Manfred Bockelmann is well known in the German-speaking world. His oeuvre is extensive. He is mainly renowned for his large-scale, colourful and monochrome landscape and horizon abstracts. At first glance his paintings and photographs look unexcited, harmonious, imaginative, and certainly dedicated to beauty and simplicity. Yet, when you take a closer look you realise that Bockelmann’s art is not as harmless and unpolitical as it seems. His reactions to moods, events and conditions in the world are mirrored in his works. They are not big, blatant gestures but subtle changes expressed in formal consequences: the reverberations of the devastating terror attacks of 11 September 2001 in New York and Washington made him lose his joy of painting in colour. For a while Bockelmann worked only in monochrome. Black.
And now his late magnum opus. But what brought this man to delve into the abyss of the horror of Germany’s more recent history? It is his own biography. And shame.
When Manfred was born into the well-to-do, bourgeois family Bockelmann of German origin in Klagenfurt on 1 July 1943, the murdering behind the European front was reaching its peak. The family was more or less little affected by war, despair and crime. His father, a landowner, NSDAP member since 1941 and mayor of the small Carinthian village of Ottmanach, was not an eager Nazi but made the best of the National Socialist’s being in power. Shortly before the end of the war he evacuated his family to Germany, fearing the advancing partisan groups. This was seen as desertion, and Rudolf Bockelmann was arrested by the Gestapo in Klagenfurt. The end of the war prevented him being sentenced.
Just like many other youths, Manfred asked his parents about their role and actions during the so-called Third Reich. And like so many other youths, he was disappointed by the answer he received. Along the lines of: “The Nazis deceived us.” The painter says, “While it perhaps may have been acceptable for Germans to have said that in the early 1930s, by 1938, when Hitler marched into Austria, surely people knew what kind of man they were dealing with.” He was disappointed. By his own parents and their generation. But also by his own generation, who despite their overwhelming majority didn’t emancipate themselves and, regarding the theory of “Austria as Hitler’s first victim”, were so adamantly against reappraising the horrors. “I also wanted to express my opinion as an artist,” he says and admits, “but I didn’t feel I was up to tackling the subject of the Holocaust.”
Since 2010 that has changed: Manfred Bockelmann asked himself what happened to al those children born the same year as he who, unlike him, suffered a terrible fate, and as he puts it, “who had lain in the wrong cradle”. Using coarse charcoal to draw in black parallel lines, he started creating five-foot portraits of the ill-fated, of the most innocent of the innocent: children and teenagers, murdered at the age of between two and 18 years.
He has meanwhile created 120 portraits, but that is not enough for Bockelmann.
He wants to continue drawing as long as he still can.