Article list

  • Nadine Gordimer about Nils Burwitz
  • Lucie Smith, Edward / Introduction to Nils Burwitz
  • Lucie-Smith, Edward / Drawing
  • Lucie-Smith, Edward / Marina’s Terraces (watercolour)
  • Lucie-Smith, Edward / Graphic Portfolios
  • Lucie-Smith Edward / Bibliophile Editions
  • Lucie-Smith, Edward / Stained Glass
  • Pierre Restany

See also...

Nadine Gordimer about Nils Burwitz

"Nils Burwitz has a seer's vision of the human form. His authority of line goes deeper than the flesh. More than the faces of Africa emerges in his work; the essence, personality and spirit of whichever part of the continent he has lived and worked in. There is the beauty of truth in his vibrant talent." Nadine Gordimer, Nobel Prize Laureate - Literature 1991

Lucie Smith, Edward / Introduction to Nils Burwitz

In a certain sense, all artistic existences are a form of tightrope walking. The creative individual has to keep his - or her - balance in what is in effect a perpetually adverse situation, where any mis-step may be fatal. And he or she can only do this by fixing attention on a single fixed point - the goal to be attained.

The difference between real tightrope walkers and true artists is, of course, that the artist hopes never to get there. The game is only worth it if the destination continually recedes. This is particularly true of the career and personality of Nils Burwitz. Burwitz has never pursued a safe or conventional course of action, either personally or artistically. The restlessly experimental nature of his art, and most particularly of his graphic work, which is the subject of this exhibition, is reflected in the story of his life - most obviously in the earlier part of it. His work intertwines universal themes with personal ones.

Lucie-Smith, Edward / Drawing

His marriage to Marina Schwezova in 1965 marked the beginning of an exceptionally close and happy relationship, and Marina's pregnancy, and the birth of their elder son Vadim, directed his attention to another range of subject matter - the mysteries of the human organism. There are some exceptionally beautiful and touching notebook drawings from this time that deal with a theme which has seldom been tackled in Western art - the processes of human birth. These were made when Burwitz was in London on an 18-month scholarship awarded for travel in Europe. These drawings have a freshness and spontaneity which indicate that Burwitz is that very rare thing - a completely natural draughtsman, someone to whom the processes of drawing are as natural as breathing. Draughtsmen of this quality are, as the history of art demonstrates, much rarer than artists who are simply good painters

The brilliance of Burwitz's draughtsmanship is also demonstrated in the portraits of friends - fellow artists, writers and musicians, which Burwitz has made throughout his career. In these portraits, drawn and painted, he resembles, not the Dresden-based artists of Die Brücke, but the great Austrian Secessionist Oskar Kokoschka<./p>

Lucie-Smith, Edward / Marina’s Terraces (watercolour)

One of the most impressive products of these years has, however, been an ongoing series of watercolour drawings entitled 'Terraces for Marina'. These, all in the same format, are based on the form of the terraces at Valldemossa, and are provided with long inscriptions in a choice of four languages - German, English, Spanish and Mallorcan - all commonly spoken in the Burwitz household. The images illustrate his love for the town itself, and for surrounding nature. They also offer a commentary on larger events. One drawing, for example, was inspired by the events of 11th September 2001, and is one of the very few viable works of art that I know of that have been inspired by that terrible eventI love these drawings, not simply for their seamless combination of words and images, which reminds me in some curious way, though there is no resemblance of style, of the great English poet-painter William Blake, but because they are completely unpretentious. They are the product of a man using his gift - or in this case gifts in the plural might be more appropriate, since both words and images are involved, to get on terms with the world that surrounds him, to absorb it and make something of it.

Lucie-Smith, Edward / Graphic Portfolios

Burwitz's early work is not purely Expressionist, however, it also has a Surrealist quality. This is visible in one of his earliest major achievements as a graphic artist, the 'Locust Variations' portfolio of 1966, based on a set of 9 original pencil drawings. This set of lithographs expresses both his love of African nature, but also his sense of nature's cruelty and his perception of the extreme quality of African life.

Burwitz could not, however, remain absorbed in purely private themes. During his period in South Africa, there were other aspects of local life that increasingly impinged on his consciousness. In 1948, ten years before he arrived there, racial discrimination had been institutionalised in the country by the first of the apartheid laws.

Events of this sort could not pass a man of Burwitz's temperament by. He gradually evolved a new form of protest art, more fully represented in his graphic work than in his paintings. Interestingly enough these prints represented a complete shift of technique - into silkscreen, which he employed with consummate skill, and into the use of photographic imagery. The prints focussed on the absurdities of apartheid - especially on its niggling pedantry concerning racial matters - as much as they did on its cruelty. Often Burwitz used an intricate layering process to make his point. This is a conspicuous feature of the 'Tidal Zone' series, a set of nine prints made with Advanced Graphics in London, but at a time when Burwitz was still resident in South Africa.

His original protest pieces date from the end of the 1960’s - just at the time when it was hardest for anyone, artist or writer, to raise his or her voice on the subject.

