Painted Datasets (2002)
Nowadays, faces are huge quantities of data stored in high-performance computers, or piece goods, sold by the yard and disgorged by passport-photo booths in train stations and shopping malls. They are “material,” to be picked up, used, and potentially subjected to fresh appraisal.
Think of the eponymous protagonist of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s film Amélie, retrieving the scraps and fragments of a stranger’s torn-up photos from underneath one of those photo booths, in order to painstakingly reassemble them afterwards. Or think of Harding Meyer, who selectively pins down the photographically and electronically prepared glut of images, extracting and isolating individual elements in order to reconstruct them on canvas. With a digital camera, Meyer records television pictures: the everyday small-screen mixture of warlords and advertising babes, poker-faces repre-senting the interests of the state, street urchins exploited for propaganda purposes, perps and the traumatized, terror victims and tourists. From this batch of images subjected to a twofold technological processing—first edited in studios and cutting rooms, then filmed from the screen—Meyer picks out the motifs which he later turns into paintings: large-format likenesses of young women, or intimate portraits of serious, bright, mischievous, quizzical, self-confident, or sometimes even prematurely aged children. He also trawls the Internet as a source. Furthermore, Meyer sometimes paints people from his immediate workaday surroundings. In such cases, however, the faces are adapted to the conditions of media technology. Before Meyer mixes his oil paints and begins to apply the first strokes to the canvas, he prepares a C-print even smaller than a postcard to serve as a reference as he paints.
In terms of craftsmanship, Meyer follows a process developed, handed down and modified over centuries. In several working steps, individual layers of paint are applied one on top of the other, resulting, at the end of the painting process, in a seemingly uniform whole—the picture. With painters such as Giorgione or Jean Siméon Chardin, Peter Paul Rubens or Tintoretto, these layers consist of open, loosely engaging structures, so that, on closer inspection, the figures and objects portrayed dissolve into a web of lines, planes, blobs, or graphic abbreviations. Meyer does not take a significantly different approach. Even if his paintings often come across as calm and harmonious in the final analysis, these downright meditatively balanced views of human physiognomies are always the result of several consecutively linked acts of painting. In a first approximation to the motif, Meyer marks out the contours and significant parts of the painting, subjecting its surface to a calculated compositional organization. In terms of characteristic style, this stage would be comparable, for instance, with the prismatically constructed works of Paul Cézanne—only Meyer does not attempt to break down spatial perception into individual image particles and facets of color. Rather, he keeps the image in the categories of two-dimensionality, constructing it from distinct planes emerging from finished painting processes and lying one on top of another like transparencies.
The impression of planning and leveling is particularly evident when the artist removes the final layer of paint with a squeegee. At this moment, Meyer gets to grips, as it were, with the object depicted, definitively taking possession of it. Again, to phrase it metaphorically, he strips the epidermis from the painting—divesting it of its externality, so to speak—by exposing a deeper layer of the picturethat already encompasses everything of importance. If in some pictures it looks as if the face and background are covered by a veil, viewers are faced with a paradox: at first glance they might infer the necessity of pulling aside a sort of gauze curtain covering the actual portrait. Here, however, they are already a step ahead: by scratching off the outermost layer of paint, the artist has brought viewers one level closer to the construction of the painting, and to its inner structure.
With this gesture of erasure lying implicitly over the painting, Meyer blazes a hermeneutic path leading back to the beginnings of each specific portrayal. By removing the final painted layer at the end of his process, he provides an example of how the visual message should be deconstructed, and demonstrates how, in analytical backward movements, one proceeds from one layer of paint to the next, and from there, layer by layer back to the white primer of the canvas. Meyer triggers a moment of examination. Reflecting on the creative process, it again becomes plain that no matter how realistic the pictures look, they are constructions, both in terms of how they are made and how they are perceived. Michel Foucault hinted at this connection using the painting of Édouard Manet. Referring to La serveuse de bocks (The Waitress), he remarked: “What does this painting consist of, and what does it represent? In a certain sense it represents nothing, because there is nothing to see.”
The philosopher, who has devoted himself to the study of Manet for twenty years, based his statement on the showcasing of the painting in its Parisian context, which hinges entirely on intimation. The gaze of the protagonist—a waitress—is lost somewhere in the distance; an arm and a piece of tulle, protruding into the scene from the left, indicate that not only beer but also dancing and cabaret are offered here. The nothingness that erupts in Manet, which Foucault was not the first to notice, is the absence of communication between the people who are portrayed, and the absence of revelation that the painter imparts to his figures. Paul Valéry spoke of a “présence d’absence”; 2 here, he had in mind the portrait of Berthe Morisot au bouquet de violettes (Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets), and the slightly forlorn gaze with which the dark, curly-haired woman looks out of the picture. Faced with this presence in nowhere, with the open reserve of the people in Manet’s paintings, every narrative about individual life scripts, dreams, plans and destinies must remain conjecture. The person is the person, the picture is the picture. The painting of Harding Meyer also rests on this premise, though admittedly under changed technological and art-historical conditions. Developments that spread like wildfire in the Belle Époque, which Manet also helped to spur on in his paintings, only really achieved their full effect after the painter’s death, in the course of the 20th century—revolutionizing art to an extent that could not fail to leave its mark on painting. The medium was radically called into question, and its end was repeatedly proclaimed. Nowadays, therefore, every painted picture created on the basis and in the awareness of these historical changes contains a redefinition of the medium. This is because painting nowadays perforce defines itself with reference to a zero point determined by the assertion (now put into historical perspective) that its tools are not appropriate for the modern world, and are bound to fail in the face of the latter.
