Manfred Bischoff has a fascination with language, a sardonic wit, and an unerring eye for simple beauty. Born and trained in Germany , he has worked in Munich and Berlin , but years ago he relocated to Tuscany . In February 2002 he spent the month as artist-in- residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, and in June he returned for his first major solo museum exhibition in North America .
Like many Europeans- of his generation (he was born in 1947), Bischoff is fluent in several languages, including German, English, French, and Italian. And, as an artist of his generation, he is similarly versed in aesthetic theory that arises from deep-structure linguistics.
One condition of his residency at the Gardner was that he undertake a project inspired by some aspect of the institution and its collection. It’s an iron worthy of Bischoff’s own sensibilities that, surrounded by thousands of paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts spanning 30 centuries, he ultimately drew his inspiration from a scribbled note he found in the archives.
One of the museum’s many treasures is a Piero della Francesca fresco of Hercules, painted around 1475 on the wall of his own house in Borgo Sansepolcro. The only Piero fresco known outside of Italy , it suffered severe damage over the centuries but was restored in 1999. As Bischoff examined the correspondence among the conservators, he stumbled on a phrase – “do not wait to act … if you are ready” – that he found electrifying. In his mind, it was the perfect declaration of the essential prerequisite to the creative act. It provided a point of entry, a way to penetrate the painting and make it the springboard for his own work.
To comprehend Bischoff’s attachment to language, it is necessary to understand how he works. Although he makes jewelry, he insists, “I am creating language. If I find a sentence or a theme I like, then the piece is done. I must only, search for how to do it.”
In the case of the brooch inspired by his stay at the Gardner , the command, “Do not wait to act.., if you are ready,” signified the essence of Hercules, the man of heroic action. Bischoff’s preliminary drawing of the piece (mounted as the background hoard at the exhibition) includes a detailed sketch of Piero’s composition, with the conservator’s advice written around the edges.
“Not wait to act if you are ready – it’s a very explosive idea,” Bisehoff explains. “To know if you are ready, you have to feel the tension within yourself – and then the gesture flows out.”
Bisehoff executed the brooch in a flowing cursive script of gold wire. The composition follows Piero, divided in the center by a diagonal bar of coral that separates rising from falling motion, anticipation from execution. On close examination, the script spells out the title of the piece, Or-Son , which translates roughly as “central pedestal” (as in the centerpiece o£ the exhibition) and, in a bit of cross-linguistic legerdemain, “son of gold” (as in Hercules, son of Zeus).
|Or-Son (brooch), 2002|
Fine gold, coral
3 1/4 x 4 x 1″
The concept of multiple meanings (and multiple interpretations) was central to the work that Bisehoff chose for his Gardner exhibition, which included an additional 20 pieces of jewelry made between 1997 and 2002. Several of the pieces have art-historical or mythological references. The 1998 ring Sleeping God , for example, uses a piece of phallus-shaped coral laid on the horizontal to represent the great Greek god of the id, Pan, as a recumbent (but relentlessly tumescent) sleeper. Rising around him in shiny ebullience are three nymphs, represented by small diamonds on stems of gold. There is a gentle whimsy in the conceit of nymphs as diamonds, and the randy goat-god as delicate coral. It helps, perhaps, to know that Bisehoff apprenticed as a commercial jeweler. “For five years I built only diamond works in white gold,” he says, adding that he developed an antipathy for white gold (and no great love of diamonds) during the period. In Bischoff’s world, even materials accrete meaning. His private aesthetic grammar-that diamonds are more showy than precious-signifies that the nymphs have more flash than substance.
|Sleeping God (ring), 1998|
Fine gold, coral, diamonds
1 x 1 1/4 x 3/4″
Courtesy Helen Drutt: Philadelphia
Bisehoff works principally in gold that comes from South African krugerrands that he rolls into sheets and draws into wire. There is just enough copper in the amalgamation to produce .917 fine gold, which has a color that pleases Bisehoff and a hardness appropriate to jewelry. He disdains highly polished surfaces – commercial jewelry houses polish their gold so brightly because it is such poor quality, he claims-in favor of a matte finish that shows off the inherent color of the metal. He also frequently draws on the matte surface with a steel stylus to add detail. Bischoff’s other principal material is coral, sourced from reefs near Hawaii , that ranges in color from nearly alabaster white to a fleshy pink. He employs the coral to evoke the erotic, sensual qualities of human skin.
