IMPRESSIONS D'ARTISTES N° 52, Paris - Tunis 2007

Impressions D’Artistes 05/07 N° 52 Paris - Tunis
Mustapha Chelbi

Unity In Diversity

The paintings of Brigitte Thonhauser-Merk are difficult to categorise - a multidimensional artist with manifold ways of expressing her view both on and of her surroundings, be her work gestural or conceptual, realistic or cubist. She knows that freedom is the most precious good of any individual wanting to discover their being in all its fullness. In her watercolours, oil and acrylic paintings, her collages and drawings she is different every time and yet always herself. She is a true chameleon: doesn't a painter's greatest virtue lie in adaptability, however? She acts out painting in all her work: "I most likely owe my energy to the silent period that followed my first drawings… A stretch of time that lasted thirty years! Thirty years during which I dedicated myself to my family and the raising of my children. When I then started painting again, I had the impression I needed to make up for 'time lost' and hence jumped at trying out all techniques and styles that were out there, in order to fill the emptiness that had meanwhile arisen within the 'painting part' of me. Each technique opened an entirely new world for me and allowed me to discover the most diverse subjects. My inspirations came from experiences I made in my immediate surroundings, as well as from my travels, my environment and so forth. Everything new fascinated me in its very own and unique way."


Brigitte Thonhauser-Merk wanted to regain lost time by familiarising herself with all techniques and styles. After having longed for reconnecting with canvas for thirty years, she doubled her efforts as soon as she had set up her own studio. She entered the world of painting determined to live her artistic passion to the fullest without any containment or restrictions. Since then, she has realised her unity in diversity: "In the beginning, this dazzling array drew me to try out all sorts of techniques. During my youth, my possibilities had been a lot more restricted, whereas nowadays I allow myself the freedom of fathoming all options of creativity, which painting holds for me. It is only today that I can analyse what to do with every single element. New and wonderful worlds unfold with every form of technique and each different material. I am getting to know my skills and am thus learning how to develop my work further, which somewhat makes me be beginning and end of my own examination in equal measure. One single motif depicted in different ways allows new perspectives and, along with them, sometimes even unforeseen artistic developments. It will not be for a long time before I will have arrived at the end of my creative verve, which I have been engaged in with all my heart and soul."

In the lush floral arrangements of her watercolours, she presents her subtle and sophisticated work, offering a firework of colours, tones and shades, if not even allowing the viewer experience their beautiful scent. Fragileness and evanescence of the flower are effaced and instead replaced by bouquets of incredible force. In the works of Thonhauser-Merk, flowers are not bound to fade away any longer.

In her oil paintings, Thonhauser-Merk tenderly extols the poetry of the Austrian landscape in a substantiated and well-structured way. Gardens unfold with noblesse, churches reverentially rise towards the sky and vineyards spread out sensuously… One feels like wanting to dive into her paintings to then find oneself in one of the pretty streets of Vienna.

Thonhauser-Merk is very contemporary in her collages. Close to Braque and Picasso, her cubist constructions present themselves as recreations, which are able of bestowing soul upon reality. She has the gift to advance into the essence of things and cannot bear cleaving to their surfaces only. Her surreal characters attest her ability of overcoming the boisterous surges of a world of make-believe.

In her acrylics, she stands between dream and reality. A precarious situation, forcing her to focus on both extremes of being. Gracefully, she depicts a dual habitat: the one that is and the one that is not. She arranges, takes way, composes, separates, reassembles, shapes, disassembles, deforms and transforms.

In her oil pastel drawings, Thonhauser-Merk is expressionist, even tragically expressionist…

Hundertwasser and Klimt are not far from her phantasmagorical visions. She also succeeds in touching upon the sorrow of existence, while painting to express a zest for life in her work: "Even though painting allows me to freely express myself, it at the same time builds up certain pressure. Each technique holds wonderful means of expressions, but at the same time has its limits. Many believe - wrongly, I think - that watercolours are an easy form of art. On the contrary. Watercolour painting is a very difficult technique, which, over time, has taught me how to control fortuitousness. Painting in oil, however, allows for corrections, a possibility one does not really have with watercolours. Acrylics are a good synthesis of the two."

From Don Quixote to Jesus, she lends her voice to wounded mankind… Canvas suffers and oil pastels weep… A receptacle of universal fear, Thonhauser-Merk sings about irredeemability… And from her despair, new hope arises.

