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The new impetus that propelled painting from the second half of the
nineteenth century onwards, seems to have ended up in an outright
decline during the second half of the twentieth century. Increasingly,
painting came to be denounced as 'antiquated'. Under the guise
of a further development of painting, many artists proceeded to
transforming the real world (think of many Minimalists like
to displaying reality itself (think of the Vienna
Actionism, many happenings and performances, and of many
installations), or to the replacement
of the image with its complete opposite: the 'concept' (think of Joseph Kosuth
and Lawrence Weiner). Those who continued to
use the brush and the canvas, could not imagine anything better than to
revive bygone styles (think of the 'Neue Wilden). Or, worse still, they
began to draw their inspiration from images produced by 'more advanced
techniques', in case photography (Warhol, Photorealists, Gerhard Richter
and Luc Tuymans).
No doubt, outside the spotlights of what has to pass for the 'art scene',
there must be many artists who walk different paths. One of them is
Herman Maes (°1959, Kinshasa, Congo).
Let us have a look at his latest work.
Let us come straight to the point. The greatest imaginable contrast to to the white canvas - the two-dimensional plane on which
the painter applies his paint - is three-dimensional space.
This space can be open: extend undisturbed into the height, the breadth
and the depth. Such is space when man finds himself at the centre of it,
from where he overlooks the world in all sovereignty.
Space can also be articulated through coulisses. Then, it is pervaded with the expectance of what there is to be seen behind the
curtains. Such becomes space when it begins to implode as soon as man is
driven by desire and wants to head towards something, away from the place
from where he formerly overlooked the world in all sovereignty.
Coulisses separate a before from a behind. They can also unfold to
three-dimensional spaces with a floor, a roof and walls. They then come
to separate an 'inner' from an 'outer'. The inner is the world where one
feels home. Except when one feels incarcerated there and wants to break
In the spaces that Herman Maes constructs in a first
series of works, it is not clear what is inside and what outside. The
walls are transparent, so that what was supposed to be outside is
encompassed by the inside. In the same vein, the stairs seem to join the
above with the below, but in so doing revolves backwards. Until the blue skies
betrays that we are not sheltered by a roof,
but exposed under the open sky.
Were it not for the dark silhouette, that reminds us of a presence in
the interior, from which we want to escape alongside the lines
of a steep perspective that ends up at an impermeable wall, behind which
a blue sky becomes visible:
In another space, a floor
protrudes like a pointed knife towards us, so that the horizon behind
the window is pushed further to the background:
Already in the paintings above, the geometry of the
rooms seems to be animated by the more organic forms of its inhabitants.
That is even more the case in the painting below, where, what could be a
plank or a beam, unfolds to an organ that is out at penetrating:
In another variant, we seems to find ourselves in front of a wall of
closed volumes that want to shut us out: there are only
facades without windows, and the doors remain closed. But the walls that
enclose the interior seem to be animated by the organic
forms of the inhabitants they are supposed to hide from view, so that
the door, which is obstructed by a cross, is no longer an entrance, but
an exit that is blocked:
On the paintings above, the traces of a geometric scheme on the white,
two-dimensional plane are nearly concealed. That lends a new dimension
to the process described above. It is as if a geometric grid
gradually unfolds into a organically animated space. Not otherwise than
when the two-dimensional plane wherein Mondrian had the world implode, was
unfolded into a three-dimensional space for human inhabitants by Gerrit Rietveld.
That reminds us of the broader dialectic that governs the origin and the
development of abstract art.
On the one hand, it was the intention to eradicate every reference
of the existing world. Only isolated, separate geometric
forms are capable of banning every reminder of reality.
Living forms are not geometric, but organic. And that goes especially
for the nude, of which geometric forms are the double negation: they are
monolithic objects, not composite ones like a body, and they are
two-dimensional and angular, as opposed to the three-dimensional,
undulating and rounded body.
But, on the other hand, the new forms that were supposed to ban
figuration from the image, are read figuratively in their turn. That is obvious when
abstraction is limited to a reduction of living beings to
indeterminate organic forms, which cannot but stir the propensity to
animate these forms. Figures like Wassily Kandinsky restrict themselves
to unidentifiable imaginary beings. But painters like Juan Miro and Arshile Gorky
do not hesitate to introduce outspoken figurative elements (eyes,
genitals and the like):
The propensity to read
abstract forms figuratively remains active when the artist opts for
purely geometric forms. But the 'figurative' can now only come back through the
backdoor: the composition of geometric forms into a new geometric whole.
Only artists like Piet Mondrian stick to geometry also in the
composition of the elements. But figures like
Kazimir Malevich and
Wassily Kandinsky integrate the geometrical parts in organic wholes of
an outspoken anthropomorphic nature: their composition imitates either the interactions
between living bodies, or the organic structure of a body.
