Robert Heindel (1938-2005)

Robert Heindel’s work is synonymous with the world of ballet in all it’s diverse forms. Even though many may not recognize the name, the images created by the artist are certainly memorable. For a man who has devoted his artistic output over the past twenty or so years to dance and dancers, the visual recollection of his work reflects his success.

Growing up in the 1940s, he recalls that drawing and painting were a natural focus for him. A progression to art school was simply not possible financially or practically. Instead, like many young artists then and now, he found himself a job in a professional art studio supplementing that with odd jobs and ventures. This naturally acquired adaptability has yielded a singular career within a chequered life. Here is an artist who has painted the leading dancers of the past two decades, has had patrons in some of the most celebrated men and women in the world and yet remains a most private and personal man.

Heindel became a correspondent of The Famous Artists School in his earlier years and acknowledges his respect today, as a member of the School’s board. As one of its most celebrated, he is an inspiration to younger, new artists, a fact that he finds flattering. The years following his graduation saw his career flourish in the world of illustration. During the exciting time of the ‘60s and ‘70s he strove and became one of America’s finest, with work featuring on the covers of ‘Time’, and gaining a place in the permanent collections of The Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.

The collection within the ensuing pages is a testament to a devotion that captured this man in the early ‘70s and has consumed his artistic energies ever since.

One evening in Detroit, Robert and his wife Rose were privileged indeed to see the partnership of Fonteyn and Nureyev performing ‘Paradise Lost’. Heindel’s personal pleasures, his wife, his life, music and art became focused in one - here was something in which he could singularly channel his artistic engergies. His wife Rose remembers, ‘That night he fell in love with dance’.

The new-found passion led the artist upon an adventurous course. For seven years, he worked across North America seeking out dancers, dance companies and opportunities to combine his observations and interpretations with exhibitions allied to this work. The early blueprint of ‘observation - paining - exhibition’, general inspired by a dancer or dance company, became a definite formula in the years following. Heindel jokes, ‘It’s all show-business’, expressing his realistic approach to exhibiting. ‘Timing,talent and chance in varying degrees are the ingredients all artists work with - it’s really a matter of that mix that governs success or otherwise’

In 1985 one of the artist’s major ambitions was realized - that of staging a one-man exhibition in London. Two years prior he had responded enthusiastically to a request to work at The Royal Opera House in London which initially yielded a series of sketches.

The late director, Sir Frederick Ashton, didn’t escape Heindel’s eye. Significantly the painting that evolved from the studies, ‘Sir Fred’, is now part of London’s National Portrait Gallery Collection. The culmination of the two year project was ‘The Obsession of Dance’, and exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall in London, opened by H.R.H. Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowden. The British audience applauded the work, responding to images of Heindel’s dancers which were ‘always strong with an unconscious grace’. One of the finest accolades was the following from Anthony Dowell:

Robert Heindel, apart from being one of the most courteous and charming of men, manages to camouflage himself into the studio setting, somehow hiding his ‘spying’ eyes. Many silent phots later, and after the magical process has taken place in his studio,one is presented not only with a true image of oneself but with a beautiful study and record of private moments that one thought had been hidden.

Among Heindel’s audience at the Royal Festival Hall was Andrew Lloyd Weber. The composer’s enthusiasm for the collection prompted the request for Heindel to paint the already established musical ‘Cats’, and cover the rehearsal period of ‘The Phantom of The Opera’. ‘Phantom’ was an altogether different proposition - almost pure theatre meant a real departure from studies of movement to a focus upon pure assumed emotion. In the same way as the performers, Heindel needed to apprehend the spirit of ‘The Phantom’. The final paintings, predominantly of the two main characters, are charged with the fear, despair and love so central to the world’s ‘most famous’ musical.

Autumn 1988 heralded the artist’s second major exhibition at Royal Festival Hall in London. This time he chose to concentrate on a suite of paintings and drawings from ‘The Garden of Eros’, a one act piece performed by London City Ballet. The Patron of the ballet, Diana, Princess of Wales was Heindel’s distinguished guest. The Princess had enjoyed the artist’s work for many years and writing to him on one occasion commented:

Experts hold your work in the highest regards, I know, but for me it simply succeeds in capturing the spirit of dance as art.