Partly gestural to the effacement of shapes, partly figuratively with geometric precision, she unconditionally explores pictorial space with the untameable desire for self-awareness, while at the same time wanting to discover the mysteries of painting. Her canvas becomes a magical mirror, reflecting her diverse identities.


Rich in her multi-faceted personalities, Thonhauser-Merk has begun her conquest, knowing that her victory is certain. Serious when painting, yet full of love and humour she forewarns us: "I change all the time… Pay attention to what you are looking at… Closely viewing and exploring my garden has taught me a lot… Even the weed in it taught me a lesson or two… Amongst all our various endeavours, even the most contradicting ones, there is a common denominator… Sometimes it takes a whole lifetime to understand that behind the array of our responsibilities and behaviours lays an elementary unity. I abide by the gospel, which advises us to adhere to God if we want our doings to bear fruit. In my creative processes, I feel very close to God. My work requires a steady hand for drawing precise lines without using any instruments or aids. In addition, I pay close attention to foreshortening. Painting takes a great deal of concentration - it is through this tension that I have learned to excel. Only through the creation of a real piece of art can we crow over chaos and let beauty evidently enter the world."

Thonhauser-Merk is fascinated by every technique she absorbs and this elation shows in each single piece of her work. The form of dedication that artists approach their work with shows two kinds of painters. There are the ones, who spend their lives marking time, using the same ingredients, painting in forever the same way ("the same cover for the same old lyre", as Jacques Bouyssou put it aptly) such as Bernard Buffet. Then there are those painters who are of the explorative kind, who venture from one technique to the next, always on a quest, craving for the new, Dalí being one of the latter. And where are we to place Thonhauser-Merk according to this? Painting can make walls talk and becomes a mirror of the soul so to speak: a mirror of the artist's soul, who painted it, and a mirror of the viewer looking at it.


Maybe this conundrum can be put down to the fact that painters actually paint with our eyes and that their callings are not only about 'being themselves' but also about talking on behalf of the entirety of all others. "I should be myself? How can I possibly be myself, unique and distinctive, whilst carrying so many other possibilities, different senses and perceptions within me? When applying a multitude of techniques and speaking different languages, I still don't stop being myself. All, which the techniques I use have in common merely unfolds when entering a superior level of readability and analysis. I don't just want to convey a temporary and ephemeral visual impression, but an indelible and eternal spiritual condition in light of all our emotions. In nature lies all beauty. I attend to it in my very personal way in order to express it in my paintings. I am not a photographer and I don't take reality for what it is, but interpret, transform and deform it, wanting to transcend a photographic effect... As a painter, I feel called to portray but not to simulate the apparent; otherwise, what would be the difference between the photograph and the painting of the same bouquet of flowers? In the painted picture, one finds the personality of the painter, reflected in the subject… Us painters, we have many eyes, whereas the photographer can only catch reality with one lens. I too not only have two eyes, but numerous - and therein lies the secret to the daily reorientation of my view. I believe that only following one style can become dangerous… There are painters, who do similar pieces of work throughout their lives… Constantly repeating what they do, thus not only boring themselves but finally also their audience. It is not worth the effort to engage in painting when one isn't prepared to rise above oneself."



In spite of all changes and metamorphoses, Thonhauser-Merk has remained herself… How does she handle the often-overwhelming challenge, while at the same time staying true to her identity and still opting for diversity? She answers with serenity and a wink: "Each person has various facets. Therefore, one has multiple egos and needs to be able to sound all dimensions. When light is cast onto one of my facets, I am 'classical', in another situation the vanguard side of me might emerge. It depends on how the beholder views my work and me. The way I paint changes according to the parameters and circumstances. One has to intensely experience one's painting to discover its tenor and then, when conveying it to others, add a dimension in which every one can find themselves. Painting is animate. A picture is like a roommate: the longer you live with it, the more it talks to you. You can't just view a painting in passing. You have to take your time, live with it; otherwise, you miss what's essential.

Painting is a healthy therapy: it gives the individual a new zest for life by showing them how important 'looking closely' can be. The roses in my garden grow from the same roots every year and yet they are different every season; my paintings are alike just as little. I draw identical conclusions and thus learn my lectures for life both from nature as well as from painting!"