Also Herman Maes' pictorial thinking is determined by such dialectic
between figuration and abstraction. That is already apparent from the
unfolding of geometric grids on the canvas to organically animated,
dramatised spaces. But the figurative countermove takes a new impetus
when it heads straightforward to abstract - unrecognisable - but organic
forms, as in the painting below:
At first glance, we get to see indeterminate forms pervaded
with an invisible breath of life. They lean against each other and want to embrace, even to penetrate each other. But, as we zoom
in, clearly recognisable elements begin to emerge: parts of the erotic
body such as buttocks and breasts, glans and lips, fingertips and toes.
The space that unfolds now is no longer a centrifugal space with breadth, height and
depth, but a centripetal organic space where the living beings lean
against each other and want to merge with each other.
Also the starting point is no longer a geometric grid; it is replaced
with scratches and dripping, which rather reminds of another form of
abstraction: Action Painting.
The resurrection of the organic from the abstract- of Eros from geometry - is
unstoppable. In a next phase, also the larger organic wholes yield to the figurative - eroticising -
move: they become clearly recognisable parts of the female
body, even when they are condensed with each other. Also their
composition takes more outspoken forms: it reminds of the cross that is
formed when bodies entwine. And, on a closer look, we see something
like a third body emerge in the corner in the right below, as if the couple
wanted to extend to an erotic triangle:
Next to the level of the more encompassing forms, there is a second level
also here, were smaller forms live a life of their own. This time, the
erotic elements thrive not so much in the margin of the larger forms,
like the vagina in the top, as rather under the skin: fingers and toes
in the right above, buttocks in the right below. On a closer look, it is not
only erotic forms: also cuts and scars are covered by the transparent
Soon, it is no longer parts like buttocks and breasts, but whole bodies
- to be more precise: trunks without head, arms or legs - that are combined not so much
pairs, as rather into an orgiastic tangle:
As figuration becomes more graphic, the real world,
that had been destroyed by abstraction, comes in view again. The bodies
acquire faces, and the centripetal erotic space gets its counterpart in
centrifugal three-dimensional space: as opposed to a view on the uninhabited
space in the right below, an inhabited landscape appears in the left
Apparently, that real world is not without problems. The resurrection of
the organic from the geometrical turns out to be a mere prelude to the descent
- the fall - of Eros in the real world. And therewith we have come full circle:
it was precisely because nobody wants to be reminded of the inglorious
descent, that so many prefer to have the world of abstraction ascend.
Let us have a closer look at the descent of Eros in the real world.
Initially, the nude rises up in all its glory. The indeterminate organic
forms have unfolded into a complete body with a face. As above, within the
confines of the silhouette, attractive forms, which are now clearly
defined, thrive. Also their composition now takes the more organic
form of the turbulent exhibition you get to see during erotic commerce
with the nude:
When the counterpart of
the nude enters the image, the so desired commerce turns out to be
rather disappointing. Although the bodies seem to have grown together, the leg of the male is wrapped and has hence been wounded. And
the lovers drag each other in the abyss:
birds - or angels - that ascended to the heavens on the wings of love -
are turned into birds of prey who attach one another with beaks and claws,
to the extent that the male is transformed in a powerless chick:
the fall, a beaten up body is left,
tired and maimed, but still seductive and seducing:
The amputated member on the right below yields its
secrets in the toes on the left below. What they are doing is
revealed in the painting of the challenging but stubborn female, whose seductive
toes are opposed to a kind of hoof wherein they are checked.
In their turn, the toes seem to be the multiplication on a smaller scale
of that impressive organ on which the gaze of the female is fixed, and
of which it is not immediately apparent whether it is his or hers:
respects, this challenging image is the counterpart of the nude with
which we begin this series. To what the commerce with it has been
degraded, is apparent in the images where the former lovers drag each
other in the abyss, or where they fall from the skies as fallen angels.
In a less symbolic way, the relation is depicted below:
always do the organs add up to such impressive architectures. Sometimes,
they are reduced in number and isolated: a single breast and the
suggestion of a vagina are opposed to the arm with defleshed fingers of
a man that must have fallen backwards:
And below, the four-legged being, whose voluptuous toes are meanwhile grown out
into a kicking foot, is pushed out of the image with an unambiguous gesture:
The erotic nude and the couple occupy a prominent place in the work of Herman Maes.
That is all the more surprising, since the theme seems to be ignored by
painters in the last decades. No wonder: the saying 'everything has
already been painted' seems to apply especially here. Nevertheless, Herman Maes
knows to inject new life into the theme. Surprisingly enough, he
not only depicts it in a entirely new way, but enriches it above all from a contentual point of view. To fully understand the
originality of his approach, we give an overview of the way in which the
theme has been handled in Western painting.
