Karl Prantl was born in 1923 in Pöttsching, in the eastern Austrian province of Burgenland. After returning from the war, he studied painting with Albert Paris Gütersloh and drawing with Herbert Boeckl at the Academy for fine Arts ‘Schillerplatz’ in Vienna, not sculpture. Nevertheless, Karl Prantl began his first sculptural work in 1950, resulting in large sculptures out of linden wood, as well as a number of smaller works. He joined the artist group "Der Kreis" and travelled to Rome and Greece on art scholarships of the federal art fund of Austria in the following years.
In 1958, he was commissioned by the regional government of Burgenland to create a sculpture “Grenzstein”, a geometrically shaped landmark (260 x 220 x 80 cm) which was erected on the Austro-Hungarian border on the highway Vienna/Budapest near Nickelsdorf. Through an open geometric form, the world joins in on both sides of the border. As a model, he used "Sign I" (35 x 34 x 14 cm) a small sandstone sculpture from 1952.
This is an exception as he created all his later works directly from stone without prior drawing or modelling schemes. The “Grenzstein” was created in the unique atmosphere of the ancient Roman stone quarry of St. Margarethen, where Prantl discovered that working in the open air has an impact on the process of sculpting itself, different to the conditions in a studio setting. ‘…the encounter with stone material in the open landscape fosters a different experience: you are aware of the trees, the grass, the moss and the clouds…’ (Hartmann 1988, p. 121)
With the idea to enable other sculptor colleagues to join the work at the quarry as well, he became the initiator and Spiritus Rector of the sculpture symposia movement that has spread worldwide up to this day. It has contributed significantly to the renewal of stone carving as a means to foster new abstract art language ie. Land Art movement. In 1959, at the invitation of Karl Prantl, eleven sculptors from eight countries came to the quarry in St. Margarethen to work there jointly during the summer. Prantl had succeeded together with the sculptor Heinrich Deutsch and the psychologist Dr. med. Friedrich Czagan, through enthusiastic negotiation with government and administration to obtain permission to work independently in the quarry and to find sponsors.
Up until 1977 symposia were held annually, all of which took place around the quarry. The sculptors founded the association "Symposion Europäischer Bildhauer (SEB) Symposionof European Sculptors, St. Margarethen", for which Karl Prantl served as a chairman for many years until his death in 2010. Thus, his concern was always about the large art- and nature sanctuary, which exhibits now 47 stones from international sculptors around the world. (Around 150 sculptures have been created within the context of SEB). ‘The stones should stay where they were created and be there for all people...’ Prantl said.
No longer restricted by rituals, academic regulations, figurative pictorial representations, marked by the experiences of a gruesome war and the deprivation of liberty both spiritually and physically, a sign emerged for the creative power of common action, for the reconciliation and understanding of people with the help of art. Thus, the biography of an entire human life, which must be highly acknowledged with sympathy and respect, connects with every single stone. The idea of freedom becomes constitutive for his work. ‘Thinking to us sculptors ourselves, we were released through the experiences of St. Margarethen, by walking out into the open space - in the quarry, on the meadows. It was about this liberation or free, unconditioned thinking in a very broad sense. For us sculptors, the stone is the means to come to this “Freidenken” - the release of many constraints, narrowness and taboos.’ (Hartmann 1988, p. 121)
This was followed by participation at symposia in the coming decades in the Negev desert of Israel, in America, Japan, or India, recurring in St. Margarethen and many other places in Austria and Germany. I will only refer to his participation in the local symposia in Merzig and St. Wendel. At any rate, he did not follow the call for a professorship in Munich nor a prestigious teaching post in Vienna when Fritz Wotruba had died, so that he could continue to devote himself to the symposia undisturbed.
Among them were those which, in addition to the creative-artistic dimension, are clearly also taking a political or a religious one. For instance, the spontaneous symposium held after the erection of the Berlin Wall ‘in order to oppose the dividing wall of violence with the unifying human message of the sculptors who worked near the Wall at the ‘Platz der Republik’ Republic Square and erected their stones there.’ Prantl created a ‘Stele for invocation’. The rough, wavy surface of the limestone shows on the side-surfaces the visible traces of breaking out the stone – a painful wound, as it was also inflicted on the city of Berlin? However, through three cylindrical openings, the bright daylight penetrates into the dark interior of the stone like a desire for enlightenment.
