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Galerie Jaeger Bucher opens Michael Biberstein Fundraising exhibition to complete Santa Isabel Church ceiling
View of the model of Santa Isabel Chruch in Lisbonne made by Michael Biberstein©Michael Biberstein Estate. Courtesy Galerie Jaeger Bucher / Jeanne-Bucher, Paris. Photo : Rui Semedo da Luz.

PARIS.- The Gallery announces Michael Biberstein’s exhibition A Sky for Michael Biberstein, to be held from the March 1st to the May 3rd 2014.

At the moment of his sudden passing, on the 5th of May 2013, and since 2009, Michael Biberstein had been working tirelessly on a project that was particularly close to his heart and which he considered his Opus Magna - the creation of a sky for the Santa Isabel Church in the Campo de Ourique neighbourhood in Lisbon. This project was entrusted to him by the Appleton & Domingos Architecture Studio in Lisbon with the support of the Parish priest Father José Manuel Pereira de Almeida who selected him. When speaking about this church — whose foundations date from 1742 and which was finished in 1795, except for it’s ceiling which was left bare due to lack of funds — Michael Biberstein said that it was “a precious stone kept inside a black box with a dull, dark-grey cover”.

A Sky for Santa Isabel
Faithful to Leon Battista Alberti’s rules, the architectural elements of the Santa Isabel Church are, visually, heavier and darker than the lower part of the church and gradually draw our eyes upwards. There is, therefore, no doubt that the Church ceiling is supposed to complete this feeling of movement towards light, with a view to reflecting and uniformly distributing this light to the space below. Starting from this, Michael Biberstein worked tirelessly with a view to giving this Church ceiling it’s original meaning. In order to replace the dark, cold and suffocating roof with a warm and vibrant sky, opening onto the cosmos, Michael Biberstein created a ceiling whose vibrating colours extend those of the church’s marble walls, in a progression from cold to warm tones. This opening of indigo sky is intended as a dive into deep space, much like his paintings that turn towards the sublime, dedicated to introspection as much as contemplation.

The visual transformation and the spacial resonances of his ceiling, which he was in the process of creating, place him, through the immanence of his painting, face to face with the alchemic and transcendental qualities of a world in which he fundamentally believed.

It’s important to state that the Santa Isabel Church in Lisbon is unique in that it has the longest nave of all the churches in the capital. Even if Michael Biberstein’s Sky represents only a part of the whole project to rehabilitatethe church, it is clear that, given the size of the ceiling, it will have a very large impact on the building’s interior. The change of atmosphere in the interior space will be absolutely exceptional, as if a window has been opened onto the sky in a room that was plunged into darkness behind thick curtains for more than 250 years.

Through numerous drawings, studies, watercolours and notes, Michael Biberstein met this challenging project with brio: the conception of a ceiling for the church upon a 1:8 scale model, presented at the Lisbon Architecture Triennial then, in 2010, in the Santa Isabel Church itself, allowing a projection, on a reduced scale, of the creation envisioned for the Church ceiling. This allowed all parties involved to appreciate the perfect match between Michael Biberstein’s ceiling and the Baroque and Neo-Classical ceilings of Catholic churches. Moreover, it also allowed the correction of certain structural defects in the church or to mitigate them with light-touch alterations. Michael Biberstein also made it known he wished to be surrounded by a team of experienced restorers throughout the project and had started building the team. His death, unexpected and premature, lead to the general mobilisation of all participants in the project — the Parish, the architects, the engineers, the gallery owners representing his work, the technicians as well as the restorers and the sponsors of the project. After consultation and an extended study of the ceiling Michael Biberstein conceived for the model of the Santa Isabel church, all the participants unanimously agreed to pursue the completion of this major work, which deeply resonated with his presence.

A team of six painters, including three who had previously worked with the artist, was created to recreate the painting of the model ceiling to the scale of the church. An experienced Italian restorer, who has benne recognized for her full skills in the rehabilitation of several Heritage sites in Italy, will accompany them, bringing her expertise to the team.

Several trials are currently being undertaken to define precisely whether the painting should be done directly on the Church’s ceiling or if it must first be applied to a canvas which would then be fixed to the ceiling itself. All these studies must take into account questions of hygrometry and the application and upkeep of the materials chosen by Michael Biberstein. This phase is thus absolutely essential to the final choice of materials and the way in which the ceiling must be created, so as to optimise its spatial and temporal presence.

With a view to raising the funds necessary to launch this new phase of the project — after the repair of the roof and the existing cracks — and so as to gather the necessary means for the final realisation of Michael Biberstein’s Sky, a concert took place in the Santa Isabel Church in Lisbon last December. The Dream and Drone Orchestra, made up of eleven musicians, who often worked alongside Michael Biberstein, interpreted the musical odyssey they had composed with the artist in his house in Alentejo.

