Ambassador Riedler: Encounters with Batuz

I first met Batuz – of all places! – in Asunción / Paraguay; I think it must have been in or around 1986. I was at that time the Number Two at the German Embassy; not an especially elevated position taking into account that over all we were only two diplomats there. But it was an interesting time, anyway: Paraguay, since 1954 under the continuous rule of a military dictator, el Excelentísimo Señor Presidente de la República, General de Ejército Don Alfredo Stroessner, had long been a cemetery characterised by repression and fear (of course only for those who opposed the regime). In its last years, however (Stroessner was finally ousted by a coup d’état in 1989), the regime had somehow loosened its iron grip on the society and we saw the first signs of an awakening: the press became more daring, opposition publications raised their heads and were at times quite outspoken, human rights organisations, national and international, pointed their fingers to human rights violations, external pressure mounted. At the same time, there was an unprecedented upswing of cultural activities – especially young people experimented with their talents and the new spaces they hoped to occupy for themselves.

It was in this atmosphere that Batuz one day appeared; he was on a tour through a number of South American countries and had decided that Paraguay, too, would probably be worth a visit. Gisela von Thümen, one of the directors of the German – Paraguayan Cultural Centre, had invited a number of personalities from the cultural field to her home on that occasion, and we all listened with some excitement to the strange ideas Batuz expounded. Latin America and Eastern Europe, he said, were geographically far apart, and the mentalities of their respective peoples quite different, but they had one thing in common: Historically and culturally, they had been marginalised for centuries, had been considered as a mere offspring, an object of influence, by the central cultural powers, Central and Western Europe and the United States. Of course, this was a misconception, said Batuz. Both regions had since long developed not only their own style and handwriting, but also the themes that really concerned them – instead of writing or painting for imaginary “metropolitan” audiences and tastes in Paris or New York. But while in each region there was now a vigorous art and literary scene in place, they hardly knew anything of each other. Eastern European writers were translated into English and German, but not into Spanish or Portuguese, and vice-versa: With few exceptions the works of Latin American writers were not available in Eastern European languages. And this lack of mutual knowledge was even more accentuated in the visual arts. This had to change, said Batuz, and that was why he was here this afternoon. One project he had conceived was already under way: Texts written by Eastern European authors would be illustrated by Latin American artists and vice-versa; in that way, the two worlds would meet, get acquainted with each other and become relevant for one another. – Of course we all saw the point he made, it was obvious that he was right. But looking into the faces of the Paraguayans present I wondered whether he would be able to muster much concrete support among them for his projects; they were too much preoccupied, it seemed to me, with their own problems of survival and finding a space for themselves in uncertain political surroundings – too much to be able to care for other worlds with other problems. But for me, it was the beginning of a long association, which lasts until today.

A few months later, Gisela von Thümen and I, both on holidays in Germany, visited Batuz in Schaumburg, at that time his base of operations in Germany. And there, besides the incubator of new ideas, the instigator and promoter, we encountered two other incarnations of his personality: Batuz the artist, creator of huge pictorial installations that he showed us, with their finely balanced distribution of space and colours, often with a dividing line; and Batuz the host, who liked to cook for his visitors, a great teller of stories and anecdotes, comfortably switching from the light and witty to the serious and profound; speaking – and mixing – fluently German, English, and Spanish. All these aspects, I would gradually discover, formed in equal parts his complex personality. To the exclamation of Faust: “Zwei Seelen wohnen, ach, in meiner Brust …” (Two souls dwell, alas! in my breast!), Batuz could have easily responded: “Poor chap, only two?” The astonishing thing is, however, that – although it looked at times otherwise – there were no real contradictions in these various aspects of character and activities; Batuz was and is always genuinely himself – explorative, curious, creative, unconventional, innovative.

One of the keys to the man is, of course, his biography. Born in Hungary to an established land-owning family with a fascinating father, he and his family had to leave estate and country at the end of World War II. For some time miserable refugees in Austria and Germany, they later immigrated to Argentina – by no means the end of hardship for the young man Batuz had become by then. He soon detected his artistic talents, but no academies, no scholarships helped him in the way of his formation; by and large he was a self-taught and a self-made man, but in a rather uncommon sense of that term: His primary goal was not to become rich, but to achieve perfection – as he himself understood it. And this included not only mastering the necessary technical skills for his works of art, but also acquiring what he considered the cultural framework of art – and of life itself: Batuz had always been an avid reader not only of literature, but also of philosophy and history – and he continued to be that all of his life. The road he took was long and stony, full of deceptions and frustrations, but success and recognition finally came. In the meantime, he had moved from Argentina to the United States.

