(About the Art of Gero Hellmuth)
Gero Hellmuth’s exhibition “Job” has been shown several times in Germany. Two years ago they were seen for the first time on Polish soil, in the new building of the Szczecin Philharmonic Hall, exactly where the German Philharmonic Hall, which had been torn down after the war, had previously stood. The exhibition was accompanied by the picture cycle “War Children”.
The World War II Museum is now the second place in Poland where this exhibition can be seen. It originated from a Polish-German project that had been opened in 2015 in the German Parliamentary Society in Berlin on the 70th anniversary of the end of the war by Gero Hellmuth under the title „… that you can talk to them“. In Gdansk, the place from which the war started, it now accompanies the commemoration of its end 75 years ago.
Michał Dobrzyński’s music and Ewa Gruszka-Dobrzyńska’s violin improvisations are added to the “Job” exhibition. Gero Hellmuth, who celebrated his 80th birthday this year, is forty years more than the two. He outlined his idea of a collaboration with the motto: „Get closer to each other.“
Escape and academy
Gero Hellmuth lives in the small town of Singen (Baden-Württemberg) near the German-Swiss border. He comes from northern Germany, the prince city of Neustrelitz in Mecklenburg.
At the end of the war at the age of five, he was forced to flee from his home and town. The war took revenge on the state that had sparked it and led to cruelty unknown at the time. When it came to an end, the residents of this state paid the bill collectively, regardless of their individual debt. It was all their fault to be German. Humans paid people back years of humiliation and death. States sealed off their borders, doors were locked. Neighbors became a threat to each other.
After escaping from Neustrelitz, Gero Hellmuth settled in Eckernförde on the Baltic Sea. He graduated from high school in Stuttgart and has lived in Singen since 1971. He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Karlsruhe, a training facility that played an important role in the development of post-war artistic life in Germany. There he graduated, additionally in philosophy and art history.
His professors included Klaus Arnold, a painter and sculptor, expressionist, co-founder of the new figuration in painting, music lover, a man who was already convinced of the coming unity of Europe in the 1950s. In the Philippus-Kirche in Mannheim there are two reliefs from his hand, with quotes from the Gospel of John. Inside the church, near the main entrance, you can see the first: „Lord, show us the Father“ (Jn 14.8), the second at the altar: „Whoever sees me will see the Father“ (Jn 14.9). In the first, doubt is articulated, in the other, hope.
It is precisely these two feelings that wrestle with each other in Job’s fate – this metaphor for the lot of man.
Another teacher of Gero Hellmuth was the painter and sculptor Peter Dreher, a representative of neorealism. Many of his works are characterized by special attention to small things and beings. He created small-format pictures, portraits in oil as well as reverse glass paintings, of which he left dozens. He painted landscapes, colorful flowers and black-and-white depictions of skulls reminiscent of silent pictures of mass graves. He is the author of figurative compositions in many formats and reliefs in churches. He always understood his art in connection with morality, social life, politics.
Immersed in the fate of the world
Gero Hellmuth’s work reveals the community and character of his training center. Art critics also notice his artistic closeness to representatives of the avant-garde of the 20th century, such as K. R. H. Sonderborg with his expressive abstraction or Karl Fred Dahmen with his pictures composed of wood and metal. What united them was the central experience of war as total destruction and reconstruction. The same could be said of the art of Anselm Kiefer, Detlef Kappeler or Günther Ueckers, who was only twenty years old at the time. It should be noted that his “Book of Job” will soon be shown in Szczecin.
Gero Hellmuth’s work is strongly interwoven with everyday social and political events, as has been characteristic of the visual arts in recent decades. The artists participate in social and political life by saturating the public space with the force of symbolic actions and meanings.
Gero Hellmuth is the creator of spatial compositions such as the “Cross of the Unemployed”, which – case by case – is set up in front of companies whose employees are at risk of falling into unemployment. His latest work reflects the current drama of migration and the fate of refugees.
The artist has worked with the Singen Carnival Association (Fasnachtsverein) for many years. Every year he designs original portraits, murals, caricatures, wall and ceiling frescoes for the annual celebrations, executed with humility, lively but also melancholic. A few years ago he painted for nine weeks on a fresco in the vault of a building, lying like a master of the Renaissance on a high scaffold under the ceiling. Let us not forget: the real carnival is not a pleasure for its own sake, but a struggle of the temporal with the eternal, of life with the impermanence. It recalls the questions to which man never finds an answer. He hides this lack of an answer with dance and plebeian spectacle.
