The present world ecological and environmental movement nowhere better dramatized and explained than by the West German Minister for the Environment Klaus Töpfer, have served to heal the rift between Man and Creation (as well as the Creator).
The return "home" to the natural forces and elements has been prefigured in the greatest art of our time, in which the human figure is not decomposed or abstracted, but related to the primal elements: earth, air, water and fire. These elements were seen by the Greek pre-Socratic philosophers as the bases of all natural processes and cosmic order.
Thus it is natural that Arno Breker relates his sculptures to the basic four elements and restates their elemental power in terms of the human form. Man being a microcosm, a summation of the larger cosmos.
Of these elements, water is celebrated by the foundations of the Gerling works: the putti and dolphins and the Father Rhine head, as classicizing as the beautiful beatific "Colonia deleta," although the crown of vine leaves anticipates Breker's favorite element, since the association of wine (and blood) with fire is generally accepted.
Earth, the second element, is proclaimed by the summer garden and its fecundity of figures interspersed by trees and shrubbery (cf. my previous essay on Arno Breker's sculpture garden), for instance Daphne turning into a laurel tree. Because Breker's sculpture is "shaped" rather than "cut" or chiseled, the sense of being moulded from clay is an obvious one.
Air, the third and most spiritual of elements is represented by the hawk-headed Young Europe (1978). Birds and their flight, also the artificial flight of the airplane are significant to the sculptor. Not surprising is the interest in space technology, often mentioned in Prometheus magazine.
But it is the goddesses who represent the utmost spiritual: Eos with upraised arms: dawn-prefigured by the movement of air, the rising breeze, which she salutes, as does the later Ulrike Meyfarth. The characteristic Breker gesture of arms upraised to the sky, this invocation of air, and Icarian attempt to fly, go back to the ancient bronze in Berlin, the Praying Boy, as well as the Laocoon in the Vatican and on El Greco's painting. (NB. The head of Laocoon is an omnipresent inspiration, as is the arm reaching out to the distance--a mistaken Renaissance touch. (cf. Margarete Bieber: Laocoon).
Fire is Arno Breker's chief material, as Heraclitus is his most congenial pre-Socratic philosopher. Of all four elements it is his most characteristic. Prometheus is his hero.
Most striking is the spiky, flaring treatment of the hair: of the head of Prometheus, of the Comradeship, of the pursuing Apollo, the Avenger, the Messenger, the Herald, Beethoven (1974), even the wet water-bound head of the seated Wounded Warrior. In all these, the dynamism and passion seem to flare up from the body and emerge flickering from the crown of the head. Breker much admires Wagner but his handling of fire is far from Wagner's ambivalent and insinuating Loge, a figure that is neither god nor man.
The fiery nature of the art is captured by Margaret Stucki in her oil portrait of Breker. The flames in the eyes, the hands, the veins of the forehead, stand out of a burning mass (the sleeves, the flowing background) to shape a torso of gigantic solidity, expressed by the colder blues and purples.
Flaming color lurks in the bronzes of Breker, but his commitment to monumentality has to suggest flame in more indirect ways. The eyes and eye hollows seem to burn. So does the characteristic frown, salient projections of bone or muscle, or the course of the veins or the paraphernalia of swords, drapery, serpents, banners and (explicitly) torches. Like alchemists the statues wield and sport "Rods of Fire."
Even the portrait heads, the congenial Salvador Dali with hair, mustache and wrinkles, show this preoccupation with fire. So do the eyebrows and mustache of Arthur Kampf, and the head of Beethoven... Especially fine is the lion-like mane of Ezra Pound. The head of Wagner is more quiet, although the lines of the face suggest a spent volcano (N.B. perhaps the reason for the glimmer of talent in Syberg's Parsifal ).
Although the female heads tend to be restrained with the crown like hair braided or smoothed (p. 36 of Infiesta's book, also Psyche ), or semi-concealed (Meditation), yet Daphne's tresses flame back, enforced by her head band, and many male figures, even the Prometheus of 1935, show a similar restrained treatment of the head (cf. the Decathlete for the Berlin Olympics in 1936) perhaps to give the sinews more prominence and the body full-bloodedness.
Thus it is difficult to say whether in Breker, according to the formula of the popular French psycho-historian Bachelard--fire is a masculine element. It was believed to be so by the Renaissance alchemists.
(It is) a principle of power, active and sudden
as the spark and the power of will.
(It is) a principal agent; but in order to obtain
it the Artist must take great pains...
for it is so strongly concentrated within
metals that it cannot be set into action
without persistent effort.
(Psychoanalysis of Fire by Gaston Bachelard,
Beacon Press, 1971, pp. 52-3)
Less experimental is to see the Christian tradition of fire, as symbolizing the Holy Ghost descended in tongues of flame on the heads of the apostles (the Krakow veit Stoss altar, the amazing Saints Stephen and Lawrence of the Breisach altar).
God is a consuming fire, and German late-gothic lights a conflagration to prove it.
My point is that fire is a positive symbol of the Divinity. Hellfire, the fire of disease, as in the Colmar altarpiece, or damnation scenes, are theologically interpreted as the same fire of the Spirit but as experienced by envy, hatred, self-pity, or some weakness to which negative qualities it clearly becomes painful and punitive. In the wings of the storm you are destroyed, while in the center you are safe.
The basic nature of fire as of all created beings, is positive, energizing, and noble, and Arno Breker has splendidly revealed this effect of fire as a force for civilization, not a Götterdamerung, destroying it.
His statues anticipated and confronted the World War II infernos, memorialized for instance Ilya Glazunov's vision of the Brandenburg Gate in a sea of fire over the destroyed Pergamon altar.
But the basic nature of fire, as well as of Man, is good and holy, and Breker survived to tell of this.
"Each thing is merely the limit of the flame to which it owes its existence." (Rodin)
The flame, the most mysterious of the natural elements, through the mediation of the sculptor's art becomes once more a benefit to Man; shaped by all four great elements and shaping them in turn.
Copyright 2001 West-Art
PROMETHEUS, Internet Bulletin for Art, Politics and Science.