The painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel loves the Engadine. In the gallery of his son Vito, Schnabel shows a new group of works and explains why he wanted to use it to remember a deceased friend.
This time he doesn’t come in the pajamas he usually wears on film galas. There is knee-deep snow in St. Moritz. Julian Schnabel trudges into the gallery in his winter coat. The fur shoes open, a St. Moritz fan sweater and white overalls peek out from under the coat. A worn cap protects the head. Those who look like this will find their way home even from the deepest forest, they have the wilderness within themselves. But before one can make a comment, the artist gets down to business. His eyes are awake like a bird of prey in flight. In a very short time he checks the hanging of his pictures, corrects the lighting and asks what people think of the works.
Six times one sees dark trees there, the trunks and branches of which cast even darker shadows between a bright yellow ground and a deep blue sky. Drunk to death and a cry for life at the same time. You know, those are the gnarled trees in the garden of the hospital in Saint-Rémy, which Vincent van Gogh painted over and over again. So someone can't get away from his film success, which he celebrated with “At Eternity's Gate”, you think. In 2018 Schnabel caused a sensation with the biopic, in which Willem Dafoe played the famous painter.
It's true, Schnabel has been obsessed with Van Gogh for the last few years; He's obsessive anyway, that's part of his art. First he painted the roses near his grave. Partly in huge formats. Now it was the turn of the trees at the hospital in Saint-Rémy. The fact that he was painting on broken glass again points back to his beginnings. In the end, that was the coup with which he surprised everyone at the end of the 1970s: Jackson Pollock dripped the paint onto the canvas, Schnabel glued broken pieces onto wooden panels and painted over them. What a fire!
At that time he was considered the enfant terrible of the New York art scene. When he came to the metropolis in 1973 as a tanned surfer from Texas, Andy Warhol made portraits of Mick Jagger and John Lennon, celebrities stormed the nightclub Studio 54, and a new, expressive energy captured painting. It was the years before AIDS and Ronald Reagan. "I was fortunate enough to meet a lot of inspiring people," says Schnabel today.
That he hit the city like a tornado, sweeping away whatever stands in his way, he acknowledges with a wave of his hand. He was young, fresh and endowed with enormous self-confidence. He established himself as a painter for large formats, who paints what art history has to offer and experiments with all conceivable materials. He's also once bought roofs of houses or truck tarpaulins to paint on. Since he has also been making films, receiving the Cannes directing award and being considered an Oscar nominee, he has become known to the general public.
Tribute to a friend
The fact that for many years he was to be found almost as often in the gossip columns as in the art press that he lived as a painter prince with a Renaissance palazzo in New York is now a thing of the past. "I almost never go to dinners anymore," he says. He wants to paint and works out how many summers he still has with his 69 years for it. He came to St. Moritz from Montauk.
In the small town at the far end of Long Island, he has long been spending the summers working in his open-air studio: "Outside, I see the effect of the colors much better," he says. The bright contrasts on the new paintings are evidence of this. The broken dishes reinforce them. Many of them are not painted over, the white of the porcelain reflects the light while the colors swallow it up.
The pictures were created as a memory of a close friend. The well- known Africa photographer Peter Beard wanted to show Schnabel a book with photos of the trees near the hospital that van Gogh had already seen. Before he had found it, he did not return home one evening: he was slightly demented and lost in the dark; his body was discovered two weeks later. When Beard's wife discovered the book and brought it to Julian Schnabel, he wanted to erect a memorial to his friend and painted the trees as an homage to both of them.
Van Gogh's heat and Julian Schnabel's grief can be seen in St. Moritz. “You belong here, this is my home,” he says. In 1979 he came to the Engadin for the first time. The gallery owner Bruno Bischofberger had invited him. Since then he's been here almost every year. He lives with his wife, the interior designer Louise Kugelberg, in the “Villa Flor” in S'chanf. "Now we're alone there." That helps in the pandemic. He has a studio nearby. “I can ski and paint, that's wonderful,” he says.
His son Vito took over the former gallery space from Bischofberger. Selling his pictures is no problem for the painter: “He has a good program, and it's not that unusual. Pierre Matisse also sold his father's works. " It has to be Matisse. Or just van Gogh.
I am my pictures
Schnabel painted many of the pictures for the Van Gogh film himself. And asked oneself: "What is different if I paint a dead painter from his self-portrait, or if I portray an actor as this painter?" Apart from the fact that Dafoe has a beard, unlike Vincent, you can see how much Schnabel empathized with his deceased colleague. "I've been concerned with death since I was a child, it's my big topic," he says. The volume, which Taschen-Verlag publishes at the end of the month, impressively presents the portrait series.
Today's artist not only reflected himself in his past life, he also got along better with it. But that is not new for Schnabel: “I am my pictures”, he says van Gogh's sentence about himself.