virgil brill

towards a renaissance of the image

French version


How to resist the beauty of the nudes from Virgil Brill's series 'Les Incantations' from which above that paradisiacal image and below that marvellous torso?

No traditional nude here, staying or lying supine, exhibiting itself in an often artificial pose before the eyes of the beholder. When we see it in full view, it appears to be a walking nude, that comes nearer, passes before our eyes and moves away:

It is underway, only furtively crosses our path, just like the girl in Baudelaire's 'A une passante':

Un éclair...puis la nuit! – Fugitive beauté
Dont le regard m’a fait soudainement renaître,
Ne te verrai-je plus que dans l’éternité?

Although, with Brill, it is not a furtive glance that lights up amidst the mass of passers-by, but a ripe body that appears, enveloped in an abundant mane of hair. And although we are not submerged in the buoyant jazz of the city, but in the timeless space of an intimate space pervaded with a shimmering mist, out of which the nude looms up like an apparition, only to dissolve in it again.

Disappearing and disappearing: not only in the literal sense. For, what - equally on the literal level - is merely a kind of mist, is often condensed into something that can only be named in terms of (the absence of) light as such: into a dark grey, out of which looms up something that equally cannot but be described in terms of (the absence of) light as such: a dark spot - the saturated suggestion of a more than benevolent body:

And that reminds us of the fact that Brill does more than merely stage the appearance and disappearance of a woman. He is also mesmerised with the fathoming of that other, nearly related mystery: the appearing and disappearing of the visual world. In full light, we all too easily take the appearance of visual object for granted. Only by mitigating the violence of the light can we penetrate the twilight zone between being visible and being invisible, where appearing is not only lighting up, but can also be the protrusion of a dark shadow from a nearly dark background: the mystery of becoming visible, of being visible as such. Thus, the appearance and disappearance of woman and the visible are one another's metaphor. We will come back on that topic below. We first should explore the 'literal' dimension to some greater length.


The being underway of the nude is echoed in the being underway of the group. The group: as opposed to the nude not a worn out topic, but a largely unexplored territory. With increasing enthusiasm, Virgil Brill dedicated many series to the theme. Let us first explore that remarkable series 'Faërie':

Nude men, women and children are wandering around in little groups across the woods, under a roof of foliage, where they are not exposed to the violence of sunlight on the open plain, under an open sky. The tension with what is there outside and above the woods is kept alive through the often fairy-like light, that envelopes the figures in the dark of a backlight, whether they are moving away or towards the light. Above the sheltering woods is the open sky, and outside them the open plain. Sometimes, when the light is tempered through a shimmering mist and the sun is not too high, they venture to enter the open space or the beach.

This series is pervaded by the atmosphere of idyllic primeval times. And that impression is only enhanced when the night falls. The group stops wandering then and comes to rest in the dance in a circle; the ritual feast in the dark of the night, nearly lighted by the shine of the moon.

After the night, the bodies resurrect in the mystic light of break of day


A totally different atmosphere is conjured up in those most remarkable series 'Migrations' and 'Nouvelles Migrations'. No longer quasi idyllic primeval times here, but rather a generalised, indeterminate present. No longer small groups, but rather often massive anonymous masses. Anonymous, because they laid off their clothes and with them every indication of gender and generation. The fairy-like, sheltered world is replaced with an empty open space, wherein they seem to hang around without purpose

or wandering around, although it is not clear where they are going to or whence they come.

The open spaces in which these masses wander about are no longer extending under an open sky: a sometimes dense mist hides from view any horizon that could delimit and determine. To grasp the specific nature of these masses, it pays to compare them with images of other masses. Of course, photos of the deportation of Jews - who certainly are coming from somewhere and going somewhere - impose themselves:

Or we are reminded of the dense masses of Antony Gormley, which are not underway at all, but standing still, staring with wide open eyes to some invisible leader in front of them, as in the detail of 'European field' below:

antony gormley

And we realise at once that Virgil Brill's masses are totally different. Even when underway and together, they do not close their ranks: they only share their destination. And also when standing still, they do not even think of coming closer to each other. In that respect, they resemble the figures of Giacometti, especially when grouped together in an ensemble.


