Renate Rabus

Born in Niedergösgen 5th May 1950
Married to Alex on 16th March 1973
Birth of Till : 6th September 1975
Birth of Leopold : 31th October 1977

R as Renate

Séverine Cattin, historienne de l’art
Translated by Anne Malena


Portrait as an alphabet book

Renate Rabus’ portrait, based on a series of interviews during the summer of 2015, has taken the shape of an alphabet book since that suited, in spite of an apparently rigid format, my wish for open-mindedness in this biographical essay. That is why this portrait includes twenty-six themes – from Adèle to Zut – chosen by the artist. She shares ideas, memories and inspirations, but also more personal issues such as, for example, her mother Adèle, her children and death. The chosen format allows her words to flow, while respecting their form and length as well as the surprises emerging out of the dialogue between us. At once sincere, funny and touching, this alphabet book is in the image of Renate Rabus, offering a unique portrait of this multifaceted artist.

Obviously, it is impossible to translate this alphabet book and render the alphabetical order in English. The translation will, therefore, follow the French order

From Adèle to Zut

A for Adèle

” It’s my mother’s first name. She most likely contributed to my artistic creativity through her domestic tasks, such as sewing and knitting, or the clothes that she used to make for us. Unfortunately, as time went by, my mother sank into depression. She often seemed elsewhere, sad or absent. She had an impact on my childhood and still does today.
Two embroideries are dedicated to her : Mutterglück and a portrait. ”


B for ’Broderie’( Embroidery )

” It’s my passion. From a very young age I was given things to embroider by my mother. She would buy linen and other materials for her three daughters. I remember a wall tapestry from which she had copied a section and I had to reproduce it. It was a floral pattern in blue and white. In spite of the lack of creativity in the exercise and my already being very stubborn I had finished it. I was learning to do good work.

As a little girl I would often go to my grand-parents’ house in a farming village where all the inhabitants weaved silken ribbons for the city of Basel 1. To visit those houses with their looms made of threads with extraordinary colours, what an adventure ! They would give me some small remnants that I would tinker with to make things for my dolls.

That experience contributed to the development of my imagination. ”

1 Ribbon weaving was an important industry; in 1988 the last silk spinner put away her loom and the last factory closed its doors in 2004. In 1670 the Basel City Council allowed looms with several shuttles, which led to early industrialization in the region. Basel denizens made silk ribbons at home with this kind of loom; they were organized into a Verlagssytem (scattered factory) and worked for a businessman in Basel. Source :


C for ’Couture’ ( Sewing )

” At eighteen I was sewing all of my own clothes. A fan of clothes I remember dreaming most particularly of Ungaro’s and Christian Lacroix’ creations. Indeed I still have the first dress I made with a matching handbag. At the same time several crochet and knit pieces came to be part of my trousseau. Then the prospect of our first family show 2 inspired me to create three dresses, special creations.

The first is a wedding dress entitled Carrousel since it represents an embroidered merry-go-around and 3D horses. The entire set comes with a long train being carried by two small roller-skating monkeys 3. The second is a garden dress. It is shaped like a watering can ; the hat is a pail filled with garden tools and the shoes are snails. The third is the Champagne dress that honours an organic pink champagne that we liked, called Ruffin, embroidered with bunches of grapes in relief. The hat is made of the tray and flutes. ”

2 En 2006, à la Galerie des Amis des Arts, à Neuchâtel.
3 Cette œuvre appartient au Musée d’art et d’histoire de Neuchâtel (MAHN).


D for Dentist

” From the time I was sixteen I dreamed of becoming a designer for shop windows, a sewer or a stylist. But my father had found a job for me as a dental assistant. Once I had my diploma I never worked in this area.