The painting of Harding Meyer has its place on this side of the zero point. His works bring together two different strands of development that began running their separate courses in Manet’s time, if not earlier. Manet’s paintings were often criticized for being flat and sloppily composed, and for failing to achieve the heightened degree of refined portrayal as celebrated with sweeping dramatics and even morbid nuances by the then esteemed historical paintings of Alexandre Cabanel, Thomas Couture or Ernest Meissonier. Ultimately, however, this criticism of Manet pinpoints the decisive landmark step taken by the painter: the image is no longer used like a proscenium stage for illusionistic productions. Rather, the appearance of the Objective, which the invention of central perspective had imbued with a spatial dimension, is dissolved in favor of a style of painting that renders the peculiarities of the medium visible, because it preserves painting as painting. The discrepancy between a three-dimensional reality and the need to translate this reality into planes—to level it, so to speak—persists in Manet’s paintings. There, not least of all, it highlights the productive difference between painting and photography. From this point on—up to the virtual reality of the Internet—illusionism is a matter of technical devices.
Particularly when getting to grips with the execution of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, when it was a question of increasing the plausibility of the portrayal by incorporating generally known details, Manet no doubt consulted press photos on a number of occasions, using his sources in a highly selective manner. Manet, however, only used photos to supplement information, unlike, for example, Franz von Stuck, who later used them as a means of pinpointing a composition, thereby having access to a forever-unchanging model. Speaking to his communications mentor Émile Zola, he declared: “I’m helpless without a model. I cannot paint from my imagination.”3
Behind this statement, which seemingly only reveals an individual shortcoming, there are already signs that pictures generated with technology will in future increasingly serve as a substitute for reality. This break, this splitting into two realities, is foreshadowed in Manet’s confession: classically trained and belonging to an era in which the new media are just beginning to take root, Manet intimates—admittedly through his broad-brush painting style and spaciously laid-out, ubiquitous flat expanses—that he is acting in a two-dimensional space. Even so, he still understands painting as a conversion of spatial impressions into planes and lines. With him, painting represents a transformation from three dimensions into two. Had Manet referred directly to photographs, he would have remained on the same level of perception and production. Like the fresco painters, who transformed drawings into extended murals, the modification he undertook would only have been aesthetic. Enlargement, arrangement of color and the exaltation of the black-and-white photo through the application of paint would have transformed it into a painting. The product of an optical device and a subsequent chemical procedure would have acquired the values and charms of handcrafted peinture. Moreover, it would have signified a streamlining measure if Manet had based his paintings directly on photographic models. That he did not take this step is remarkable, since he consistently operates within the categories of the plane, and repeatedly reminds us that images are, in the first instance, images—i.e. an abstraction—of the reality they present us with. In his last great work, he even duplicates this effect: Un bar aux Folies-Bergère (A Bar at the Folies-Bergère) just about overflows with sensory impressions, but the bulk of what the viewer sees are the reflections on a huge wall mirror that takes up a good three quarters of the painting.
The mirrors from which Harding Meyer draws his images are TV screens and PC monitors. Here, similarly to Manet, Meyer stresses the mediality of painting. Like photography or the Internet, television or film, it is only ever a surrogate of what it reflects. And, like Manet before him, Meyer emphasizes in his works that the reality of the images is constituted as a synthesis: of the technical properties and requirements of the medium with its specific materials in each case, of the individual handling of these materials, and of the objects from which they are derived. These factors pertain to painting, as well as to photography or to images from the Internet: for although the pictures generated by a device are deemed—owing to their underlying scientific parameters—to be objective, they are nonetheless subject to the functions according to which they operate, as well as to the intentions coupled with their use. Meyer refers back to this connection. He paints, but with respect to the aforementioned conditions, his painting is merely the continuation of the technologically generated images by other means: specifically, by the tools of painting.
Although a text on the topicality of painting at the beginning of the 21st century states that painting creates a space—more precisely, “the intimacy of a space that is relevant to the present day as a resonance chamber of my own three-dimensionality”4—there is no tranquil three-dimensionality to speak of in Meyers’ portraits. True, the rise and fall of the facial landscape, its hollows and elevations, are clearly indicated: nose and chin appear to stand out, the eyes seem to be more deeply set. But instead of modeling physiognomy through characteristic brush style, Meyer does everything to keep perception in the plane. The layer-by-layer construction of the painting described above supports this, as does the flattening of the painting’s surface by evenly drawing a squeegee over it. Last but not least, it is the almost totally empty, often ethereally light-blue or neutral gray backgrounds that dismiss any illusion of three-dimensionality, particularly since, in terms of painting technique, they are in any case on a level with the portrayal of the face. Even the materiality of the color allows no latching of the gaze onto the third dimension; any three-dimensional development of the painting’s surface is avoided in favor of homogeneity.
Michel Foucault, Die Malerei von Manet, Berlin 1999, p. 25 (translation from the German).
2 Paul Valéry, “Triomphe de Manet”, in: Manet 1832–1883, Musée de l’Orangerie exh. cat., Paris 1932,
pp. XIV–XVI (translation from the German).
3 Cf. Manfred Fath/Stefan Germer (eds.), Edouard Manet. Augenblicke der Geschichte, Munich 1992, p. 47
(translation from the German).
4 Jean-Christophe Ammann, “Kunst unter Tränen”, in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, June 16, 2001, p. I