Crown number 570: the culmination of Helene Rohrbacher’s work and a new start
Artist Helene Rohrbacher and ‘her’ motif: ‘Every single picture has grown dear to my heart, is something special for me and, in the end, hopefully also for the person who will be holding it in their hands as a gift.’
Each of her works is unique, cannot be replicated and is difficult to find on the art market. As an artist, Helene Rohrbacher values and fosters anonymity and intimacy with her paintings. She has no website and has not exhibited her work in a very long time. Even the people closest to her often had no idea or very little idea how much painting means to her – until what came next.
In late autumn 2019, the 63-year-old painter accepted a project for foryouandyourcustomers, starting with 570 commissioned works, which were small-format paintings and the traditional Christmas presents for employees, friends and customers of foryouandyourcustomers. 570 works with one and the same motif: the crown – Corona in Latin, before the name was on everyone’s lips as it is today.
‘I started painting crowns en masse shortly before the WHO declared the coronavirus a global pandemic. This situation and this very specific task coming together when they did – crazy. In retrospect, I was pretty shocked myself by it all. It was a strange situation for me and everyone that found out about it,’ says Helene Rohrbacher. ‘And yet, for me, crowns are something unique and far more than just the name of this terrible pandemic.’
‘Byzantine Queen Theodora and her crown have accompanied me for 40 years of my life’
‘I fell in love with the crown motif as a 20-year-old art student. I remember it as if it were yesterday. In Ravenna, I marvelled at these wonderful, elaborate mosaics and there I saw her: Byzantine Queen Theodora wearing her golden crown – in a way, it was the initial spark that got my art going,’ she describes her experience. These impressions and the crown motif have accompanied Helene Rohrbacher for 40 years. ‘This worldly, spiritual and mystical symbolism continues to fascinate me, and the clarity and simple form fits my way of painting perfectly, and has since been expressed in many ways in my works.’
Seven years after her trip to Emilia-Romagna, Rohrbacher gave birth to her daughter together with her husband, the Austrian artist Kurt Rohrbacher. Fittingly, they called her Theodora. Then, at the age of 30, the painter – now with a degree – bought a farm in the Upper Austrian Mühlviertel together with her family. The farm is called Kronberg, its address is Kronberg and in the village Helen Rohrbacher has simply been known as the ‘Kronbergerin’ since then. ‘Crowns, wherever you look it’s crowns,’ she says smiling.
‘Painting for the outside world was foreign to me’
For someone who loves artistic anonymity, who is reluctant to make their works public, Helene Rohrbacher entered a completely new creative phase thanks to foryouandyourcustomers. ‘My husband exhibited his work at the fifth foryouandyourcustomers exhibition in Vienna a number of years ago. I, on the other hand, always loved a very private setting to present my work, and even did that very rarely – until this job came along.’
‘For me, the crown is a very special, powerful symbol that is firmly anchored in all cultures, which each of us has known since we were children and which is linked to memories: be it the corona in the night sky, the feeling of putting on a crown as a child, receiving a crown for merit at school or crowning yourself with a headdress at carnival.
Arranged according to colour. 570 crowns and each piece is unique.
This symbol is so closely connected to my life and my painting that I simply could not turn down this job at that time. The task appealed to me at a profound level, but at the same time it made me a little nervous: explicitly painting for 570 unknown people was something I couldn’t fathom at the start. And on top of that, I usually use very large formats on canvas and now I was supposed to paint on wood, at a size of only 15 by 15 cm.’
Inadvertent deliberate isolation
‘The months where I was working on the small-format pictures were an immensely exciting, sensual and intense time,’ says Helene Rohrbacher, describing the impressions she gathered. When the Covid-19 lockdown came into effect in Austria, I was able to hunker down at home in my flat in Vienna for weeks – in my living room which had been converted into a studio. I sent my family to our farm and I was alone with my crowns, creating the intimate setting I needed for the work. Nobody wanted anything from me during this time, and couldn’t they have wanted anything from me anyway. If anybody called wanting to know how this time was for me, they were usually completely surprised: they often had no idea how intensively I delve into my painting work. During this time, I could have handed in a large number of these works, because my enthusiasm for them was quickly sparked.’
For ten months, more or less everything revolved around crowns, generally with three prongs. ‘I was extremely focused and I immensely enjoyed creating the paintings in different colours and several layers, developing their patina and creating depth for the viewer.’ Each picture turned out unique and unreplicable as a result. Her studio was soon covered with crown paintings, which she had laid out or set up to dry in order to observe their effect on the viewer through the windows during the daytime and at dusk. ‘Every single picture has grown dear to my heart, is something special for me and, in the end, hopefully also for the person who will be holding it in their hands as a gift.’
No trace of routine or piecework. Her enthusiasm grew considerably from painting to painting. ‘The 570th painting was then quite literally the crowning moment – an unbelievable conclusion for me,’ sums up Helene Rohrbacher. ‘I have to admit that I found it very hard to set down my brush and part with the paintings. But now the job is done and I am artistically on the verge of what feels like a new beginning; I am curious to see whether crowns will continue to play such an important role in my painting.’