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The Scars of Dresden PDF Print E-mail
Written by Anne Tschida, BT Arts Editor   
June 2018

Artist Sebastian Spreng wants us to step away from the edge

WArtFeature_1hen Sebastian Spreng visited Miami in the mid-1980s from his native Argentina, he fell in love with the light. As a self-taught painter, the color scheme here was altogether different, compared with the pale hues of the southern Pampas where he grew up, and later of the often gloomy skies of Buenos Aires.

Then there was the warm ocean. Confined to a wheelchair for much of his life owing to muscular dystrophy, Spreng could swim around unaided in the inviting waters that commingle with the Caribbean.

Although he spoke little English, the lure was too much, and Spreng made Miami his new home.

“The Miami light fascinated me at the beginning and I felt I had to adjust my whole work in function of that strong light,” Spreng says from his condo on Biscayne Bay. “There was the ocean, where I could swim -- a warm environment completely different than the cold southern ocean.” In fact, he developed a series of paintings based on swimmers. “In the end,” he says, “those paintings were sort of self-portraits.”

For more than 35 years, Spreng has created art here, works that have been exhibited across the United States, in Europe, and South America. And he has been able to indulge in another passion as a music journalist, writing about classical music.

ArtFeature_2Spreng’s art gradually became less literal. “I turned more and more to nature,” he says. “The swimmer was replaced by an eternal tree, and from then to the abstraction that now represents me better, or at least at this current time of my life.”

But despite the freedom that the light and sea afforded him in his adopted home, Spreng can’t help but see the metaphorical clouds looming, and this became the basis for his solo museum show at the Lowe Art Museum of the University of Miami, which opened in May.

Its title, “DRESDEN,” sums up Spreng’s journey and the intellectual and philosophical processes that have guided him.

Dresden had been one of Germany’s educational and cultural hubs, where Romantic composers and poets, writers and artists (think Goethe and Schiller, Wagner and Chopin), unveiled some of their greatest works. It boasted classical Baroque architecture in its churches, opera houses, and palaces. Then, just months before the end of World War II, the city was all but destroyed over the course of several nights of an Allied firebombing campaign (which became the central event in Kurt Vonnegut’s classic Slaughterhouse Five).

Spreng has his own roots in that part of the world as well. On his mother’s side, he is descended from Europeans who migrated to the Pampas of Argentina. “I was born and raised in the little town of Esperanza -- Hope -- the first agrarian colony founded by German and Swiss immigrants, who arrived in 1856,” he says. His German paternal grandfather didn’t arrive in Argentina until the 1920s, on the same steamer ship, he says, as a legendary circus troupe Circus Sarrasani that had been based in Dresden.

Spreng has never visited Dresden, yet it came to represent for him annihilation and rebirth, a symbol for humankind’s endless potential for good and evil.

“I was always very impressed by the war, the scars of war, the effects on people and the nonsense of it,” he explains. “I love Brahms, Bach, Schubert, Beethoven, Wagner, and Mahler -- those composers who reflect the romantic spirit and the ups and downs of civilization better than others.”

ArtFeature_3Spreng took the destruction of Dresden as a metaphor, “as a symbol of the horror...and the how humans can destroy in a minute, in a night, what it took centuries to build. It could have been other cities, but I loved the symbolism of Dresden,” he says.

Not surprisingly, the artist sees that potential for destruction lurking around the corner today. “We are living on the edge, and I don’t want history to repeat itself,” he says. “I wanted to make a statement on the reality now.”

Some of the works in “DRESDEN” are abstract; in others you can see outlines of a city burning or in ruins. But there is another element important to point out, as it also speaks to Spreng’s journey. By 2015, the physical act of painting became too painful.

According to Spreng: “The late art critic Helen Kohen suggested to me to try to draw on an iPad, like David Hockney did. I started from scratch, like I did with paintings, without tutorials or influences, trying to develop the same style that I had as a painter. And it works. I work on layers, slowly, and I am content with the results.”

All of the 61 works on display at “DRESDEN” were created on the iPad, many of them printed on aluminum.

For reference, there is an exception: One painting in the Lowe exhibit reveals Spreng’s self-taught path; it’s a work he created when he was just 12 years old.

Creating art or listening to music was salvation for the boy growing up under the vast skies and often empty plains of the Pampas. He was progressively unable to walk, and though he soaked up the colors and imagery of his surroundings, he never entirely felt part of it.

“I feel I’m a survivor and an outcast, even when I am surrounded by people,” he says, “and art is the only bonding I know -- art and music, the pure magic in the works. I realized it was the only thing I know instinctively how to do.”

ArtFeature_4At age 17 he had his first group show, in the “Artists from Esperanza” exhibition in Buenos Aires, where he would later dabble in stage design and was picked up by an Argentine gallery. He moved to Miami in 1987 and has been shown here in galleries and museums. He also writes about classical music for El Nuevo Herald and for publications in Argentina. His two loves sometimes meet, such as in his recent iPad-created series, “Das Lied von der Erde” (“Song of the Earth”), based on Gustav Mahler’s luscious, melancholy composition.

Although Spreng often views himself as an outsider, he is also an activist looking in, and his vivacious spirit is infectious. “We need more critical voices in the community,” he says about the art world, and about a society that is putting up with the vilification of immigrants, minorities, and the disabled.

And yes, one day, he says, he will visit the rebuilt Dresden. There is, he says, always a phoenix, always a rebirth.

 

“DRESDEN,” works by Sebastian Spreng, runs through September 23 at the Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami, 1301 Stanford Dr., Coral Gables.

 

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