Volker Hermes Remixes History with Tongue-in-Cheek Photo Collage Portraits

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“Despite all the analysis, Hermes’ paintings should, above all, be enjoyed.”

Thus concludes the bio of Volker Hermes on his website, succinctly capturing his essence. Based in Düsseldorf, Germany, Hermes is a drawer and painter who, over the last few years, has embarked upon a series called “Hidden Portraits,” in which he reworks classical portraits with wit and whimsy.

Hidden Rembrandt III, photo collage, 2019

Taking venerable paintings of ancient socialites, Hermes uses digital collage techniques to conceal the faces of the subjects. The concealment can take the form of an absurd mask, a mound of fabric, or a ridiculous wig entirely created from details of the original work itself.

Quite tickled by an aristocrat wearing a collar so ostentatious that he could no longer see, I reached out to Hermes to learn more about the series and his practice. His responses to my questions are below.

How would you describe your personal design aesthetic and ethos as an artist? 

I use a wide range of techniques in my work, from painting and drawing to digital. Of course, they all have different challenges and require different approaches, so it’s not easy to condense them all into one term. But perhaps what all of my thematic series have in common is that I span an arc between the times, and I think about the general concepts of art.  

It’s important to me that my works are contemporary and autonomous artistic inventions. “Artistic invention” is probably the most essential term to me. Additionally, I believe it’s important and possible to shed new light on our cultural heritage of painting. This heritage can still tell us a lot, even though we no longer know much of its vocabulary.

Hidden Rotari, photo collage, 2021

How did the idea for your “Hidden Portraits” series come about? 

At a certain point, after I studied painting at the Academy of Arts in Düsseldorf, I started thinking about the social environment of art. What does a society expect from art? And, How does an elite, for example, use artworks for its purposes? Historical portraits are a good example, as artists were commissioned to depict the social significance of other people. But I have realized that today, we hardly notice the codes in the paintings that convey the messages of the commissioners. Nowadays, we are so obsessed with the face that we overlook many metaphors in these paintings. We can no longer read them. I wanted to work with this thought, and since I didn’t want to imitate the historical way of painting, I decided to use image processing. I cover the faces with what I find in the paintings, and this actual limitation enables a completely new approach.

Hidden Anonymous (Pourbus IV), photo collage, 2021

Your reimagined portraits are infused with a hardy dose of wit and whimsy. Where would you say your sense of humor comes from? Have you always incorporated a bit of comedy into your work?

Oh, that’s hard to say! I would describe myself as a person with a sense of humor in many fields— even as a German. You’re probably born with it or not. 

In my opinion, humor is rather different from comedy. A comedy or a gag creates a quick punchline that then quickly disappears. But humor works differently and has a longer-lasting effect. For me, humor is an important tool for taking a sometimes critical look at the environment of historical art. Compared to today, there is a completely different image of society in the portraits I work on, power relations that we today would describe as toxic, a strange understanding of the role of women in society, and so on. I can point this out by humorously shaking things up and exaggerating other things so that we notice this different context. Humor can be a sharp knife, and it’s not didactic. It conveys content or evaluations without pointing fingers. These are reasons enough for me to enjoy using it.

Hidden Anglo dutch school, photo collage, 2023

From where do you source the portraits you repurpose in the series? How do you decide if a particular portrait is worthy of a “Hidden Portraits” installment?  

I browse the online archives of museums, other institutions, or auction houses almost every day, very intuitively. I then select the portraits that “speak to me” or are suitable for a particular statement I’m working on. I go through all the eras wildly; I soak up the art like a sponge. But sometimes, it takes me a while to work on it, and some artworks need a lot of time. Generally, it’s a very intuitive and organic process.

Everything should fit together plausibly, and form a kind of contemporary idea on the original painting. It’s important to me that the original spirit is preserved, which has something to do with respect for the original artist.

Volker Hermes

What’s your typical process like for creating one of these pieces? 

The most important first thing is looking at the painting. What does it want to convey? What are the special characteristics of the artist? What does it say to me? Then I think about my modifications; what is my statement as an artist? I try out a few things, still very roughly, and start the detailed process when I think it might work. For my interventions, I only use elements already present in the painting. That is, I cut things out and combine them into new contexts.

Hidden Singleton Copley VII, photo collage, 2023

In the end, everything should fit together plausibly and form a contemporary idea of the original painting. It’s important to me that I preserve the original spirit, which has something to do with respect for the original artist. Since I don’t want to imitate historical paintings, I don’t print anything on canvas, and I don’t use fake historical frames. My works are contemporary photographic prints, which I produce in a small edition and frame in a current way. The technique change is an essential method, and I make this clear both in my approach and production.

Hidden English School, photo collage, 2023

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