Drawing is like breathing, the most natural form of making a work of art and the beginning of any painting or sculpture. A sketchbook is an extra limb, always there, and a way of automatic thinking. Sitting in front of a sheet of paper with a pencil is a meditation. Drawing can be more than a quick sketch or study. You can spend a great deal of time over each drawing, devoting hour upon hour and working up the sheet until it is a profound expression, and this is a type of meditation that allows unconscious images to materialise. Drawing with charcoal or lead is the most ancient art — it connects us to the cave paintings, where the first expressions known to us from early man depict hands, animals and other people. That instinct remains and comes to the fore in times of crisis and change, like the present moment.
These drawings are the visual embodiment of thought. They are filled with symbols, dreams, philosophies, fears and ideas. They are landscapes of the mind at a very particular and unique time. Sometimes you can turn fear, threat and tragedy into art. I had resisted gold because I considered it too decorative for much of my life. But here the gold is uncanny, intense, like the unusually radiant weather that was in England during most of the lockdown, quite unprecedented for this time of year, as if a different reality had descended on the world. Illuminating drawings with gold leaf is a complex and precise process. You have to draw the forms and plan the gold background, leaving outlines, painting in the ground in resin and then gently lay the gold leaf on the resin, any gust of wind blows the leaf away. You must let it dry and brush off all the excess gold in the open air — all the fragmented pieces of gold blow away, filling the garden, plants and trees with tiny gold speckles.
I spend hour upon hour at the table with the pencil and sheet of gilded paper. I tend to gild the sheets first thing in the morning, giving my days a routine. In the afternoons and evenings, I work with the pencil. Pencil is the most beautiful medium, creating tone and emotion.
When the whole of England began to shut down, shops, museums, restaurants, synagogues, churches and every venue closed, we were left to confront ourselves, and our families. The normal expressions of material and spiritual life changed overnight. Our spirituality went inwards. At this point the most ancient of media, making marks on a surface, took over. How do you express your innermost thoughts on sheets of paper? I am thinking of medieval manuscripts with their gold grounds that suggested otherworldliness. Manuscripts made during the fourteenth Century, an age of apocalypse and plague.
I first had symptoms of Covid-19 on March 20, 2020, two weeks after a trip to Maastricht. That very day, March 20, I started this series of Golden Drawings with One. Perhaps my feeling physically different had an impact on my work: these drawings have an otherworldly feeling to them, a sense of entering a different reality as if drugged by something that has never been experienced before. During the first six days I did six drawings, one each day. By the sixth day, I was very frightened that the disease would deteriorate and that I would have to be taken away. Keeping drawing gave me a link, kept my head above water. Drawing became a lifesaver.
David Breuer-Weil, Golden Drawings (published by Gli Ori)
After the publication of the Gli Ori book, I continued making Golden Drawings. In the end, the series numbered exactly 100 highly finished works completed at the end of 2020.
As is often the case, one body of work or medium influences the other. During the Second Lockdown, you could visit national museums such as the National Gallery or Tate Britain by booking a timed online appointment. One day, I went to Tate Britain and whilst walking alone through the vast Duveen galleries, I had what I can only describe as a vision of vast canvases representing this moment in time.
I painted the huge canvases Lockdown and Pandemic in the weeks that followed, but also a large canvas of a whole world composed of bubbles. In the weeks that followed, the bubbles inspired a whole new aesthetic in my work. I started to redefine psychological and spatial reality in terms of these fragile spherical universes that we all inhabit. The Golden Drawing Ninety Two belongs to that series.
I had been recovering from Covid-19 when Passover 2020 took place in April. I recall many things about that Passover that had a profound influence on my art. Passover is a festival of freedom, but we were all locked up and unable to meet family members. Many of the themes explored in the Haggadah seared through my imagination. The idea of the Ten Plagues. Ruminations about the evils of slavery. The idea of belonging and exile, of rejecting past wrongs of a dominant society.
During the Third Lockdown I embarked on an extremely ambitious project, starting on January 1st 2021. Inspired by a book on the Bayeux Tapestry, I decided to plunge myself into one a huge Golden Drawing of the same scale as that tapestry, but telling a different story, that of Covid-19. Not yet complete, I called it The Coviad, a kind of pun on the Iliad, a heroic story that the world is still undergoing. Each of the component parts of The Coviad is a fully complete and independent work in its own right, although it is also part of The Coviad installation. Some of the central panels of The Coviad borrow themes of the Passover (Ten Plagues, Four Sons, Slavery, The Song of the Goat and Zodiac), one of the many subjects explored in this large undertaking, and of some relevance to the Ben Uri, especially in its role in establishing links between the shared experiences of people of diverse backgrounds.
Exhibition Insights by David Breuer-Weil