Archive of Views
The Portrait as Generative Performance in M.C. Herbst’s Painting
This portrait is charmingly beautiful….
Emanuel Schikaneder, libretto “The Magic Flute“
Virtually no other subject has been so consistently till the present day, a central point of artistic reflection, as the picture of the human being. And virtually no other subject has experienced as comprehensive pictorial transformations as the portrait. At latest since Andy Wahrhol’s principle of seriality, this genre maintains as “extended“ portrait the dimension of an “open artwork“ (Umberto Eco): the principle of the static is now definitely replaced by a dynamism rooted in Futurism, the portrait becomes a temporary momentum.
Tracing down the etymological roots of the term “portrait“, a highly contemporary perspective is revealed. In the 17th century, the term was taken up from the noun “portrait“ with the same meaning; this word again is rooted in the old French verb “po(u)rtraire“, which means something like “to design” and “to depict” and goes back to Latin with the original designation “to draw out of”, to “bring to light”. Only as late as in the 18th century, the term “portrait” obtains the more literal meaning “to produce a portrait“.
This small etymological excursion is no luxury of the essay-writer, but leads us right into the critical zone of the artistic self-understanding and Herbst’s painting, whose subject per se is the portrait as design. The present, highly comprehensive publication represents a first résumée of his longstanding examination of the portrait phenomenon, while in this context, several discursive perspectives intertwine. This concerns in the first place the discourse and the history of painting as the portrait itself. For good reason, art-historical references, from Michelangelo to Parmigianino and Warhol, become constitutive elements of Herbst’s pictorial reflections. ”I am interested in the reality of the painting, in the visual aspects of the picture and not so much in all that happens in the so-called real exterior world”, this is how Herbst outlines his point of view. For this artist, painting always implies the possibility to reflect on the history of painting, and even more: his reflection is an indispensable constitutive factor for his work, painting is thus a pictorial discourse per se.
Seriality as quotation is a basic principle of the present artworks, not only as a mode of production, but also as a fundamental self-understanding: “A portrait does not tell anything about the portrayed person“, this is the decisive credo. All attempts to describe and typify the physiognomy (a melancholic person, etc. from the series Michelangelo.) or rather psychologizing modes of representation are ignored. Referring to Freud’s findings, in particular his negation of sovereignty of the subject and structuralist concepts of the subject (“Self is somebody else“), the portrait is understood as “effect” (Roland Barthes) of manifold focuses and connections. Thus, the portrait is no longer a locale of an exterior form of an inward truth or character, psyche or emotional state.
By putting aside any principle of an archetype, Herbst is able to realize both thematically and technically (we will get back to this aspect later) the portrait in the form of a permanent “design“. The reference to art historical works already mentioned does not only serve as an allusion to an art-historical uniqueness or even truth, but to all those other connotations implied in the quoted artworks (thus, the portrait in Renaissance is itself based on Roman portraiture). Parmigianino, for example, is quoted in the series ReRe 2.V.11-14: the Renaissance artist employs in his turn the depiction of a Madonna, which he stylizes towards a Pallas Athena pointing with her iconographic posture of the fingers to the goddess of victory Athena in the medallion. Herbst re-interprets the face of this woman figure respectively according to a fictitious reference to a newly introduced Walt Disney figure in the medallion. The viewer is also reminded of the triad of time, portrait picture and portrayed subject in this connection. The negation of a belief in a truth between the depicted and the medium of depiction opens up the portrait for a contemporary self-understanding and for its contexts: in the age of bio- and gene technology, the end of the fundamentality of a definitive setting of the body/physiognomy is foreseeable.
This can also be observed in the specific picture techniques. Painting with oil provides Herbst with an ideal possibility to paint and carries per se art historical connotations. Through the use of aluminium (instead of canvas) as picture carrier, he almost automatically evokes the immediate presence of his painting. The specific metallic quality of the aluminium allows for a liberation of the oil painting, since in a way, aluminium does not possess a “body“ of its own. Thereby, a de-materialised effect is produced, suggesting pure (oil) painting. Into this remarkable field of tension, the artist places again his theme of the portrait. The specific mode of painting (horizontal streaks, resulting in the effect of imprecision – the gesture of painting between the impressive and the expressive) leads to a strongly projective impression, opening up a further (pictorial-historical) field of tension: that between traditional painting, photo-realist and electronic picture.
The individual titles of the different picture series already imply in a very significant way connotations to the already outlined field of tension between the historical and the present; repeatedly, the titles also breach gaps between past and present: “mariamagdalena“, for example, alludes ironically to the biblical figure, while the artist’s daughter is called Magdalena, too. But autobiographical aspects do not play a central role here; it is rather the poly-dimensionality of the picturesque itself that is essential. This is particularly evident in the series “sphere“. Starting point is the famous convex self-portrait by Parmigianino. Herbst intensifies it as metallic, spherical picture and plays with the visual possibilities of reversals, twistings and diametricality. The viewer becomes part of the picture by being reflected in the metallic, spherical surface – the distance between picture and viewer is thereby removed, the viewer becomes part of the picture. This artwork is opposed to series applying highly diversified media pictures (for example by stars). In the series “corpus”, breast pictures by body builders are transformed to portrait faces (the nipples become eyes, the navel is the mouth). These pictures deal with the theme of the transformation and extension of the portrait, with semiotic operations of visualization and with the disillusioning of mechanisms and automatisms of perception (one can also be the other). In the course of the series “persona”, seriality is unfolded more or less by filmic means: the format always stays the same, while the only slightly changed detail of a face becomes the focal point of the picture (here, too, a series of art historical picture references is employed, in order to endow the pictures semantically with a polyvalent meaning).
It is the unification of art historical and contemporary picture discourses that contributes decisively to the portrait series withdrawing on a permanent level from psychologization and archetypization, which is explicitly evident in the picture series Michelangelo. Thereby, the view, the observation is guided towards the visual “scripture” of the artworks themselves. In nuanced differentiations, in echo-like analogies and aesthetic contradictions, the possibilities of gaining the portrait hic et nunc are insistently questioned. No other epoch has presented a more complex and more diversified field in this context as the contemporary one, both as regards the picture techniques and the picture composition. How can thus the portrait be thematized today, in the age of renewed revolutionizing of the concept of the subject, through gene- and pixel technology, when even so-called cosmetic operations have become almost as self-understood as going to the hairdresser?
This question, determining incessantly Herbst’s pictorial work, guides us back to the etymology of the term ‘portrait’: designing by bringing to light. The design as valid provisional artwork, since no absolute mode of representation is possible anymore. The truth of the portrait – and this becomes powerfully visible in Herbst’s oeuvre – is thus eventually a picture-aesthetic construction in the respective complex contemporary-social context, in particular within the resulting concept of the subject! Here, a further facet of the artist’s oeuvre becomes visible: the (also art- and picture-historical) close connection between the concept of the picture and the subject: the birth of sovereignty of the subject in Renaissance goes hand in hand with the sovereignty of the pictorial view through the birth of the central perspective. And the fracturing of this subject’s sovereignty through psychoanalysis is accompanied by the fracturing of the central perspective through Cubism, to put it in rudimentary terms. And in the same way, as the concept of the subject has been revolutionized again in recent years through bio-and gene technology, the concept of the picture has also experienced a dramatic revolution through digital picture technology. The seemingly “old” medium of painting can obviously raise even today new questions and is as explosive as it ever was: Martin C. Herbst’s oeuvre gives evidence of this aspect in a revealing and challenging way.
Translation into English by Dörte Eliass.
Dörte Eliass is a translator of literature and texts on art history and has won numerous awards for her translations. She currently lives in Vienna.