Peter Robert Keil’s memories of his life and work
Anyone who sees Peter Robert Keil’s work cannot help but be struck by his expressive power. It is no coincidence that the artist is represented in numerous collections between Saint Petersburg and West Palm Beach. And it is no coincidence that actors such as Götz George and Arnold Schwarzenegger bought his works, that fashion czar Gianni Versace commissioned two paintings shortly before his death, and that colleagues such as Markus Lüpertz also appreciate his works. The artist himself has no illusions about it. He is still the same simple boy he used to be, he says.
Keil is a war child. He was born on 6 August 1942 in Züllichau, now Sulechów, in Pomerania, two and a half weeks before Hitler sounded the storm on Stalingrad. He never met his father, a blacksmith and naval lieutenant, who never returned from the Second World War.
Scholars say that the autobiographical memories go back to the third year of his life. And indeed, fragments from this early period of his life have stuck in Keil’s memory. There are individual images of the stream of refugees heading west from the Oderbruch, of his grandmother begging unsuccessfully for some milk from a farmer, also of his grandfather standing in front of him in Potsdam when he returned from captivity – he later tended the parks of Sanssouci Palace. Other, highly traumatic events, on the other hand, are shrouded in oblivion. Keil will only learn about them much later.
As he grows older, the image sequences become denser. There is his enrolment in the Ernst Thälmann School, there are his Russian and German playmates, among them Wolfgang Joop, called “Wölfchen”, who is two years younger than Keil, memories of a child’s world in an idyllic setting. And there is an event that will never let Keil go. When he is eight years old, a woman shows up with her husband, who are introduced to him as aunt and uncle. Only after a few visits is it revealed to him that it is not his grandmother but this woman who is his mother and the supposed uncle who is his stepfather. They take the boy to live with them in Wedding. His new school is also in this working-class district of Berlin, and one of his new classmates is called Cornelia Froboess.
The change from Potsdam to Berlin is extreme and abrupt. Whereas Keil was previously surrounded by water, woods and meadows, his new living environment now consists of grey canyons of houses. When he stares longingly out of the window at night, he sees rats as big as little cats scurrying across the backyard. And in the daylight he experiences the misery on the street: beggars and drunks hang around, boxing matches are fought for money with bare fists until the blood splatters.
In this new environment, Keil experiences a severe mental crisis. He calls this time “fateful years”. But it also takes him to the library with his mother, where he borrows art books. He became acquainted with the paintings of Picasso and Beckmann, was intoxicated by the colours of the Expressionists, and came to terms with the works of Impressionists such as Cézanne, Monet and Rodin. And he began to paint himself at the age of ten. His workplace was a table in the attic next to the washing lines, and in summer he used the cover of the food processor as a base in his parents’ flat. First he copies the great masters, first and foremost Picasso, then he begins with collages. Along the pavements he finds the objects, which he applies together with paint to coarse burlap.
The change of location brings the adolescent Keil together with Otto Nagel. The “working-class painter from Wedding” becomes his first great teacher. He meets him in a backyard in a “Lumpenstampe” run by the parents of a friend. There, after the war, uniforms and other discarded textiles are collected, pressed and sent for recycling as “stomped rags”. Soldiers’ helmets and swords are also piled up here. Nagel sits in a corner of the half-bombed building and paints. Keil describes the artist, who was a close friend of Heinrich Zille and Käthe Kollwitz, as a small, reserved and somewhat oddball man. He found his subjects in the proletarian milieu from which he himself came: Backyards and factories, workers and prostitutes, cityscapes and, on their fringes, nature. Nagel takes the twelve-year-old Keil under his wing. He teaches him painting techniques, how to handle colours and realistic painting, and takes him out into the streets, backyards and to the Panke. In this way, the adolescent learns from his mentor to see his surroundings with different eyes, with the eyes of an artist. Over time, the teacher-pupil relationship grows into a friendship, which is severed in 1961 when the Wall is built.
At the age of 15, Keil meets another important artist a good 1,600 kilometres away. His stepfather – Keil always refers to him as his father – generously supports him with an appanage, as he calls it, and enables him to spend six winters on Mallorca from 1957 to 1962. It was there that the young Berliner met Joan Miró. A friendship developed between the teenager and the man in his mid-sixties. The young artist from Alemania was enthusiastic about the colours of the Catalan, but could not yet get to grips with his abstract symbolism. But the seeds for a new creative vocabulary were sown, as well as for the understanding that a picture only reveals itself during painting. Later he will take this further and say: “When I have an idea, I have to realise it immediately. For that, my soul has to be free. One has to be free at all.” In Spain, the young Keil also meets Pablo Picasso twice when he visits a bullfight with his parents. At least he shakes hands with the great idol, who is surrounded by a large entourage.