But even when hundreds of Giacometti's sculptures were summoned up, they would never stop being self-contained individuals, but rather the endless variation of one and the same individual. And that holds especially of dispositions like 'Another Place' of Antony Gormley, where we are dealing with the literal repetition of hundreds of identical casts, spread over the beach in their frozen posture:

antony gormley

But we do not read Gormley's repetition as the multiplication of one and the same person as with Giacometti: rather as a feeling of identity in many different persons, as with soldiers in an army. Virgil Brill's masses are not of that 'uniform' kind. Even when the differences between his silhouettes are nearly discernable, we deliberately experience his figures as individual persons. The focus is not on the separate figures, nor on what all the individuals have in common, but on the individual as an integral, organic part of a group. In 'Another place', all the figures are staring at the North and in 'European field' at an invisible leader: these masses are structured around on organising principle. Such unificatory principle can also proceed from within the group, as in 'Quarto stato' of Fabrizio Pellizza de Volpedo (known from Bertolucci's 'Novecento') where the self-conscious mass is marching shoulder to shoulder behind three figures that are not so much their leaders as their representatives.

de volpedo

Not so in Virgil Brill's masses. Even when there are many people together here, they are not together because they searched each other's company. Even when they are heading towards some common destination or seem to be fascinated by the same phenomenon, they nevertheless do not like to get involved with each other. We cannot help being reminded of the mass from which Baudelaire's passante was looming up: the loose individuals in the shopping streets of our cities, or their transposition on the beaches, where Virgil Brill has photographed them. Although one and the same invisible hand seems to have driven them together on one and the same place, they all maintain a safe distance between each other. This kind of group did not originate in the need to bundle the power of separate individuals against an inimical group. Rather are we dealing with individuals that keep each other at a distance, while the group itself is not more than the ever expandable addition of individual atoms. Such addition is not at all the pre-social primeval condition of man wherein Hobbes' 'bellum omnes contra omnes' is waged. Such is rather the kind of organically structured group that Virgil Brill staged in his 'Faërie'. The mass of individuals repelling each other at a distance, on the other hand, is a late product of human history: we find it only when aggression and exploitation have become the invisible and anonymous work of abstract money relations, leaving the real bodies somewhat soulless and relationless behind.


From the walking nude, over the group wandering about, we have ended up in the mass. The mass in an image: that cannot surprise us enough! For, while the nudehas from way back played a crucial role in the visual arts, the mass is almost completely absent.

And that is remarkable. For, even when man's mind might be preoccupied by the nude in the first place, the appearance of the group cannot fail to leave a deep impression on the soul. From primeval times onward, man wanders about in hunting and gathering hordes that gradually conquered the entire surface of the earth. Those rather small hordes develop into larger groups or masses as soon as man becomes sedentary: as a consequence of the development of agriculture, the group can steadily increase in size. Those increasing numbers are no longer only spread over the fields, they are increasingly concentrating in larger and larger cities. The paradox is that precisely when man has become sedentary, greater and greater masses are wandering about the earth's surface. Ever more goods have to be gathered on market-places where people are streaming together from far and wide, or they are supplied by caravans that begin to travel back and forth between the cities. Also ever larger armies begin to conquer city after city and concentrating their riches in the capitals of Empires. After victories, or on occasion of religious festivals for the new upper-gods, ever larger crowds are gathering on the large squares in the big cities. And, excluded as they feel from the riches in the imperial cities in the civilised world, barbarians from the periphery come to flood the civilised centres. Or it is more pacific individuals that concentrate in ever denser trains to the big religious centres of the world unified under one emperor or God.

Of all those groups and masses and crowds, nothing can be seen in the image. There are scarce exceptions. the Greeks and the Romans used to delight in the depiction of orgiastic communities. There are also some depictions of armies and battles. But in the West we find the mass mostly under the guise of the resurrected of the Last Day:from the Roman and Gothic portals - the elongated tympani of which seem to prefigure Brill formats - to the most impressive mass ever depicted: Rubens' 'Fall of the Angels' in the Alte Pinakothek in München.

