On November 8, 1895, the German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen discovered rays capable of penetrating material and providing an image of structures invisible to the naked eye. Because they were previously unknown, he dubbed these simply “x-rays,” as they are still known today in most of the world. (In tribute to its gifted native son and first recipient of the Nobel Prize for physics, Germany prefers to use the term Röntgenstrahlen.) Little more than a month after his initial discovery, Roentgen
produced a radiograph of his wife’s left hand, complete with her ill-fitting wedding ring, and mailed the results to several colleagues. That radiograph was exhibited in a public announce- ment of Roentgen’s discovery on January 24, 1896. Fully aware of the significance of his research, especially for the field of diagnostic medicine, the physicist declined to patent his discovery, in the hope that other researchers
would further refine the technique. The wide-reaching applications of radiography would quickly extend far beyond diagnostics to include geology and meteorology, engineering, botany, biology, art, architecture, archaeology, analytical chemistry, and, in our own day, security techno- logies.
Accustomed as we are to the speed with which information travels in a digital age, it nonethe- less seems astonishing that on Valentine’s Day, 1896, only a matter of weeks after the publi- cation of Roentgen’s revolutionary discovery, his technique was applied by the Frankfurt physicist Walter Koenig to the analysis of a painting. (A Dresden colleague, Alexander Toepler, soon followed suit.) Despite the relative primitiveness of the equipment employed, the heavy concentration of lead in the undercoating of most paintings facilitated the production of strikingly detailed images of the “inner life” of the works being examined, thus offering un- precedented insights into the sheer craft of painting itself.
Even more important than what such imaging reveals of an artist’s individual gestus—his
handwriting—such imaging may well document the evolution of a composition. This typically includes underlying sketches and the con- secutive layering of colors with which particular effects have been achieved, as well as correc- tions, often extensive ones, made during the painterly process. Particularly valuable for stylistic analysis and authentication are the so-called pentimenti—a word based on the Italian penti (to repent) and derived, in turn, from the Latin paenitere (to regret). Pentimenti
reveal alterations made by the painter during the course of his work—most often for purely formal reasons, but sometimes as the result of personal or political motivations. A painting entirely devoid of pentimenti is likely to be a copy or an outright forgery, though for that very reason adept forgers often employ older pain- tings as ground for their inventions. Radio- graphic analysis is an essential tool for the restorer, who can detect later additions to a work—which are sometimes the result of ex- aggerated prudery. Such analysis can also reveal hidden treasures, revealing earlier versions of the finished painting or even un- related previous compositions. Beneath Rembrandt’s masterly Tobias and the Angels (1652), for example, there slumbers the portrait of an unknown man. Another small painting
on wood, Old Man with a Beard (1630), pre- viously accepted as an authentic Rembrandt, was recently discovered to conceal a convincing self-portrait of the painter himself as a young man.
Artists may be so dissatisfied with a work that they choose to recycle it, or so short of materials
that they feel they have no other choice. Experts estimate that fully one-third of van Gogh’s early
works are overpaintings of other, finished works that may well have fallen victim to the artist’s chronic penury. Beneath his Patch of Grass (1887) x-ray technology has rendered visible the head of a peasant woman—probably part of a portrait series. But there may even be political as well as monetary reasons for the “burial” of an earlier composition. Francisco de Goya’s Portrait of Don Ramon Salué (1823), a depiction of a famous Spanish judge, conceals the ela- borate but unfinished portrait of a French general, in all probability Joseph Bonaparte, who ruled for a brief time as King of Spain. Goya was Bonaparte’s court painter, and when the monarchy was restored in 1813, the artist clearly had no desire to document the close relationship to his previous patron.
Whether an aesthetic decision, a matter of expediency, or even a form of censorship, pentimenti obviously have much to tell us about an artist’s motivation and technique—even, in some cases, about his biography. Yet I know of no single precedent to the technique that Harding Meyer has evolved over the course of his immensely productive career, in which the “evidence” from the substrata of a work be- comes an integral part of the final compo- sition. Although he renders his subjects with a splendid technical virtuosity, he also repeatedly “attacks” the surface of the painting in a manner that negates any hint of photorealism or simple “prettiness.” (In some more recent works, the faces of Meyer’s subjects are grotesquely dis- torted in a manner reminiscent of Francis Bacon.) In a complex process that may take as many as six months to complete, a single image is built up in ten to fifteen successive layers, often involving major changes in coloration and detail. During this process, still-damp upper
layers may be intentionally “streaked” with a damp brush or even scraped away, fresh layers added, and those in turn partially scraped away again. What remains visible in the finished work is thus an amalgam, a blending of painterly in- formation, including traces of underlying pentimenti that have been exposed. This contri- butes, in turn, to the intricate, tapestry-like texture of Meyer’s works and to their somewhat diffuse, veil-like surfaces.