In 1990 as part of Glasgow’s European City of Culture celebrations the Scottish Ballet invited Heindel to observe and record their rehearsals and spirit, resulting in the distinctive collection ‘Scottish Shadows’. The paintings were seen as a natural progression in his work, in particular with the ‘Floormarks’ series. ‘Floormarks’ explored the history and layered memory of dance floors, while ‘Scottish Shadows’ examined shape cast by light in almost liquid form. A disturbing truth was being handled behind these forms, for during this time Heindel’s eldest son, Toby, was dying of cancer. The experience was profound, impacting on his works during this period and for ever after. It was intensely emotional pas de deux ‘Belong’, from a one-act ballet ‘What to do till the Messiah comes’, performed by the Scottish Ballet, that paralleled Heindel’s highly charged emotional situation. The resulting works ‘Waiting for the Messiah’ (I - V) have become amongst the most renowned.

Since 1990, the concept of working on one particular production or company, followed by an exhibition, has changed somewhat. There have been one or two exceptions, such as ‘Still Life at the Penguin Cafe’, but on the whole, works produced upon the specific dance/ballet theme have been less specific. Instead Heindel has considered his own contemporary preferences, juxtaposing the challenges they bring.

In 1992, a collection of his work was shown in Tokyo. What Heindel saw on the first visit left him anxious for more, and an invitation to observe preparations, rehearsals and performance of the Noh Theatre was signal to another new episode. The resulting paintings formed a focal point for his second major exhibition in Tokyo in 1995.

Just as Noh and Kabuki yielded new aspects during the period 1992-1997, another challenge he set himself provided a curious series of beasterly headed humanized creatures, in his response to the ballet ‘Still Life at the Penguin Cafe’. While ‘Still Life’ represented pure observation of an existing ballet, ‘The Dance House’ provided the most intensive outpouring since the Toby paintings. The ballet itself was created for the San Francisco Ballet and premiered in their city in 1995. Many months prior, David Bintley, the choreographer, approached Heindel to design a set and costumes for a somewhat ‘abstract’ one-act piece. At the time, Bintley was of course aware of Heindel’s interest in ‘Still Life’ but his knowledge of Heindel’s work was based upon a much wider awareness of previous paintings and drawings. ‘The Dance House’ was to be loosely based around a mediaeval woodcut. Heindel grasped the approach with zeal, designing a series of conceptual and literal sets in response to the final line of the woodcut, ‘Ye all must to the Dance House go’. In it’s effect, Heindel’s contribution succeeded vividly, in realizing Bintley’s wish to portray ‘The Dance House’ as a celebration of life and death.

In apparent stark contrast to all that has gone before are Robert Heindel’s conspicuous ‘Painted Walls’, an ongoing project with no foreseeable conclusion. From this exploration he found pure pleasure in the involvement with paint and rhythm. Symbols, shape and emotive forms evolved from the ongoing experiment - confidence flourished and ‘Painted Walls’ became the focal point of his 1996 exhibition.

Since the latter part of the 1990s up to the present, works have brought together the artist’s intimate knowledge of dance and dancers, with more adventurous and abstruse settings. His figures are invariably captured in motion or in a stance significant to the piece, but of equal or even greater impact are the settings Heindel depicts. No longer is there simply an evocation of stage or studio. Instead, the influences apparent in the ‘Painted Wall’ are now more prominent. Taking the ballet libretto or the accompanying score as his inspiration, Heindel’s artistic response takes on a far more abstract form in his later work. His dancers now flow and move against an indistinct and almost imaginary backdrop.

For two decades, dance and dancers have inspired Heindel’s sketches, drawings and paintings. His mastery at capturing the body in energetic motion or gentle repose has earned him a singular reputation from patrons desirous of more, and from dancers themselves who applaud the uncompromising honesty he reflects from their world.

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