The project is now progressing in leaps and bounds, and our fundraising exhibition, A Sky for Michael Biberstein, will present the ceiling painted by the artist on the model of Santa Isabel Church, allowing visitors to enter and experience for themselves the interior that the artist envisaged for the building. The model of the church will be accompanied by a choice of representative works by the artist, from the eighties to his most recent canvases, finished just before his death in May 2013.

Michael Biberstein was going to paint the ceiling pro bono, considering this final work his Opus Magna. The artist no longer being there to finish the ceiling himself, this exhibition plans to help find the necessary financing to complete, more than 250 years after the church’s construction, its ultimate phase ; what Michael Biberstein called “my ceiling” and what his friends and admirers are now calling “Mike’s ceiling”.

After having travelled a lot, in his last years Michael Biberstein gave up his life as a globetrotter. He spent his days in his studio in the heart of Alentejo, Portugal, where he had chosen to live since the end of the seventies, and his evenings listening to music and reading. Each of his paintings was for him a “fine membrane, a projection space upon which signals fix themselves”. Each of his canvases — just like the ceiling in the Santa Isabel Church — was seen as a space upon which the artist devoted himself to the contemplation of the sublime. He considered his paintings as Dream Space, on which he was lucky enough to meditate and project his inner landscapes.

Despite the fact that he claimed no religious affiliation, Michael Biberstein constantly stated that certain questions could remain answerless and that all answers, elaborated through the construction of a system, did not help progress in the world.

Michael Biberstein left us with all these questions together with the model of a luminous sky open to all that we must now complete for him.

A private String Quartet Concert will be held at the gallery with Finnish conductor and cellist Susanna Mälkki, accompanied by cellist Mimi Brundin Sunnerstam, French violonist Ludovic Balla and altist Jonathan Nazet.They will interpret a Sarabande by J.S. Bach for cello violin and cello, a Sonata of Ravel and a Quatuor in A minor for violin, alto and two cellos by Anton Arensky.

His career as a self-taught painter as well as his innate ability for landscape painting gifted him an understanding and a sensibility uniquely suited to a project of this kind, a project which suited his nature as much as the large format painting that he practised and mastered.

The artist was marked very early by a Mark Rothko exhibition which would convulse his life and lead him to take a much greater interest in painting. During his studies in Art History — including a year spent with British critic David Sylvester at Swarthmore College, Philadelphia, USA — the artist became interested in Early Christian art and the architecture of Roman churches, as well as Baroque painting and, specifically, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. His self-taught career as a painter began when David Sylvester declared that Art History would not be enough for him and if he really wanted to understand painting he would have to experiment it himself.

Sacred spaces, which became one of his three chosen fields, fascinated him in that they were always built to produce a certain physiological effect, whatever the religion. These spaces, which encourage calm and contemplation, provoke a spiritual sensation which lifts the thoughts of Man beyond everyday life into the realm of superior values.

Philosophically, Michael Biberstein always positioned himself as an agnostic, despite an extremely intense spirituality, and saw no contradiction between this position and the project with the church.

Every Michael Biberstein painting has a very strong spiritual dimension. His paintings describe neither a precise place nor a precise landscape. They are, rather, the reflection on inner landscapes. These contemplations which take form on his canvases are at once evocations of the Nature that surrounds us, but also of our own thoughts, memories, intimate emotions experienced in our daily lives. In them we find, through an evocation that is more metaphysical than formal, Vermet’s landscapes (alongside which he was exhibited), Casper David Friedrich, Turner, Monet, Cézanne and Rothko, as well as influences from Eastern landscape painters across the Chinese dynasties. Curiously, he never travelled to Asia.

In his paitings, The numerous thin and impalpable layers create a movement of colours, like a chromatic breath. This universal, perpetually moving, perpetually changing landscape resembles vibrations in space and resonances in silence. The imperceptible movements created by the veils of colours transform the canvas into a visual field which extends throughout the depth of the painted image. Confronted with this work, the spectator is thrust into a world without necessarily being conscious of the physical limits imposed by the canvas. Michael Biberstein believed deeply in the possibility of an apotheosis of the human spirit before while contemplating a landscape.

Born in Solothurn, Switzerland in 1948, Michael Biberstein lived there until 1964, when he moved to the United States. His studies in Art History in the USA were marked by an important year spent with David Sylvester at Swarthmore College in Philadelphia. After this, he becam a Self-taught painter and left for Portugal in 1978 where he lived permanently with his wife until his death in May 2013.

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