This period is important because it was then that I met some artists. Since I was doing that apprenticeship in Aarau I had the opportunity to discover an atmosphere and a milieu I never knew existed : a world of painters, sculptors and musicians. We would hang out in the same places. This revelation of ’ another world ’ confirmed my general interest for art. It was surprising since my parents never took us to a museum. However, my sister and I were attracted to this mysterious realm. This period is also synonymous with liberation, an emancipation that continued when a few years later I came to Neuchâtel for work and for learning French. ”


E for ’Enfants’ ( Children )

” They are darlings…

Just like my grand-children, and family in general, they bring me great happiness. My husband, Alex, and our grown-up children, Till and Leopold, are artists. It is natural for all four of us to do exhibitions together, without any ego problems ; our styles are very different. These events force us to change scenery and confront others’ views of us. The setting up of a multiple exhibition is always an unpredictable and thrilling exercise ! We like being together, our family is close. Education, trust, respect of the other and of life are very dear values to me. ”


F for ’Fil’ ( Thread )

” Touching thread is a pleasure… For insects, for example, I ask a blacksmith to create each insect’s skeleton with wire. Then, it is through mixing paper, masking tape, fish glue and wood meal that my sculptures start taking shape. I then use old sheets and machine sew my backgrounds to cover the structures. Embroidery comes next. By playing with spools of different colours, nuances seem infinite. Finally other materials are added, like pearls, golden thread, linen, cotton, polyester but also hair, fur or string. ”


G for Gastronomy

” To cook and entertain is a celebration but also a challenge : respect and pleasure. Most of the time I use local and seasonal products from, whenever possible, my beloved garden. Gastronomy is part of life. Just like wine. To match good products with good wines is an art.

This also contributes to raising awareness : if we want to continue eating, and preferably eating well, we must stop poisoning and draining the earth ! It turns out to be much more generous and amazing when we learn to know and respect it. ”


H for ’Haute-contre’ ( Counter-tenor )

” Masculine voices, whose tessitura is close to women’s, touch me in a strange way. From Alfred Deller to Philippe Jaroussky, they are more and more convincing ! ”


I for Insects

” They are despised. We get rid of them because we don’t know what they are useful for, it’s often the same way with human beings ! Lazy, they’d rather crush what they don’t know than observe and learn to understand. Insects belong to a chain. That’s why I embroider them large. They have to be larger to be seen. ”


J for ’Jardin’ ( Garden )

” It’s an ever changing world. Its ephemeral character is part of the wonder it generates, just as it is the scene for existential dramas. Its mystical aspect, stronger than anything else, brings me faith and belief in life through the diversity of the fruit, of the small and big things that are born within it. Thanks to my greenhouse I grow all sorts of vegetables and we have it all until winter. In addition there are the jams, the jellies, the sorbets, the syrup and even preserves. ”


K for Kandinsky

” His paintings fascinate me, especially those of the years 1910-15, before the 1917 Revolution. Above all his colours but also by what he suggests through his paintings, like that train that comes out of the fog…

He also echoes Russian culture, which I like very much, in particular architecture and folk music. But today all of that seems to me to have become vulgar, polluted, globalized ! ”


L for Linen

” In the image of my triptych, composed of three pieces entitled Solitude, Encounter (Rencontre)and Separation. These embroideries are made entirely of linen, from the threads of my sheets. It was interesting to use the intimacy of a sheet as the unique material for embroidery.

I probably was inspired by an artist, discovered at that time at the Collection of Raw Art in Lausanne, who had made her wedding dress out of the threads of her sheets. This story is wonderful, so poetic ! Since we all aspire to happiness. And in her own way, she had reached it by working on the creation of her dress all throughout her life and until her death. ”


M for ’Mort’ ( Death )

” We think about it more and more often. Death, age, disease. It’s harsh and brutal. Over the last while we have lost several people whom we knew and loved. I see life in a different way today. More philosophical and fatalistic, a way to accept what is happening in order to dare going on. ”


N for Notes

” Of music, of course. I started with singing but I didn’t really have any talent. My entire life has followed the beat of music. It has always been with me, reminding me of important emotions and encounters. Like Alex, I’m always listening to music while I work. Yesterday it was the Rolling Stones, for example. But I also like Baroque, Romantic, impressionists like Debussy or Ravel and, in a different register, folklore from Eastern Europe. ”


O for ’Oser dire : Non ! ’ ( Daring to say “No !” )

” It’s difficult ! It’s a permanent apprenticeship ! Even if it’s a little better today it still occasionally keeps me awake at night when I should have said no in such and such circumstances and didn’t. It’s difficult to take that step! But improvement comes with time. It comes from education: at home we didn’t like offending others. ”


P for ’Père’ ( Father )

” He was just as egocentric as my mother…

Result : total incompatibility. ”


Q for ’Quatre Saisons’ ( Four Seasons )

