Six questions to the sculptress Helga Vockenhuber
by Ugo Cirilli – photos Giacomo Donati
Helga Vockenhuber is a versatile international artist who has developed a profound relationship with the territory of the Versilia Coast in Tuscany. She is an Austrian woman who started as a jewellery designer and later discovered her profound vocation for other art forms, sculpture in particular. The main focus of her work is spirituality and the constant human search for inner peace. This aspect of her art can be easily recognised in the majestic solemnity of her large bronze busts where the faces are deep in meditative contemplation.
One of these large busts (three metres tall) titled “The New Eve” (2012) is a perfect example. Her creations almost force themselves on the eye of the beholder, specially when they are exhibited in the open as with her recent shows in Florence and Pietrasanta. The works of art are forceful, delicate and transcendent at the same time. She endeavours to bring back people’s attention to the sphere of spirituality in these times of materialism and frenetic lifestyles. Hers is an art form which can reconnect the physical and interior realm of human beings. Giuseppe Cordoni is an art critic who has organised many of Helga’s shows. This is his opinion of her work: “Her universe of symbols rotates around three spiritual axes; The face, the body and the Cosmos.”
We interviewed the artist during an important event; The casting of some of her works of art at the Artistic Foundry of Massimo Del Chiaro. The bronze busts were destined for the Swiss festival of “BadRagartz.” The artist told us that through a lucky coincidence she encountered the master craftsmen of Pietrasanta about twenty years ago. It was the beginning of her idyllic relationship with the coastal area of Versilia.
BestVerslia : – Can you tell us about your artistic journey? We know that you started as a jewellery designer and that you now work in the field of contemporary art.
Helga Vockenhuber : -My artistic journey has been quite unusual. I could describe myself as self-taught. I discovered the joy of modelling materials with my hands at a very young age. In the beginning I was very interested in design, I loved jewellery and small objects in bronze. I was fascinated by research regarding small pieces of jewellery. At the time my jewellery did not have natural shapes, I was already using symbolic and stylized forms, although I was strongly inspired by flowers and animals. I transformed flowers and doves into mysterious amulets and filled them with an aura of magic.
From my beginnings to my present work as a sculptress I have worked very hard. Step after step something lead me towards sculpture although now that I think of it, it seems that almost unknowingly it already existed in my heart.
The idea of making large monumental sculptures like the ones I make now did not happen by chance. They are the result of a slow, steady interior growth: spiritual, psychological and obviously formal. I have put a lot of work into my research, travelling to various parts of the world to discover more about art and sculpture. I spent some time in London and then at the summer school of the American sculptress Judy Fox.
At last it became clear to me that the aesthetic consciousness of my meditations needed to be expressed in a more “explosive manner” through monumental works. In other words, through simplicity, recognition and form, while at the same time being imbued with poetic and spiritual magnetism. At long last my hands were ready to be used in the transfiguration of the world which I have loved forever: The universe which surrounds us and the life-giving female body through which beauty passes and the dignity I see in each face I depict, the dignity of each person who is searching for the purpose of his/her existence. My hands were possessed, and it was if I saw inside of me these large faces who were thinking and praying for us all. I had to give them visibility.
BV : – Your work is about profound human themes, inner peace and spiritual research. What made you decide to dedicate yourself to this dimension of human existence?
H. V. : – I could answer with the words of the monk Anselm Grün: “I do what I do to put a soul into each life.” The world will not improve unless we visibly express our spirituality and faith. This idea is my constant companion and therefore, I feel a sense of great purpose, a mission in all that I do. It is a deep feeling which guides me. It is not easy to say why I do what I do. I think I could say that I am guided by my faith.
I perceive a great spiritual emptiness in our contemporary world. I believe that it is necessary to reinstate a sense of the divine in the heart of mankind. We don’t just need to be conscious of the evil which is poisoning our existence, we need to be conscious of the beauty which unites us when we manage to share the common experience of love.
Some people notice a similarity with oriental religion in my meditative busts which seem to be deep in contemplation, they often make a comparison with Buddhism. I shall never forget my discovery of these philosophies, which happened when I was very young, through the book Siddharta by Herman Hesse. I was certainly influenced then and still am today, although my vision remains profoundly Christian. I am also however, profoundly convinced that each encounter with other authentic religious cultures is always a form of enrichment for humanity. It is not by chance that ever since I started my first works of art I have always signed them with the initials “S.D.G” (soli Deo Gloria) Glory to God only. This is where everything comes from. In my work I faithfully submit myself without any form of pathos to hard work. I try to follow the emotion that I would like to transmit with maximum clarity.
BV : – You have been living and working in our territory for some time now and you have already exhibited your work locally on various occasions. How was this bond created?
H. V. : – My bond with Pietrasanta and Versilia was born over twenty years ago. It is profound and indissoluble. Had this encounter not come about my journey as an artist would have been very different. Who knows what my sculptures would have been like without the quality of the skilled workers and the artisans of Pietrasanta! Just like the other sculptors who have arrived here from all over the world the same thing has happened to me: I was bewitched by the beauty of the town and its territory and by the creative opportunities it offers to those who comprehend their extraordinary artistic traditions.
The way I discovered Pietrasanta is a story worth telling: I was in London, I was still very young, and I was working on small pieces of jewellery. Although I did not dedicate myself too much to sculpture I was already fascinated by bronze and its plasticity.
Then, one day I happened to see a small sculpture by Mitoraj in a famous art gallery. Apart from the indisputable beauty of the work of art I was immediately attracted by a glaze which was so beautiful and original that I believe I had never seen anything like it. I then noticed a small round stamp on the bottom of the sculpture with the words “Artistic Foundry Massimo del Chiaro-Pietrasanta” Until that moment I knew nothing of this extraordinary small town and it was the sight of that small stamp which acted as the compass which guided me here. The very first news I had about the existence of this town came through something which indicated the ability of the hands of its craftsmen; In particular those of the foundry “Del Chiaro” which is the one I subsequently chose for my works of art.
