The Hidden Portraits of Volker Hermes
Ten years in the making, Hidden Portraits reinterprets historical paintings through a modern lens. Using only elements from the original work, contemporary artist Volker Hermes visually manipulates famous Old Masters portraits, exploring expression when the face is obscured. By blocking the emotions expressed by the face, Hermes invites viewers to observe ancient codes of fashion as symbols of self-representation and social status. Then, with a contemporary perspective, great respect, and a dash of humor, Hermes layers the codes of our times over the codes of ancient times.
The whole project started 10 years ago. But I hadn’t shown it to anyone for years. It was more of a private pleasure. I find myself surprised, amazed, and charmed by historical paintings. As a contemporary painter, I wanted to know more about where they come from; namely, the societal contexts in which they were embedded.
This research led me to delve deeper into the meaning of portraits, what function they have in representing the self, which kind of people were able to have their portraits taken in history. And what I amazingly discovered is that we don’t know that much about the people painted in these portraits, and we don’t know the codes of fashion and the meaning of the clothes they’re wearing as symbols of self-representation and social status at that time. When we look at a portrait, what is in focus is actually just the face — when we go to museums and we see all those beautifully dressed portraits by Old Masters, we don’t really pay much attention to their elaborate clothes, full of incredibly telling details about the society they were living in — we just look at their faces.
So I thought: if I cover the face, I somehow block the focus on the emotions expressed by the face, which somehow obfuscate the perception of the rest of the image. There’s so much information and knowledge in those portraits: what they hold in their hands for instance, or some exquisite detail that you don’t really register as meaningful. So I started to cover their faces at the beginning in quite a naïve way, and for many years it stayed as a side project as I continued my work as a painter. Then over the years I realized how shifting the focus and covering the faces was an important point of view, it somehow resonated with a contemporary perspective and I started to layer codes of our times over the codes of ancient times.
Hermes chooses paintings from the Renaissance, Baroque, or Biedermeier periods, when paintings were purely commissioned works, had to meet rigorous criteria — power, representation, etc. — and were extended arms of the ruling elite. Flowers, fabrics, jewels, hairstyles — every little detail from posture to the sitter’s gaze had a symbolic meaning and served a purpose, namely that of representation.
When Hermes creates a fluffy hat out of the ruff that symbolizes wealth, he exposes exaggerated privilege in the relations of power. Long-curled wigs, the trademark of European rulers, are duplicated curl for curl until they look so grandiose that the faces of the powerful vanish behind them. Expensive garments made from brocade and silk are refashioned into masks reminiscent of the S&M scene. Faces are veiled and people disappear behind their stately accessories.
I have the chance to raise a new thought with an old artwork. I’m interested in the things that the artist has built into a painting to meet the requirements of an expensive portrait commission.
How is power represented? Or femininity/masculinity? What ideals of beauty or social norms existed among an elite that could afford a portrait? As to fashion elements, there are certainly key visuals that immediately catch the eye — a self-confident male attitude, for example, which I counteract, or fetishistic fantasies that women employed to attract men.
If I invent new headpieces, enlarge wigs, make the individuality disappear behind opulent surfaces, then I force the viewer to re-engage with a portrait; to look at it anew.
People often think that Volkers ‘interventions’ as he lovingly calls them, are original paintings. An interviewer once commented, “Knowing art history quite well, I asked myself how have I never seen this portrait before? In which museum is it exhibited? … Your manipulations are realistic to a fault.”
Yes, people think they’re the real thing. I want my inventions to look somehow possible. Crazy for a historical painting, but plausible. In my opinion, plausibility is the only way to change the focus while maintaining the dignity and spirit of the original works. It also contributes to the current discussion on the social context of art. I don’t want to destroy something that I love very much. That’s why I don’t add anything external to the paintings. I’m just transforming and moving different parts of the existing image — a light, a piece of jewel, the draping of a fabric. Sometimes I feel like I’m actually painting. All of the changes come from the painting itself. I try to keep all of the painter’s characteristics, the light, the brushstrokes. However, that doesn’t mean that my reinterpretations are not big or drastic. I’m having constant discussions with these portraits! I can sometimes hear myself apologizing to the original painter in front of my computer, “Sorry Rubens that you have to go through this now.”
But dealing with the history of art in our time I think is an important way of conveying positivity. People have said to me that through my work they have felt a renewed appreciation for the healing power of art imagery. Which is obviously very flattering for me. They see the work of Old Masters as a layered, complex work where codes and meanings are expressed beautifully and powerfully.
It was late in 2019 when international hype materialized around the Hidden Portraits Hermes had been creating for over 10 years (though he had just begun to share them with the world on Instagram). Their visual content — figures disappearing behind masks — perfectly and almost clairvoyantly directly reflect the current era. Anyone who googles Volker Hermes will quickly surmise that the entire world has featured the Hidden Portraits over the last few years. International exhibitions, collaboration, and commission requests have followed. Today, Hermes has been featured in Vogue multiple times, collaborated with Christie’s, and been invited by museums to create works from pieces in their collections.
At the time this article was written, Hermes is in the process of releasing his first Hidden Portraits NFT Collection on Super Rare.
Learn more about the collection at: https://hiddenportraits.xyz
All Volker Hermes quotes used in this article were sourced from previous press interviews. They have been compiled here to form a cohesive story about the Hidden Portraits Collection.