” It’s the title of a series of embroidered works that illustrate each part of the year. In my view seasons reflect, symbolize the phases that regulate the cycle of everything which is alive. They also represent the four violin concertos by Vivaldi, timeless music. ”


R for Rabus

” Finally, my husband, Alex, met at the ’Café du Théâtre’, in Neuchâtel. The first time, in his studio, I was immediately impressed by what he was doing. We were both drowning in love. However, from the beginning, Alex was incredible. He helped me become myself. As strange as it may seem he would invite me to meet him in the evening but, when I arrived at the studio, he would not have finished painting. So he would hand me a pencil or a pen and tell me to draw while waiting for him. It was both destabilizing and interesting. We could talk about it for a long time but in summary, what I loved above all in Alex was that he would let me be free. He was crazier than my other boyfriends while being, to my eyes, unique and independent. He offered me freedom, which allowed me to discover what I had within myself. ”


S for Sisters

” I have two : Rita and Marianne, plus one artist brother : Heinz. Due to circumstances Marianne and I live very close to each other, to the point that we have become complementary. Marianne, my little sister, both more reasonable and more daring, is a part of my soul. From a very young age, we have been very close. From the games we played together to our encounters with artists and our worries about our mother. Today we still call each other every week. She will always occupy a privileged place in my life. ”


T for Tapestry, Taurus, Textile, ’Tableau’ ( Painting )


U for Ubiquity

” I’m everywhere at once and I don’t like being too long in the same place. I need several daily tasks. It wasn’t that way between twenty and forty years old but the older I get, the more restless I become. ”


V for ’Vin’ ( Wine )

” It’s fascinating to explore the tastes of wine, to feel a sort of balance, already in the mouth, then through the effect that it provokes. It was not a tradition with my parents. I like revelling in it and share this euphoria with my guests. ”

But also for ’Vélo’ ( Bicycle )

” My means of locomotion. It’s a wonderful invention. ”


And for ’Vérité’ ( Truth )

” It’s very important for me that people be sincere. I really appreciate frankness. Even if it’s sometimes difficult to hear it’s always beneficial. With Alex we have always told each other everything. At the beginning I wasn’t necessarily transparent, afraid to hurt the other person. But everything is revealed, sooner or later. Therefore, it’s better to tell each other everything and ask for forgiveness if necessary. ”

And then also for Vanity and Vivaldi


W for Winterreise

” Like the one by Schubert that has long enchanted me. After interpreting a few lieder I preferred embroidering them. At nineteen you don’t understand things the same way as you do at sixty. In the beginning it was romantic. Today, with experience, I feel something much deeper. The older we get the more we know that time is short. Life is a closed circle. And then ? Each song is a self-exploration. There are 24. I have embroidered 11 and hope to finish them before leaving.

Recently I have started to integrate dead birds from my garden.

One day Alex brought me a rat that he had found hit by a car on the side of the road. I let it dry and covered it in ‘capaplex’ 4. It was really disgusting but, as I embroidered it, it became touching. He seemed fixated in death in a cry of suffering. I liked it more and more, to the point that it seems to have a second life now. A fish has also been ‘immortalized’ in this way. Having received a salmon skin from a friend I went looking for a tail and head at the fishery to complete it. They were also dried on the patio before being embroidered. It’s my latest creation and it has been integrated into the series of still lives. ”

4 Milky acrylic product that turns transparent and prevents decomposition.


X for eX-Voto

” While reading a book on female saints I was really struck by what some of them had to endure. As if women need to suffer in order to understand some religious thing. I have embroidered, therefore, four portraits of female saints with atrocious stories, like that of St. Lucia whose eyes were ripped out, St. Agatha whose breasts were ripped off.

… and the martyr St. John the Baptist, decapitated by a woman’s will.

Then I switched to a different subject. That series represents a moment of revolt in my life, against the treatment of women by religion that also turned them into witches… Men probably invented religions from fear of women and to justify their power ! ”


Y for Yodel

” My father did it a lot. He even sang with a female friend. Yodel rhymes with paternal education, with ‘désalpe’ and wrestlers. Events that he made us attend when we were children. But also with the image of thirteen red-headed brothers and sisters who played the Alphorn…

I didn’t much like yodel back then but now, when playing my accordion, the folklore comes back. My son Leopold is also completely tied to that realm, of his own initiative. It is in fact under his influence that I bought the accordion. ”


Z for ’Zut ! (Darn !)