To Depict Infinity
Wulf Barsch studied art in Hamburg and Hanover, Germany, and is a retired Professor of Visual Arts at BYU. Although Barsch gives order to his painting through mathematical precision and “sacred geometry”—divine proportions, circles, squares, parabolas, and the like—his brush stroke is loose, spontaneous, and very modern. The synthesis between the ancient Greek emphasis on proportion and his modern techniques brings a certain timeless character to his work.
Oil on Canvas
Wulf Eric Barsch was born in Reudnitz, Germany, on August 27, 1943. Before Barsch was born, his father was drafted into the German army, and Wulf did not see his father until he was 16 years old. Although World War II ended in 1945, Barsch’s father was a prisoner of war who was moved from Texas, to France, and then to Russia before he was released. All this time, the family assumed he was dead.
After the war Wulf, his mother, and his sister unexpectedly had to flee the country, changing their names in order to escape.
Barsch received his early art training in Hamburg and Hanover, Germany, from master students of Kandinsky and Klee. An important influence on Barsch, Paul Klee’s idea “that art does not make pictures of nature exactly but it makes something that is a new creation, it makes some feeling or experience with nature a reality,“ is a philosophy that Barsch incorporates in his own art.
During his student years, the painter became interested in the Vienna School of Fantastic Realism and the work of Mark Tobey, a devout Bahai. He later studied Egyptian and Islamic culture and history, and that interest is still evident in the recurrent spiritual symbols in his art.
A convert to the L.D.S. Church, Barsch served a mission for the Church in northern California and attended Brigham Young University. Wulf received a Master’s Degree in printmaking from Brigham Young University in 1971 and a Master of Fine Arts degree in painting in 1972. Barsch immediately joined the art faculty at B.Y.U. Barsch’s achievements include international recognition for his paintings and prints. Winner of The Prix de Rome from the American Academy in Rome in 1975, Barsch spent the next year, with his family, working in Rome. Other awards include the Printmaking Award from the Western States Art Foundation, an award for Excellence in Art from the Snowbird Institute, and the Director’s Award from the Springville Museum of Art.
Due to his own introspective nature, Barsch believes that each of his works necessitate a private interpretation of spiritual mystical themes from the viewer. Barsch’s metaphorical paintings introduced a new enthusiasm and recognition for Mormon Art during the 1980’s. A leader of the second wave of the “Art and Belief“ movement, Barsch proposes that a culmination of faith, heritage, imagination, and contemporary life is displayed through the use of abstract and geometric designs to emphasize spiritual themes.
Dynamic Symmetry, the proportions often called “the Golden Mean,“ undergirds every painting of Barsch’s. The idea of sacred geometry-the proportions of the universe-dates back to the ancient canons. It is evident as the underlying design reflecting the eternal order of nature itself. Mysterious, arcane, and, other worldly, Barsch’s art is geometrical, intellectual, and mystical, but the paint application is just the opposite-modern, direct, wiped, color contrasts, and wet into wet. The effect of these opposites is to create a sense of place in the past relevant to today.
In an unpublished manuscript on Mormon Art by Dr. Vern G. Swanson, Director of the Springville Museum of Art, he says, “Barsch’s exploration of spiritual-mystical themes, especially the Abrahamic vision, through his own very private interpretations has established him as one of America’s premier religious artists. . . Barsch’s meditations have propelled him into contemporaneous metaphorical painting. Like most of the masters of this century, he has worked consistently on variations of a theme, in this case, the Hebraic mysteries.“
Judith McConkie, of the Museum of Art at Brigham Young University, in her monograph Wanderings: Abraham, Ulysses, and the Landscapes of Wulf Barsch, describes this thematic approach and Barsch’s symbolic quest for home: “Even at first glance, Barsch’s landscapes leave a peculiar sensation that the compositions are fragments of a very long sentence and that the vocabulary of the fragments is distinctly personal. . . In classic form these episodic scenes are a section from the middle of the story. . . The syntax of this continuous sentence is an ideal vehicle for expanding Barsch’s theme. He wanders from episode to episode in the search for home and each incident adds absolutely necessary attributes of self-knowledge and self-control.“
McConkie explains further: “Wulf Barsch’s environment and his art are an attempt to recreate something he wishes to remember, something for which he searches with the patience of a mystic. His art expresses a universal theme about the home that he believes he once knew and the life-long struggle to become once again a denizen of that society. Knowing about that home, he says, helps explain the present and control the future. They are all really the same.“
Toward Thebes is an abstract painting which, according to Dr. Vern G, Swanson, is based on the theme of Life in this mortal estate, in which, as the Apostle Paul says, “We see through a glass darkly“ (I Cor. 13:12). This life appears chaotic to us, as if we viewed a tapestry from the back-knots and ends and very little design. But when we, in the next life, can see from the front, the beautiful and intricate design will be clear. Thebes, Egypt’s capitol city during politically stable times, symbolizes the idea of order coming out of chaos.
A hint of God’s design is seen in the Magic Square, influenced by the German artist Albrecht Durer. It was scribbled on while the paint was still wet by Wulf’s brush handle. It might represent the 15 Prophets, Seers and Revelators (L.D.S. First Presidency and Twelve Apostles) on the earth at any one time. These numbers add up to fifteen, no matter in which direction they are counted. Though looking chaotic, they are logically organized, if the viewer will but look a little deeper.
4 9 2
3 5 7
8 1 6
The Greek Alpha and Omega letters at the bottom of the picture represent the Lord Jesus Christ. The foundation design beside these letters might indicate the temple in New Jerusalem (Jackson County, Missouri). The numbers “14“ and “15“ could denote the process of counting up to the prophetic number “Fifteen“.
Barsch has juxtaposed contrasting art elements to give vitality to his painting. He has contrasted blurred areas against sharp and hard-edged sections, neutral, tonal and grayed areas are superimposed against zones of intense chroma. The opposition of naturalistic content with abstract forms, amorphous patches with geometric shapes can also be seen. Carefully considered areas contrasting with geometric shapes can also be seen. Carefully considered areas contrast with carelessly wrought sections that allow for the full range of aesthetic devices to energize Wulf Barsch’s work.