Due to the coincidence of fate, the Corona pandemic broke out this year just during Carnival on the threshold of Lent.
Gero Hellmuth reaches far into the historical and cultural contexts of the present. In the “Job” cycles, he visualizes centuries-old problems and archetypes with strictly artistic means – color, construction of the room, depth of space, choice of materials.
From his work one can read the conviction that modern man is immersed in the eon-old fate of the world. This is precisely why he builds bridges between history, our present time and the future.
The individuality of suffering. The space between the questions
This is probably why the book of Job is so important to him – this drama of suffering and hope that theologians, philosophers and artists keep busy. In our culture, Job’s doubts are reflected in the experiences of every individual, because ultimately suffering is always individual. It can only be surmised that the lot of man also reflects the experience of God, who created us in his image and likeness (Gen. 1:26).
Suffering results from the nature of life itself – from the pain of birth to that of death. If a person revolts against it, as he has done since ancient times, he must accept such suffering, despite the medical palliativa, which he uses as a relief. When asked about the reason for this suffering, there is no answer.
But there is also the suffering that man inflicts on man, presumptuously to decide about the pain and death of others. The years of the Second World War were full of such pain. When we think of them, Job’s questions return to us. As Christ said on the cross: „My God, my God, why did you leave me?“ (Mt 27:46; Mk 15:34)
Some interpreters of Job’s story believe that his suffering made him nobler. At the end of his life, the Krakow priest and philosopher Prof. Józef Tischner, referring to the book of Job, uttered his famous dictum: “Suffering does not ennoble.” In his treatises on Job, the ethicist Prof. Tadeusz Gadacz writes that suffering does not express itself Guilt arises. So what then?
Let us also use the opinion of a Jesuit, Prof. Friedhelm Mennekes, who, in his commentary on Gero Hellmuth’s two “job” cycles, “helps to ask questions without formulating them” and the meaning of such questions “is there often … especially in the rooms of silence and in the moments between questions „.
This is certainly true as far as we are concerned with the theology of suffering. It does not mean, however, that here on earth we may spare questions to those who caused suffering or spread a space of silence about them.
Man to man
Gero Hellmuth touches on the most painful problems in human history. His work includes the “Auschwitz” cycle, inspired by a documentary film that shows the inmates of a camp on the day of their liberation. On the arm of one of them the artist saw the tattooed number 19 … This number became the symbol of the twentieth century.
Part of the „Auschwitz cycle“ is the triptych „Auschwitz/Liberation 1945”, which is modeled on the cross in its formal design. At the exhibition in Berlin it was placed on the altar in the well-known St. Matthäus-Kirche. It was created to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and the end of the war. For Gero Hellmuth, the anniversaries of these events are stations on a spiritual pilgrimage.
Placing the triptych on the altar is a symbolic identification of the victims of Auschwitz with the crucifixion story of Christ. The people who decided there about the suffering and death of others acted in the presumption of divine power.
The left wing of the triptych symbolizes the annihilation, the middle the cross tree, and the right side – of course – the new life. The triptych thus spans the transition from the darkness of war to the light of the future.
The Jewish composer Joseph Dorfman wrote a cantata for „Auschwitz“ with the title „… that they live“. For this work, he selected fragments from the book of Job and from the work „The Song of the Exterminated Jewish People“ by Jitzhak Katzenelsons, a hero of the Warsaw ghetto who was murdered with his son in Auschwitz. His wife and two younger sons perished in Treblinka.
Many people have asked and are still asking the question: Why did God allow Auschwitz? Why did he allow the crucifixion to occur? In a way, the Polish writer Zofia Narkowska gave the answer in 1946 when she set the motto in a volume with stories about the time of the occupation: „Man has prepared this lot for man“.
The questions about the crucifixion, about Auschwitz, are questions about the nature of man, what is that something in us that enables us to destroy others.
