A naked man hangs from the ceiling. His long-limbed, life-sized body is the rst thing coming into view, as the heavy studio door opens. The room with high ceilings and the cathedral-like windows is located in a former factory building of the “Duewag” on the edge of the Lierenfeld industrial estate. There is a strong smell of wood in the air. The male nude’s eyes are closed. He is slim, slender and made of limewood. This is the wood from which most of the sculptures of the Düsseldorfer artist Paloma Varga Weisz are made.
The man hangs helplessly — in the ropes, so to speak, on straps. His joints are flexible, like a life-sized puppet on strings. His expression seems forlorn and he has an aura of vulnerability about him. He is literally hanging in the air. And is sentenced to immobility. This hanging man is an example of the incredible precision in the craftsmanship and artistic language of Paloma Varga Weisz.
The silence in the wide, well-structured studio space has almost something sacred. Everywhere you look, other beings come to life. Contemplative, introspectively beautiful faces or busts, with open, expressionless or closed eyes, lying, almost sprawling female nudes, in showcases, on boxes or shelves.
Or, here and there, just a pair of arms or legs rise in the air. There are 37 tools lined up on the workbench — from at carving tools to ne knives. “That’s not all, by far”, says the sculptor, stroking her short brown hair and a smile flickers across her beautiful, open face. The artist first shapes her models from clay, then from clay into plaster, and finally transfers them to wood.
A “Beulenmann” (bumpman) is secured in the vice. His body is covered with balloon-like boils. Here the excessive growth of elephantiasis, but also the bumps of the plague provided the inspiration. The “bumpman” seems to have relaxed into his fate. His right hand is placed on his left. His left leg is crossed slightly over the right. Him and his form or rather disfigured form display an inexplicable ease. Beside him on the workbench sits the “mouse-child”. A squatting mouse with the face of a human child, eyes closed. Her mother used to call her “mousechild” when she was little. A term of endearment transformed into art.
The silence in the wide, well-structured studio space has almost something sacred.
Ponti (1), the tiger-dachshund, with one green and one blue eye, and Feri (12), one of Paloma Varga Weisz’ two sons, roam through the adjacent living area. His grandfather was also called Feri. Feri Varga Weisz was Hungarian and also an artist. He was already 61 years old when Paloma was born in 1966. Her name is inspired by one of his friends in Paris during the golden era of the twenties — Pablo Picasso. If you wanted to tell Paloma Varga Weisz’ whole life story, it would ll a book. In any case, her father followed her mother from France in the fties to Neustadt at the Weinstrasse.
The fact that Paloma Varga Weisz became an artist is, in her view, a path that was already mapped out. “It’s like children of doctors often also study medicine”, she says with an earnest look on her face. The artistic work was something completely natural in her childhood. Feri Varga, the father’s artist name, spread his paintings across all walls, including those in the rooms of the three children. And they were encouraged to draw and paint, too. “We organised exhibitions and sold the works to our parents. An early preparation for the art market”, says the artist and smiles. Initially though, she wanted to be an actress. After falling asleep over studying the text “Antigone” for an entrance exam, however, she decided: That’s not for me!
“I then became my father’s apprentice”, says Varga Weisz. But her portfolios were rejected by all art academies. What followed was a formative period between occupied houses and the beautiful landscape of her surroundings, with her boyfriend at the time and people of all professions: “The full hippie programme. There were no pubs. We met, made big bon res and had great parties.” And then a friend raved about a school in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a “rock solid” education for carpenters and wood sculptors — with only five admitted at a time.
Paloma Varga Weisz passed the entrance exam immediately. The lessons included life drawing, drawing, molding, carving. “In this incredibly beautiful environment”, recalls the sculptor. “The only town on the edge of the Alps. Mountains of 3000 metre right outside the door. This time grounded me and connected me to the material.” It was a “school of seeing” for her.
When she finally came to Düsseldorf’s academy of fine arts in 1990, the professors of the orientation classes said to her: “At first, you have to forget everything!” She should free herself of woodcarving and look for her own topics. “That was confusing for years”, she says, seemingly still amazed of how she returned to woodcarving in the end.
From Tony Cragg she changed over to Gerhard Merz. At that time she carved her legendary meerkat for an end of year exhibition. Its human-like behaviour fascinated her. The same goes for her stag. She had read about the peculiar posture of the animal standing on its hind legs in the papers. On school trips with Gerhard Merz to Florence and Siena she discovered the renaissance period — especially Piero della Francesca. “I was actually more fascinated by the paintings.” But sculptures also influenced Paloma Varga Weisz. She mentions the reclining Christ of Holbein. One of her reclining female nudes is inspired by Cranach.
All these works provided a source for her own language. From then on, the artist’s aim was “to get to the present moment, to find a contemporary language” in which the medieval works echo, but which, moreover, gives way to a truly personal and original voice.
“Carving out a career in art in Germany is not that easy”, she says, looking thoughtful again. There isn’t an obvious reason for it. But one thing is certain: Immediately after she finished her studies in 1998, Paloma Varga Weisz had her first solo exhibition in the now defunct Galerie Bochynek in Düsseldorf. Today she is represented by Konrad Fischer Galerie. Her art has won several awards. She has a presence on the international stage, including as a participant at the Venice Biennale and is represented in New York by Barbara Gladstone, among others. The most successful collaboration to date is with the Londoner gallerist Sadie Coles. The next show is scheduled for June 2018.
Then the artist tells a little anecdote. While still a student at Düsseldorf ’s Art Academy in 1996, she participated with two small sculptures in a group exhibition in Stockholm — a co-operation between the Rhineland and the Swedish capital. Paloma Varga Weisz positioned one lying and one standing nude in a couple of available niches in Stockholm’s house of culture. Then disaster struck: Just before the opening one of the two figures was stolen — the standing female nude. It caused a big upset. “After all, Queen Silvia of Sweden was conducting the opening ceremony”, recalls Varga Weisz.
An ad appeared in the newspapers pleading with the thief that if he hands in the work at the reception, he would not be punished. But nothing happened. Interpol got involved and Paloma Varga Weisz found out her work was included on the list of missing works of art and was listed directly behind Vincent Van Gogh. She was intrigued by that. What she wasn’t impressed by was having to stay silent about the theft during the opening in order not to disturb the proceedings. A strict protocol was followed, all around the Queen’s appearance and many other official guests. “Queen Silvia was kindly chatting with me in German and I stood there in front of her with a tied tongue.”
Back at home in Düsseldorf, the anger flared up again. Without further ado she wrote a letter to Queen Silvia and added a picture of the stolen sculpture. She was sorry that the Queen had unfortunately missed the wonderful work, because it had previously been stolen and she was not allowed to mention anything. However, she would give her the opportunity to see it now by providing her with picture of it.
Today, Paloma Varga Weisz laughs about the audacity of her younger self. Shortly thereafter she received a letter from the Queen. “She apologised for her country and gave me a check for double the amount of the insurance for this work.” About two thousand Deutschmark. An insurance value Paloma Varga Weisz can only smile about today. “But the story is so beautiful, it’s almost worth that the sculpture was stolen”, says Paloma Varga Weisz, laughing. In February she was invited to a group show in Stockholm again. Nothing was stolen this time. But she discovered a perfume entitled “1996” instead (the year of the first group exhibition). An artist friend gave it to her after she told him the 1996 anecdote. The standing female nude is still missing today.