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Rebecca Horn - Biography and Legacy

German Sculptor, Filmmaker and Performance Artist

Born: March 24, 1944 - Michelstadt, Germany

Biography of Rebecca Horn


Rebecca Horn was born in the midst of war, in 1944 in Michelstadt, Hesse, Germany. While Horn has not discussed her childhood or family in depth, introducing only snippets, we know that her parents were industrialists and her uncle - to whom she was close - was an artist. She has expressed a deep love for the Romanian governess who looked after her as a young child recalling that it was the governess who spent much time drawing with her at around three or four years old. Growing up in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War affected Horn greatly, and as such the experience penetrates many of her artworks to come. After the war, Horn and her fellow Germans could hardly speak their own language because, blamed for the atrocities of the older generation, they had become a hated people. Horn learnt to speak both French and English but she preferred drawing as a way to communicate that remained untainted and universal.

As a young girl, Horn read Johann Valentin Andreae's The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz (1616) an early, highly symbolic and evocative book that explored the transformation of the soul. She also read Raymond Roussel's Locus Solus (1914) in which visually elaborate stories were woven around the absurd inventions of a scientist. Both books are understood to have nurtured Horn's interest in alchemy, Surrealism, machinic invention, and absurdity. Indeed, in the same celestial and otherworldly vein, Horn's father told her stories of dragons, goblins, and witches, setting the stories in their own local environment (perhaps he was a fan of The Brothers Grimm). Although likely an early source of inspiration for the artist, she has also said herself that her father's stories often triggered deep anxiety. Her father also loved opera, which may have influenced the artist's important relationship to sound and music.

Practically as well as emotionally, Horn experienced childhood as an unsettling time. She changed boarding schools often and sometimes travelled with her father on business trips. She once ran away from school afraid that the witches from one of her father's stories would follow her. She had a further traumatic experience at school when she lost control of her bladder in a situation of high pressure having been demanded to lead prayers. Such intense rigidity and irrational discipline found in school environments has also become a recurrent subject in Horn's later work. For example, in her work The Moon, the Child and the River of Anarchy (1992), old Austrian primary school desks are hung from the ceiling, lined up neatly in rows as they might have been in a classroom. The desks are connected by a series of tubes, as though alive, albeit barely sustained, and somehow 'treated' against their will.

Early Training and Work

At University Horn initially studied economics and philosophy, having been advised to do so by her pragmatic parents. However, after six months Horn - initially in secret - began taking art classes on the side. She started full-time study at the Hochschule für bildende Künste in Hamburg in 1963, much to the disapproval of her parents. Her drawings at art school principally explored the female body and ways that it could be transformed. Many of Horn's appendages for the body, realised in later performance and video works, can be found in sketchbooks from as early as 1966.

It was at art school that Horn began to make large-scale sculptures using mainly polyester and fibreglass. Sadly, due to producing these works without using a mask she became very ill in 1964. She went to hospital and then spent a very isolated, long, and tragic year convalescing in a sanatorium. Shockingly, whilst Horn was recovering from lung poisoning, both of her parents died. It was at this time, Horn said, that she "started to develop ideas for communicating with people through my work." She designed and made body sculptures out of fabric while she was ill, these were appendages to and extensions of the body that materialized later in various forms, including a Unicorn horn, feathers made into a mask that covered the face, and a mask with protruding pencils that the wearer could draw with. In an interview Horn said, "I wanted to pass on this experience of being tied to a bed." Arm Extensions (1968) was her first body extension that she said turned the wearer "into an earthbound object."

Once recovered and back at the academy, Horn began to collaborate with a fellow student to create the 1973 film in which her body sculpture Unicorn (1970-72) was performed. Her early performance films were made whilst still completing her art education. Indeed it was while Horn was still a young artist, during the late 60s and through the 70s, that she became a recognized figure in the wider art world. She was the youngest artist to show at Documenta 5 in 1972, curated by Harald Szeemann. As an opportunity to meet many successful and international artists of the time, this was an artistic breakthrough moment for Horn.

Mature Period

Horn moved to New York in 1972 after exhibiting at Documenta 5 and stayed there for 9 years. During this time, she produced films and sculptural works including her first mechanical sculptures. In 1978 Horn made The Gigolo (Der Eintänzer) and The Feathered Prison Fan. The characters that feature in these films all symbolize people who visited the artist's studio, in her imagination. Now removing herself physically from the work, she introduced proxies instead, including her partner, and thus continued to refer back to her own life in surreal and self-referential ways.

The artist returned to Europe in the early 1980s and produced a large body of mechanical sculptures that were set to unnerve gallery audiences.

In the late 1980s, Horn travelled to Los Angeles to research the American filmmaker, Buster Keaton. Horn's friend, Conceptual artist John Baldessari talked of how Horn identified with Keaton and stated that, "a way to understand Horn is to look at his films." Horn too has said that she related to Keaton's tragic stories about his own experience that he then transformed in a Surrealist way. This admiration and interest in shared themes, led to Horn's most ambitious feature film, Buster's Bedroom made in 1991. In this film Micha Morgan played the heroine and also served as Horn's alter ego. It is clear that many key works by Horn serve as an analogy for her own life and more generally, as an allegory of the creative process.