One problem with political art is, of course, that it tends to become dated when the immediate occasion has passed, though there are some exceptions to this rule. Goya's 'Disasters of War' series and Picasso's 'Guernica' are two examples that come to mind. Another example, in some ways even more telling, is Jacques-Louis David's 'Marat Assassinated', now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. It is telling not least because the political premise - that Marat was a good and worthy man - is in this case somewhat dubious. It nevertheless remains one of the most celebrated and influential of all political paintings. These works tend to survive for two reasons. One is, quite obviously, an exceptional degree of artistic skill, and great originality in the use of silkscreen and of photographic processes. The other is real depth of feeling. Works like the 'Tidal Zone' series are filled with irony, and a degree of black humour. They are also inspired by real outrage - outrage at pettiness, as well as at cruelty. Yet there is another aspect to them as well. The 1960s and 1970s, partly under the influence of American Pop Art, saw a huge expansion in the use of silk-screen for artistic purposes. Nevertheless, relatively few artists were able to penetrate its true nature as a process, and use it in an original way, producing images that could find expression in no other way. Andy Warhol was one of these. Burwitz, going in a very different direction, was another.

In 1976, he made the decision to move again - this time to the idyllic mountain village of Valldemossa, on the Spanish island of Mallorca. The move did not stifle the political concerns that were now so much part of his artistic personality. He continued to make brilliantly original screen prints, often with political themes. The double-sided print 'Namibia: Heads or Tails? I', still for many people Burwitz's signature image, was not made until 1979. The idea is both extremely simple and extremely effective - the print is double-sided, and shows the two sides of the same warning sign - one tells the spectator he is entering a prohibited area. The other is blank, like a desolate desert landscape. And both sides are riddled with bullet holes.

Other prints make uneasy comments on how matters were going in South Africa. An example is 'Ignis Fatuus', which dates from 1987. This refers to the black township custom of 'necklacing' - a particularly horrible method of killing a suspected informer, or sometimes a suspected witch, by wiring the victim's hands behind his back, putting a gasoline-soaked tire around his neck, and then igniting it Here the print is once again very ingenious technically, since it is printed on two layers of paper, with part of the centre torn away and scorched to reveal a melting symbol below the life-size frottage of a Firestone tire, – with the inscription IN SUID AFRIKA VERVAARDIG, MADE IN SOUTH AFRICA.

There is also a small series of prints - very large images on folded paper - which show the confronted profiles of the Mandelas, husband and wife, and comment on their deteriorating relationship after Mandela was set free at long last. The image, a nose-kiss, based on the couple's wedding photograph, was originally painted on a bed sheet during a visit to the Settler's Inn at Grahamstown, South Africa, before Mandela's release from prison in February 1990. What Burwitz did with it subsequently illustrates his artistic subtlety, and his ability to imply things without stating them. It also demonstrates his ability to absorb unwelcome facts - a gift not given to most artists who meddle in politics.

Some prints show Burwitz looking at the situation in Europe, and in particular at the division of Germany. The double-sided print 'Trompe l'Oeil/Turning Point' [1981] shows a figure standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. On one side, he faces us, like a tourist having his picture taken. On the other side, his back is to us, and we see him, much diminished, in a traffic mirror, with the words 'Im Wendebereich' - 'Turning Point Zone' on a sign beneath it. A reflection in the mirror, in the form of a large X, seems to bar his progress. At the time when the print was made, the gate stood in no man's land on the eastern side of the wall, visible but inaccessible to the inhabitants of West Berlin.

Lucie-Smith Edward / Bibliophile Editions

Burwitz's time in Mallorca has been marked by an increasing identification with the Mallorcan community and with Spanish and Mallorcan culture. He has, for example, made a small portfolio of prints devoted to the largely disastrous few months spent in Valldemossa by the French novelist George Sand and her then lover, the composer Frédéric Chopin during the winter of 1839-40. The text is by Robert Graves, the great British poet who lived for many years in neighbouring Déya. For Burwitz, Graves and the Catalan-born master Joan Miró are Mallorca's two great hero figures There is also a portfolio devoted to the 'Invisible Miró', with twenty prints illustrating texts provided by twenty of Miró's friends.

Lucie-Smith, Edward / Stained Glass

Meanwhile, Burwitz, with incredible energy, is continually involving himself in new enterprises. He has now become a major artistic figure in the field of stained glass - a field which his admired mentor Miró ventured into once or twice, but only rather tentatively. Stained glass is essentially about a passion for light, and skill in the control of light. One can see why that might appeal to a man of his temperament. Illuminating things - places, persons, human psychology and political and social situations - has, after all, been the theme of his whole life as a maker of art.

Pierre Restany

The new paintings of Nils Burwitz echo strangely in the heart and head of the spectator. The treatment is strongly expressionistic, the stridency of colour is perfectly controlled. The underlying tension emanating from them is akin to a result - or an exercise - of style: it spills over into a metaphysical 'angst', which is, without doubt, more bearable than the feeling which takes hold of one when looking at certain works of Bacon or Baselitz, one is swiftly seized by a 'no sé que', a little something which, by chance makes itself felt, spreading surreptitiously to invade us totally, to disorientate us and to attract us, For it is indeed certain that these paintings bring about change.