Thonhauser-Merk changes her techniques, her style, her way of painting and her orientation... She freely and unrestrictedly soaks up all enrichment that allows her to find fulfilment. Now then, which is the secret lying behind her flexibility? She explains this with great frankness: "The artistic development runs parallel to the development of life as such… ever and anon, it is about my own life, but also about the lives of those are around me, who I encounter when approaching the canvas or reacting to atmosphere, circumstances, situations and coincidences… By using a broad variety of techniques, I so to say spin several plates at once. I achieve different results, which all have the same source of energy, a font deep within me. In addition, I learn many things from myself, using this knowledge as a base for new things, whilst always keeping its heritage in mind. It might sound surprising when I say that the source of my abstract paintings lies in my informal studies of nature, which again proves that art has no limits - except for the small-minded. How many things does one have to bury to create a piece of art? How much does one need to do without in order to find bliss? What does one have to keep alive to not to be dead for art? I have been asking myself these questions since my early childhood. The only answer is work, whereby advancing to the essence of it all is the goal of my notion of art. I have always had a strong liking for even and geometrical shapes, yet at the same time love the irregular and wild. However, I want to keep myself free from many influences. Through my art, I would like to create an antithesis to the pressure of the media, an almost impossible dream considering the daily dictatorship of mass media. By simplification of my picture language, I want to accept the challenge to create a haven of tranquillity for the public. I want the viewer to stroll my pictorial space being full of gaiety; I want the audience to participate in this feeling of liberation that I experience."



Man needs a spiritual master. The transfer of knowledge between generations happens from the master to the scholar. However, the true teacher is the one who allows his student entire freedom - true students, though, will only accept life itself as their master. This is also the case with Thonhauser-Merk, who enthusiastically applies the lessons learnt from nature to her work. When I say 'lessons from nature', I do not mean a passive and contemplative attitude towards its beauty. This would lead to a misunderstanding with the experiences of Thonhauser-Merk. I am talking about nature in its strength, as well as its fragileness, in its energy and its plethora, its placidity, its richness, its deserts, in presence and absence, in its life and death. This is also, what Descartes means when saying: "Instead of the philosophy which is taught in schools, one can find the force of the fire and earth, of the air, the stars and the skies and of all that surrounds us in life itself. For the highest good of all is life." The sentiment of beauty must evolve from the love for life. As a result, the necessity to communicate this revelation to others arises, to save humanity from blight and chaos. In her work, Thonhauser-Merk has devoted herself to this endeavour: "I am often tempted to flee the simple rendition of reality to approach truth in painting. Especially, when I dare to change the natural colours, the wonderful gate of dream opens. These supernatural hues then lead me to the kind of consonance I want to express in my paintings. In doing so, I find the courage to capture new horizons. In Short, I am of the visual type. My doing depends a lot on my visual sensations and their assessment. When I, for instance, enter a hotel room of which the colours of its walls don't appeal to me, this poses a real problem. Wherever I go, I feel my way, touching lines, shapes, colours, spaces and faces with my eyes… One could say I live with a vigilant regard. All of this stimulates me to cross my boundaries. I draw many sketches, which serve as basis for my watercolour, oil or acrylic paintings. Sometimes it also happens that I cut a work of watercolour into strips and then reassemble those, which allows me to discover new lines coming from an old painting. Thus, abstract compositions arise from realistic elements.


Some topics have stuck with me for a very long time. It can easily happen that I shift a theme in my head for years, until it finally imposes itself on me so strongly that I just have to 'deliver' it. Our paintings are like children… It is not easy to let them go. Too much love can also kill love. One has to learn to lay the brush aside in the right moment. I have formed a habit of stopping when the painting is almost finished. I give it the time to take a rest from me and I, too, detach from it. The next morning I see it anew and everything it needs for completion immediately becomes apparent.


If one goes by the wish of wanting to do as much as possible, one destroys the picture. Painting is a lot about emotions, but also means hard work. The ambience in my studio protects me from overtiring, as well as from boredom and routine. Often, I get carried away by my creative vigour. Listening to music when I work is something I enjoy. I detach from my environments when fully wanting to dedicate myself to my work. I seek to arrive at greatest perfection for I find that if something is worth being done, it is also worth being done well.


I admit that my work is diverse. Many of my friends advise me repeatedly to stick to one style only. Is it my fault that I speak many different languages? I cannot understand why some small minds attempt to put art in chains. I insist on my right of being different every time and not having to repeat my work parrot-fashion."


Of course, one can question Thonhauser-Merk's orientation of creating her artistic universe using different styles and cluelessly search for an access to her manifold identities. The answer, however, is very simple: 'All paths lead to Thonhauser-Merk.'

