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From Popeye to Female Form : Ex-Animator's Colorful Nudes Jolt Some Retirement Home Neighbors

August 06, 1987|MIKE WYMA | Wyma is a Toluca Lake free-lance writer.

Eddie Rehberg, the 77-year-old Andrew Wyeth of a retirement home in Canoga Park, said it was his painting of a woman that caused the biggest stir among the home's more strait-laced residents.

In it, a young blonde reclines on a sofa, wearing only a silver bracelet, a long, beaded necklace and a jaded expression.

On the walls near her, indeed, around the entire recreation room at Topanga Retirement Living, are three dozen more paintings, mostly of unclothed women.

All were done by Rehberg, who, like the 70-year-old Wyeth, turned in his later years to painting nudes. And, like the "Helga" series by America's most popular realist painter, Rehberg's work shocked a few people when it appeared.

"Two of the residents, when they saw it, made the sign of the cross," said John Olaco, activities director of the home where Rehberg lives.

"One of them tried to cover it up."

But most of the home's 94 residents, said Olaco, "made it out as art."

Marvin Sacks, administrator of the home, agreed.

"We had close to 50 people at the exhibition," he said. "That's a pretty good turnout for something that requires intellectual interest."

Rehberg's recent one-day exhibition featured a ribbon-cutting, flowers and champagne. Using a pool cue as a pointer, the artist gave a brief history of each work--when it was painted, who modeled, and what the theme was. Most of the paintings have stayed in the recreation room in the weeks since, including the nude blonde.

Rehberg retired about 10 years ago from a career as an animator and animation director. He said he has worked for more companies and on more cartoons than he can recall.

The companies include Terrytoons, Hanna Barbera, Filmation, Paramount and Warners. Among the Saturday morning shows Rehberg lent his talent to are Popeye, the Pink Panther, Hot Wheels and Scooby-Doo. He also drew the penguin in Kool cigarette's TV commercials and worked on Walt Disney's 1939 movie "Gulliver's Travels."

Alex Lovy, who produces "The Flintstones" and "The Jetsons" for Hanna Barbera, remembered Rehberg as "one of the top animators in the business."

Until February, Rehberg had been living on his own, enjoying retirement and doing lots of painting. Then an intestinal operation knocked him for a loop. A slow recovery from the operation forced him to give up his apartment in Sylmar.

Adjusting to life in a rest home has not been easy for Rehberg. Painting, he says, helps.

"My talent keeps me from going bananas," Rehberg said. "I see so many people who just sit there staring out into space, or get so interested in what they eat that they complain all the time. They don't occupy themselves with writing or painting."

Rehberg's daughter, Lori, a 24-year-old commercial artist, calls her father's artistic style "realism with surrealistic colors."

Rehberg claims Vermeer, Seurat and Degas as his influences.

"I had a hard time with the nudes when I was young," Lori said.

"The ones in the classical style never bothered me, but the surreal ones did. He had one of a caterpillar attacking a woman. It was really weird."

One surrealistic painting in Rehberg's recent exhibit showed a giant African woman nursing two elephants, with an African setting in the background. Rehberg said his inspiration came from mixing creation myths with stories of anthropologist Louis Leakey's discoveries about early man.

Another painting was of Circe, the sorceress of Greek mythology who turned Odysseus' companions into pigs. Rehberg has Circe standing naked on a stump while blue, orange and purple pigs walk nearby. He said he made the pigs blue, orange and purple because it seemed like a good idea.

Nude models were never hard to find, Rehberg said.

"They were usually women I already knew. They'd seen my paintings. I didn't just go up to people on the street."

His daughter said that, as a rule, the models settled for the promise of payment if the painting ever sold. Most are still waiting.

Animals Sell

"He has sold a lot of animal paintings, but not as many nudes," she said. "Some of the models were waitresses, just people he met, but some of them were professional models. Two were centerfolds, one in Penthouse and one in Playboy."

Rehberg said he is not attracted by nudity itself, but to the difficulties it presents an artist. He pointed to the painting of the reclining blonde, whom he envisioned as a world-weary prostitute.

"The way the bracelet stands away from her wrist, her weight on the couch, the heaviness of her necklace, those things were the challenge," he said. "It's the illusion of dimension and space that I'm after."

Lori agreed.

"At first, some people think he's a lecher, but they get to know him and see that he's not. He's just, oh, different."

Rehberg might be ready to abandon the nudes anyway. His most recent painting is of an old woman crocheting--fully clothed.

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