It appears that only the humiliated, the defeated, the enemies are apt to be depicted in the image. In the Ancien Régime, the people as such is summarised and represented in the one and single person of the ruler. That is why the clash of the warring masses on the battle field is often condensed into the duel between two inimical rulers. But that is bestowing to much honour onto the enemy: far more stronger is the contrast between the one and only mighty ruler and the impotent mass of the humiliated and chased enemy. Ever since the industrial revolution (and the corollary French Revolution) the masses, that, due to the development of new means of transport are becoming increasingly larger, begin to play an ever more important role. We should expect them to appear in the image accordingly. But the images of soldiers in barracks or on the battle-fields, of workers in the factories, of consumers in the shopping streets and shopping centres, the tourists on the beaches, the streams of migrants and fugitives remain scarce exceptions. To be sure, there are the scenes from the Napoleonic wars, but there, the masses are reduced to the mere decor of the appearance of Napoleon. The mass as 'le non-représenté', hence.

It would be all too easy to invoke the character of the immobile image to explain such absence of the masses. No doubt, the moving image is far more appropriate to render some aspects of the masses - it suffices to refer to Eisensteins' Potemkin'. But the argument is not quite convincing. That is plainly apparent from the examples above: Rubens knows to convincingly conjure up a chased mass within the confines of a simple rectangle! And also a elongated rectangle is an obvious way out, as is shown by the freezes of the Greeks, the Medieval timpani, not the mention the photographs of Virgil Brill.

The paradox that, precisely in the age of the masses, the mass seems to be excluded from the image has everything to do, hence, with something quite different: with the rejection of 'mimesis' - content. For, together with the concrete mass, also concrete political relations have to be introduced in the image, as used to be the case when the mass was shortened into the figure of the ruler. Add to this that the mass as such is likely to evoke rather negative feelings. Its existence is merely periodic, and the phase of that periodicity only increases when money relations are invisibly fulfilling many an action that used to be the privilege of the mass. When the mass is constituted nevertheless, on a now ever increasing scale, the effect of that emergence is only enhanced through the contrast with the ever increasing isolation of the atomised individual. And what the mass performs is, finally, not always memorable. That holds equally true for the aims it pretended to pursue: it is not only the revolution that devours its own children, so that many a former member of many a mass is not always willing to remember his action on the barricades, the battle-fields, the razzias and the massacres... Only in music is the mass amply and impressively represented, especially since the 19e century: think only of the finale of Beethoven's ninth, the impressive choirs in many an opera and a symphony of the nineteenth and twentieth century, but above all of that most remarkable phenomenon of the 'Requiem' - think of Mozart, Berlioz, Fauré, Ligeti, just to mention the most impressive examples. And it cannot be by accident that, not otherwise than in the image, it is the resurrection of the death that seems to be natural habitat of the mass in music.


In that sense, Virgil Brill is entering virginal territory with his photography of the mass. And precisely therefore, the instinctual certitude with which he knew to develop this theme can only surprise us.

Let us have a closer look at the kind of mass that Virgil Brill tries to catch in the image. It is immediately apparent, then, that our description of his masses as the post-industrial mass of individualised atoms is only a rough first approach. For, even when this description matches many a photo of Virgil Brill, on other photos the atoms are joining to more organic wholes: couples, triads and even quadruplets

And once initiated, the movement cannot be stopped. In the sextet below, a new élan is pervading the previously isolated atoms:

It is as if angels, driven by some ardent inner fire, are setting out for some holy mission. Even when they do not touch each other, the shared élan transforms them in some superindividual organism. Such quasi messianistic élan strongly contrasts with the rather 'Atlantic' melancholy that hovers over the series 'Faërie'.


By zooming in on these emergent formations, the rest of the group seems to be driven out of the image. And that makes us conscious of the fact that Virgil Brill approaches the group from ever changing points of view.

While Brill does not refrain from zooming in to the point where the mass threatens to dissolve into a single pair, he cannot zoom out so far that we get the entire mass in view. it continues to extend far beyond the already stretched edges of the image, and also in the depth there will always loom up new members, how far the camera might penetrate it.

We seem to get a somewhat better grip on the group when the camera takes a bird's eye view. But only now do we fully realise, not only how far to the left and the right, but also how far forward and backward this mass is extending.