But then, after years of growing success, a strange thing happened: Instead of enjoying fame, respectability and – why not name it? – material affluence, Batuz left his atelier, home and family and hit the road again. He stopped painting altogether and started working for the realisation of the ideas he had formed over the years: to actively contribute to a world less divided and fragmented, more attracted to the conditions for peace. We get now to the Batuz I had met in Asunción: the indefatigable promoter of bringing people together who would otherwise never meet, of building bridges, closing gaps, reconciling contradictions, surmounting insurmountable obstacles, overcoming the limitations of categories and disciplines, transcending the conventional wisdom of “what goes” and what doesn’t.

This is not the place to list the multitude of programmes and projects Batuz set in motion in the years that followed, but I would like to name at least some of the emblematic headlines which mark the framework of his activities: Correspondence, Société imaginaire, Helmets for peace, no más fronteras, borderless. It is equally impressive to look at some of the places where his projects were enacted: Germany, Uruguay, Afghanistan, the Antarctic (!!!), the borders between Germany and Poland, Uruguay and Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. Important addressees of his projects were, of course, artists; unforgotten – and unforgettable – the workshops in Altzella / Saxony, where Batuz created a centre for the formation of young artists and at the same time a meeting place where young people, often from places afflicted by conflicts (he brought together Argentines and Falklanders, Israelis and Palestinians), would live, work and talk with each other. The former Minister President of Saxony, Kurt Biedenkopf, recognized the brilliance of those ideas and also their value for Saxony as the place where they came to fruition, and he supported Batuz wholeheartedly; but his successor, Georg Milbradt, Minister President since 2002, wanted above all to step out of the long shadow Biedenkopf had cast (although both belonged to the same political party) and thought kicking Batuz out of Altzella would make a difference. What a loss for everybody! Despite many interventions in favour of a continued presence of Batuz and his workshops, Milbradt would stick to his decision. – It was also during his stay in Saxony that Batuz established first contacts with the German Armed Forces (Bundeswehr) which gave rise to a spectacular project: German and Polish soldiers created a living picture in the middle of the river Neisse that marks part of the borders – during the Cold War a dangerous border! – between Germany and Poland. The Neisse Project in turn led – with the active support of the former Inspector General (Generalinspekteur) of the Bundeswehr, General Hans Peter von Kirchbach – to the monumental piece of art “Helmets for Peace” which will be exhibited permanently at the Military Museum in Dresden. Another outflow of his cooperation with the armed forces was that Batuz became more acutely aware of the importance of UN peace-keeping missions world-wide – to the extent that he helped create a network of former peace-keepers with the idea that they should stay in contact after the end of their mission – beyond the confinement to the national contingents from which they originally came.

Since our first encounter almost 30 years ago, the contacts between Batuz and me have never really ceased. Of course, their frequency and intensity depended largely on our respective whereabouts as we both cultivated a certain nomadism in our movements. Batuz was a frequent visitor when I was working in the cultural department of the German Foreign Office in Bonn (which supported a number of his projects), and I visited him among other places in Altzella and Chemnitz. But we also met in Athens and Montevideo – memorable events, usually with lots of red wine and long discussions. In all these years, his various projects and other activities (happily, Batuz has restarted his artistic work a few years ago, not only “Helmets for Peace” which I already mentioned), but also his life as such have fused gradually into something I would like to call a Gesamtkunstwerk, a coherent, all-inclusive “piece of art” (“art” in its broadest possible sense), where the various parts influence, even determine each other in a very specific kind of interdependence.

Although it is difficult to assess the long-term impact of what Batuz has done so far, it is safe to come already now to the some conclusions:

  • Batuz has proven what creativity combined with single-mindedness, strong willpower (some would probably call it stubbornness) and determination can achieve.
  • He has shown the value of personal relations (as contrasted to institutional dealings).
  • Art can be a vehicle for change – perhaps sometimes more so than merely politics or economics.
  • To live in peace, we have to emphasize what unites us – against all those well-established tendencies for division, segregation, discrimination, and exclusion.
  • We have to go one step back to see – and understand – all the interrelations, interdependencies, cross-over connections that exist between fields of no obvious common context. Only fresh, unorthodox approaches can help overcome deeply grounded stalemates.

The Gesamtkunstwerk to which I referred to above is not yet completed, so we need Batuz around still for many years to come. He has always felt he has a mission – and he is completely right at that. As for myself, I am glad to have accompanied him at times.

Erich Riedler
Former German Ambassador in
Bolivia, New Zealand and Panama