Although he has occasionally painted three-quarter and even full-length figures, the works for which Harding Meyer is best known are por -traits of mass-media “models” whose faces are cropped in such a manner that focus is on the area between hairline and chin. When he left behind an earlier abstract phase by taking family photographs as a source of motifs, Meyer found ways of focalizing human physiognomy. “I didn’t have to look for models,” he recently re- flected. “I realized soon that painting an un- known person permitted me to be free to de- velop my own style.” 1 In deriving much of his
imagery from advertising, fashion magazines and the Internet, along with stills of television talk shows, Meyer demonstrates a certain affinity to Andy Warhol, who monumentalized and memorialized found imagery in his silk-screened paintings. One is perhaps tempted to think of Meyer’s portraits as giving his sub- jects the “fifteen minutes of fame” that Warhol had once promised. One can also view Meyer’s massmedia models from a radically different vantage point: as images rescued through art from the flood of visual information that threatens to engulf our perception of reality.
While Meyer, like Warhol before him, utilizes photographic sources, there remains an essential difference in their approaches. Few of Warhol’s subjects were in fact anonymous. Even when Warhol was a sickly child cons- trained to spend long periods of time in bed, he was a passionate fan of movie magazines. It comes as no surprise, then, that his most popular subjects would include such stars
and celebrities as Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Judy Garland, Marlon Brando, Mick Jagger, Elvis Presley, and Jackie Kennedy - along with Mickey Mouse and Mao Tse Tung. Meyer’s subjects, on the other hand, are not only nameless, but many are also purely fictional. They are constructed by combining images and modifying them with various elec- tronic tools, including Photoshop. (Here, too,
antecedents can be found in what Warhol called his own “romance” with tape-recorder, Polaroid, and film-camera.) Meyer’s exploration of medial perception was documented in his installation of indirect Bilder (In-direct Pictures) at the Kunstverein Emstetten in 2011. In his essay “Negationenen der Positivität” (Negations of Positivity), the critic Charles Gerhard Rump has analyzed this interplay of video with negative and positive images from public as well as private sources, including Meyer’s own pain- tings. It was a conceptual-perceptual experiment that Rump describes as an exploration of meta- reality.
The technique of addition and subtraction, of concealing and revealing, contributes to the
enigmatic quality of Meyer’s portraits. At first glance his subjects seem oddly, even tan- talizingly familiar, yet they rapidly recede into anonymity; remote and estranged, they project a mysterious, introspective air that belies their seemingly “blank” expressions. It is as though these faces are simultaneously recorded with sharp-focus and soft-focus lenses, combining literalness and idealization (the latter, of course, being a common device of traditional portraiture). In her Grammatologie der
Bilder (Grammatology of Pictures), 3 the cultural historian Sigrid Weigel has argued that the en-face, as opposed to the popular three-quarter or the profile portrait, derives from the tradition of the Greek mask, which expressed a persona that was often radically different from the actor beneath the mask. (Since 1888 the full-face photograph—the so-called
“mugshot”—has been regularly employed by lawenforcementagencies in compiling criminal records.)
Harding Meyer’s unique idiom draws its strength from precisely such contrasts: revealment and concealment, intimacy and reserve, tradition and innovation, portrait and landscape, figuration
and abstraction. There is scarcely a segment of a canvas that, if extrapolated from the whole, might not be read as an abstract composition—above all, of course, the non-illusionist backgrounds, which eschew any suggestion of context or locale. The marriage of abstract and figurative elements was already signaled in Meyer’s debut exhibition in 1995, two years after the completion of his studies at the Karls- ruhe Art Academy, where he studied with the painters Max Kaminsky and Helmut Dorner. Today he describes his Karlsruhe show as “my favorite exhibition.” 4 On view were three distinct groups of works:
mini-format watercolors on paper (some no more than 5 x 4 cm), slightly larger works in gouache on wood, and a large-format series employing acrylic on raw cotton. All were the promising work of a young artist finding his way, experimenting with styles and materials, yet the show nonetheless offered hints of things to come. The gouaches, rendered in a kind of art brut style, all depict distorted human heads, as do the watercolors. The canvases, measuring as much as 203 x 154 cm, are lyric abstractions
that suggest the influence of color-field painting. As in Lace (1994), their effects are achieved through a process of layering thin coats of paint, often leaving earlier layers visible in the finished composition.
While figuration would become Meyer’s trade- mark, abstraction was never entirely rejected, as plainly documented by headhunter, his first show at Düsseldorf’s Gallery Voss in 2001. In the
accompanying catalogue, Renate Puvogel in- sightfully remarked that the works “are first painted in rich colors with protruding features, but afterward the well-formed head is covered with broad, radical strokes, which cross out its individuality, almost bordering on the abstract.” 5 The process of “revision” that Puvogel des- cribes was made possible by the artist’s shift from fast-drying, opaque acrylics to malleable, slow-drying oil paint. Hence, a mere six years after his debut, Meyer had found his subject,
his trademark style, his material, and his technique. Furthermore, his command of those elements was strikingly self-assured. Yet the initial Voss exhibition differed in a number of aspects from the works Meyer would create over the following years. First, most of his sub- jects were children, and some were portrayed in a three-quarter pose—two of them even in a re- clining position. Of those portrayed en face,
several are looking aside and not, as in later works, directly into the viewer’s own eyes. In keeping with the theme of innocence that emer- ges here, the palette is lighter, more pastel than that of the artist’s later compositions. Further- more, a kind of veil seems to hang over the pic- tures, lending them a hazy, dreamlike air, not unlike that created by Gerhard Richter in his own blurred, photo-based paintings— above all, in his famous Ema (Akt auf einer Treppe) from 1966. All in all, the headhunter series conveys
the intimate air of snapshots in a family album.