Far away or nearby, we always have the feeling that we are standing outside the group, that we are excluded from it: were the image able to render sound, it would seem as if we did understand nothing from the far away murmur, and from what there is to be seen, we only see the vague contours. We will come back to that aspect.

Thus, the mass continues to transcend the image, whatever position the camera might take. And that is how Virgil Brill knows to visualise a further aspect of the mass: it is like a kind of ether wherein the isolated individuals are from the beginning embedded and to which they are bound with an indissoluble tie. The limitless size of the mass is a kind of prefiguration of the only and one encompassing group wherein mankind sooner or later has to dissolve. For, this is no longer the horde as it was staged in Faërie. No longer is the world the sum of countless small groups, relying on themselves and delineating themselves form other groups that they preferably wish as remote as possible - groups as inhabited spheres secluded from the extended no-man's-land in between them. Such defensive structure - figure of scarcity - has fallen apart in the already described 'primeval soup', wherein the loose atoms gradually join to new molecules.

In order to grow to such infinite proportions, the group had first to fall apart in separate atoms. And that falling apart seems to heavily burden the poor atoms....


For, no doubt, the most impressive thing about Brill's masses is that atmosphere of doom and gloom that is hovering over them.

Already the titles are drenched with it. There is sacrifice and crime in the air: 'L'epreuve du matin', 'Le mal est fait', 'Le silence des frères', and there will be called into account: 'Revenant de si loin' ''Assemblée d'absents' 'vous serez comptés'. It seems as if the resurrection of the death is impendent, as if the call for vengeance for the nameless evil will resound. Although - bearing Virgil Brills name in mind - we cannot help thinking of a more heathen descent of times - the transition from the golden, over the copper and iron, to the leaden age - and above all of the subsequent return of the second golden age, that makes the circle full: 'returns old Saturn's reign,with a new breed of mensent down from heaven' (Virgilius,Eclogae,IV).

A new golden age, that can only be an age of peace and harmony between men, an age of love. And at once we know what shades are hovering there over Brill's masses: it is the dark shadow of exploitation, repression, war, condensed in the symbol of murder - the nameless evil that mortals willingly of unwillingly inflict on each other.

And that becomes fully apparent when we leave the titles for what they are and look at the pictures as such. For, after all, titles are only the attempts of the artist to catch in words those unspoken - silent - dramas that seem to be enacted in many of these images. What, for instance, to think of that solitary figure, standing with its head inclined, while the rest of the mass seems to ignore what is happening?

And what do they witness, the members of that group that seems to have isolated itself from the mass, while a last individual seems to hurry away?

And what is happening in that ominous encounter of two beings with a group that seems to have being awaiting it?:

And what does the man, followed by two beings and then by a larger group, approach on the photo below?

On other photos, it is not so much the posture of the otherwise immobile figures that intimates nameless dramas, but rather the movement of the mass as such moving away of hasting towards something. We cannot see from where they come or to where they go. But on some photos, Virgil Brill has replaced the evil fate with a kind of windy rain that swipes their backs - as if they were transformed in wandering Jews .

vous serez comptés

Or the artist transforms the image so that the goal the group is heading towards is visualised as a light above the horizon, while the entire space on the foreground is transformed in a kind a giant funnel perspectivally leading towards that goal .

Only now do we fully realise the meaning of that distant perspective: only the distance transforms these scenes into silent, nameless dramas and thus lends them the polyvalent character that makes the threatening truth loom up from behind the innocent figure of the group. and it is also the distance that makes the gaze susceptible for what all too easily threatens to disappear behind a nearby surface.


