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EYE FOR DETAIL
It could be argued that the collection of stamps issued for these international organisations is the most iconic part of Karl Bickel’s work. This, however, may be more thanks to the designers than the engraver. After all, in sharp contrast with his father’s work, Karl Jr rarely designed the stamps he engraved. It made him feel more like a production assistant than an artist. In an interview he once stated that the stamp designers of his time had perfected the designs for engravers so well, with every dot and line being indicated, that it basically left no room for any artistic input from the engraver.
This didn’t make Karl love his job any less though. After all, he had his private art to satisfy all of his artistic tendencies; mainly in his paintings but also in his engravings. Having been born into an engraver’s family and having been taught by his father, Karl Jr had love for sharp and minuscule details oozing from every pore. “Das kommt meiner Haut heraus”, he used to say. Karl would pick his 1972 engraving of Schönegg as one of his best works.
In 1963, to augment his income from his stamp engravings and the odd sale of his private art, Karl Bickel applied for a job at the newly opened secondary school in nearby Sargans. He managed to get a position as an art teacher and would stay with the school until his retirement. It did provide Karl and his family with financial stability but had the disadvantage of course that all his other work had to be done in the little spare time he had left.
In his early days, Karl Junior used to work in his father’s studio, using the equipment already there. But a move away from the parental house in the 1960s to Walenstadt made these arrangements more time consuming, and Karl proceeded to build his own studio next to his house. It would also incorporate a more elaborate printing facility which would benefit his stamp work. Still the dreamy introvert that his lonesome life in the mountains had made him, Karl would spend most of his spare time in there.
In his private art, Karl became more and more known for his beautiful portrait paintings. These are often regarded as his best work. Again, we find him mainly working with oil, but the odd engraved portrait exists as well. In his stamp work, too, Karl has shown he is a master at portrait engraving. He was responsible for three portrait sets issued in the 1970s, of which the 1977 Aviation Pioneers and the 1978 Celebrities sets are the most conventional. While the pioneers’ portraits may seem a little stiff, and are probably hampered by the use of various printing processes, those of the 1978 set are very well executed. The portraits of Jung and Piccard, especially, really capture the personality of the person and manage to make the portraits feel alive.
But arguably the most successful portraits engraved by Karl are those of the 1972 Swiss Celebrities set. This may be partly due to the very successful partnership with the well-known Swiss designer Hans Erni. The portraits seem to be a combination of traditional design and the specific Erni style, which is characterised by its flowing lines. The Einstein portrait, especially, is the perfect example. Karl Jr managed to feel exactly what Erni as designer was trying to accomplish and translated the design into a wonderfully engraved portrait.
Surprisingly perhaps, we find Karl’s most remarkable work among his engravings for the various Europa stamps Switzerland has issued throughout the years. The early ones are basic enough, with Karl engraving the omnibus designs for the years 1961, 1964 and 1973. By 1977, the annual Europa issues had abandoned the use of omnibus designs in favour of a central theme.
In 1977, the theme was ‘Landscapes’, and the Swiss PTT decide on two well-known scenic areas: the Jura and the Engadin. Max Müller was commissioned to engrave the Jura stamp, and Karl Bickel was asked to engrave the Engadin stamp. The set’s designer Klaus Oberli had already submitted a design, of Sils Maria, but Karl asked if it could be changed. The Engadin region, after all, was where his wife was from, where he had met her, married her and where they had lived for a while. The PTT agreed and that’s how Karl got to design his one and only postage stamp, choosing a part of Engadin, Sils Baselgia, which was close to his heart.
In 1986, the Europa stamps were designed by Hans Erni. The designer, having been extremely pleased with Karl’s work on his portrait stamps in 1972, agreed to the job on the one condition that the stamps would be engraved by Karl. Together they created two vintage Erni designs, which impressed the philatelic brotherhood so much that it won various awards, among which the Grand Prix de l’Art Philatélique of France. Erni always remained very vocal about his praise for Karl’s work. The die proofs of the two stamps show how intricate the engraving was and how much it supported the whole design.
This triumph for both Hans Erni and Karl Bickel was to be Karl’s final stamp work. A reduced demand for engraved stamps, coupled with personal tragedy and illness, meant that Karl would engrave no more stamps. He passed away at the age of 73 on 27 January 2001. With his passing ended an era of seven decades in which both father and son Bickel had dominated Swiss stamp production.
This article was originally published in Gibbons Stamp Monthly of September 2017 and is reproduced with their kind permission.
You will find Karl Bickel Junior's database HERE.