In the age of mechanical reproduction, many fail to appreciate intricate drawings made by hand, hands having become mere obsolete instruments these days, compared to the fast precision of the digital camera. Christian Peltenburg-Brechneff’s drawings capture what the camera can never capture: the spirit of the places he has rendered.
Collected together in Homage: Encounters with the East (Glitterati Incorporated), Peltenburg-Brechneff’s work documents his travels to countries including Laddakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, India, Burma, Cambodia and Laos. Here the artist takes on the challenge of exploring and translating the architectural and spiritual wonders of the “lost” kingdoms of the Himalayas with brush and ink and color washes. Brought to life through imaginative investment, Peltenburg-Brechneff s subjects become more mysterious, and preciously exciting than ever. They sparkle with subjective life and become rapturously alive in a way that a photograph could never be.
The ancient architecture of India—many old palaces and temples—and ageless mountains are already inspired creations, with archetypal import, emphasizing that Peltenburg-Brechneff’s journey to them is a spiritual journey. The intricate drawings form a visual diary of his travels. Each drawing is dated, and the place depicted named, indicating that the drawing is a documentary as well as personal journal. Peltenburg-Brechneff decodes and maps India’s architecture and mountains with the hope of grasping the secret of their creative dynamic, rather than only preserving their dramatic appearance for posterity. Homage is a breathtakingly beautiful spiritual quest.
As Peltenburg-Brechneff recalls in the book’s introduction, “A long time ago I was told by a professor of mine, a well-known artist, to ‘believe only what a painter creates and not what he writes about his art.’ I have always considered this very good advice. It is the pastels, watercolors, and brush and kink drawings that should open windows into worlds of enchantment, peace, mystery, and beauty, and not what I say (or write) about them.
“I had my first encounter with the East in 1962 as a twelve-year-old. My father had returned from a journey to India and he was invited by my school to give a lecture and slide show of his trip. No one in my class at the Rudolf Steiner School in Basel, Switzerland, knew anyone who had ever been to a place so exotic, mysterious, totally foreign, and extraordinarily beautiful as the images of Benares, the observatory in Delhi, and what the Taj Mahal revealed India to be. The lecture made a huge impact on all the students. I wanted to go there, too.
“As much as the longing for traveling was part of my childhood, because of my father’s constant business trips to exotic places, I was also well-aware of the world of drawing and art. My mother’s best childhood friend (and my godmother) was a well-known Swiss sculptor, and I remember playing with her children in her studio—filled with exciting tools, sculptures, drawings, and paintings. As she worked from human models, I could silently observe a nude body and follow brush and pen marks as they flew over white paper, leaving perfect figure-drawings for me to admire. My godmother claimed it was all ‘very easy’ if you practiced and that’s when I decided I was going to be an artist, too.
“In the spring of 1972, after lots of school and university and just before starting my master of art course at the Royal College of Art Painting School in London, I discovered the magic of the Cycladic island of Sifnos in Greece, where I still own a home. The faces, language, music, architecture, and landscapes were another world. It was atop a mountain at sunset, in my village of Exambela, when I heard light melancholic sounds and smelled exotic world that I realized that I had my gate to the East. It took another ten years before I finally made the journey to India.
“By 1983 I as an established painter and because my travels to the Middle East and Europe with my close friend and architecture enthusiast Tim Lovejoy, my interest in architecture became more focused. An exhibition of my Egyptian travel-drawings at the Opera Gallery in Cairo encouraged me to explore this medium further. I had always loved drawing and my art school professors thought it was the better part of whatever talents I had; but like most of my fellow students at the time in London, I wanted to paint large, ‘important’ works. I would only draw occasionally during the 1970s, sketching in the Swiss Alps and in Greece, and those sketches were purely exploratory in my search for shapes for what came to be my large oil paintings….
“All my previous experiences in drawing on location did not prepare me to the challenges of working in India. Nothing was ever easy; just to get the necessary permits, which involved confronting the leftover bureaucracy from the British Raj could turn into a nightmare, at times ridiculously funny—if I had any sense of humor left. My travels were highly organized and I could never just ‘hang out’ until some permit arrived, because invariably it was needed right away. I needed a lot of patience and fortunately I had letters of introductions from people in high places. Good luck seemed to prevail in these endeavors. Since my drawings were published in Taj, Bombay, and India magazines, this gave me credential and instant respect, and also facilitated getting quick permission from the authorities.
“When I would start working, a large crowd would inevitably gather and many would timidly come and explore my Swiss handmade carta la franca paper, marderbrushes, and very fine Windsor-Newton watercolor boxes. One or two teenagers would appoint themselves as protectors and would keep the crowd from blocking the views and becoming rowdy. Clutching an open ink bottle with my right hand and my brushes with the left, I had to constantly be on guard to not spill ink accidentally….
“The inevitable heat, dust, sand, flies, snakes and leaches crawling between one’s legs (in Sikkim), hundreds of bats exploding out of a tree (in Trivandrum), and many more extraordinary circumstances made every drawing an adventure, to the point that the actual art of creating the drawing became the encounter. Weather was not always on my side, either: There was total darkness due to a sudden sandstorm in Jaiselmeer; freezing conditions in Ladakh and Kashmir, and heavy fog and drizzle in Bhutan, besides the ever-burning sun that was not always easily overcome….
“When working with my pastels in Rambolagh, Pelling, and Gangtok in Sikkim, I had to get up at 4:00 in the morning to see the Himalayan mountain range that was ablaze in a spectacular sunrise. I was incredibly lucky to witness that extraordinary light spectacle every morning for one or two hours. I would work in a frenzy as time was not on my side, and clouds and fog would cover up my view two hours later. I would then sink back into bed exhausted but filled with excitement and pride for what I had accomplished....
“My favorite drawings and paintings are the ones that surprise me. Something happens that changes everything I had planned on. In my earliest work I was too timid to include surprises. The Tilkse monastery in Ladakh was full of novices praying and chanting on the steps leading to the prayer hall—but my watercolor from 1983 does not include a single person. I believe I was too insecure to possible destroy a morning’s work with a figure or animal there is no erasing ink or watercolor on that handmade paper, and as I never draw ahead with pencil before the ink, one could easily destroy a day’s work with the wrong brush-mark.
“Eventually animals and people find their way into my work and by 1988 I became quite brave. My Laos drawings have by far the best figures. Monks were often proud to be part of the drawing, but rather shy. They would never pose for any length of time and I had to be very quick. It is to them and all the people of the countries that have opened their doors wide for me to travel through and encounter the East that I pay homage.”
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Artwork from Homage: Encounters with the East by Christian Peltenburg-Brechneff
Curated by Miss Rosen