Biographical Landscapes
On Manfred Mahsberg's Painting
Even if it may seem so, what Manfred Mahsberg does is not portrait-painting. The first question is as to the word "painting" itself,
for this term does not properly fit what this artist creates, using paint and silicon. Considered technically, of course, it is painting,
but Mahrsberg piles his material up, adding one layer on top of another and thus thickening it continually, so that the notion
of "sculpture in paint" suggests itself. The gap between word and fact is greater still in the case of the term "portrait". For the
classical portrait represents a special approach by the artist to his/her subject, which is only partly a matter of painting, that is,
technique. What is important is rather to capture the personality being portrayed, not in an objective sense - the portrayer's own subjectivity
prevents this - but with regard to its impact on the artist. Where a portrait remains superficial, it it is not worthy of the name.
The portrait-painter must penetrate more deeply - even if this is not always pleasing to the person portrayed.
Manfred Mahsberg is not concerned with creating portraits in this sense. It is true that he does not take his motifs at random,
and certainly takes an interest in the biographies of those represented, or at least in the aesthetic appeal of the originals.
But he is not concerned with the portrait artist's dealing with character, or essaying to capture personality. His work does not begin
with his confronting the person to be portrayed; on the contrary, the starting-point is always an existing picture, in most cases a
photograph. Thus the personality to be represented does not confront him direcly, but as it were refracted through the eyes and the
medium of a third party. There is thus from the start a filter between the artist and hissubject. To this Manfred Mahsberg adds more filters,
continuing the process of refraction to the point of indistinctness. The remembrance of the original disappears beneath a succession of
new layers of paint, some groups of works being rounded off by a cover of silicon. A further way in which the person portrayed is placed at
a distance is by the reduced format of the picture. The closer the viewer approaches the picture, the less clear the object of representation,
the person who could in fact be the subject, becomes. Only at a greater distance does it again become visible that in fact the picture
represents a head.
The game in which Manfred Mahrberg engages with the art-form of the portrait  is not lacking in irony. This becomes clearest in a form of
hanging that he uses now and again, by which the pictures are not presented on the wall in the usual manner, with the surface of the
picture facing the viewer, but like books on a shelf. Only the works at the far right-hand end are visible from the front; the others show only
their narrow sides, the fold of linen round the frames. Here they bear, boldly and clearly visible, the name of the person portrayed.
The visitor to the exhibition would have to grasp a picture and take it off the shelf to see how the artist has represented his
subject - for example, Einstein. And this handling of pictures is of course not possible in a public exhibition.
But also in his more conventional haingings,
Manfred Mahsberg withdraws the individuals depicted from us, the portraits not being presented as individually hung works, but as part
of the arrangement of a wall. An essential intention is their collective effect, the rhythm that can be developed from them, and not the
meaning of the individual work. In this case, of course, the labels identifying the persons depicted are absent. To find out something
about them one is obliged to have recourse to the printed description - something that the artist would prefer to do without anyway.
All of this leaves only one conclusion, which is that Manfred Mahsberg does not concern himself with the personalities that he depicts,
but rather plays with our expectations deriving from the art-form of the portrait, calling in question our and his own habits of seeing.
We can observe ourselves in the process of being induced to recognise the originals. We attempt to decipher the various refractions,
step back a couple of yards, guess at or recognise more or less hazily the familiar photograph of a familiar person as the original,
see this as a riddle that we have solved - or failed to. In doing so, we may realise that in this way what we cannot do is encounter the
personalities depicted, but at most the icons as which they have engraved themselves in our memory in this particular form.
Manfred Mahsberg makes us aware of the superficiality of our own perception and understanding, and thus opens up the way to a
more precise way of looking. and beyond this to a more precise understanding.
Finally, he also plays with the viewing habits of those who provide his originals. His wall installations with the numerous portraits can
also be understood as landscapes, in two ways. On the one hand, they are landscapes of the perception and self-perception of
photographers and persons portrayed from past times. But on the other they are also landscapes of the artistic perception of
Manfred Mahsberg. He has deprived the past and its iconography of their innocence, and re-created it in a powerful, sometimes even brutal,
manner. That which lies below his surface continues to be recognisable, but is placed in a new context. We as viewers do not necessarily
agree with this context; but we do need to provide answers for ourselves to the questions that it raises.

Gert Fischer (Stadtmuseum Siegburg)