Interestingly enough, Bischoff opted for gold rather than coral to represent a woman’s abdomen in his 2002 brooch, Madonna del Parto , inspired by a 1465 Piero della Francesca fresco in Monterchi , Italy . The Virgin Mary’s time of delivery was an unusual representation in Piero’s time, and Bischoff found Piero’s visual grammar even more startling. The artist showed the Madonna’s robe parting both in the middle, as might be expected as she delivered her child, and along one side.
|Madonna del Parto (brooch), 2002|
Fine gold, coral
1 1/2 x 3 x 1/4″
Art historians, says Bischoff, “spoke only of one exit. I was interested in the second opening Piero made.” Stripping away the garments to a sheet-gold surface inscribed with lines to suggest pubic hair, Bischoff demystifies the naked torso of one of the iconographic figures of Christianity with the bluntness of the nude representation and adds yet another mystery by creating the labia of a second set of genitals.
“The work does explicitly reference the body–the entrance and exit of the Madonna,” he says, suggesting perhaps the Conception via the second opening. The nudity of the Madonna violates one of the traditions of religious art, but Bischoff often marries the carnal and the spiritual; the sensual body is never far away in his work. The earrings La Lupa (2002) reduce the legendary she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome , to the bare mythological essentials of her hanging dogs.
Bischoff’s bluntness about sexuality is intended to strike viewers as crass, perhaps even shocking. At some level, he is trying to paralyze the analytical mind. One of the most abstract compositions in the Gardner show was a 1999 piece titled Highest Activity – Widest Passivity . The brooch has two small skull-like objects, one elevated in what appears to be a gold rocking chair, the other perched at the edge of a bed of planar surfaces. The brooch’s enigmatic label­ Bischoff designed the entire exhibition, from the plinths to the wall texts to the drawings on which pieces of jewelry were mounted informs us that the highest form of thinking should remain passive while acting.” In other words, “don’t think too much.”
|Highest Activity – Widest Passivity (brooch), 1999|
Fine gold, coral
3 1/4 x 4 x 1 1/4″
Courtesy Helen Drutt: Philadelphia
It’s a paradoxical pronouncement from a jeweler whose art is charged with intellectualism. But Bischoff’s insistence on short-circuiting the analytical brain follows Structuralist theory by maintaining that the powers of the unconscious are manifest in the inherent structure of language. Unselfconscious speech (and, by extension, other forms of expression) taps into the central creative power of the mind. Surrealism and Structuralism agree on this point, revealing their common roots in Freudian orthodoxy.
In designing the exhibition, Bischoff made sure that each piece of jewelry was displayed on a board with a drawing and title of the work that would serve to illuminate both the origin of the piece and its external intellectual correspondences. “It was a question of choreography,” he says. “I didn’t want to leave them alone and naked in the cases.” For Bischoff, the pieces of jewelry function best as half of a dialog. When they are not on display, he observes, they are complemented by the wearer.
The golden object, then, becomes a physical metaphor for the concept that inspires Bischoff. But he clearly likes his metaphors with a slightly goofy edge that keeps them from being predictable. Wit forms a defensive protection for the work, allowing it to be quickly grasped by the handle of gentle irony or broad pun. Thus, the 1998 ring entitled Unschärferelation refers to Werner Heisenberg’s famous principle of indeterminacy-that an object being observed is altered by the act of observation. Indeed, the central device of the small ring is a mirror that makes it easier to see the snout of a pig that Bischoff has mounted facing the mirror. Of course, the observer becomes part of the image in the process of looking and cannot see the pig without seeing his or her own image.
|Weber’s Lecture (brooch), 1999|
Fine gold, coral
3 1/2 x 2 1/4 x 1/4″
Collection Dr. Karl Bollman, Vienna
High philosophy and low comedy often cohabit in Bischoff’s world. The 1999 brooch Weber’s Lecture clearly shows a pig’s snout with its nostrils rendered in fleshy coral and its muzzle in gold. Gold wear relief creates boar’s bristles. What could such an image have to do with the physicist Hans Weber? As it turns out, Bischoff was examining a facsimile of notes that Albert Einstein took during a lecture by Weber at Princeton University . Scribbled on one page is the scientific notation for the freezing point of water under normal atmospheric pressure, zero degrees Celsius. Einstein wrote the temperature as 0°C. “It looked like a pig,” Bischoff says, shrugging. The analytical brain has been short-circuited and the unconscious has spoken: Pig!