At the symposium next to the former concentration camp Mauthausen there is a more than six meter high, slender ‘granite for meditation’. Three rows of convex circles of different sizes rise - densely packed next to each other and connect with the firmament. Since the Symposium Urbanum in Nuremberg in 1971, Prantl dealt with the stones of the "Great Marching Road" on the former Nazi Party Rally Grounds. Prantl saw in the stones testimonies of human labour, human suffering and fate. He noticed such traces and discovered the beauty and quality of the stone material beneath the seemingly similar grey and monotonous surface. Twenty years later, he added fourteen of these 120 cm square pieces to the “Way of the Cross”, which was let into the ground next to the St. Lawrence church in the city centre of Nuremberg.
Several times Prantl received commissions for the interior design of churches, perhaps the most public and at the same time the most sheltered space of all. In 1967, for the parish church in Wernstein, Upper Austria, he created the altar, tabernacle, baptismal font and the tomb of Alfred Kubin, 1994 a stone altar for the Leechkirche, the most ancient church in Graz. For the Heiligenkreuzkirche in Langholzfeld near Linz, he sculptured the altar, tabernacle, ambo, baptismal font and a crossroads of fourteen stone plates put within the ground. He also positioned a “Way of the Cross” in the ground of the church in Sargenzell thus emphasizing the path character, not the individual stations. When he assembled the plates in Bentheim at the Frenswegen Abbey into a 33 m long path, which is accompanied by a lime wood grove, he does not see the individual stones only as stations on the path of suffering of a human being but addresses the interface of the vastness of landscape and natural space continuing into eternity. Thus, in the landscape garden of the Lenz-Schönberg Collection in Tyrol since the 1980s, there is also a “Way of the Cross”.
Prantl created also many great works independent of symposia or ecclesiastical contexts. Only a small excerpt will be mentioned here: A long recumbent marble block accompanies a Viennese street in front of the University of Vienna, school of law. The rows of hilly concavities on the side edges and in the middle of the side surfaces, analogous to the flow of traffic, produce the effect of a constant movement even in the perspective diminution. An almost square block of red Russian granite lies as a welcoming table under the trees on the campus at the University of Gießen. Its surface shows a relievo of carefully modelled rectangles, which disappear in perspective in all directions. A strict block, an all-round square cuboid with rounded edges from the Norwegian Labrador stands in the sculpture garden of the city of Nuremberg. The shiny polished surface shimmers like a polished gemstone, giving the stone an almost floating lightness. Its grain, its veins evoke a varied pattern, the colour fluctuates between blue-green and bluish white. The "eyes" in the stone, his indestructible, look at the beholder, as Prantl says, asking him to immerse himself in the stone, to feel it like a landscape which harmonises with the generous expanse of the garden, the tree, the grass and the architecture of the moat.
Since 1978, after returning from New York, Karl Prantl lived in his parents' house in Pöttsching in Burgenland. A few streets away, he built his own studio on a field, where he was gathering his stones since 1986. The "Pöttschinger Feld" is Prantl's very personal sculpture garden in which he lived and worked, observing and perceiving his stones, embracing them, feeling their density, conducting his daily dialogue with them and, of course, explaining them to visitors. ‘We have a long field, and there are the stones among cherry trees. That is our work. Some stones positioned to the ground for good; they will take root there, hopefully - but there is no finality in these things. Out there, we go for a walk - sometimes in the morning at sunrise, or in the evening. For the visitors the experience of these stones among the growing processes, which the farmers provide for us, is evidently enjoyable. The landscape changes with the temperature, it looks bright green in the spring, then it turns yellow, now it is brown, then only the branches are there. "(Prantl, Interview 7, 1999, p. 11)
Prantl has carefully planted on his strip of land, which extends a few hundred meters in the length, tree-lined avenues, demarcated it with hedges and bushes, cherry and walnut trees and created particular spaces for various stones. They enter into a dialogue with the fields, the trees, the clouds. The wind sweeps over them, the light plays around them. Here Prantl found his comparative playground to explain his approach to the curious unknown. Just like a nut matures in the course of a summer, it then has to be opened and broken up to discover the core, he also gently laid his stones free to show their inside, which has grown in millennia.
