Excerpt from Siebner and Babar
by John Manning
In the confined saloon of a deep sea wind ship there is room only for honesty. Yet it wasn’t until the lawyer arrived on board that we began to make progress with the interview.
On a first meeting, Herbert Siebner is not an easy individual to exchange conversation with: he turns himself inside out, shielding his inner self with humorous anecdotes and warm, spontaneous laughter. The shadow of a Russian concentration camp or the years of rigid discipline within the compass of his art do not emerge until some hours have [passed]. Even then they come gently into the confrontation: for this man is an intensely shy person.
On board Powindah he commenced taking statacco puffs on one cigarette after the other, pausing only to exchange ribald remarks with Gunn, the ship’s parrot. We had chosen this thirty foot sailboat as a place to meet, hoping the atmosphere of the ship would be conducive to meaningful discussion.
A television news cameraman, Karl Spreitz, and I were there to ‘interview’ Herbert, our friend. This was for the sole purpose of including something on paper and film about the artist whose life work is now catalogued in book form.
Yet how can one interview a friend? It is almost impossible.
The sudden realization of this made us sit staring at one another as though we were about to take part in a play. Each of us wondered silently if the evening was to be a failure.
Then came into our midst the ‘Babar’ of Herbert’s paintings: a stranger in the form of Don Lawson, a lawyer and avid ocean racer. He had been working late aboard his own vessel, preparing her for the Maui race when he spied smoke billowing out of Powindah’s chimney. We lured him aboard.
Disaster turned to triumph. The barrister’s mind went to work with a series of rapier-edged questions, while Karl, and I, along with the parrot, relaxed and listened to the result…1
1 Manning, John. “Siebner and Babar.” Color Line + Form. Herbert Siebner. Sidney, British Columbia: Review Publishing House, 1970. 2. Print.
Siebner: No –never.
Lawson: The thing I wonder about Herbert, in a way, is, you know, conjecturing, what is a basis in what you presume to be –what you postulate– the beginning about paintings. Is it romantic? Is it sentimental? Is it retrospective?
S: You know, first of all, if you put it down very briefly and very very easily and very very permeative, I say, I am only reinacting a little human kind of thing, of putting down whatever was there before. When men came down to earth, whatever here to do, with five fingers, a mouth, a nose, the eyes, the ears.
L: The senses.
S: [nods] And then in between, what he had: a little bit of soul.
L: A sense.
S: And then, what sense?
S: No, not sex. Sense.
Manning: It’s not about sex? You paint about that a lot in your paintings.
L: In a lot of paintings.
S: It’s a body in us: it’s the whole thing we have. It’s the whole thing we have. [laughs] From where we go. From where we are born, and where we died. But in between, in the mean time, was the whole thing; whatever people said is en vogue, on fashion. If they called —
L: It’s not fashion it’s not the end of exist isn’t it?
S: There’s one thing– I wear these clothes…I wear these clothes, it doesn’t make a bit of difference.
L: I agree with you, right.
S: The one thing is different: if this finger is cut off, I have no finger left. And I’ll feel limp.
S: If this foot is cut off, I have nothing left. So I am limping.
M: You have one foot left!
S: So? What can I do?
L: Well, you limp.
S: No. I have to —
S: I would rather have a large kind of platform or think of it myself with nothing to be seen because I am picturing there another human being, and then I think about it, and therefore I cannot do it in the open air. I cannot do it.
L: Do you think of him as a human being, or do you think of him as a pictorial… thing?
S: No. I think about it –The moment you think you always think about yourself. Because therefore, so often, if you take Goya or you take Frangelico, even their largest murals or other paintings, the picture –the artist always pictures themselves.
L: Yes, but you’ve said that you’ve occasionally painted animals. They have been incorporated in some of your paintings. You paint that damn parrot.
S: But first of all, I would not paint the parrot. I only do certain things if I feel it is needed now for me to paint them. I don’t answer the calls of someone saying “You paint this thing.” First of all it is a different thing in all to establish yourself, because only when I feel the need of painting, at the same time expressing myself, I do it…
S: …And I don’t ask for any reason, and I don’t ask for anything which comes out. It might come out a failure. It might become a success. I don’t know. But then, when I am intimately involved, I do this, and I am very very strange there, cutting myself off, and I don’t know what I am doing at this moment, I don’t know where I start and I don’t know where I finish.
