The many gifts of Herbert Siebner

by Linda Rogers, October 2010

A show of this master artist’s work will raise funds for the disease that claimed his wife.

In the First Nations belief system, there are four stages of human existence: birth, reproduction, death, and the spirit life. The final stage is a natural transition, just as rotting trees become a nursery for seedlings. While all of us die, some get to live on in constructive ways. 

That is the legacy of artist Herbert Siebner—we won’t say painter because that is too narrow a definition of his fluency which included pottery, lithography, silkscreen, woodcut, encaustic, and sculpture as well. Siebner’s overflowing exuberance extends past the boundaries of his life, which ended in 2003, to include a posthumous generosity.

Winchester Galleries has been home to many of Victoria’s Limners, a collection of artists and writers that included Siebner, Pat Martin Bates, Walter Dexter, Myfanwy Pavelic and Robin Skelton. At the suggestion of Siebner’s daughter Angela Nielsen, the gallery is sponsoring a sale of 50 pieces of Siebner’s work, including prints, drawings, watercolours and one oil painting that will benefit breast cancer research.

If we all have animal brethren, as many believe, then Siebner’s was the bear. This great man had huge paws that shaped and painted and teased beauty out of everything he touched. Having come to maturity during the war years in Germany, he broke out with his peers into the period of German Neo-expressionism which had so much influence on modern painting. Later, while travelling in Greece, he met the gods and goddesses that informed his later painting, primal humans engaged in the redemptive possibilities: peace not war, sex not death. 

Siebner’s childhood during wartime reversed the natural progression of the stages of existence. As a child he witnessed death and destruction. His mature work affirmed the life force and the immortality of the spirit. His large brush strokes, shapes and colours contained by dark lines that resonated sacred objects, the stained glass windows in Europe’s great cathedrals, expressed a need to let in the light. 

Several years after his death, Siebner is still enabling the holy possibility of a cure for breast cancer, which claimed his wife Hannelore who had taken care of the painter’s practical life for half a century. 

Angela Nielsen has made the donation from her personal collection of her late father’s work. When he lay on his death bed, he told her that his real life as a painter began with her birth. Contralto Maureen Forrester said the same thing about singing and maternity. That Siebner had a daughter, a granddaughter and two great-granddaughters and that his work should benefit women’s health is perfect closure. Angela, who has used her Siebner genes to create a beautiful garden, is proud that her granddaughter is a gifted artist. Her father lives on; so does his extraordinary lust for life. 

When Hannelore and Herbert emigrated to Victoria, they embraced the vibrant art community, which Emily Carr had recommended to European friends. “Don’t be afraid,” she said, and those who came took her advice. Watching it dissipate into factions during his last years made Siebner disconsolate. His daughter says he would be happy to know that his work was, effectively, healing.

Now the Siebner house is occupied by others, but the chimney Siebner painted with proverbs remains in his studio. “Work is the mistake from which I learn” was Angela’s favourite. We can all learn from that, especially those who are working hard to find a cure for breast cancer.

A few years ago, there was a breast cancer fundraiser at the Martin Batchelor Gallery where women were encouraged to make breast prints. The Siebner prints, many with strong goddess images, are a similarly powerful affirmation. The human form is beautiful and should not be a magnet for pain.

Tracy Ryan of the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation says, “It is admirable that his family has chosen to honour both Herbert and his wife Hannelore in this way. Knowing that Hannelore passed away from breast cancer is especially poignant and we are touched by the family’s commitment to raise funds for a future without breast cancer.”

Angela says that sharing her father’s work honours the memory of her parents and is the painter’s last gift of love to his wife. We are all blessed by their generosity.

Winchester Galleries is hosting the sale of Herbert Siebner's graphic art from October 9-23 in the Gallery at 926 Humboldt St. Proceeds go to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, BC/Yukon Region. The opening will be from 2-4 pm Saturday October 9.

Linda Rogers is Victoria Poet Laureate.