OLD LYME — When Christian Brechneff paints flowers and gardens, he uses the color green sparingly, if at all.
“How I choose the colors is pretty intuitive. I very rarely paint green. Never have. The blues, mauves and reds take over,” he said in a lecture at the Florence Griswold Museum on June 30 that introduced his show, opening on July 6 at the Cooley Gallery, located at 25 Lyme St. in Old Lyme.
The show, representing work from 1989 to the present, is bursting with large flowers drawn in black ink on white paper, sometimes with a blue-gray background. The flowers are the latest focus of Brechneff’s 50-year career as a painter that has covered a range of ideas, including landscapes, gardens and architecture around the globe.
“I’ve had these different kinds of worlds, whether it was the fallen angels, the mountain landscapes, the seascapes, the whole Greek world, but flowers I never really looked at,” Brechneff told CT Examiner staff, at the Cooley Gallery Wednesday morning. “And then in the early ‘90s this whole thing with the flowers evolved and it’s opened up a whole other world.”
After years of traveling, it was having his own garden in Lyme that brought his eye to the flowers themselves, which have their own sensuality, he said, pointing out the details of several paintings.
“When you look at these, they’re sort of sexy, these passionfruit flowers, it’s a sexy flower to begin with and I think the reason they have been such a success is that they are slightly provocative without being in your face ‘dick and vaginas,’ not at all, they’re just not, but they have an underlying sensuality and sexuality which makes them something special,” he said. “Plus, I think they’re very beautiful. They’re just these black lines and sometimes they have a grey-blue background, but I prefer them just as lines because it’s so clean.”
He draws the lines using pipettes to suck in and hold the ink, a technique that lets him create lines that range from very fine to thick. He said began using the blue-gray background because he wanted to cover an area where the ink had pooled.
“The blue-gray does something to the flower, it pops it out it pushes it out, it becomes a little bit more decorative,” he said. “Just black and white is more abstract — it’s all about the beauty of the line and for me those are probably my favorite ones.”
Born in the former Belgian Congo, Brechneff grew up in Basel, Switzerland, the son of two doctors. His family lived in a newly-constructed apartment in the Gellert quarter, a fashionable area of Basel with mansions built in the 19th and early 20th century, where Brechneff’s affinity for gardens and landscapes began.
“These incredible old mansions were surrounded by mostly abandoned and neglected gardens — it was a real little paradise,” he said. “We played among old boxwood hedges, dried up decorative fountains, gates and fences, and there were lots of paths and trails leading to gardeners’ cottages.”
Brechneff studied art in the United States and Switzerland and earned a masters of art degree from the Royal College of Art in London, developing a lifelong aesthetic that has carried him throughout his career.
“One of my professors (in London) said, ‘Christian I would really like you to paint a really ugly painting,’ and I almost physically cannot do it, it’s a strange thing,” he laughed. “I’ve always been after beauty. I’ve always longed for a certain harmony, a certain beauty, that we can create ourselves.”
Bringing his art to others is an integral part of his process, he said.
“In my art, I try to bring people unto a world they couldn’t find themselves,” he said. “If I have a client in the studio and I sense that they’re really very conservative and would like to have something very, very figurative, and if I can lift them up to something more abstract, I feel I’ve kind of achieved something.”
He said the show at the Cooley Gallery covers “a whole series of elements of what I have done but connected to the gardens and flowers,” though the work transcends the subject matter.
“I like to transfer it onto a different level because I’m not really a naturalist, I’m not a nature painter, my paintings ultimately have nothing to do with a specific landscape, they become interior landscapes,” he said.
The show includes several paintings of large flowers done with pastels as well as a number of watercolors of gardens from Brechneff’s world travels.
He commented that pastels are also the perfect medium to paint sunsets, one of his favorite subjects.
“Pastels are a little different — that has to do with the moment — because no sunset is ever the same, so those pastels have to do with catching a moment in nature that is unique. Every sunset is different and I can paint them for the rest of my life and always be inspired.”
“Into the Garden” opens at The Cooley Gallery on Saturday July 6, 4 to 7 p.m.
The Cooley Gallery is regularly open Thursday – Saturday 12 to 5 p.m. Sunday 12 to 4 p.m. and also by appointment, 860.434.8807.