Knock on the door
The prologue to the exhibition is formed by the sculpture „The Find“, a metal door knocker, salvaged from the door of a house that had lost its inhabitants during the war. Every day, the knocker serves the purpose of making it audible to anyone who wants to enter the house. On the other hand, another person is needed who is ready to open the door. If there is trust between the people on both sides of the door, it will be opened. In 1945 the door between Poland and Germans was slammed. It’s been different again for many years. It doesn’t always have to be that way.
In 2015 Gero Hellmuth wrote: “The knocker indicates the inestimable value of trust that (…), despite an unfortunate past, has grown between our peoples over the past seventy years. Many times it started with someone knocking on another door. ”
This trust has to be renewed in many ways, if only so that future generations can check it for themselves. It would be a mistake, however, to believe that its durability could be determined by decree. There has to be a knock on both sides of the door. One thing is obvious: Poles and Germans know too little about each other. This is exactly why initiatives like “Job” by Gero Hellmuth are so valuable.
They are all the more indispensable as new generations grow into active public life. The Second World War inevitably moves further away in time. That is good and natural, but also threatening in the sense that we have not yet succeeded in building effective protective mechanisms against the war. In the meantime, the world that we are handing over to future generations is violently changing, striking with climate destruction, droughts, dramatic migration, fundamentalism, wars in many countries around the world, with the suffering of children, xenophobia, populism, nationalism and radicalism, with Pandemic of a new illness. So the book of Job remains a completely contemporary drama.
The fear of the children
Gero Hellmuth added a shocking cycle to the exhibition that was shown in Szczecin: “Children. Victim of the war between the borders ”. In the catalog he wrote: “These children’s eyes (…) ask silent, haunting questions: What have we done to you? What drives you to rob us of peace, the feeling of security, love, the arms of our parents around us … ”Last year the artist in Hilzingen showed the cycle“ Cry of the war children ”, which under the impression of the influx of one Wave of refugees to Europe emerged.
Let us remember: in 1945 Gero Hellmuth was five years old. He had to flee his parents‘ house. Like the children of all wars, he got to know childlike, this most terrible fear.
Detlef Kappeler, who was almost the same age, was born in Stettin in 1938 and fled the house with his family, just in front of the front. The ruined city was burning, fighter pilots attacked the fleeing. Many years later he painted the large format picture „Szczecin – Thoughts“. In the middle of the picture he placed a slit, bleeding column reminiscent of the cross wood covered with blood.
The entangled man
One has to speak in silence with Gero Hellmuth’s reliefs and paintings. Their language is the symbolism of the simple line that calls up historical time in the horizontal space and the world of values in the vertical space. We live in the place where both lines intersect: the tragedy of life has been abandoned to us. After all, what we can do is not to multiply them further: by creating connections between us instead of trenches. The arch in the artist’s works symbolizes the idea of a bridge across time, borders and fears, similar to Bernhard Heiliger’s “Great Arch”, the sculpture by this born Szczecin, which is set up in this very city. The reliefs characterize the violent struggle between the permanent, the iron and the fleeting and weak, between what is on the surface and what is deep. These reliefs relate to deep layers of our culture and our psyche, where doubts and hope collide, the unconscious with the conscious, and suffering as an immanent feature of our existence (or the divine will) with the suffering that is caused by ourselves.
The reliefs, the paintings and the quotations from the book of Job create a dynamic narrative of our fate, which from the very beginning was torn between destruction and reconstruction..
The silhouette of man is inscribed in the pictures, entangled in white and black, in shades of gray, in ambiguity of the awakening red.
The perspective of light
Gero Hellmuth’s “Job” is a metaphorical tale of falling and getting up. After the Second World War, humanity laboriously rose again. Europeans have started to build a new house on the foundations of agreement, reconciliation, dialogue, compromise, solidarity, belief in the good in people and in their creative power. Although this produces impressive results, the forces of destruction are strengthening again in our day. The fading memory of the war plays into their hands. Fears about the future are increasing. The corona pandemic makes this even clearer.
Gero Hellmuth sees creation as a work “against oblivion”. In his essay „Crossing Borders“, Hans Gercke wrote that the starting point for art is „empathetic pity for the suffering of others“ and „the confidence that there must be a perspective of light and hope in all of this (…)“
Such a perspective lies in the joint ventures of Polish and German artists. They open doors.
For merits for Polish-German reconciliation, Bogdan Twardochleb was awarded the Cross of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.