In a first series of approaches, the couple is depicted as a part of a
more encompassing social whole. That is apparent from the clothes and
the interior: think of the Arnolfinis of Jan Van Eyck. Nudity is
understood as a negation of social determination:
the primeval state of Adam and Eve before the 'Fall'.
In a second approach, the
couple is no longer understood as a part of a more encompassing social
does it negate the social dimension of existence: engaging in a loving
relation is experienced as a form of withdrawal from the world. A well
know example is Wagner's 'Tristan and Isolde', where the world is
declared to be a delusion. A similar rejection of the world is depicted
in 'The Kiss' from Constantin Brancusi and
'Die Windsbraut' of Oskar Kokoschka.
Man and woman do no
longer embrace the community: they rather turn their
backs on it. With Oskar Kokoschka the void is filled with the
visualisation of the internal motion that now pervades the couple.
The couples of Herman Maes
are situated in this second tradition. They are naked, and their
environment is either undetermined (a blue sky), or desolate nature (an
uninhabited landscape). In other cases, the 'interior' is reduced to a
kind of scene or pedestal that exposes - no longer harbours - the couple in
the middle of a desolate landscape.
But we have to further specify. After the couple has withdrawn from the
world - after the network of human relations has been quantitatively
reduced to the relation between man and woman - the couple becomes
a self-contained unit. Within this unit, the relations are qualitatively reduced to
sexual relations. In the beginning, the depiction of sexual intercourse
uses often a mythological pretext, but especially from
the eighteenth century onwards, the veils are gradually removed. That
goes also for the depiction of conflicts within the couple: think of the
popular theme of John and Salomé,
where the problematic relation is symbolised as the cutting off of the
head. With Alfred Kubin, a first step is set towards a desymbolisation
of the conflicts. The cutting off of the head is replaced by the literal
destruction of the body of the male:
In the course of the
twentieth century, the desymbolisation is completed, but
immediately replaced with the sexualising of the theme. The reason is
that erotic commerce lends itself better for depiction than a
but above all that the relation between man and woman is increasingly
sexualised in the real world too.
An early onset of this evolution is the rather aggressive depiction of
embrace in Picasso's 'Figures on the beach' (1931). With George Grosz' 'John the sex murderer',
the sexualisation is experienced as a projection into the world of
whores and criminals. But with figures like
Hans Bellmer, the relation between the lovers is resolutely phrased in
terms of an unabashed sadomasochism:
In a totally different
tradition, the failure of the couple is not understood in terms of sadomasochism,
but as the outcome of the influence of the very society from which
the couple meant to withdraw. The failure is often ascribed to the
destructive effects of oppression in the society. Only a painter like
George Grosz shows in 'Daum...' (1920) how the sexual relation is
undermined by the increasing socialisation of the relations in the
couple: the man has become a (money earning and money spawning) robot,
and the woman a sexual animal, that finds no satisfaction with her
the reduction of love to the exchange of 'sex for meat':
Also with Herman Maes,
the couples have withdrawn from society to engage in a purely sexual relation.
But, what we get to see is not only the dream or the fall: the
relation is shown in all its ambivalence. Thus, Herman
Maes knows to escape from the sadomasochistic trap. To be sure, also the
aggressive aspects of the relation are sexualised in the sense that they
are performed on the body by bodily organs (were it alone for the fact
that only then are they visible, and because they can easily be
condensed with the sexual aspects, which are visual by nature). But
precisely therefore, they maintain the character of a rather symbolic
destruction (like that by Salomé), and they have not to be reinterpreted
How much the destructive relation is understood as a failure, is
apparent, not only from the fact that the couples often seem to fall - as
if it were fallen angels. How much the lovers might fall apart in desiring
and desired organs, they always remain inscribed in an almost foetal
circumference within the confines of which they remain indissolubly
united. And what is more: how painful the content of the image might
be, it is always pervaded with the breath of organic unity, and it is
always wrapped in the veils of an unmistakable beauty. It is above all
in this unity and this beauty that the utopia is conserved.
New is also the way in which the bodies are depicted.
With Herman Maes, man and woman do not appear as integral bodies. Rather
do they have bodies that, on the one hand, seem to fall apart in desirable
or aggressive parts, but on the other hand are integrated again in a new
encompassing whole: a new imaginary body or double body.
In the examples above, we are mostly dealing with rather complex
architectures. But in a series of other images, the profusion of organs
remains restricted, and the new (hermaphrodite) bodies or elementary
couples are more condensed:
Also these more condensed bodies and couples
embody a rather broad array of
relations: from the penis, peacefully resting in the
comfortable company of a breast, to the rather painful encounter of a
penis and his echo with inhospitable structures:
thing and another culminates in that magnificent painting below, where a
nearly hermaphrodite penis, totally recoiled on itself, confronts a seductive proliferation of openings:
It is worth while to look for antecedents also here.