During the 1980s and 90s Horn produced a number of major site-specific works that responded directly to places imbued with great social and political significance. These happenings were sometimes highly sensitive sites where horrific war crimes had been committed. Works such as Concert in Reverse (1997) and Concert for Buchenwald (1999) were haunting responses to a former Nazi execution site, and to a former tram depot where atrocities have also taken place. Horn has spoken with great assurance of her rooted belief that artists have an important political role to play in society. In an interview with art and architecture historian Carl Haenlein, Horn said:

"What interests me most is how I can use creativity to maintain openness and curiosity. I have never discarded my yearning for change. I am interested in scientific developments and the effort involved in drawing together the most diverse forms of experience. We suffer from fragmentation and isolation. Only once we have overcome this condition and people from all walks of life join together will we be able to foster new hope."

The solitary nature of human existence has become a recurring theme for Horn, the question of how one contends and lives with this condition, whilst at the same time endeavoring to defend and communicate with groups of people.

Late Period and Current Work

Rebecca Horn lives in Berlin and Paris, but has lived in many international cities, often moving to a city if she is offered an exhibition there. Horn has spoken evocatively and positively of her experience of travel. She has also spoken of her grandmother who died just after she was born. Also called Rebecca, her grandmother moved around constantly through six wars - something Horn described as gypsy-like movement.

Speaking in 2000 of her experience creating artwork in Münster at the site of a former SS interrogation centre, Horn addressed the impact of her provocative artworks. She sees it as her given role to "drill a little hole" in a problem that exists in a place or social situation, and as such to expose the problem for open discussion. Therefore, as another key reason for her constant travel, always challenging prevailing cultural thoughts or norms, Horn understands that many people experience her as a disruptive and, potentially, an unwelcome force.

Horn has a long-term partner Timothy Baum and the couple have a son together. Baum is a dealer of Surrealist art and produced 'Nadada', a poetry journal that had a short run in the 1960s. In a 2014 interview, Horn revealed that her son is the only person that she will allow to witness her creative process; the commercial gallery that represents her - The Sean Kelly Gallery in New York - published a book of photographs that her son took whilst his mother was painting. Horn rarely speaks of her personal life, but in 2001 she published a book titled 'All these Black Days', which she describes as "Postcard collages and texts by Rebecca Horn sent to Timothy Baum and friends". This emotive and poetic set of texts are not dated and do not name Horn's friends, but the fact of its publication does demonstrate her intention to communicate all of her feelings whilst simultaneously retaining private intimacy.

The Legacy of Rebecca Horn

Nicholas Serota, former curator of Tate Modern gallery in London has described how, while still a very young artist Rebecca Horn "was breaking new ground between film, performance and objects." Talking about her body sculptures, that the Tate had recently acquired, he called them a "singular body of work in European art of the early 1970s." Indeed, Horn became a key figure in a moment for art that challenged and changed formal ideas. The author, Jeanette Winterson, has described Horn as performing a role akin to an artist-inventor or alchemist, and as possessing a capacity to produce artworks that rouse powerful elemental forces and emotions.

Importantly, Horn is part of a group of female artists exploring the body through performance as part of the second wave of feminism during the 1960s and 1970s. Recalling some works by the late Cuban artist, Ana Mendieta, she makes ritualistic use of natural materials including blood and feathers and uses these to examine boundaries between the human/animal, the natural and the manmade, and between the excess and containment of emotions. Comparable to Louise Bourgeois, she became fascinated early on in her career by the use of soft textile materials as being well apt for imitating and exploring the human body, and like Frida Kahlo, she has devoted her lifetime to a thorough exploration of the limits and potentiality that is born of pain. She is thus well situated amongst other highly influential and visionary female artists. Not only making sculptures or conducting performances however, Horn transformed - what was often a largely male-dominated area of art making - the realm of Kinetic and mechanical art.

As truly multi-talented, Horn has also been described by the Tate Modern curator, Valentina Ravaglia, as "arguably the first artist-turned-feature-filmmaker of the post-war generation". Horn's films demonstrate an ambitious extension of her desire to disrupt familiar ways of thinking about the body, human relationships, and the world. As is typical of the work of Horn, a simultaneously elusive and powerful subjectivity remains at the heart of all that she does. While it is impossible to think of the surreal films of Matthew Barney before the work of Horn, it is also notable (while he does not identify her as a direct influence), to consider recent successful Hollywood productions by artist Steve McQueen in light of Horn's pioneering feature filmmaking.

Furthermore, Horn is part of an important generation of artists who have powerfully addressed the Holocaust - both the experience of such and its legacy - including Joseph Beuys, Christian Boltanski, and Anselm Kiefer. Horn has drawn upon her experiences growing up in post-war Germany to develop an incredibly powerful and evocative artistic language that speaks out for positive social and political change.

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Content compiled and written by Claire Hope

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Rebecca Baillie

"Rebecca Horn Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Claire Hope
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Rebecca Baillie
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First published on 16 Sep 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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