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Herbert Siebner

By Robert Amos September 1, 2003

} Herbert Siebner Herbert Siebner’s vision is one of a world in which every action, every event, every observable thing, is a vehicle of those deeper powers which thrust us through our lives from transformation to transformation until the transformation of death, which is no greater or lesser a change than the many that have preceded it. Robin Skelton Siebner was born to a cultured family in the German city of Stettin, on the river Oder near the Baltic Sea. Siebner’s holiday memories were of sandy beaches flecked with chunks of amber, all spread out beneath a wide expanse of blue sky. That image informed much of his later art. The young artist was overtaken by World War Two. Drafted for active service at age 17 in 1943, Siebner was an unwilling soldier, and soon was captured by the Russians. 'When one escapes death several times,' he has written, 'the urge to be alive again is full of vibrant vitality.' Following the war he resumed his art education in the bombed-out hulk of Berlin. 'You could not survive on the ration of whatever was given to you,' he recalled. 'What you got you could always carry in your hand.' Following his sister-in-law to Victoria, Siebner and his wife Hannelore and their daughter Angela arrived here in 1954. Czech sculptor Jan Zach has somewhat paved the way, but truly the Siebners were on there own: German-speaking Expressionists in a British colonial backwater. Siebner was charismatic. The young and creative flocked to him, among them Ann Kipling, Michael Morris and Nita Forrest. They were learning to paint, but more important they were observing the artist at close hand. At his first show, in the Art Gallery of Victoria, Siebner told me he sold two prints, for $2 each. 'But $2 lasted you,' he glowed. 'It was fantastic, particularly when you were unspoiled.' In those formative years Siebner was a recognized part of the avant garde. He created a mural for the front entrance of the Victoria Art Gallery (covered by subsequent renovations, it may still be there somewhere). He got a commission to decorate the fancy Paul’s Crown House Restaurant on Douglas Street (a mural which was later purchased by Michael Williams and now hangs at Buckerfield’s Brewery). Siebner also created a mural for the University of Victoria Student Centre (an artwork which was recently dismantled and reconfigured there in a new installation). His huge two-part sgraffito and encaustic wall, created for the Museum’s Newcombe Auditorium in 1967, is currently located behind the screen of the Imax Theatre. These were the days of Canada Council grants, and in 1963 he parlayed $4,500 into a year’s travel in Europe. He sent back drawings which were published every week in the Victoria Times newspaper. The Times gave all the originals to the Art Gallery, a move always Siebner disputed. In 1997 the original printer’s plates came to light and were reprinted in a limited edition book by the artist and Alex Lavdovsky at Classic Engraving. About 1960, the artists around Siebner formed the Point Group, meeting upstairs at Don Adam’s furniture store on Fort Street a location which the Egoyans soon took over. When Max Bates, Victoria’s other expressionist painter, came to town in 1971 they created a new group, The Limners. There was strength in numbers. Limner Robin Skelton was the leading literary light at the University; Jan and Helga Grove and Richard Ciccimarra added a European tone; Myfanwy Pavelic epitomized class; Pat Martin Bates’s spirit flowed; Karl Spreitz brought irrepressible wit; and Elza Mayhew’s studio was a place to meet. A good friend of the group, Colin Graham, was the director of the Art Gallery of Victoria. Despite these groupings, Siebner was unique, a consummate artist, our own Picasso. All the artistic niceties were subservient to his expression. He invented an iconic form for woman, the Belle-Bella, and one for man, the centaur. His 'flying man' flew through many pictures, and within the mythic blue of water and sky a radiant orange sun always blazed forth. I recall a visit to the Siebner’s woodsy Prospect Lake home. All afternoon we drank sweet white wine and leafed through a sheaf of original prints. Later we descended to his studio, a chaos of creation, where canvases lay heaped about a monstrous furnace in the centre of the basement. By this time I was dizzy from the cigars he handed out, and spinning from his non-stop monologue about art and culture and the narrowness of Victoria, a place he both loved and hated. His intensity of purpose never wavered. Though he disparaged the pursuit of art for glory, he left a proud record of solo exhibits in Toronto, Seattle, Vancouver, Los Angeles, Berlin, Montreal, Milan and Lugano. At the same time, it was all to easy to take him for granted here in his home town. His imagery became ubiquitous and his antics were the stuff of a thousand conversations. But, now that he’s gone, a re-evaluation will surely come. In my first year in Victoria, I discovered a classic Siebner painting, hung with pride in a fine suburban home. Its generous brilliance marked it out to me as a true work of art. I felt then that this local fellow was as good as the best, and that perhaps people one day would give this work its true value. He’s gone now. Let the treasuring begin. Herbert Siebner was the real thing. ___________________________________________ Copyright © 2003 Robert Amos Robert Amos is an artist and art writer who lives in Victoria, B. C.. He can be contacted by e-mail and you can view his paintings at www.robertamos.com