Traditionally - think of the Venus of Urbino - the nude is depicted in
full length (standing of reclining):
The sight of the body displayed invites the viewer to approach. The eye
zooms in on the desirable parts of the body. In painting, a modest
prelude to such zooming in is the bust. This first, modest form of 'close up' is rather against the grain:
when yielding to the beauty of the body, the eye all too easily looses
the face from view. Because that is often experienced as 'indecent', real close-ups appear only hesitatingly in painting,
exemplary in 'L'origine
du monde' of Gustave Courbet:
Only photography begins to
zoom in ever further to ever new parts of the body.
There is no equivalent for this evolution in painting and sculpture.
Suffice it to refer to scarce examples like
Marcel Duchamp ('Fig leaf' and
'Objet dart') and Louise Bourgeois. Also figures like Juan Miro
and Arshile Gorky depict isolated parts, but they are embedded in
an abstract whole.
After the reduction to organs, the bodies sometimes proceed to copulation like
with Henry Moore:
On first sight, it seems
as if the paintings of Herman Maes are simply the painted
counterpart of Moore's sculpture. But things are more complicated. To begin with, it is not
always genitals that approach each other: vagina and penis are often
replaced with other parts of the body. And, secondly, the propensity to
zoom in ever further is countered by the propensity to combine the
isolated parts into a new hybrid body.
Therein, Herman Maes joins another trend, inaugurated by Cubism,
which combined several perspectives on one and the same object in one
single image. That opened the door for the construction of the most
diverse hybrid bodies. An early example is Max Ernst's 'Killing plane',
where isolated parts of a human body are combined with parts of an
engine to a new hybrid being:
Also in Picasso's
'Figures on the beach', the bodies begin to fall apart in isolated
parts. The trend is completed in pictures like Salvador Dali's 'Premonition of civil war'
(1936), and, in his wake, by Henry Moore,
who resolutely recombines the disintegrated parts into new imaginary
The composite bodies of Herman Maes' couples complete
both trends. And, in all their falling apart and being re-integrated,
they maintain the necessary ambivalence: they have something of the body
of Osiris, that, after having been cut in pieces and spread over the
four corners of the world, was restored by Isis:
How should we understand the origin of these complex formations, in
which the bodies fall apart in their constituting organs, but are
reintegrated in new wholes nevertheless?
That the bodies are out at entwining and fusing, is the expression of an
intense desire to unite with the loving body.
But there are also opposite forces at work. When the tactile or genital
merger cannot be realised immediately - when the panerotic urge is too
strong to find employ in the real world - the lover has to content
himself with looking. The eye looses itself in the contemplation of the
desirable parts, which isolate themselves forms the organic whole of the
body as objects in their own right. That explains, on the one hand, why
the face all too readily disappears from the
picture. That explains why, on the other hand, next to the vagina, also
more peripheral parts of the body enter the image, culminating in the
fingers and the toes, and why, inaddition, the desirable objects and the desiring
penis begin to multiply. It explains, finally, why the
desire to unite is no longer expressed as the embrace and the entwining
of the bodies, but as the approach of the parts in which the body has
fallen apart. Only the arms and legs seem to succeed in the fusion:
protrusions and openings seem not to find one another.
In a next phase, the surrender to the provocative exhibition is
transformed in reciprocal aggression. The voluptuous toes and fingers or
the touching hands are transformed into claws or kicking feet.
The undulating shapes of the legs or thighs are transformed into angular
forms. Rather than a harbouring hole, the vagina turns into a
knife that threatens to cut in the flesh of the glans, if not to
castrate. From the aggression, we often only descry the traces left: defleshed
fingers, sewn wounds, wrapped feet and legs. Whereas the female reaction
on the male seizure of power expresses itself unabashed, the aggression
of the male is rather subdued. It betrays itself above all in the
effects of the action, not in the action itself: the wrapped foot and
legs, or in protrusions that seem to be amputated limbs, and also in the
scars or crusts of the paint. And that betrays only what those defleshed
fingers are capable of.
The desire that eventually turns into destruction, sheds also another
light on the desire to unite that always remains active. It appears in
the first instance as the sexual desire to embrace and to merge. But, on
a more regressive level, it is transformed into the desire to drink on
the breast. The regression extends to the aggressive register, as in the
painting where the woman is transformed into a harpy. On an even more regressive level, the protagonists
seem often inscribed in the confines of a circumferences that has
something of the membranes around the foetus, and thus refers to the
the motherly womb, preceding every individuation.
Far more mysterious than the couples are the paintings with skeletons,
that continue to pop up in the works of Herman Maes.