Meanwhile, Keil’s maturation process continues in Berlin at the Hochschule der Künste – renamed the “University of the Arts” in 2001. During his studies between 1959 and 1961, Keil met Georg Baselitz, Markus Lüpertz and Eugen Schönebeck, became friends with Rainer Fetting, Salomé and Joachim Schmettau.
1961 Berlin changes radically. On 13 August, exactly one week after Keil’s birthday, the SED regime erects the Wall and West Berlin becomes an island. A new cultural scene grows up on this island. Eugen Schönebeck and Georg Baselitz present their “Pandemonium Manifesto”, with which they rebel against the established art forms. In Berlin-Schöneberg, 16 artists found a self-help gallery at Großgörschen 35 in a former factory floor, And in Kohlfurter Straße in the working-class district of Kreuzberg, landlady Hertha Fiedler renames her pub “Kleine Weltlaterne” (Little World Lantern) and turns it into a meeting place for the art-interested public, old and young artists, who exchange ideas over beer and lard sandwiches and sometimes have a drink too many. In the middle of it all: Peter Robert Keil.
The artist moves into a 350-square-metre flat with a studio in Kurfürstenstraße, just a few houses away live and work Rainer Fetting and Salomé, both artists were a couple at the time. Also in the neighbourhood is Potsdamer Strasse, then the red-light district of the halved city. Keil has no fear of contact. When he paints chalk pictures on the pavement, he goes for a Coke in Rolf Eden’s nightclub afterwards. Through Fetting and Salomé, but above all through the scriptwriter Harry Puhlmann, he also moves in homosexual circles, gains entry to the Trocadero Bar and the Kleist Casino. Puhlman also found him his first client, the actor Hubert von Meyerlinck.
Keil lives the life of an artist and bohemian. He moves unselfconsciously between the worlds, yet always keeps his distance. Before the party gets too wild at Salomé and Fetting’s, he gets up and leaves. Nor does he allow himself to be drawn into the student movement of 1968. The revolution with intellectual discussions and Mao Bible or Communist Manifesto under his arm is not his thing. He burns for art, no more, but also no less. At least he benefits from his sociability and impartiality during his stays in Paris and London in the 1970s. Especially in Paris, he also moves in the world of the bohemians. At the same time he moved further and further away from realistic painting towards an individual language in style and colouring.
At the end of the 1970s, two decisive events shaped Keil’s life. In Berlin he met the young assistant doctor Alla Gois. The two marry in 1979, and among the wedding guests is the film producer Artur Brauner, who already owns some of Keil’s works. Alla comes from a Jewish family from Odessa, friends with the family of Elena Ivanovna Diakonova, better known as Gala Éluard Dalí. The couple travels to Figueras to visit their friend. There was no exchange between the artists: Salvador Dalí proved to be closed and unapproachable.
Meanwhile, Keil’s stay in Paris and his exchanges with Fetting and Salomé led him to develop a new style of Expressionist painting, characterised by wild brushstrokes and bold colours. This new style of the artists overturns the top-heavy painting of the 1970s. It goes down in art history as “Heftige Malerei” or “Wild Painting” and Keil as one of its representatives. In Michael Wewerka he found a gallery owner who exhibited Keil’s work in his gallery in Fasanenstraße in 1985. Then, however, Wewerka left the gallery business to live a new life in Spain. Meanwhile, social life in the Wall City had shifted to Romy Haag’s nightclub. There Keil met David Bowie and Andy Warhol, among others. He later visited the pop artist in New York, and once they even painted a picture together.
The Keils are also facing changes in Berlin. They have to leave their home in Kurfürstenstraße because of a district redevelopment. After an intermezzo in Schöneberg, they find a new spacious place with a studio for themselves and their three children in the Steglitz district. Luck is a great help in this: The estate agent is a former classmate of Keil’s from Wedding days. But luck is fleeting. In 1986, Keil is struck by a heavy blow of fate: his wife Alla dies as a result of a ruptured brain aneurysm. For three years Keil is unable to paint. He lives off the support of his mother and keeps himself and his children afloat by selling paintings from his private collection, including drawings once given to him by Miró. A young Polish woman, Bogumila, is assigned to him as a family helper. The help turns into something more. Keil and “Bo” marry, and the artist has four more children with her. In the mid-90s, the family moves to Zimmerau in Lower Franconia so that the children can grow up in orderly circumstances. At the same time, she builds up a foothold in Hollywood, Florida. Today Keil lives and works in both places. Once again, a heavy blow of fate hits him: in 2002, his eldest son dies, and again it is his wife Bo who helps him get over it.
Despite all the ups and downs, Keil has remained true to himself and his art. In it, he has always retained his independence and versatility. Whether art on canvas or paper, whether majolica or painted bed sheets: his desire to create still bubbles over. And what better way to hear it from an artist who has never been out for big business than this: “I am satisfied with what I have. Whereby it wouldn’t be bad to have more.”
This interview was conducted by Martin Breuninger with Peter Robert Keil in August 2017 on Mallorca.