Jean Buhler, Neuchâtel, August 2015
Translated by Anne Malena

Renate Rabus

A sun shaped like a woman. She shines, literally and in every way. One of her daughters-in-law said to me : “ She creates happiness ”.

Her art is first and foremost an art of living inspired by the amazement of keeping her eyes open, admiring the beautiful diversity of Nature. At the core of her creative force there is a sense of wonderment at witnessing the multiplicity of colours and shapes proffered by the universe, with the infinite variety of animals on earth and in the sea, the staggering bird population, the illustrated catalogue of insects, plus the trees, the grasses, the flowers, the crystals, the snow. When we think about it, the notes of a forever repeating hymn are within our reach.

For Renate the creations that she weaves with the weather and the seasons are inspired from the honesty of a borrower repaying his debt day after day. She avoids any metaphysical worry by adding her own voice to the universal chorus, her own incomparable accents. In fact it’s as easy as pie if you think of Rimbaud:

Recognize this turn
So gay, so easy
It is only a wave, flora
And it’s your family

We first met in 1998. The canton of Neuchâtel had decided to celebrate its 150th anniversary of the Revolution and its entrance into the Confederation with a kiosk at the Geneva Book Fair. First chapters from the books by about twenty writers from the canton had been proposed to artists. “ Choose one that attracts you and illustrate it with a work that will be exhibited at the Fair ! ”

Renate read the first few pages of my biography of Baba Amte, who gave his life for the worst outcast in India’s society, the lepers, and proclaimed : “ Charity destroys; labour builds ”… No hesitation whatsoever, her choice was made. The piece took shape, both inspired and free : a rosary of threads linking one central character to a group, suggesting a humble gathering.

Such happiness to be understood and interpreted so correctly ! We shook hands for the first time after the speeches. She introduced me to Alex, the husband, and later to the two sons : Till and Leopold, all of them having fallen into the cauldron where painters’ secrets simmer.

Since then I have been following the thread of a highly unusual family adventure ! I have been made aware of the quartet’s exhibits in many European countries and beyond ! Renate’s secret ? Difficult to completely grasp its inner workings. How has this girl from a Swiss German valley become a first rate artist on francophone soil, day after day, hour after hour, thread after thread ?

She weaves her life, this Penelope from Neuchâtel, but does not rip the canvas since her Ulysses brings her along on his travels. She weaves, she sews, knits from time to time. The conversation with friends may be fascinating after the delicious meal she has prepared in her vast kitchen, she soon takes out knitting from her bag and glosses the arguments around the table while letting out her ball of yarn. Her guests settle world issues with words, she creates a vest for her granddaughter Diane within the same length of time.

“ She never stops ”, says Alex. She’s never short of subjects. They are provided by the materials of daily life, the submersions into inner life, the fits of anger, the intuitions, never by political events. Everything is matter for sewing, weaving, even a very strange Chasse aux acariens (Dust Mites Hunt), a terrific scene embroidered on a floor cloth.

Most of the time the artist creates her own clothes, made to measure, using whatever is at hand, including gifts. One day I dared giving a piece of clothing to Renate ! I had found in Tibet a dress in artificial silk, with a Chinese style split on the side, and a flowery jacket. I deemed this set supremely elegant. After unwrapping the gift she set it aside and I don’t know whether any scraps from the Far East have survived in some original creation.

Our textile marathon artist glides with simplicity from utilitarian to mystical. The eye and the hand that create a diaper, a skirt, a hat in one day also produce the elements of a tormented portrait. And the next day the series of exotic frogs generate a new painting. Truer than life, beetles have their turn. The merry-go-round wedding dress is in the collections of the town of Neuchâtel ; you can almost hear the song : you make my head spin, my merry-go-around is you… (Tu me fais tourner la tête, mon manège c’est toi…).

Speaking of music, the Rabus paint and weave in music. Alex had me listen to a Mirdita yodel miraculously recorded in the Albanian Alps that made me feel 75 years younger.

Renate, for her part, has entered into a secret union with Franz Schubert in undertaking a thread by thread composition of 24 large works inspired by the 24 lieder in the Winterreise (Winter Journey).

Imagine her, between her trips to Brazil, Peru, Japan, the Netherlands or Tuscany, carrying a basket of heavenly tomatoes from her big Charmettes garden while organizing her Monday sewing workshop for which a few local and visiting friends gather, lending an ear to the phone call from her old friend Jean Buhler, given to lengthy oral exposés, checking the wheel of the bicycle she uses to go downtown, and faithful to Baudelaire’s message … scents, colours and sounds call to each other (… les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent), and there she is dealing with her majestic life work, the illustrations of the Winterreise.

There, it is no longer about domestic sewing issues or fashion challenges dictated by fabric merchants. She plunges into the deepest regions of emotive experiences, makes the silks sing, traces the heartbeat with her finger, an interval of a third generates a branch, a leitmotiv inspires a tree trunk, spiral shapes open like flowers bloom, the melody’s transposition demands a mysterious harmony. Alchemy…

The Lindenbaum (“ Linden Tree) is in the Neuchâtel castle.

For the complete set of the Winterreise, if she ever sees it through to the end, a second castle should be built in the Rabus’ adopted town.