Ihr wandelt droben im Licht
Auf weichem Boden, selige Genien !
Glänzende Götterlüfte
Rühren euch leicht,
Wie die Finger der Künstlerin
Heilige Saiten.
Hölderlin, Hyperions Schicksalslied

But there is still more to distance in Virgil Brill's work. In its ambivalence, it is nearly related to that other element that never fails in Brill's photos: the hazy, sometimes shimmering mist from which the figures emerge and in which they dissolve. Such was not only the fate of the nudes with which we began this essay, but also that of the members of the group on the photo below;

When they have left the scene, a mysterious void remains wherein no more objects can be seen, no more surfaces separating an outside from an inside and thus creatinga distance space between things. Together with the objects, their surface and their interior, also distance is dissolving - perspective is collapsing - so that everything begins to permeate everything: no longer can before be discriminated from behind, left from right; the horizon as the dividing line between heaven and earth dissappears, so that also above and below dissolve into one single continuum. And after the disappearance of men, we also expect the dwindling of the gloom and doom, the evaporation of the sadness that permeated space, night to give way to the break of day:

And here we have those marvellous photos from another magnificent series ofVirgil Brill: 'Mémoires du pays d'or'. the title is not random: The break of day is like the beginning of a golden age. In that mystic morning mist we cannot yet discern the contours of the earth's surface nor the silhouettes of the human beings that inhabit it. Thus, the break of a new day is merely a promise - or, as the title suggests: a memory. In the blue morning mist, there are no people yet - or they have dissolved in it. Thus, that mystic morning mist is equally the advent of an inner mystic space, widened to the cosmic dimensions of the world: pure self-perception of the soul, not confined within the limits of the body and by the presence of other men. Unbroken beauty, sheer 'promesse de bonheur'.

The theme holdsVirgil Brill firmly in its grip. After the peregrinations over 'Migrations', 'Incantations' and 'Faëries' it surreptitiously returns in a new guise: as a world without confines breaking through behind a totally opposite world on the foreground. Such contrast cannot but make the world that breaks through really limitless, and its epiphany a veritable 'return'.


The return to an old theme: that must remind us of the fact that there is something like the chronology of the works. All the more since the sequence of the exposition above does not match the sequence of their origination. the oldest works are 'Mémoire du pays d'or' (1992-1995) In the summer of 1995, in 'Human beings', Virgil Brill makes the first strides towards something that from 1996 onwards will turn out to be those marvellous 'Migrations', a series which he is still developing further. From 1999 stems the series 'Incantations'. It would lead us too far to analyse the dynamics of this development. But it is very interesting to describe the conception of the theme of 'Migrations'. On a hot summer afternoon, half asleep on the beach, Virgil Brill descries through the shimmering heat hazes the silhouettes of bathers. 'Ces braves gens étaient en vacances et allaient se baigner... Mais, vus de loin, indistincts, ils avaient l'air de s'être rassemblés pour quelque motif important et mystérieux'. Such looming up of the mysterious reminds of the appearance ad disappearance of the woman that we described in the beginning of this text. Just like the woman out of the mist, just so looms up from what Brill calls 'cette banalité étrange' the hidden life of the group. The 'étrangeté' of what becomes visible then, can easily be tempered by the reconstruction of the 'banalité' that lies at the roots of it - just like one tries to escape the horror of the nightmare by waking up and then identificating the banal trifle that was causing the clairvoyance of the dream: it was but a dream....

Of course we are reminded here of the fantastic landscapes da Vinci descried in the stain left by throwing a sponge soaked with various colours against a wall, or of the wooden floors from which Max Ernst derived the marvels of his 'Histories naturelles'. Here it is the shimmering and the distance that make the hidden loom up out of the visible.

The appearing and disappearing is repeated in the dark chamber where 'ma fille de rêve enfouie dans le mystère des gris successivement inversés des solarisations délirantes et surgissant trompeusement révèlée du dernier bain'.

And it finally also governs the perception of the image. For, even when the manipulation in the dark room has revealed the'étrangeté' in the 'banalité' that Virgil Brill found on the distant beach, also our gaze has to adjust to become fully susceptible to what is revealed here. Especially since, sooner or later, we cannot fail to recognise the 'banal' from which these ominous scenes are derived. And here we are reminded of Dali's paranoid lecture of the image, in case of 'l'Angélus' of Millet'.

All these contradictory movements under the sign of ambivalence are nothing less than the embodiment in the image of Virgil Brill's attitude towards life and the visible.

To work that wonder - to make visible what threatens to hide from view - all the appropriate means have to be summoned up. As no other, Virgil Brill has mastered a whole range of photographic techniques.

