Hidden Leighton: Volker Hermes Reimagined Historical Paintings
The contemporary artist looks to Leighton’s A Noble Lady of Venice for the latest in his series of Hidden Portraits.
From Tudor to Rococo, and Victorian Aestheticism to the Young Poland movement, Volker Hermes masked court of ‘Hidden Portraits’ reinterpret historical paintings through a modern lens. The series, which predates the Covid 19 pandemic, struck a particularly poignant chord during the height of Coronavirus and became a serious voice in contemporary art, engaging in the contextualization of historical painting in its own unique way.
Now, pulling a veil over Frederic Leighton’s A Noble Lady of Venice (c.1865), here we speak to the artist about his inspirations, interpretations and the future.
Tell us about you and what first sparked the inspiration for your series of Hidden Portraits?
I'm a visual artist and studied painting at the Academy of Art in Duesseldorf. A few years after my graduation, however, I began to think about my ‘predecessors’ in painting. In which tradition do I stand and how are the paintings of history seen today? As a contemporary painter, we assume that the codes and allusions of our time, which we use in our works, will be understood forever. But the historical paintings were also contemporary in their time and we no longer understand all of the elements within them.
Especially with portraits, our approach has been narrowed to focus mainly on the face. I wanted to work with that thought. And since I didn't want to paint in a way that copied the old masters, I decided to pursue image processing. In my works, I block the viewers usual focus on the face by covering it and so, open up a completely new perspective when viewing portraits.
Out of all of Leighton’s artworks, what drew you to ‘A Noble Lady of Venice’?
I do a lot of research in online archives and choose the works very intuitively. Lately, I've been working with some 19th-century portraits and at one point Frederic Leighton's A Noble Lady of Venice (c.1865) accidentally showed up. I immediately loved the painted surfaces but didn't understand it right away. I felt instinctively that this work was more of a metaphor, rather than a biographical depiction of a particular woman. Or at least I suspected something like that and was very curious. And curiosity is always a good start for art.
How long did this particular work take you and can you explain your process?
The way I approach my Hidden Portraits is to take individual elements from the original paintings and reinterpret them through image editing into new contexts. I do not add anything from outside of the original work and my final reinterpretation should fit plausibly into the original. As with A Noble Lady of Venice all of this can take some time, as there are many details rearrange.
My work is also often the result of intensive research. Since the Hidden Portraits are always a very personal journey for me, I rarely approach the museums directly to have the portraits explained. Rather, I look for contacts from different backgrounds, ask them what they think, and thus get a polyphonic picture, which I combine with my own thoughts. Here, Dr. Daniela Antonin from the Hetjens Museum in Düsseldorf (for ceramics and porcelain) and Silke Büchel from the German Textile Museum in Krefeld were incredibly helpful and have significantly widened my horizons for this work and in terms of cultural history.
Having spent so much time closely inspecting Leighton’s painting, are there any details in the artwork that you particularly like?
I have a very intense relationship with most of my "adopted" paintings, because I zoom in and study them so deeply. Here, I was particularly touched by Leighton's many small brushstrokes of white paint on her cape, all around the golden patterns. It makes the surface slightly vibrate and I almost felt his brush touching the canvas. It always reminds me that a person, a fellow artist, created this painting. I find that very emotional.
Can you tell us more about your addition of the ribbon in the artwork?
I incorporated ribbons as a tool in my Hidden Portraits some time ago. The eyes of the viewer follow these ribbons, which allows me to create a tour through the painting. I guide the eyes to important elements, sometimes tying details together to re-evaluate a relationship. Or, as with Leighton’s A Noble Lady of Venice, I place details of the cape within the ribbon (chrysanthemums, pomegranates, acanthus) which are from my point of view allusions to distant countries.
For all their didactic function, these ribbons are also dynamic figures in themselves. Sometimes I let them lead out of the painting, which expands the canvas, and quite intuitively you feel that it is not just a particular painting, but also a symbol of a time.
Pictured above: Volker Hermes 'Hidden Bouguereau' (2022), 'Hidden van Lerius' (2022) and 'Hidden Leighton' (2022)
What did you discover during your research about Leighton’s artwork?
My work spans a very long period of art history and I encounter the most diverse artistic personalities. Maniacs and nerds, politically ambitious or vain artists. Melancholic, crazy, chaotic, dreamy or revolutionary.
And there are artists who build their own world, as a unique invention out of everything they observe and appreciate in the rest of the world and in history. I'm not a Leighton expert, but I think he was such an artist, which you can see in his house. I think preserving houses like Leighton House is very important because they tell us so much about the world that the artist built around themselves, and ultimately why they created such unique art.
With Venice's history as a trading centre which had a very special position in the exchange of the West with the East, I believe A Noble Lady of Venice is a painting that expresses those relationships and Leighton's admiration of different cultures.
What are some of your other favourite Hidden Portrait collaborations?
I can't really say for sure. I love to work with all different artists and like them for all different reasons. There is a lot of room in my heart, whether Tudor, Renaissance, Rococo or 19th century.
Pictured below: Volker Hermes 'Hidden Gower' (2021), 'Hidden Perronneau III' (2021) and 'Hidden Hodges' (2015)
Why did you choose the path of NFTs and what do you think the future holds?
I define myself as rather ‘old world’, raised without the internet, educated at a rather conservative academy. But I am very curious. And I firmly believe that artists should use their voice through new developments, including technological ones. A new kind of appreciation for art has emerged, from a generation that is much more digital than I will ever be. Virtual tours of museums are becoming normal, young people are expressing their appreciation by using art as a profile image on their social media channels. And NFTs (non-fungible tokens) are turning digital files themselves into artworks, where until now I had to convert the files into prints to allow them to be called art. An interesting thought, isn't it?
The only thing I always ask is that artists not lose themselves in technology, ideals must not be abandoned. Art can use technology, but not be subordinate to it. I think the old world, including me, should be a little less fearful of a conjured-up digital threat. Nothing beats the personal encounter with art, nothing can beat the smell of fresh paint, the impact of stepping into a museum room. And everyone knows that. But there is also an extension, with the wider access that the digital world brings. It's a challenge, but challenges are usually what make life exciting, don't you think?