How fitting that sculptor David Breuer-Weil’s Philosopher — a mammoth bronze head assembled from smashed-up and reconstituted plaster — should be made following his discovery that he is a direct descendant of philosopher Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the celebrated Maharal of Prague.
“You can imagine my surprise when I learned in a recently published book that the Maharal was my great-grandfather 14 generations down,” he tells me. “It puts a different emphasis on making figurative sculptures if you are related to the Maharal who, according to legend, made the ‘Golem of Prague’.”
Perhaps it is not entirely coincidental that the golem — the mythical giant made from clay — has fascinated Breuer-Weil for many years. And knowing of his family connection has reinforced his conviction that creating art is as much a philosophical as an aesthetic enterprise: “Some people are uncomfortable with paintings that ask questions. But for me that’s the whole point. It’s not about decoration and it’s definitely not about money.”
Breuer-Weil’s artistic inspiration stem from a fantasy world he began when, aged 11, he went to Hasmonean Boys School. “I was put in a class where I didn’t know anyone, so I created imaginary friends through drawings in the margins of my exercise book. They were creatures from a world of bizarre prophecy, which I called the Kingdom of Nerac.” This was the focus of a documentary about Breuer-Weil — The King of Nerac, which was shown in 2013.
It is this fictional kingdom, together with his childhood memories and family history, that has sustained his creativity to this day. Breuer-Weil sees himself not merely as a craftsman, but as a witness to world history in his lifetime.
He was born in 1965 to a father who had escaped Vienna in 1938, and a Danish mother whose father had been murdered by the Nazis. “I was born 25 years after the beginning of World War Two and I can’t help being profoundly affected by what happened. My vision of the world is coloured by that.”
His Project Series, numbering over 200 monumental canvases, is a panoramic cycle of works exploring the human condition as a whole, with a substantial section dedicated to the Holocaust.
Inspiration for the works came from witnesses to the horrors, in particular, Primo Levi and Breuer-Weil’s friend Sam Pivnik, whose testimony, Survivor, was published in 2012. His artistic influences are apocalyptic medieval and Renaissance artists, whose work envisions heaven and hell, such as Giotto, Masaccio, Michelangelo and Tintoretto. Twenty years in the making, the epic series ends this year, with images that confront the future impact of technology, space exploration and genetics.
After studying at the Central Saint Martin’s School of Art, and English at Clare College, Cambridge, Breuer-Weil worked for nine years at Sotheby’s. The father of three, who lives in Hampstead Garden Suburb, is also an art dealer and collector, with a passion for the Jewish artefacts of destroyed communities, which he calls “remnants of a lost world”.
In spite of a very busy schedule, he is committed to his daily study of the Talmud, which he says is filled with “the most tremendous imagery” of every aspect of life. He credits the Talmud with fuelling his creativity, resulting in paintings with “multiple layers of meaning and complex imagery”.
Breuer-Weil’s art constitutes “ways of philosophising about life in a visual way”. In recent years, this has culminated in a series of monumental sculptures, themed around the human body, be it through the creation of feet, a head, or the body in its entirety. Although all are colossal in size, their fragility and vulnerability is rendered through texture and context.
His four-part Emergence bronze, currently exhibited in London’s Portman Square, displays a figure emerging from under the ground. Sculpted in a rough, craggy manner to resemble rock, it recalls the origins of Adam from the earth. Across the body are marks, drawings and scribblings that attest to the scars and lessons we receive and learn throughout life.
As for the six metre tall Alien, depicting a humanoid figure crash landing head first on earth, the meaning is two-fold. Literally, the name suggests “extra-terrestrial”, metaphorically, it is something more complex, close to home: Breuer-Weil’s grandfather was labelled an “enemy alien” during the war, following his arrival to London from Vienna in 1938.
He believes that immigrants sometimes hide their true identity, as this sculpture implies.
His engagement with this theme is again linked to his fascination with the golem legend, a myth about creating a human form out of the earth and breathing life into it. “That’s a metaphor for what a sculptor does,” he observes. “He creates the semblance of a living form.”
In the latest Philosopher sculpture, composed of fragments of broken rock, human frailty is again put to the test. Says Breuer-Weil: “It is an image of endurance, a human being weathering the storm – being broken up and being reassembled.”
The sculptures in this series aptly have the names of philosophers scratched into their surfaces. In some cases, he has actually amended and personalised their famous sayings. Descartes’ “I think therefore I am,” becomes “I want therefore I am.” Indeed this statement embodies his personal mission. “I create artworks because of an instinctive daily desire to do so. Like thought, this ‘want’ seems to define reality for me.”
David Breuer-Weil’s sculptures are on display in various London venues during July and available for private sales via Christie’s.www.christies.com