Just like the body, also the skeleton falls apart in
meaningful parts: the skull of course, but also a jaw with teeth, or
the pelvis where two holes - and a third - gaze at us:
The reduction allows for an easy combination of the skeleton with the
undulations of the female body. Which cannot but conjure up allusion to
the theme of 'Der Tod und das Mädchen'.
In the first instance, the skull seems to pop up rather
incidentally as another rounding in the female landscape:
It only gazes at us. But the emphasis on the sharp
canines - as of a predator - is only a prelude to the attack in which it
bites in the breast, or in a shoulder blade that is turned towards him
like a breast:
The echo of this last
skull has something of an other opposite of death: the head of a
In other paintings, the canines of a predator - or of a vampire -
are replaced with the teeth of a rodent, that have
become blunt on the upper half of a body, which is split in breasts
and bone, and the lower half of which seems to be transformed in sharp
And then, there are the portraits, which confront us with the
take part in all the dramas above.
Needless to mention that, just like with the nudes and
the couples, no likeness with the face as it appears before the camera
is aimed at. The hand-made image disposes of far more subtle means to
reveal what is supposed to appear on the face. To begin with, there is the whole
array of possibilities created by deformation:
But the painter can also create new expressive forms -
organs and excressences - and summon up the evocative power of colour
chords, which, with their resonance in our soul, can often render the
inner disposition far more better than a real face:
Or he can simply omit the expressive parts of the face
and replace them with creations of his own:
In other portraits, it is not so much the expression on
the face that speaks, but rather a position of the head. In the foreground
a vegetative and animal world of Franciscan beauty is deployed:.
Herman Maes takes many liberties when creating a new reality: the world
of art, that can surpass the real world in all respects. He makes ample
use of all the possibilities that are up to now the privilege of painting -
or broader: of the hand-made picture. That applies even more for the way in
which he handles the medium of painting.
To make that sufficiently clear, we have to take a run-up.
For it is all too easy - and all too misleading - to bluntly speak of
'the medium of painting'. There are many ways to organise grains of
pigment into an image.
In a first approach - an approach like that of the Flemish Primitives, as
it was completed in the photographic image - the grains of pigment
seamlessly join the object that has to be depicted: all the gradations
from light to dark and all the segments of the colour spectrum can in
principle be rendered.
In a second approach, it is no longer minute grains of pigment, but
larger units with a structure of their own that are combined into an
image: the stones of a mosaic, the lines of a drawing or a print, the
brush strokes on the canvas. From a systematic point of view, the
composition of the image has then to proceed in three phases: in a first
phase, the grains of pigment have to be produced, in a second phase, a scale of elements is composed (stones with similar form and a
determined array of colours for example), and, in a third phase, the
artist chooses the required element from this palette to build up the
From a historical point of view, from the second half of the
nineteenth century onwards, as a reaction against the perfection of the
first procedure in photography, the artists began to prefer media that
no longer seamlessly join the objects that have to be depicted. They
rather tended to emphasize the autonomy of the medium. With Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Cézanne
and Georges Seurat, the grains of pigment of the first layer are
combined to a scale of brush strokes on a second layer. In the technique
of the ''cloisonné' (Paul Gauguin), even surfaces are combined with
contours on the second level. Wassily Kandinsky proceeds to a more
complex organisation of the medium; On the second layer, a first scale of
stains is opposed to a second scale of lines. In a third layer, the
scale of lines and the scale of stains are combined to a series of
complex formations, which are eventually combined into the final composition,
like in 'Composition VIII' (1923):
Figures like Paul Klee
elaborate the structure of the medium even further, among others by
introducing a scale of texture, like in 'Magische Fische' (1925).
After these two
culminating points, a downward trend sets in: the number of layers
and/or the number of scales per layer is gradually reduced, until we
eventually end up at the elementary structure with which the whole
evolution had set in: a second layer consisting of a scale of on kind of
elements, like with Jackson Pollock, if not with the atomic structure of
the average photographic image.
Herman Maes does not join such downward trend. Quite the
contrary: he departs from the culminating points of masters like
Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky to further elaborate the
composition of the medium:
Let us, by way of
example, analyse the composition of the medium in the painting above..
The grains of pigments of the lowest level are organised, on a second
level, into an broad array of surfaces and lines.
The scale of surfaces extends from stains composed of strokes (parallel,
criss-cross, convergent), or of stains, scratches or dripping.
Some steps of this scale of surfaces are structured themselves. The even surfaces
are part of colour chords, the surfaces with strokes often combine two or
more colours, and, the structured surfaces, finally, form a scale of
surfaces that are predominantly white, grey or black. The lines, in
their turn, are fine, medium of thick, and sharp or hazy.
On a third level, these elements are combined into new scales of more
Through the combination of even surfaces with diverse kinds of lines, a
new spectrum emerges, extending from non-circumscribed surfaces, over
circumscribed surfaces or surfaces crossed with lines, to isolated lines.
