A marriage of reality and imaginary worlds: the work of German artist Kalle Becker

Charming, witty and self-assured, Kalle Becker is a man of many talents. An artist, illustrator, filmmaker and storyteller, he is capable of weaving narratives that make the viewer reflect on what it means to be alive in the here and now. Raised in Salzgitter outside Hanover, he has travelled and lived in various towns across Germany, as well as further afield in Kiev, Tbilisi, Moscow, Johannesburg and Durban. His illustrations have been published internationally and his multi-media work explores various themes, including the connection between schizophrenia and creativity. In November, 2017, his work will appear in Brussels as part of EUFAMI’s ‘Home’ exhibition.

“People ask me ‘When did you start painting?’ and I tell them ‘ I never stopped’”

There’s a pleasantness that sits comfortably with a certain naivety that cuts through most of Kalle’s work. “People ask me ‘When did you start painting?’, says Kalle, “and I tell then ‘ I never stopped since childhood’”. Exotic animals — lions, tigers, zebras, butterflies and chameleons — inhabit his paintings and illustrations. It is the work of an active imagination that saw Kalle explore Kiev in the 1980s at the time of the Iron Curtain, and eventually lead him to setting himself up as an artist and illustrator in South Africa for over a decade, alongside his wife, the well-known South African anti-apartheid activist, actress, and storyteller, Gcina Mhlophe.

Grille (left) and Gepard

During his South Africa years he says his “major objective was to capture the African light, the way people dress, the brightly decorated houses — the vivid colours of the street vendors.” He also illustrated numerous books, including the traditional African story “Fudukazi’s Magic” about “a wise old tortoise” with the power to transform and “decorate” animals from “dull and brown” to something more patterned, bright and beautiful. His illustrations fuse magnificently with the simple and expertly told children’s story that inspires a sense of awe and childlike wonder at the natural beauty of mother earth.

“Who would I be sitting down with at the ideal dinner party…? My wife and daughter… and possibly Nelson Mandela.”

His artistic heroes are diverse and include filmmakers such as Italian Federico Fellini, the Russian Andrei Tarkovsky, and Charlie Chaplin. For visual art, he loves Gustav Klimt, the German Horst Janssen, and Vincent Van Gogh. Whilst others go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land or other religious sites, he says, he went with his mother to Vienna to see the Art Nouveau paintings of Klimt. But his most precious influences in life and art, are more intimately connected. “Who would I be sitting down with at an ideal dinner party…?,” he spontaneously asks himself. “My wife and daughter… and possibly Nelson Mandela.”

Mother Christmas

Although he loved so many aspects of South Africa, he says he ultimately felt compelled to leave due to insecurity in the country. Whilst his residence in Durban looked out onto the open blue ocean, he describes the rear of the house, which he said, was fitted with alarms and ringed with barbed wire. It was only after many years living outside of Europe that he began, he says, to fully appreciate his European identity.

“A fairy tale life in Georgia.”

Kalle traces back his artistic career to when he finished school and his unusual choice of destination to embark on his life’s adventure.

“After school, I had nothing to do and I had half a year of being idle and my mother told me if you don’t learn something, I won’t pay your rent. So, I had to figure out what I was going to do with my life, so I started learning Russian”

He ended up in Kiev where he mixed with the locals “had lots of fun, drank vodka, and learnt to curse and swear like the Russians do.” Russia — or the Soviet Union as it was then — had a huge impact on him. “It’s about the Russian soul,” he says. “People speak differently. It’s different from Germany where it’s very rational. In Russia, culturally-speaking, there’s so much that goes unspoken.”

His artistic wanderings led him to playing a central role acting in a feature film of Franz Kafka’s ‘The Castle’ shot in 1992 in Tblisi, Georgia as the country was experiencing a civil war. The sound of Kalashnikovs firing in the streets, he says, became a constant feature. Despite the danger, it was a time of youthful exuberance and discovery for Kalle, describing it as “a fairy tale life in Georgia.”

Along with Kafka, his work has often been about trying to tap into and reinterpret great stories from the past, such as the Greek myth of Icarus and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. He’s even produced a series of studies and sketches based on Mozart’s Magic Flute. He plans to do sixteen portraits in total as part of the project — one for each character.

Koenigin der Nacht sketch (left), Ikarus (centre), Hamlet (right)

He says he feels as if the stories somehow find him, rather than actively seeking them out. Writing, creativity, he says “It happens to me. You get sucked into it. I can’t tell you where it comes from, it comes from outside somewhere. When you draw, it feels like something developing on paper. When you write, it’s like someone dictating to you.”

In 2013/4 his art specifically focused on schizophrenia. ‘Die Sache mit Paul’ (The thing with Paul) and ‘Die Sache mit dem Fisch’ (The thing about the fish) explore the diagnosis in what he terms the “two faces” of the condition.

He describes schizophrenia as being both a “senseless destroyer”, directly attacking a person’s sense of self, whilst also being “an inner voice helping us understand our destiny and leading us to a life that is wholly our own.”

“Schizophrenia is both a senseless destroyer(…) and an inner voice helping us understand our destiny and leading us to a life that is wholly our own.”

In ‘Die Sache mit dem Fisch’ Kalle says his aim was for his pictures and text “to convey a state of total overload”, whilst also pointing “a way out for my affected colleagues.” It tells the story of German locksmith Dirk, his wife Ines, and son Peter. Dirk, he explains, lives with schizophrenia and “sometimes sees fish where there are none (…) and hears voices.”

Dirk is depicted swinging between panic and ecstasy, overload, confusion, amazement and delusion. Salvation ultimately comes in the form of the unconditional love of his young son who — in spite of seeing his father’s erratic behaviour and threats to self-harm — still loves him the way he is, as a dad. “Daddy, I’m proud of you,” says Peter. “I was always proud of you and I am also now.”

“The moon shines and the world is beautiful, just as it is.”

Both ‘Die Sache mit dem Fisch’ and ‘Die Sache mit Paul’ combine text, photos, and drawings as if alluding to the blending of real and imaginary worlds.

Psychotic episodes , he explains, are a “sensory overload” where everything “exists at the same time, one on top of the other, in parallel”. He even refers to a kind of “scary beauty”, inferring that the person living with its affects can become attached to its all-consuming power. However, Kalle is clear in pointing out that this kind of frenzied existence is not an inevitability and that real solutions exist, even if it means ‘succumbing’ to modern medicine.

“The moon shines and the world is beautiful, just as it is,” writes Kalle, as if gently bringing sufferers back to their senses.

Kalle has now returned to live and work in Salzgitter not far from where he was born. After years living abroad, he feels Europe, and specifically this small town outside Hanover, is the place he most associates with home.

Current projects include a commission to do a series of paintings on the elderly. He is also working on his Magic Flute project, which, he says, has helped him explore new creative avenues after a hiatus to get some distance on his creative process. He wants his new work to become as “unmistakably mine” as it was with his animal paintings, retaining what his friends call “the Kalle Becker touch.”

Kalle Becker. Photo by Bernward Comes

I ask Kalle about the biggest compliment anyone has ever given to his work and he describes the response by one gallery-goer one cloudy afternoon: “It’s rainy and grey outside, but when you come into the gallery and see your work, the sun rises.”

We love his calm, measured and life-affirming art and we are delighted to be including it in our ‘Home’ exhibition on 30 November, 2017.

Kalle Becker was born in 1964 in Göttingen, Germany. Becker's African name is Baba kaKhwezi - father of the morning star. You can find out more at www.kallebecker.com
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