The Life of the Artist
The German painter and printmaker EGGERT GUSTAVS (1909–1996) is among the most important artist associated with the island of Hiddensee in the Baltic Sea. Hiddensee, which has sometimes been called an 'island of painters and poets', was his birthplace and home. Artists and prominent members of German society began sojourning on the island in the 1920s. The young Gustavs got to know many of them personally.
The painters Willi Jaeckel and Elisabeth Büchsel often stayed on Hiddensee, along with such well-known German actors as Elsa Wagner, Asta Nielsen, Otto Gebühr and Joachim Ringelnatz. These figures and many others frequented the house of Gustavs's parents, the pastor and expert on ancient oriental languages Arnold Gustavs and his wife, Helene. Guests such as these gave life on the island a special flavour in the summer. This impressed and inspired the growing boy, as did his father's friendship with the famous German writer and Nobel Prize winner Gerhart Hauptmann. Eggert Gustavs and his three siblings thus grew up in a liberal-minded atmosphere conducive to the cultivation of both art and science.
To realise his dream of becoming an architect the young Gustavs enrolled at the Landeskunstschule (school of arts) in Hamburg. Yet he soon felt stylistically straight-jacketed there and feared the loss of his artistic freedom and individuality. Moreover, he found himself increasingly attracted to painting and printmaking. In Berlin and at the Bauhaus he came in contact with Wassily Kandinsky, already an outstanding avant-garde artist on the world stage, whose lectures and personality fascinated him. Kandinsky was probably the only contemporary artist whom Gustavs acknowledged as a model. When the Bauhaus was closed, he decided to go his own way, as an independent, largely self-taught artist.
Illness dogged his path through life. Yet by exercising iron self-discipline and making many a sacrifice in his lifestyle, he reached the grand age of eighty-six. Sometimes he survived by sheer good fortune. In 1945, for example, a wad of photographs saved his life during a mortar attack: it was only days later that he discovered a shell fragment lodged among the family photographs in his wallet, close to heart.
Gustavs was a true islander and a 'Hiddensee artist' in the widest sense. His entire oeuvre is pervaded by love of the island. Probably no one else has captured its austere beauty and hidden charm in such a wide variety of motifs and moods, with such sovereign mastery and intensity of expression, and in so many different techniques.
His works range impressively from the most delicate of watercolours, via subtly orchestrated prints to bold, compelling linocuts and woodcuts. Watercolour and woodcut were his principal means of expression, yet his versatility is a constant source of wonder. Be it pen, brush or pencil drawings, oil paintings or pastels, prints on glass or figure carvings, his works always bear the stamp of an unmistakable personality. In his portraits and caricatures he successfully captured typical features with minimum artistic means. Indeed, he was fascinated by what he once called the 'face of the landscape' and the 'landscape of the face'.
Over the decades thousands of visitors flocked to the permanent exhibition in HAUS GUSTAVS (Gustavs‘ house), his artistic retreat on Hiddensee. Time stood still for them as they viewed the works on permanent display and engaged in lively conversation on all manner of subjects, not merely art, artists and Hiddensee. To all his guests Gustavs was a charismatic host, open-minded and cosmopolitan in his conversation, interested and interesting. Many aspects of life, world events and existence generally aroused his curiosity, including the written and spoken word. He himself penned a large number of poems, fables, aphorisms and subtle plays on words, all revealing his fine sense of humour and his wisdom.
For many years, Eggert Gustavs spent the summer on Hiddensee and the winter with his family – his wife, Irene Tourneau-Gustavs, a dancer and teacher of dancing, and their six children – at Neuruppin in Brandenburg. Many of his paintings capture the calm and tranquillity of the Mark Brandenburg, the lakes and forests of the 'Ruppin Switzerland' region described by Theodor Fontane in his Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg (Travels in the Mark Brandenburg). The artist found further subjects in the South Tyrolean Alps, in France, in the Harz mountains and, especially, on his beloved island of Hiddensee.
In the studio in his house next to the lake in Neuruppin, Gustavs painted, created linocuts and woodcuts, and produced hundreds of cards with reproductions of his work. His popularity was increased no end by the sale of thousands and thousands of these cards. He carved out a path for himself by combining hard work with a fruitful imagination and unflagging creativity, allied to a mercilessly self-critical appraisal of his art.
In 1994, Gustavs donated a significant portion of his artistic oeuvre to the museum on his native island. His life came to end in 1996. His final resting place lies not far from the house in Kloster where he was born, beneath a boulder bearing his monogram carved in his own hand.
In 2009, the centenary of Gustavs's birth was marked by publication of the monograph Eggert Gustavs: Leben und Werk eines Hiddenseer Künstlers (Eggert Gustavs: The Life and Work of a Hiddensee Artist). The museum in Neuruppin and the Hiddensee local history museum celebrated the anniversary by mounting exhibitions containing a total of approximately 150 works from the artist's wide-ranging oeuvre.
From 17 June to 18 July 2010, one of Spain's outstanding artistic centres, the city of Barcelona, is paying homage to Eggert Gustavs by staging an exhibition of his work as a painter and printmaker at a major venue. After visiting a Gustavs exhibition in Germany, Professor Fèlix Bentz, head of the Royal Artistic Circle of Barcelona (RACB), invited the Eggert Gustavs Gesellschaft e.V. (Eggert Gustavs Society) to show a representative selection of the artist's work in the venerable building occupied by the RACB. The Honorary President of the RACB, which was founded in 1881, is His Majesty Juan Carlos I, King of Spain.
"[...] in a reconnaissance to five [1945 on the eastern front] we came under fire from grenade launchers. I received a load of many small fragments, especially in hand, neck and through the cheek into the mouth. [...] Incidentally, the pack of family photos in my breast pocket saved my life, without which a shrapnel would have hit the heart directly. After days, I found the splinter between the photos, where it had gotten stuck."