Bernhard Sachs

Both the art world and the academic realm will be in mourning with the passing of Dr. Bernhard Sachs at 11:15 a.m. the morning of Friday 27 May, following a debilitating bout of cancer diagnosed earlier in the year.

Sachs was renowned as a rigorous practitioner as both an artist and a teacher. He had lectured in art since 1989 at the Victorian College of the Arts and was a highly sought-after figure for artists undertaking a PhD as a supervisor. In that role he carried a reputation for being tough but fair, and rigorous to an unnerving degree. Head shaved, eyebrows arched, and inevitably dressed in black, Sachs carried a saturnine air which belied a biting sense of humour. He was nicknamed, usually affectionately, as Nosferatu by his students.

But as much as he loved teaching, it was creating art that truly obsessed Bernhard Sachs. He exhibited widely from 1977 onwards, both in Australia and internationally. He was the recipient of numerous grants and residencies, including a residency at Cité International des Arts, Paris (1990) and the PS1/ Institute of Contemporary Art, New York (1993–4). Sachs held a PhD from the University of Melbourne (2011) and philosophy remained a key fascination, one which he relished discussing over a bottle of red wine into the wee hours of the night. Central to these discussions were the works of Joseph Beuys and Marcel Duchamp, whom he considered to be cornerstones of contemporary art. Also central to these discussions was a soundtrack of often-melancholy classical music, although this could be broken up with the music of hard-core New York band Swans or avant-garde vocalist Diamanda Galás.

Born in Naracoorte, South Australia in 1954, Sachs wasted little time in fleeing what he considered the more regional and parochial aspects of Australian life, swearing never to return. He had retired from teaching only late last year, determined to spend his remaining time consolidating a major body of work already underway in his studio.

“The history of painting is like a museum of images you carry around in your head. I call these images ghosts,” Sachs once said. “While I may or may not be dealing with painting as a medium in any specific work, I deal with it as an idea. One never leaves the ‘ghost’ of painting.”

Sachs’s paintings and drawings are layered both physically and conceptually. German expressionism, psychology, history, the body, and the philosophical concepts of Nietzsche are amongst the sources and subjects explored within his work. Existential themes revolved around questions of history and representation and their obsessional underwriting drove both his research and creative output.

Critic Janet McKenzie, writing in Studio International magazine in 2010, noted that: “In spite of the literary critique that dominates most commentary on the work of Bernhard Sachs, and the artist’s own interest in theory, his drawn images are physically beautiful, dramatic and confrontational. Australian born, of German descent, the Germanic tradition of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, inform his worldview. Like Anselm Kiefer, Sachs addresses the physical weight of European culture, particularly the inescapable weight of the German tradition since World War II.” 

Along with exhibitions in New York and Japan, Sachs had been represented in such group exhibitions as 1000 Mile Stare, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (1988); Perspecta, Art Gallery of New South Wales (1989); Parr Sachs Tillers Young, Orange Regional Gallery (1999); and Paperworks, Queensland Art Gallery (2001).

Sachs’s work is held in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Victoria, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, and a large number of university and regional galleries.

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