Pablo Picasso famously said, “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once you grow up.”
Dietmar Lederwasch seems to have the solution to that problem.
Lederwasch is not only an artist, he is also passionate about comic books and characters. He may have grey hair, but the 64-year-old has an infectious child-like enthusiasm for, and curiosity about, everything in life, especially the fun and beautiful things.
He even has a comic and pop culture shop in Newcastle West, Hunters for Collectors.
But for Lederwasch, comics are not a living; they’re a central part of his life, and they have been since he was four years old.
“I still remember the occasion,” he enthuses. “I was with Mum in a newsagent’s in High Street, Maitland, I opened this comic, and I couldn’t believe the world in there. I’ve been in love with comics ever since.”
Leading young Dietmar into this new world of colour and adventure was The Phantom.
In turn, Lederwasch has taken The Phantom with him through life. The purple-costumed crime-fighter is truly the Man Who Cannot Die in Lederwasch’s eyes.
And The Phantom is different from all those other guys and girls in masks fighting evil and saving the world.
“In America, you’ve got that hyped image of superheroes, but The Phantom is a quiet guy, doing his job, saving people,” explains Lederwasch.
The Phantom strode into the world in a newspaper comic strip in 1936. The comic is still published in more than 500 newspapers around the world, including the Herald.
Dietmar Lederwasch has helped guide The Phantom off the pages of newspapers and onto art gallery walls. He is the co-curator of a touring exhibition, The Phantom Show.
A work of art in itself, the comic strip has been a muse for more than 50 artists for the show.
Lederwasch has curated the exhibition with acclaimed Sydney artist and fellow Phantom fan Peter Kingston.
“He’s always so comprehensively calm and virtuous,” says Kingston of what he admires about The Phantom.
Since the 1970s, The Phantom has been appearing in Kingston’s art, from portraits in paintings to sculpted chess pieces. He has even occasionally dressed up as The Phantom, posing for other artists and starring in a short film he produced, Fanta, in which the masked hero rescues a damsel, played by Kingston’s neighbour, Wendy Whiteley. And he still reads The Phantom comics.
“I just find it relaxing to read The Phantom,” he reasons. “And the drawings are magnificent.”
It was inevitable when Lederwasch and Kingston met in 1999, they quickly discovered a shared love of the comic book hero, “and we’ve both been talking about The Phantom ever since”, says Dietmar.
More than talk about it, in 2014, the pair shaped their comic book passion into the art exhibition, taking The Phantom out of the skull cave and into a Sydney gallery.
“We were approached by galleries up and down the coast,” Kingston said. So The Ghost Who Walks, or at least the representations of him, hit the road, and the exhibition has been touring ever since. Now The Phantom has reached Newcastle. More to the point, he has returned.
Among the first exhibitions held in the gallery’s current building after it was officially opened in 1977 was a Phantom exhibition. It featured a posse of prominent young artists at the time, including Peter Kingston.
“I didn’t even get up to Newcastle for that show,” Kingston exclaims, quickly adding he will be attending this exhibition.
This show, according to the gallery’s manager Lauretta Morton, is a 40th anniversary present for Newcastle.
“It’s something fun,” she says. “It’s a great community show.”
WHEN I meet with Dietmar Lederwasch just a few days before the exhibition’s official opening, he is helping hang the works in the upstairs space at Newcastle Art Gallery.
The sheer number of what has to be displayed and put in order looks as though it will require super powers to have the show ready on time. There are more than 200 images and items in the exhibition.
“It’s going to be the world’s biggest Phantom art collection ever,!” declares Lederwasch.
If it is not the biggest, then it is possibly the most diverse Phantom art exhibition ever. There is amusing Phantom, erotic Phantom, political statement Phantom, martyr Phantom, Opera House tourist Phantom, Francis Bacon Phantom, ceramic Phantoms, Phantom on a ukulele; for such an instantly recognisable figure, he has been the touchstone for an extraordinary array of interpretations and meanings.
“It’s an opportunity to explore the different avenues of art,” says Lederwasch. He concedes a few of the items look kitsch, perhaps even parodying The Phantom, but “that’s part of the fun”.
“A lot of the pieces are tongue-in-cheek, but that doesn’t eliminate them from being art,” he says. “If the elements are right, it’s beautiful art.”
This exhibition is intensely personal on multiple levels for Lederwasch. It includes a series of his linocuts that feature Phantom characters in Newcastle, so comic book heroes team up with local icons, like Nobbys.
In other works, Lederwasch can see himself. He points to a large painting by Euan Macleod, Father of the Phantom, which features a kneeling figure holding a skull.
“That’s me,” Lederwasch murmurs, explaining the artist asked him to pose when he commissioned the painting. Macleod’s image is but one of The Phantom-related artworks Lederwasch owns. I ask how many he has.
“I don’t have the faintest idea,” he replies. Dozens? “Probably.”
Ownership and acquisition aren’t important to Lederwasch; belonging and connection are.
I opened this comic, and I couldn’t believe the world in there. I’ve been in love with comics ever since.Dietmar Lederwasch
Which is perhaps why he can also see family in the exhibits. In a Paul Newton painting, a boy is reading, with a Phantom mural behind him. It’s Lederwasch’s son, Louis, who was eight when the work was painted 20 years ago. Work by Lederwasch’s daughter Aleta (“named after Prince Valiant’s wife”) is also in the exhibition.
Actually, he sees family in many of the paintings. For Lederwasch considers the Newcastle art community family, and it is well-represented in this leg of the tour.
“This is my hometown, so I made sure to get in touch with artists whose work I really like, and they all agreed,” he explains. Fourteen local artists are featured, including Michael Bell, Lezlie Tilley, Dino Consalvo and James Drinkwater.
One of the most dynamic young visual interpreters of the Australian landscape and its soul, Drinkwater admits he’s no “comic buff”. Rather, the hero for him in this exhibition is not The Phantom but Dietmar Lederwasch himself.
“I’ve known him since I was a boy,” explains Drinkwater. “I used to go drawing with Dietmar and Aleta at Ron Hartree’s art school. He was kind of an enigma; this man who drew, who had a comic shop, he was different to other dads! I admired and witnessed his consumption and passion [for art and comics], so my painting is about how all of that ricocheted back into my life.”
Drinkwater has created an intense and lyrical painting,The Phantom as a Child, but what frames it is his respect for Lederwasch. Being in the show, the artist says, is “a good way to acknowledge and pay tribute to a committed, persistent and devoted man”.
Lederwasch has called upon those qualities to collate this exhibition, and to continue pursuing his art. For unlike The Phantom, Lederwasch has had to confront the fact that he, and all of us, are fragile and mortal. Just before Christmas, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
“It was my Christmas present,” he smiles wryly. “It makes everything take twice as long.”
Yet living with Parkinson’s hasn’t diminished his passion for this show, for The Phantom, for art, and for life. If anything, it has only increased it.
The old jungle saying may be, “When Phantom moves, time stands still”, but Lederwasch experiences the same sensation whenever he is in the presence of something or someone he loves.
“I’m one of those people who when they fall in love, it’s for life,” he says. “Everything I treasured as a child, I treasure now.”