Just as Colette painted with words, Barbara Schroeder takes up her paintbrushes to present us with a humorous celebration of the splendours of the humble cottage garden vegetable growing in the Blaye region where she lives or those of the faraway valley of the Moon she discovered during her recent travels in Patagonia. She shares with us the young broad beans she enjoys raw with salt and butter, the fruity grapes that give birth to the Côtes de Bourg wine she produces professionally, but also onion and garlic rubbed on crusty chunks of bread, juicy, sun-drenched tomatoes, pumpkins, turnips, artichokes, sweet chestnuts, pomegranates and lemons…
These modest vegetables and unassuming fruits are all concealed beneath a rough, thick protective layer; they have skins, leaves and bristles, shells or cases. Only when the sun has filled them with its goodness do they break through the cracks in their outer casing and offer up their soft flesh or sweet core for us to revel in. In this series of works, she delights in the leafy, rounded forms of green cabbages, curly Brussels kale and kohlrabi with their softly crunchy hearts. Barbara is no botanist though, she is not concerned by the anecdotal side of appearances. The fruit and vegetables she paints are swollen and overblown, filling the whole surface area of the canvas whether it be large or small. Barbara turns the still life into a living world, a compendium of Creation bathed in the clear blue of the Aquitaine skies or the cindery greys of the Valley of the Moon, a ‘magical and transparent blue’ (to use her words) that is the backdrop of these landscapes that live on in her memory.
Barbara Schroeder was born in Cleves on the banks of the Rhine and descends from a long line of spiritual German forebears who were all lured by the shimmering luminosity of southern parts. Hölderlin before her discovered echoes of Ancient Greece on the banks of the ‘glorious Garonne and the gardens of Bordeaux’ (Die schöne Garonne/Und die Gärten von Bourdeaux). Barbara is somewhat more down-to-earth and does not take the soft light of the Gironde estuary for that of the Mediterranean, even if in Teuillac, where she lives, oleanders, fig and banana trees grow at the foot of the vine-clad hillsides overlooking the silty expanse of the estuary flowing by. The family home, typical of the region with its creamy stone and terracotta roof tiles, opens onto a lush garden where the bell tower of the village church peeps up beyond the lake. This peaceful, munificent scenery is the backdrop for Barbara’s work and provides a fitting setting for her dual cultural origins, both French and German, to fuel her art.
Barbara Schroeder chose to study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Bordeaux and settle in the Bordeaux area, but she remains profoundly attached to her homeland. The Berlin Wall is symbolic for her of the tragedy of her country’s past. She dealt with this subject in her Post-Graduate diploma and showed how this macabre ribbon of bricks and concrete had become a medium for expressing the desire to revolt and break free. The works that appeared on the wall, be they by anonymous or renowned artists, the juxtaposition of images, enraged or sarcastic slogans were all spontaneous and highly-vivid in style and as such were reminiscent of the production of French movements such as ‘Figuration libre’ and ‘Nouveau Réalisme.’ Barbara presented her work at Bordeaux University in November 1989, just thirteen days after the fall of the wall she qualified as ‘ an unending painting, a gigantic fresco, the work of countless artists of all nationalities.’
Her first works were permeated by her research on the wall and are mainly engravings on wood, a technique familiar to many German artists from Albert Dürer to Käthe Kollwitz, the artists of the Brücke and Blaue Reiter groups who all produced masterpieces in this field. In Barbara’s works, the brutal gestures necessary to wood engraving go perfectly with the grimacing faces of her designs, as the anguish of a generation still haunted by the tragic memories of the Nazi period find their expression. At the same period, Barbara also painted a series of canvases entitled In Homage to the Berlin Wall in which the strident colours and overtones of the symbols used chime in with the protestations of the Berlin muralists. It was in these early years that Barbara also began to work on large-scale projects, including commissions for murals on public buildings. However, contrary to the superimposed, rather chaotic character of the Berlin wall, nothing is left to chance in Barbara’s designs – the overlaying of motifs produces a deliberately blurred effect in which form and colour interact according to disciplined, controlled rhythms that produce a homogenous, monumental whole.
The use of collage techniques doubtless contributed greatly to the ordering and structuring of Barbara’s compositions. Yet there is no trace of inspiration from either Picasso, Braque, or the disconcerting images of the Surrealists here. Again, the aesthetics of the wall are predominant – her works take on the form of long strips, and like compatriot Kurt Schwitters, Barbara would use yellowed pages from old books, fragments of sheet music and age-stained pieces of road map, along with pieces of tracing paper enhanced with zebra motifs or writing. This disparate collection of materials makes the texture of the whole particularly rich and adds highly original flavours that are at once disciplined and unruly. The lyricism of these works has much in common with Kandinsky.
Choosing between figurative and abstract styles has never been a source of concern for Barbara. Whether she be working on murals, collages, still lifes or landscapes, her works develop quite naturally. What matters for her is that they express significance and emotion. The same is true for her memories of Patagonia, which have led her to experiment with very delicate, almost flimsy materials. Strips of mossy earth are attached to metallic oxide bases. A lone group of trees bent by the punishing wind, tiny animals that feed on lichen convey the immensity of the steppe. Overlaying this (again, a throwback to her collage period), are the outlines of two travellers in contemplation of the disc-shaped moon, a clear reference to the figures of Gaspard David Friedrich contemplating the sea or nightly celestial sphere in an encounter with the almighty power of the Divine that strengthens them in their belief in Redemption.
Barbara Schroeder’s work extends across several registers of expression, but one series of paintings gives voice to more subtle and serious concerns than those conveyed by the sensual explorations of her still life works. Just like ideas that we put between brackets (often a discreet way of putting one’s finger on the essential), the theme of Leda and the swan (the beautiful white bird that is the heraldic symbol of the town of Cleves), or that of seraphims carries us over into the poetic realm of the myth. The story of Leda is an illustration of the savage, almost perverse force of human love relationships (Zeus’s trickery is little more than an albi for satisfying his carnal desires…). On the contrary, the seraphims are from the kingdom of God and Barbara has indeed stripped them of their familiar earthly, rather syrupy forms. To the surprised onlooker she would simply reply that a close reading of the Bible teaches us that seraphim means ‘burning snake’ (Numbers, 21,6 and Deuteronomy 8,15) and that Isiah uses this word to refer to the angels that flock around the throne of Yaweh, ‘Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly.’ (Isiah, 6, 2-6). Barbara, in her strange and voluptuous depiction of the mating parades of these winged snakes, leads us beyond conventional representations to the heart of the Biblical text. Such iconographic inventiveness is the mark of artists for whom poetry is a true medium for expression and whose essential originality gives shape and meaning to their works.
Professor of Art History at the Université Bordeaux II