Werner R. Plangg was born in Zurich, Switzerland in November 1933. At an early age, he began to show his love for nature in pencil sketches, rough clay sculptures and paintings. At the age of five he and his family moved to the countryside of Lake Zurich and this prompted Werner's precocious interest in animals and nature.
He took his art training at the School of Fine Arts in Zurich and received full scholarship for all courses. He excelled in the fields of anatomy, medical illustration and scientific drawing. After his graduation, he spent a few years traveling in Europe, and studied under W.D. Mattman in Zurich and also in Paris.
In 1956, he emigrated to Canada and after working at Sunshine Village ski resort in Alberta, he made Calgary his home. Being so close to the mountains, his interest in painting animals grew even stronger. In 1957, he started as an artist and art director in a Calgary advertising agency.
In 1966, he started painting full time and by that time he had accumulated a lot of his own art in different media and subjects from animals to surrealism. Through his quiet but intense studies of animals and through the vast number of drawings, he at least felt he could contribute to giving these great wild animals the appreciation they deserve.
In 1966, he was invited to exhibit his seven paintings at the opening of the new wing of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center and the Whitney Museum of Western art, in Cody, Wyoming. He was invited by Dr. Harold McCracken, a well known writer of western history and art, and was the only Canadian artist represented.
In 1969, he was invited to become a member of the Society of Animal Artists. He also became a member of the Grand Central Galleries of New York. In 1970, he was invited to become a member of the Alberta Society of Artists-A.S.A. and also the Western Canadian Institute of Artists-W.C.I.A.
Werner was not only a painter and sculptor but also a courageous mountaineer and avid hiker, tracking wild animals beyond the timberline. He was a unique person with a healthy dose of humor. He would say: " When I get to a spot where my wallet is hanging over the edge of a cliff, I figure that is far enough-and he smiled. He studied big animals so extensively, he knew what they are likely to do under any circumstances. He loved climbing, respecting the animals in their natural habitat.
In 1969, David Thompson wrote an article in the Calgary Herald under the title: "Young Calgary Artist Honored by Wyoming". Therein he wrote: "Werner made latex castings of animal limbs-dead types, and produced piles of sketches from which the oil paintings grow. Frankly, the vitality of hs sketches gets diluted along the way. It shows in his latest oils, which are not yet completed. The mountains develop their genuine inhuman scale and the depths become bottomless and cold. His animals are totally accurate and worthwhile. It is very difficult to show them in all their glory when this is, after all, your main interest and also put them into a real background where they do not appear like sore thumbs. Mr. Plangg is very aware of this problem and is fully involved in the process. Whether this emphasis on the total composition instead of merely the animal is of major importance, may be debatable to some. But if the animal study was the prime factor, then his exciting sketches would fill the bill. Obviously, Mr. Plangg considers the total picture. We wish him luck with his Wyoming exhibition."
In his paintings, Werner's aim was to achieve a unified picture in which all elements are important, the landscape and the animals. He strongly believed in drawings from life, either in the wilderness of the mountains or at the Calgary Zoo.
He demanded a great deal of himself, both in accurate detailed studies and sketches of high quality. These personal attributes added to the reason that his paintings and sculptures are so readily admired by art lovers and collectors.
In words of Werner: "I want people to be able to walk right into my paintings and feel as if they have been there before. Like me, I am right there in the silence of the nature. I can feel the air and live in it, and my wish is to pass the same feelings to others."
Werner painted only a limited number of canvases each year because he studied animals in their natural habitat and their habits in relation to the vegetation and seasonal changes.
It was not surprising to find nature in his studio in the form of parts of trees, stones, tree stumps, clumps of grass and various animal bones. He strongly believed in drawing from life because, no matter how skillful an artist is with oil paint, he will not achieve the best result unless he can draw well. He was also open to criticism and felt there is much more than he could accomplish, always aiming at a higher level of artistic expression.
Always self-critical, he had to be forced away from a finished work. When a picture did not come up to his high standard, he abandonned it and started from scratch. He believed in an artist moving slowly and surely towards achievement. He would say that success will naturally follow if an artist develops his talent to a worthwhile degree.
Werner did not paint from pictures, he observed the big game in natural, undisturbed surroundings and made many sketches on the spot. He made dozens of drawings before he painted. He drove up to the Banff and Canmore area at least three times a week and sometimes became very discouraged but continued in his mission to master the art of animal painting. He was happiest when roaming the remote high country where hunting is almost nil, civilization is forgotten and game may be eternally wild and plentiful.
The Art Department of the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta, houses one oil painting, titled Canada North, Two Muskox On The Ledge. There are also two etchings titled Caribou Head and Trees With A Brook. One dry point drawing from 1973 titled Dear Mom. One bronze of Swan Hill Grizzly Bear was donated to the Museum by studio West Ltd., Foundry and Art Gallery in Cochrance, Alberta.
The above collection leads to the conclusion that Werner was not only an animal painter. He excelled in painting wild animals in the high country but also drew fine pictures telling a story. His drawing skills related to the period of commercial art and medical illustration. He perfected his skills in accurate renditions of detail of animal and human physique. His sense of humor combined with a vivid imagination produced unusual drawings, which are complex and carry a flavor of satirical criticism.
One such drawings depicts a busy street in Europe with old houses, a horse with carriage and people of various shapes and expressions, busy in daily activities. Another is of a shoemaker, showing a man sitting at the table full of implements and gadgets. A third called Dear Mom is more symbolic and highly complex, telling the story of settlers with wagon, invading the West, bringing in junk and leaving behind garbage. In these drawings, the skilled illustrator tells stories with a critical eye and sense of humor, as the subjective artistic interpretation.
Clipping files of the Glenbow Museum, Calgary
Written and submitted by Rudolf Kincel, Ph.D.