Through the combination of strokes, smudges and stains on the one hand,
and monochrome surfaces on the other hand, a second scale emerges with
different structures of the surface: only strokes, strokes covered with
an even surface, strokes covered with stains, smudges and dripping.
On a fourth level, combinations of elements from the third level come to
be opposed to a new element:
a continuous contour line. Through this last intervention, some complex elements join into a background,
other element combine into the figure.
The above description is systematic. In practice, this richness is
achieved by the combination of diverse materials (charcoal, Chinese ink,
pastel, oil paint) that are subjected to diverse procedures (brushing,
wiping, applying on a greasy ground, scratching, and what have you). The
procedures are applied to ever varying materials on ever varying parts
of the canvas. Thus is obtained the multi-layered diversity described
above, wherein the various techniques are combined into a closed unity.
Let us remark that, notwithstanding the application of ever new layers
of paint, the paintings of Herman Maes are never pastuous. You nearly
see that there is paint on the canvas.
Let us remark also that,
notwithstanding the use of diverse techniques, the paintings of Herman
Maes have nothing of a patchwork. They rather are characterised by
We already pointed to Herman Maes' ability to convey an often deep
emotional freight by resorting to appropriate colour chords. Our
attention should also go to the purely technical mastery in the use of
colours. It is above all on this domain - after all the domain of
painting par excellence - that he scores high.
The luminosity of the paintings of Herman Maes is remarkable.
It is due to sheer materiality in the first place: the luminosity of the pigments of pastel. But it is above all the right
combination of the colours that contributes to the rich sonority of the
colour chords. On top of that, he often proceeds to a separation of
tonality and colour. In many paintings, there is a scale from unbroken
white, over one or more grey tones, to unbroken black. This scale of
tonality is combined with a scale of colours, that often have the same
tonality. Thus, the whole scale of black to white is covered, while the
colours are allowed to resound in their full resonance.
Herman Maes is not afraid of using a broad palette of colours. Also
when his works seem to be monochrome, a broad range of nearly related
colours is summoned up. And that goes also for paintings that are build on
a chord of two colours. But Herman Maes does not shy away from using
more complex colour chords: from trichords, over tetrachords, to
sometimes daring hexachords.
THE FINDING OF THE IMAGE (1)
As will have become apparent by now, the paintings of Herman Maes
distinguish themselves not only by the enhanced complexity of the medium
and the richness of the colours, but above all by the deep contentual
layeredness. It is interesting to investigate how he succeeds in
conceiving such complex images. For, it is not always plain to the
artist what moves him in his deepest inner self, and even less is there
always an image that is appropriate to express
A first method consists in departing from existing images.
Often, the artist wants to change them in a particular direction - think
of the ever new versions of 'The last supper", of the way in which Balthus
transformed the theme of the Pieta in that of the 'Guitar lesson', or
even of the more banal propensity to add a moustache to the Mona Lisa. Just
because some images evoke ever new contents with ever new artists,
whereas less important or no longer fitting elements are omitted, in the
long run an image emerges that embodies a universal human feeling or
that gives an unexpected turn to the theme. A good example is the
evolution of the theme of John and Salome (Panovsky) or of Don Juan (see 'Leda
and the swan'). Something similar applies also for the development
of an image or a theme in the oeuvre of an individual artist.
A second method has been described by da Vinci.
When looking at a worn out wall, or at the patterns produced by throwing
a sponge drenched in paint to a wall, the artist descries all kinds of
images, which he would never have conceived otherwise, while they are at
the same time the perfect embodiment of what moves him at a given moment
- think of the Rorschach test. The method was further refined by the
They used some chance element - the grain in planks
(frottage), or the figures that are produced by scraping a layered
surface (grattage) - to provoke the emergence of images. The chance
factor makes the artist leave the well-trodden paths, and to discover
new contents that have not yet been expressed in existing images. The
artist can further elaborate these new images as he did with already
existing images. But he can also combine the two methods in making
series, where every finished image determines how he will proceed the
next time with a similar, but in view of a new version changed point of
This second method is in its turn only a generalisation or
radicalisation of the phenomenon that occurs during every process that
consists of subsequent interventions, as is the case with painting.
Every step is set with a deliberate intention, but often produces
unintended side-effects. In many cases, such unintended side-effects
evoke a new flash of inspiration, that changes the idea of departure.
The ongoing dialogue between what the hand wants to deliberately produce
on the canvas and the often unintended side effects, can be furthered by
prolonging the process of creation: by splitting up the production in
many consequent phases, by making preparatory sketches and studies (think
of Picasso's Guernica), or by producing ever new autonomous versions
that can be regarded as preparatory studies to a next one. Thus we end
up with the first of second tradition again.