To begin with, he often reduces the full scale from light to dark to one of is extremes: either the appearance seems on the verge of dissolving in the very light that makes it visible, or it threatens to be swallowed by the very dark out of which it looms up:

Sometimes the reduction is so drastic that the tokens seems to be inverted: on the photo below, it is as if the black lights up from the grey:

When studying these marvellous photos, it comes to dawn on us what the master means when he writes: ' j'ai été aspiré dans le vertige des gris'.

In another photo the range from dark to light is not so much reduced to one of its extremes, as rather reduced to a limited number of degrees, which lends the image an unknown magic, especially in combination with an enhanced haziness:

On the photo below Brill succeeds in conjuring up an unheard of feel of whiteness, which has something of the tactile sensation of the feathers in the wing of a swan:.

More akin to the chemical character of photography is the technique of (an often repeated) solarisation - Brill is talking about an ''enchaînement un peu délirant de solarisations de plus en plus multiples':

The same chemical manipulations lead to effects that remind of sophisticated graphical techniques:

The emphasis on grain not only reminds of certain drawings of Seurat, but foremost of graphical techniques as the 'mezzotint':

Sometimes the photos approach the sensibility of charcoal or grainy paper

On other photos Brill succeeds in evocating a nearly ethereal atmosphere, which reminds of the etchings of Rembrandt:

It is apparent then, that Virgil Brill is deeply embedded not only in the rich tradition of photography, but foremost in the broader tradition of the visual arts as such. That holds true already on the purely technical level, in as far as, with Brill, the distinction between the graphical arts their offspring, photography, seems to evaporate.

But it is especially true on the level of 'content'. As we have seen, there is no trace here of any betrayal of the 'mimetic' tradition that from way back has been the real backbone of genuine art. While what used to be the art of painting has, in a self-destructive move, ended up in the neighbouring domains of design or (pseudo-)philosophy, Brill convincingly succeeds not only in renewing traditional themes like the nude, but above all to explore a nearly virginal domain: the theme of the mass. No doubt: this will be the starting point of a many a new development.


That Virgill Brill's photography is firmly embedded in the development of art does not mean that he should no longer be a photographer. No doubt, the share of manipulation of the image is often so strong, that some might miss the share of 'reality' in Brill's photography, share that is understood to be typical and decisive of the art of photography - unjustifiably so, since, as a model or point of departure, reality has always been an integral part of every visual art. Conversely, Brill's emphasis on the medium often reminds ofprints or drawings, if not paintings. But Brill is not at all out at lending his photo's the aura of a drawing or a print. Rather have the art of drawing and making prints, just like photography, discovered the possibilities of giving up the smooth transitions of tone in favour of a grainy structure or of strokes, each in their own way and with their own techniques. A comparison with the development of the eye in several unrelated branches of the evolutionary tree imposes itself. Talking about 'graphic' or 'painterly' techniques when photographers are trying to achieve a goal that is also pursued by painters and printmakers, would come down to call an octopus a mammal, just because it also developed an eye...

Moreover, time has come to reverse the traditional hierarchy of the arts. Even when the most impressive works of arts may hitherto have been realised in painting, it suffices to remind of the prints of Rembrandt and Goya to realise what remarkable works of art have been realised in the 'minor' branches of art. And in our age, when painting and sculpting have betrayed there true destiny and dissolved into in countless forms of non- or extra-artistic creativity, it seems that precisely the much scorned art of photography has become the very refuge of the art of making images. We can only hope that Virgil Brill's art might pave the way for the so badly needed renaissance of the art of making images - not in the sense of a retour to a lost golden age, but as a long awaited rebirth after the past dark age when the mimetic taboo has wrought so much havoc in the visual arts. For, it will not have escaped the attention of the reader: our short survey of the iconography of the mass cannot but remind us of the idleness of the contention that everything has already been painted. The contrary might be nearer to the truth: the most important images have still to be made. And the quality of a painting like that of Rubens' 'Fall of the Angels' only reminds of the level that still has to be attained. In view of what he has managed to reveal us in his images, Brill's contention 'There will be no revelation, because revelation is impossible' cannot but sound as a grandiose understatement..

© Stefan Beyst, June 2004.

see also:

180° imaging
Eyemazing 2007, 2
Charlet Photographies


art nudes
traveling with the ghost

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