By rendering the face of a pig in precious materials, Bischoff elevates his comic quip on the two geniuses, Einstein and Weber, to the level of fine art. In a similar fashion, another brooch, Pomme de Terre – Pathetique Tragique (2002), depicts a lowly potato laid even lower that is, made both pathetic and tragic by the small deposit of mouse scat on top. Again, a scatological subject is raised to eschatological considerations through the use of gold and coral. “It’s like a small poem,” Bischoff says.
|Pomme de Terre-Pathetique Tragique (Brooch) ,2002|
Fine gold, coral
3 1/2 x 2 1/4 x 3/4″
By working in precious materials, he believes, he forces the viewer to take the imagery seriously. “In the past I worked in non-precious materials,” Bischoff says. “But one must give the highest values to the lowest thinking.” He offers the 2001 ring Maximus as an example. The figure is a long eared rabbit, not altogether unlike the playboy logo. “If I make this rabbit in silver, it gets sold as street jewelry,” he says. “But I am interested in what the two ears say.” What they say, with the aid of the exhibition mount and the small bit of explanatory text, is that the fork suggests two ways for a creator to act on blind faith in an external power or on a trust in desire. There’s little question which Bischoff chooses.
Bischoff does not purport to be a font of original ideas. “I’m not a big inventor,” he says. “I’m not interested in laying tracks behind in the world. I follow the tracks that were there. I give my own answer, my interpretation, my personal philosophy. The form is jewelry.”
When Bischoff says he is “creating language,” he means it. But his language consists of a vocabulary of shapes, a grammar of gold and coral. His 1999 brooch Baghdad Sub Rosa illustrates the potential depth of expression. At face value, it shows two golden pigs speaking with each other on a wall. The wall, which is made of coral, is missing a block, as if it had been damaged in war. The pigs, we know, are speaking in confidence (i.e., sub rosa). But they are accompanied by a pair of disembodied ears – they are, in effect, overheard. No confidence remains a secret. Title and image tell us enough to absorb the piquancy of the moment. The coral wall was originally part of a piece that Bischoff made about Antigone, who gave her brother a decent burial in defiance of the king’s order, and then committed suicide. We do not need to know that, but it makes the work even more poignant by recalling age-old reenactments of loyalty, honor, pride, power and betrayal.
|Baghdad sub rosa (Brooch), 1999|
Fine gold, coral
2 1/2 x 3 x 1/4″
Collection Dr. Karl Balloon Vienna
Not every piece Bischoff makes is weighted with such dark emotions. Sometimes he simply indulges in a delight with form. He is particularly fond of the cluster, the pinwheel, the gathering of forms at a central locus. “I like the cluster,” he explains, “because it always focuses on something.” One of the most successful (and misunderstood) examples in the exhibition was the 2001 ring Spanish Chimera . The ring refers to one of Picasso’s images, an inkblot silhouette of Don Quixote, which over-reproduction has reduced to the level of kitsch. But Bischoff gives Cervantes new life by finding a visual language that describes both donkey and windmill in a single spin of forms. Hence Sancho Panza’s donkey becomes the giant windmill which becomes the donkeyâ¦ and so on. Or, as Bischoff captures it succinctly, “chimera,”
|Spanish Chimera (ring), 2001|
2 1/4 x 1 1/4 x 1″
Courtesy Gallery Stuhler , Berlin
Very little goes to waste in Bischoff’s gestures in gold. As he says, “Coming from language, I have no ornament.” His aesthetic asceticism perhaps explains his admiration of St. Francis of Assisi , represented in the exhibition by a 1997 brooch titled in Italian L’homme da Si Si . Unusual among Bischoff’s recent works, the brooch unites coral, pearls, and fine gold with a plain piece of iron or base metal – a found objects â as the axis. The pearls, signifying glory, and the coral, signifying sensuality, are on arms, held away from the body – both literally at arm’s length from the man. And the joke? literally colloquial Italian, “si” means “yes,” but “si si” means “no.” A complete ascetic, St. Francis w as quite literally the “man of no.”
|L’Homme da Si Si (Brooch), 1998|
Fine gold, coral, found object
4 3/4 x 4 x ¼”
Collection Or. Karl Bollman, Vienna