"I can't tell you which way is the best of approaching my work, since I myself don't have a set route I take when advancing in my pictorial travels. My work is not yet completed and the jury is still out. I enjoy the possibility of acting out my passions and feelings, be it in watercolours, acrylics, drawings, lithography, sculpture, oil or silk paintings and I am prepared for new adventures, since there is coherence amongst all those mentioned above. I live in the diversity of means of expression, yet I don't tear myself apart over them. I want to pass the best in me on to others."


Being an heiress of various cultures, Thonhauser-Merk carries the mementos of many worlds within. What counts in her view is the conception of numerous actualities, which hide behind the visible world. There should not be an iron curtain in the visible realm, but a house full of love, humaneness and hospitality. A true European, she extols all of humankind and invites the 'peoples from afar' to join her in celebrating the anthem of joy on canvas.  
Valéry calls Europe the heart of the world, with good reason. Will this finally be understood in- and outside of Europe? How shall humankind or humaneness exist in the future? This is the meaning of Thonhauser-Merk's struggle for her artistic expression:

"You have to imagine people in their macrocosm and all their complexity before you begin to paint. You have to have an unconditional love for nature, before starting to try to portray it. In fact, the correct position is kneeling before the easel. You have to overcome the phase of imitating nature in order to provide painting with the space that our dreams inhabit.


This ideal is like a stepping-stone into the world of oneself and others. Yes, this way one becomes capable of deforming, disassembling and distorting. Only the one, who is able of dying (to oneself), will be able to resurrect. It is better to die for love than to live without love; who wants to create something new needs to use the old as foundation. I am convinced that a true artist is close to God, for he is also a creator. Man is the only living creature that is capable of creating. This sublimates and allows prevailing over chaos.



I have decided to get involved with the intense life that the preoccupation with painting entails and I would not want to miss it. I am happy to have a husband who shares my views and who encourages me to take the challenge of developing my skills and testing my boundaries in painting. However, despite the enthusiasm there are things that limit and grieve me. I find it a great pity not being able to portray truth itself, freedom, love. I know that one cannot paint concepts, but that painting itself is freedom, truth, beauty and love. When wanting to enslave and abuse painting though it becomes useless… It then resembles a string instrument which one can't charm sounds out of… If, however, one truly serves art, one can reach the highest orders of science and wisdom. Regarding myself, painting has opened my eyes for many a way of viewing. Reality only being one, but according to how you see it new realities arise… It becomes a form of fertilisation... Painting enriches the view. What can I take from perceptible reality to turn it into a piece of art? During painting, I experience utmost concentration allowing me to elevate to the noblest of spiritual ideals. I have strength, inner harmony, blessedness and sheer happiness in painting. In return, I've been giving it my truth, my emotion, my workforce, my hunger for beauty and my longing for love. Of course, painting enters a person through their eyes, but a visual connection releases a force that can move mountains."



Apart from the corporeal joys, which the various techniques bring her, I personally think that Thonhauser-Merk strives for the immaterial goal that lets us rise above ourselves, leading us into the depth of our heart: "Every time I start painting, I am so full of joy that it makes me want to jump, dance, shout and sing in front of the canvas. It is wonderful to be playing with lines, shapes and colours to the top of one's bent without anyone being able to step between the canvas and me. It is the same as with love. I always find the strength to keep going, though like others I too am not immune to doubts. For a painter, their picture is like a mirror, reflecting their own image. There is no place for lies. I often imagine which pleasure God must have had when creating the universe with all its shapes and colours. May I even say that an artist has the most beautiful divine inheritance on earth? God created the world with emotions and the artist creates paintings with emotion. Thus, I bring the Garden of Eden into being on canvas, convinced that this visual paradise is also tangible for you. For I have not only created this universe for myself, but for you also. Take it just as I received it: with love."


The sensibility of Boudin, the brazenness of Vlaminck, the regularity of Vasarely, the delirium of Dalí, the mystery of Hieronymus Bosch, the piety of Giotto, the force of da Vinci, the fires of Michelangelo, the delicacy of Hockney, the brutality of Cobra and the sensuous opulence of Chagall can be found in Thonhauser-Merk's almost holy atmosphere. In her highly enhanced aesthetics, she ventures to not only compare herself with the great masters of painting, but with the mystery of painting itself. With this, I want to say that the genius of Thonhauser-Merk lies within conveying meaning, which refuses to be measured by the same yardstick. Therein lays her artistic genius. She knows that painting is more than the material joy she conveys - its substance is an immaterial joy of love that augments and accelerates, depending on the tragic dialectics of the process of unity and separation.