The procedure of
Herman Maes is nearly related to that of da Vinci and the Surrealists,
but has a peculiarity of its own. As mentioned above, he departs from an
abstract given - an abstract pattern of lines or a spontaneous tangle of
lines and stains - that is gradually filled in figuratively. He thus
creates the point of departure himself.
In addition, he does not create his painting in one burst, but in many
phases, which often are separated by long periods of time. This is a
technical necessity when the artist does not paint wet-in-wet, but uses
many layers that have to interact without mingling, or when he wants to
have a layer undergo further interventions like scraping, scratching and
what have you. Thus, Herman Maes makes a virtue out of necessity. With
every further step, he lets the image in progress act on him until a
next intervention imposes itself. The interventions are often separated
by weeks or months, but are very short and fast.
With every new version of
the image, some parts become more defined or are condensed with new
elements. Other elements are painted over, so that a new motif, often
with opposite content, comes to conceal a previous one. The old layer may
be covered by the new one, but, more often, Herman Maes has it shimmer
through, so that a new kind of ambivalence is achieved. That
goes equally for the tonality, the colour and the texture. Thus, a new
tension is achieved. Many parts of the painting are left in different
states of finish: in some parts, something more outspoken seems to
shimmer through vague forms, in other parts more differentiated forms
emerge from an indeterminate background.
We could speak of an
'automatisme interrompu et
renouvelé'. It is always ever changing momentaneous interventions of what
unfolds upon the canvas that add up to the final image. That explains
the complexity, the ambivalence and the multiple resonances of the
images of Herman Maes when they are eventually finished. Although they
originate in ever changing personal and momentaneous experiences, they transcend the merely anecdotal and the merely
individual. Totally different is the character of the drawings, which
are finished in one single session, and hence are more pervaded by a
local flash of inspiration.
THE FINDING OF THE IMAGE (2) HISTORICAL
We already pointed to the fact that the figurative filling of an
'abstract' pattern is as it were a reversal of the abstracting move, one
of the driving forces that propelled the development of modern art. By
'concretising' the 'abstract', Herman Maes counters the propensity to
deny - often painful - contents the access to the image. With him, the
conflict between revealing and concealing is not annihilated in an
unambiguous image, but rather conserved in a kind of 'painting with
allusions', which at the same time opens the door for condensation with
other, often opposite contents. That is precisely why the conflict
between revealing and concealing can be condensed with the conflict
between love and aggression.
Within the development of Modern Art, hence, Herman Maes takes a clear, but
nuanced position for and against abstract art. That goes especially for
the rejection of the often rational construction of the image - although
even Wassily Kandinsky used to rely on what he called 'the inner
necessity'. That does not mean that he joins the Surrealistic tradition
and its offshoots in Action Painting. It suffices to refer to
Juan Miro, and in his wake to Arshile Gorky. These artist equally fill
in abstract patterns. But their figuration is only local: large parts of
the image remain abstract, and what is filled in is only vague,
anecdotal allusion. With Herman Maes, the abstract given is elaborated
into a closed figurative whole.
Which does not mean that his work would be more akin to other
Surrealists like Salvador Dali and Max Ernst. With them, we are rather
dealing with the deliberate elaboration of a single 'automatic'
inspiration. But the most important difference with Surrealism as such
is that Herman Maes never succumbs to the lure of irrationalism.
All too eagerly, many artists - just think of Neo Rauch or
Michaël Borremans -
cultivate the irrational in the image. This is only another means of
rejecting meaningful content than figuration as such. These artists
conceal the mystery of life rather than revealing it.
Therein, Herman Maes joins rather a third direction in which the image
has been developed by Modern Art: Expressionism, which rather concentrated on recognisable feelings. From this
style, Herman Maes
distinguishes himself in that he does not indulge in vain poses or all
too one-dimensional - and often primary - emotions. Rather does he give
expression to the deeper stirrings of the human soul in all their
intertwining and ambivalence.
THE FINDING OF THE IMAGE (3): PAINTING AND
The work of Herman Maes, hence, elaborates in a constructive and
synthesising way the possibilities discovered by modern painters in
their endeavour to produce other images than those obtained by the
Precisely herein lies the fundamental difference between his paintings,
and paintings that, from the sixties onward, increasingly began to
lend their motif from photography.
