities of authenticity and truthfulness which are not lacking in the work of the artist and writer Hans Werner Geerdts, who has been living in Marrakesh for decades.
Inspired by Djama el Fna
When his eyes fell for the first time on the famous Djama el Fna Square over forty years ago, Geerdts knew he would stay. Geerdts was born in the northern German port city of Kiel, studied with Willi Baumeister, one of the most important exponents of abstract art in post-war Europe, and then went on his travels throughout the world—through the Middle East, Japan (where he studied Zen painting), Australia and South America.
In 1963 his travels ended in Marrakesh, long before the beatniks and after them the in-crowd discovered the city. What Geerdts found in Marrakesh was an incomparable variety of ways in which people present themselves. After his period of searching throughout the world, it seemed to him like an oasis of humanity in the midst of a crude post-war reality.
Since then a rare symbiosis has emerged from Geerdts's work. Inspired just as much by the prehistoric cave paintings of the High Atlas Mountains as by the crowds of people gathering around the story-tellers and musicians on the Djama el Fna, Geerdts uses a palette knife to throw his draughtsmanlike figurations on to a coarse coat of primer, creating a tachiste style in which aspects of the informel seem to be reconciled with the figurative.
But just as the initial impulses of his art make a connection between the earliest history of humankind and the present time, so his art in its entirety offers a link between the worlds. Geerdts's art is successful because it's imbued with a fundamental respect for the Maghreb culture in which he lives, as well as by the concept of encounter with the world.
Even in the allusive sketches of crowds which are at the centre of his work, the individual is preserved—in all his colourfulness, nuance, varied movement.
A mediator between cultures
Geerdts has been recognised not least for his work with authors like Juan Goytisolo and Rolf Italiaander. Many of his works are in the collections of the world's major museums.
But it probably means more to him that UNESCO changed its statutes in 2001 specifically to allow it to declare the Djama el Fna Square and the activities which take place there (which have become the centre of Geerdts's life) the world's first immaterial heritage site.
With his commitment over decades to a greater understanding for Islam, Geerdts has become a mediator between the western world and the Maghreb. It's a process which is documented not only in his paintings but also in his books, which have been appearing since the seventies.
Geerdts creates a convincing, multi-facetted picture of Moroccan reality in his sensitive stories, sketches and poems.
A role model for Moroccan artists
Geerdts's art has become an inspiration and a role model for many young Moroccan artists. If one travels through the country, uncovering the variety of young Moroccan contemporary art, one will often be able to make out evidence of the influence of this German painter who started to create an idiosyncratic but enduring oeuvre decades ago in the Medina of Marrakesh, at a time when the fine arts in Morocco were only a shadowy presence.
Geerdts has, without making much of a fuss about it, often opened the doors of his studio to young artists, to reveal the world behind it, a universe of colour, form and figuration.
While looking for that something entirely different for himself, Hans Werner Geerdts has for decades been showing others the way. He doesn't push his views on others, but pursues his own art both modestly and persistently, keeping an eye open for the creativity which is all around him.
Celebration on the Grand Square
On January 23rd, Hans Werner Geerdts celebrated his eightieth birthday in the centre of Marrakesh, not far from Djama el Fna, the square which has become for him a metaphor of humanity.
Neither the beatniks nor the in-crowd were there—only his friends and those involved in art from all over the world. They were honouring a man in whose work Western and Maghreb culture meet in the most striking way.
© Qantara.de 2005
Translated from the German by Michael Lawton