No work is like the other, although Prantl varied certain themes and types more often. "Sign", "Way of the Cross", many of his stones he called "invocations", other "meditations"; each one is still unique. The variety, the richness and the beauty of his stones arise from the wonder and humility of the incomprehensibility of creation, based on the seriousness of the stone, its peculiarities, its structure and its colour. Prantl repeatedly pointed out in conversation: the stone is ancient: he comes first in the story of creation, then the tree and then the animal, and finally the human being who must be the first to leave the world again. Thus, for Prantl the stone is a living being, born of earth and returning in decay once again. Its interior originated from deposits, fractures, compressed printing and merging processes. The sculptor Prantl hears and discovers the language, the intrinsic life of the stone, its composition, colour, inclusion, distortion by looking and feeling patiently - touching and caressing it in order to make it visible to himself and to others through careful processing. There are stereometrically shaped stones - towering, standing, lying - rings, spheres, plates and there are the self-contained blocks that are not subject to any cubic dictates.
In many stones the traces of the break are preserved, in others the surfaces are carefully polished until they cover the stone like a skin and can shine the colours of the stone: the bluish gray of the labrador, the red or black of a granite, the green of a serpentine or amazonit, the white of a marble. Veins, inclusions, eyes become visible through the grinding process. Cylindrical openings point into the dark interior. Prantl gently traces the movements of the stone, its swellings and indentations. Troughs, cusps, grooves and again the rows of elevations - pearl necklaces alike, often addressed as rosary, - divide the stones, accentuating rhythm, proscribing certain shapes. In Prantl’s work, the inner life of the stone also connects with the experience of the human body. It flows in the rise of vertical spinal cords, in the propagation of horizontals, in the opening up of concaves.
His first stone created in the context of the symposion in St. Margarethen in 1959, chiselled Prantl from sand-limestone: "Five Invocations", a 330 cm high, slightly tapered upward towering block with five cylindrical openings in its center. The viewer experiences a growing higher view, in the changing synopsis of openings. The viewer sees a strictly closed, slender, towering meditation stone of 1985-91 in a gray-toned dense status…
Norwegian labrador, gently rounded at the edges. The sides are strictly closed, but from the front and back, if you can call them that, the vertical chains of twenty-two hemispheres bulge out. In the changing light, they cast their shadows on the shiny, polished stone skin, similar to a reflecting surface of water, and complete themselves into balls. When the observer sinks, he looks into the glittering eyes of the stone like into the expanse of a star firm.
Prantl's stones are never arbitrary. They stimulate to look and to think, "meditation", which Prantl prefers for his stones, used exclusively in the last works, means mutually encouraging and intensifying thinking and looking. As I have already said, Prantl's stones are born out of amazement and humility celebrating the beauty and fullness of nature. They let the viewer participate in this wonderment. Poets have put it into words as Friederike Mayröcker wrote: "jumped out of a stone, out of a kinship sky", musicians converted into sounds. Friedrich Cerha dedicates his orchestral piece "Monumentum" to him and composes "Ein Stück für K."
Prantl has received several awards. As early as 1968 he was awarded the Vienna Sculptor Prize, and the Austrian Biennale Pavillon Venice 1986 exclusively showed his work. He is a member of the Vienna and Munich Academy of Arts. His work is shown in galleries and museums around the world, where it in Ambras Castle Park, Innsbruck or at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and large private collections such as the Lannan Foundatin in Palm Beach, Florida...
Karl Prantl tells of a text that he found in Ingeborg Bachmann writings, where she speaks of three preserved stone messages: one red, one blue and one white stone. The first, the red stone, asks to live in wonderment - the second, blue stone, to write in amazement, or, in Prantl's case, to sculpt in amazement. Here at this stage he is still before the reach of the third message, the white stone: marvelling over, separating from…
Speech on the occasion of the Sparda Bank Prize to Karl Prantl for special achievements of public art in the Electoral Palace Mainz on 3rd of May 2007