Perhaps the most significant change signaled by headhunter was in the choice of a horizontal
format over the vertical proportions of traditional portraiture. The change was rooted in the artist’s
fascination with images from cinema screens,te- levision sets, and the Internet: all of them horizontal sources of pictorial information. In favoring the classic “landscape format,” Meyer had to radically adjust the proportions of his compositions. Portraying the entire head on a horizontal canvas would have made the back- ground considerably larger and perhaps more dominant than the subject itself. Meyer chose the other alternative: to foreground his subjects by pulling the heads forward, often cropping them in such a manner that focus is on the area between hairline and chin. Yet something of the landscape aesthetic remains. Meyer creates a pictorial “horizon” delineated by the eyes of his
subjects and accentuated by the horizontal structure of the eye itself. The total composition is thus indeed structured like a landscape, while the textured surface, typically free of any explicit spatial reference, stretches unbroken across the entire canvas.
In their collection of essays The Iconography of Landscape, the cultural geographers Denis
Cosgrove and Stephen Daniels have described landscape painting as “an ordered expression of human perception”—hence, a function of seeing. “Landscape,” they argue, “is composed not only of what lies before our eyes but what lies within our heads.” 6 In using the human eye as a structuring device for his compositions, Harding Meyer follows in the tradition of the great English portraitist Lucien Freud, who always began a new work by painting the sitter’s eyes. In response to a question by Leonie Schilling
in an interview for Arte Al Limite, Harding Meyer responded, “First, I look in the eyes of the subject to find something to hold onto, the need for empathy.” Then Schilling posed a question that points directly to a paradox at the heart of Meyer’s oeuvre: “How do you take something beautiful per se, change its context and turn it into a portrait that appeals to emotions that weren’t there before?” 7 According to the painter, the answer rests in part in the extended production process, the artist’s extended
communion with his subject, which extends to the later exhibition of the work. Meyer’s pain- tings are ideally so installed that viewer and subject are vis-à-vis, literally seeing “eye to eye.” (The latter is one of the more common of 269 English idioms that employ the word “eye.” German offers eighty-two idioms for the equi- valent “Auge.”)
Through this confrontation of subject and viewer, the artist plays with the notion of the eyes as a window to the soul—a surprising twist in works whose “sitters” may not only be anonymous but also composites. (Some, indeed, are distorted with the aid of false teeth, wigs, tape, and electronic manipulation.) Normally, the eyes of Meyer’s models stare so directly into those of the viewer that an uncanny feeling arises: are we seeking to peer into the depths of the subject’s eyes, or is the subject peering into ours? What results is a kind of two-way voyeurism: a mutual peep-show. The compelling power of such an unflinching gaze is evidenced by the logo for Tatort, the longest-running crime series on German television. The show’s opening, featuring a pair of eyes caught in crosshairs, has remained virtually unchanged since the series debuted in 1970. (Horst
Lettenmeyer, the young actor whose eyes still dramatically signal unknown dangers, received 400 Marks for his contribution.) As contempo- rary systems of biomorphic identification demon- strate, eyes are anything but anonymous; the complex and random patterns of the human iris are not only unique but can be identified from a
In Meyer’s case, of course, we are dealing with extreme close-ups not unlike those with which
filmmakers signal a character’s emotions. In- deed, the Golden Age of Hollywood saw the development of a special “eyelight” to lend dramatic emphasis to such revelations by putting a sparkle in an actor’s or actress’s
eye and frequently offering clues to his or her intentions. The painted portrait had long since employed such highlights to lend vividness to the sitter’s gaze, and the works of Harding Meyer are no exception. With such classic techniques he lends his figures a compelling individuation that belies their anonymous origins,
integrating them into the family of man through the sheer, transmogrifying force of his art.
1 Unpublished interview with David Galloway (Karlsruhe, September 8, 2016).
2 See Gerhard Charles Rump, “Der Mensch in Überformat,” Die Welt (August 5, 2006), p. 19.
3 See Sigrid Weigel, Grammatolologie der Bilder (Berlin: Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Wissenschaft, 2015).
4 From a telephone conversation with Harding Meyer (November 12, 2015).
5 Renate Puvogel, in the exhibition catalogue Harding Meyer: headhunter (Düsseldorf: Galerie Voss,
2001), p. 8.
6 Denis Cosgrove and Stephen Daniels, The Iconography of Landscape: Essays on the Symbolic Representation, Design and Use of Past Environments (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 108.
7 Leonie Schilling, “Harding Meyer,” Arte Al Limite (November–December, 2014), p. 19.