Whereas Expressionism, Abstract Art and Surrealism were out at
investigating the possibilities of the handmade image, from
Constructivism onwards, ever more artists believe that the handmade
image has become obsolete ever since the invention of photography, not
only from a technical point of view, but from a contentual point of view
There is no doubt that the technique of photography, especially since
the development of digital manipulation of the image in the nineties,
has unfolded a whole array of new methods to produce and to distribute
images. But that does not mean that the former methods would have become
'antiquated', let alone redundant. It is all too easily forgotten that
the painter and the photographer find their images in a totally
different way. With photography, the finding of the image is essentially
determined by that single moment when some part of the real world is
fixed on the film. No doubt, that single moment is embedded in
countless interventions beforehand and in the dark room or with digital
manipulation. These interventions often fundamentally change what is given in the real world, but in all cases, they depend on something that is
given in the real world (see:
Scruton). And that
goes also for the interventions of the artists who, ever since Andy
Warhol, depart from a photographic image. Their artisanal interventions
are one intervention more that adds up to the interventions of the
photographer before and after the exposure.
That goes especially for figures like
Luc Tuymans, who relies on
personal photographic interventions - such as not letting the Polaroid develop properly, or photocopying a photographic image
repeatedly - before proceeding to translate the photographic image in
Painters that resort to photographic images are no longer heir to
the tradition of painting: they inscribe themselves willy-nilly in the
tradition of the photographic image. By wrapping their photos in an artisanal cloth, they do not inaugurate a new era in the history of
photography. The reverse is true: they entrench themselves in a rather
bygone phase of its development. For, it is only the advent of the
digital manipulation of the image that opens new perspectives in regard
of what, up to then, has been the Achilles' heel of photography: the
indexical nature of its starting point. As an artisanal prosthesis on
the analogical photographic image, a photo translated into painting is
not revolutionary at all, but bluntly outdated, passé ('antiquated', to
phrase it with Luc Tuymans).
This is all the more true, since the artisanal cloth only superficially
has something to do with the nature of the handmade image. The painters
who feel called to painterly elaborate a photographic image, reduce what
is painterly on painting to secondary characteristics such as the brush
stroke, deformation, blurring of the image, and freedom of choice of
colours. Therewith, they misunderstand what is precisely the central,
fundamental advantage of the handmade image: that the artist can in all
sovereignty create an imaginary world, only the elements of which are
borrowed from the real world - something Expressionism, Abstract Art and
Surrealism have strived for so eagerly - but often too frenetically.
Such a self created image can by no means be photographed, but in the
best case only achieved through montage of photographed parts - and
up to now, this only yields unsatisfying results. When the artist, in
addition, creates his image in subsequent phases, the number of contents
that he can embody in his image increases, and so does also the number
of elements that are borrowed from the real world. It is through such
essential characteristics that the handmade image distinguishes itself
from the tradition photographic image: through the nature of the
representation itself, and not through secondary characteristics like
brush strokes, 'flou', 'cloisonné'
or freedom of choice of colours.
The paintings of Herman Maes make it clear at once that the artists,
who continued to use the brush and the canvas rather than opting for
conceptual art, displayed reality of design, nevertheless have
contributed nothing to a further development of the image. They resign
not only from using the more advanced digital photographic
techniques, but above all from the new possibilities that have been
created by the painters who wanted to walk different paths than photographers. They rather have nestled themselves in a cosy niche
between the two rapids where the real developments of the image are
Conversely, the procedure of Herman Maes is far more progressive than
that of the painters who wrap photographs in painterly cloths. As
described above, he not only further develops the really progressive
developments initiated by painters who wanted to explore the specific
merits of the handmade image, he also knows to reach new heights. As
long as the digital manipulation of images made by the camera has not
reached the same level as the handmade image, his technique is also
superior to the digital production of the image.
That becomes above all apparent on the level of content. Because the
attention of painters who degrade their trade to a prosthesis of
photography, goes above all to problems of 'translation', they tend to
neglect the content, which, as a consequence of the shortcomings of the
photographic image which is their starting point, was not worth
mentioning in the first place. It suffices to compare the image from
this tradition with the formal and contentual richness of the images of
Contrary to many of his contemporaries, the work of Herman Maes
distinguishes itself by its outspoken presentive nature: the image
speaks for itself. It by no ways an overt conceptualism, like that of Joseph Kosuth,
Lawrence Weiner or John Baldessari.
It is even less crypto-conceptual, in that the image is merely an
example to some philosophy. It is not at all images that only acquire
their meaning through the 'textual context' . We even do not have to
rely on titles that facilitate the perception of the image: the
paintings of Herman Maes have none. And they can fully do without.
Which does not mean that we immediately grasp what his paintings are
showing. Many forms are not outspoken and/or condensed with their
opposites, like in a dream. It takes some time before we become fully
aware of what there is to be seen. That means even less that we should
not say a word about them. Comments can facilitate the access to the
picture. Comparisons can highlight the singularity - and the
quality - of a painting.
I hope that the above
will have contributed to this task, and that the reader has become
aware of the high formal and contentual quality of this work.
November 2007, January 2008
Background to this text:
stefan beyst: theory on art
Herman Maes in Cultuurcentrum Hasselt,
February 1 - March 30 , 2008.