volker hermes` hidden portraits explore historical fashion through modified antique paintings

Designboom_ Running until 8th July 2023, Volker Hermes’s RUFF HOOD exhibition at London’s James Freeman Gallery brings a playful twist to historical portraits. Known for his Hidden Portraits series, the German artist digitally modifies renowned historical paintings by incorporating textures and patterns from the original images. Through this process, he creates masks and new embellishments that cover the subjects’ faces, offering a new perspective on the relationship between fashion and historical art.

Playful and mischievous, Volker’s Portraits capture the lively essence of historical style while shedding light on the role of fashion in historical portraiture. The artworks emphasize the significance of elements such as fabric, opulence, and armor, which not only depict individuals but also represent society, its values, and its hierarchies. Often, viewers tend to overlook these elements and perceive them. However, by obscuring the faces of the characters and directing attention to these adornments, Volker’s work invites spectators to reconsider how fashion reflects a society’s codes and values. It encourages us to evaluate these expressions with a contemporary sensibility.

‘My digital interventions blend credibly with the original, but block access via the face. I cover the sitter, using only already existing elements of the portrait. I do not add anything from the outside and pay attention to the artists’ idiosyncrasies. I create a comprehensible second version of the portraits. Because contact via the face is no longer possible one’s gaze is directed to other areas of the paintings which often pass unnoticed in the original version,’Volker tells designboom.

Volker utilizes the concealing power to emphasize the idea that in historical portraiture, fashion functions as a different kind of mask. Fashion is presented as a serious, social, ambitious, and imposing facade, but it also serves as an external layer that conceals the true human being underneath.‘Portraits are meaningful to us. In the selfie era, portraits are our continual companions and are deeplyanchored in our visual self-perception. That is the reason why our relationship to painted portraits is special,no matter what period they belong to: we bond with them. They are the pictorial testimony of people from apre-photographic age,’continues the artist.

‘But portraits were also a luxury, commissioned by a small elite. Portraits were intended to show rank, profession, educational background and degree of piety: in short, they were meant to be a representation of social standing. This explains why they contain allusions, codes of dress and codes of attributes that would have been immediately understood by the contemporary beholder they were intended for. However, these societies no longer exist in this form. We no longer understand the coded nuances, so our access has become restricted and we make contact with the portraits predominantly through the face.’

The artworks at James Freeman Gallery explore different perspectives on the subject. One portrait portrays a young man whose face is completely obscured by his long hair. Originally painted by Jacometto Veneziano, the artwork depicted a fashionable hairstyle in late 15th-century Venice. However, Volker’s interpretation exaggerates the hairstyle to the point where it becomes the sole focus of the image.

Similarly, another artwork based on a portrait by Rembrandt emphasizes the significance of ruffs, which were indicators of social status in 17th-century Holland. Volker’s portrayal of a woman shows her almost consumed by her large ruff, symbolizing excessive privilege. By obscuring the face, Volker taps into the dramatic potential of masks, which have been used in various forms of theater throughout history, from Greek theater to the Venice carnival to TV wrestling and more.

In several other works, Volker employs the mask motif to challenge the stereotype of rigid masculinity. For example, one piece is inspired by a painting by Leon Wyczółkowski, where the subject’s extravagant morning coat playfully masks his eyes. Another artwork takes inspiration from Catena’s portrait of the Venetian Doge Andrea Gritti, with his golden smock rising to become a veil.

The artworks in RUFF HOOD also delve into the absurdities of feminine fashion. For instance, one piece is based on a portrait by Johann Georg Ziesenis, where the woman’s dress takes on a fetishistic quality, resembling a mask that accentuates her unnaturally thin waist. Another adaptation of a portrait by Moroni features a woman whose face is completely smothered by the luxurious fabric of her dress, with only her nose visible. By concealing the face in these works, Volker introduces a sense of playfulness akin to fancy dress, which in turn affects our perception of the person behind the mask.

Volker Hermes will exhibit more of his artworks at the upcoming exhibition Rococo Madness in the National Museum in Wroclaw. The view will be held from 14 July 2023 to 14 January 2024. Stay updated for more information on this upcoming event.