BV : – What do you think are the most attractive aspects of theVersilia coastal territory for artists?
H. V. : – It is a very stimulating environment. Here, the confrontation is not only of a technical nature with the varied manual tradition that each foundry or marble laboratory can offer you. It is also the human contact, the fact that one can work side by side with others, the encounters/clashes with the shapes and forms of other artists which almost forces you to meditate again on your reasons for making sculptures. And I haven’t even mentioned the environment, the surrounding landscapes or the high quality of life which you can enjoy during your stay on the Versilia Coast.
There is another subject which is even more important for me as an artist; I feel almost obliged to mention the beauty of Pietrasanta. I refer to the architectural beauty of the town. It possesses a unique sense of harmony which arises from the noble proportions which regulate its entire structure. I was profoundly impressed by the way it anticipated by almost two centuries the idea of the Ideal City of the Italian Renaissance. It was the art critic Giuseppe Cordoni who first introduced me to the aesthetic reality of Pietrasanta. He educated me about its history. So much so that we started discussing the idea of an itinerant exhibition called “The Gift of Harmony.”- “Das Genschenk der Harmonie”.
A sort of sculpted sacred representation was born. We asked ourselves: “Is it possible to establish a meeting (a recovery) between sculptures like the ones I am currently making (the large busts) and urban renaissance environments of absolute perfection?” What a wager! The comparison between today’s sensibility and the renaissance conception of the ideal dimension of a city. Urban centres such as Pietrasanta or Pienza or the views of Florence from the Baroque park of Villa Bardini. For over four years we have won our bet. Our travelling journey with the sculptures has already had five successful exhibitions. The first exhibition, called “The Lilies of the sea” was held on the beaches of Forte dei Marmi, a place which has strong links to the memory of Michelangelo and the Versilia coast. The second exhibition entitled “The soul is found” was held in Pietrasanta in Piazza Duomo and inside the church of Sant’Agostino. I could never have desired a more beautiful show case for the sum of my creative work inspired by flowers and human faces (the universe, the body and the heart.)
Our next stop was at Pienza, the “Utopian City” where the renaissance genius of Rossellino left his mark of measure and mystery. My sculptures were exhibited in the Cathedral square, in the courtyard and gardens of Palazzo Piccolomini. It was if they were conversing with this ideal of peaceful industrious cohabitation in an ideal setting. Our next welcome was from the city of Florence where we exhibited on the enigmatic balconies of Villa Bardini. The sight of my bust of Mary Magdalene “framed” by Brunelleschi’s Dome was one of the highlights of my entire career as a sculptress. I was also filled with trepidation when my art works were placed in the gardens of Palazzo Medici Riccardi, which is the most intimate and glorious cradle of the entire Renaissance.
BV : – Could you tell us more about your sculptures which have been cast at the artistic foundry Massimo del Chiaro which will be on show at the Bad Ragartz festival in Switzerland?
H. V. : -The sculptures are a sacred representation of a dialogue between four large busts. The New Adam, The New Eve, The Prophet and Mary Magdalene. They are performing a spiritual dialogue, rather than a physical one as they are communicating in a state of profound meditation. They are speaking (and it is not a paradox) in virtue of the communion they have achieved through their deep silence. This silence becomes their most precious shared gift. This is my itinerant exhibition: The Gift of Harmony-Das Genschenk der Harmonie.
Until recently I had only completed the first three busts, but now I have completed the quartet with the latest addition, “The Prophet“which will be on display at Bad Ragartz, together with the “New Eve.” What made me choose these two? Probably because they are the first and last born. And maybe because I love their symbolic energy.
As with the “New Adam” I have followed the same principles with my “New Eve.” I have created two human figures immersed in an ecstatic absorption. On their faces one can touch and feel a sense of meditation, consciousness, interior depth and prayer. A sensation of freedom which has been lost in our frenetic modern-day world. A new Eve, a new Mother for all living beings. In her face I have endeavoured to mix all the traits of female faces from all of the ethnic groups of the world, although I have probably privileged the African race above all others. It’s almost as if I needed to close the circle around which life’s adventure rotates forever.
What can I say about the Prophet, my latest art work? His lips are slightly open as if he is about to speak to us with wise words that are born of a prophetic silence. His bald head is as round as a dome which gathers light from the sky. His long beard flows towards the ground as if it is seeking our roots. I imagined a figure that would have the solemnity of a biblical prophet or of that of Saint Paul when he announced in the Letter to the Corinthians (15,28) “And when all things shall be subdued to him, then shall the Son also be subject unto to Him who put all things under him that God may be all in all.”
BV : – Can you tell us about your future projects?
H. V. : – I undoubtedly feel the desire to enlarge my iconic collection with other faces and figures which answer to the need for a renewed or rediscovered spirituality. Apart from the theme, and this happens to all artists, “going beyond” always entails new research into communication. I have always been fascinated, and this regards specially the field of sculpture, by the technical and expressive resources which derive from the use of new materials. I would like to work with glass on my monumental figures.
As far as my exhibitions are concerned, all of my efforts go towards the completion of my itinerant show, THE GIFT OF HARMONY – Das Genschenk der Harmonie which will be held in Venice this time. I would like to conclude this marriage between the architecture of the ideal city and the softness of the human body at the feet of the Palladium. It will be held on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore and there will be a photographic catalogue to record the event. It will be a work of nostalgia which will narrate the “lost or rediscovered measurements.” I am working hard to fulfil this project.