L: Who judges the success or failure?
S: No one. No one. Who judges my failure? Who judges anyone that’s being born?
L: Only you?
S: Who judges anyone who dies?
M: What do you mean by that?
S: It is very simple. How we still judge ourselves, and how we live by it. You know, I live in a way of not being judged because I don’t judge the way of what makes me paint and other things. Because I cannot judge myself being created by self. I cannot blame my father and mother for the country I was born in.
L: Why would you want to blame them?
S: I wouldn’t! But you know, this means the same thing. If you really start to write something about life itself without anyone having asked you to write, would you be judged? Or would you be afraid of the right to be judged… in the middle of it. Or even at the end. You were right. What was the reason? Why did you do it, and why did you stop? …Would you do it?
S: Things come into existence, very often without a reason. I mean, if you take Wagner, take, well, take Spinozza, take even Dognes, take even Plato, you know. Fine! He was a man supported by someone else. Everything was fine, but why, in certain things they’re still in private. Naturally, society then lived an entirely different scale than society lives now. At this rate, you only can ask society…
S: It does one thing to you, that you don’t conform to the masses of people. But if you have to follow the masses of people, I don’t wear long hair anymore.
L: Because this has become too common?
S: Yes. I was always an individualist, at any time.
L: What do you do today, then, to maintain your individualism?
S: I’m just normal. I do all the things alone. Alone!
M: What do you mean by normal?
S: Normal… living like a normal person. Whenever I do certain things, I do them with absolute privacy; no one is more or less allowed to see them when I do them.
L: That does mean normal by your standards?
S: As an artist.
L: You mean yourself, as the artist. As something limited.
S: I mean, as an artist, you live more or less the life of an outcast all your life.
S: Because you are useless.
L: No, I don’t agree with you. I mean, today, artists are recognized.
S: How many, how many? How many?
L: Those that make it. But there is nothing —
S: Those which made it, you know, either —
L: You are one, you belong to this group…
S: But it took me a long time, it too me about five… about twenty-five years.
L: Well sure, it takes anybody a long time.
S: No! Today it takes an artist… it takes an artist — No, no, no. Today it sometimes takes an artist twenty-five weeks. Because he’s —
L & M: No!
S: Oh, well sure! It’s like a dancer: he has a friend, he has an extra, he goes along, he’s like a showman! Today artists… I mean, no one used to ever follow this trend… Art, the artist today has become a showman, in order to display himself.
M: Has Picasso become a showman?
S: No. He was long time before showmen.
M: If he was still alive?
S: Well, that is a different story. He was a serious artist.
M: Well now you’re talking about two different things.
S: There is so many artist today which are still involved.
M: Alright, but there are still some serious artists around today, aren’t there?
S: I hope so, I hope so.
L: It doesn’t take twenty-five years today for an artist to become recognized as an artist. You know, to become recognized in his field; what, in other fields of endeavor would be called ‘competent.’ Now this is not a word that you like to use…
S: But therefore competent… But at least you have to know your skill, know your trend.
L: That’s right, that’s right. But to become competent —
S: Yes but today it’s so easy… The most incompetent which pretend to be competent are the ones.
L: Oh, but this is discovered in time.
S: Hitler, has eaten, twenty-five years ago. Or, from Caesar… you know, this tiny little blunt knife, which was found… Or anything, you know. Now what are relics? What is a memory of people lived by? What are fetishisms? This are the things… most people believe in fetishism more than the extra pull of whatever the man said or did. But to go along, to find out from… you know, what’s left from honey boiled? Maybe it’s a little toe nail from an elephant, in the Alps… which, in the year 2125, they found a little toenail which was left there. Which will be displayed in any museum. Every museum there will place the first bid to have this shown.
L: This may be of interest —
S: But this shows… But Don… This shows, this shows often… No, no, no. Discovering art, discovering everything… If you find out, for instance, today… the left teeth of Hitler, you are much more lucky than to find out the left toenail of Napoleon.
L: Yeah. But this is a matter —
S: What is more important?
L: This is public interest.
S: No. No.
L: This isn’t surely lasting art. Do you believe that what we are doing today —
S: This I am kind of against. Because most art is based on…
S: It decries whatever it decries.
L: Well you are like everybody else: you’re decrying commercialism.
L: All these people are doing is trying to commercialize the concept —
S: Yes but it’s the same as art today.