Alienated into all Recognition
Portraiture as an Occasion for Painting
I. Before painting
The painter Mahsberg paints portraits, the faces of concrete, identifiable people. Famous heads are to be seen: those of Carl Friedrich
von Weizsäcker, Thomas Mann, Heinrich Mann, Frank Wedekind, or Lovis Corinth. The repertoireis inexhaustible, and comprises
creative artists and protagonists of culture from many centuries - a rich encyclopedic stock.
The portraits are the point of departure, and the stock that they comprise is the repository in pictures, accessible to all, of a cultural
tradition. If one leafs through encyclopedias, cultural histories, or historical picture-books, a panorama of icons of cultural creativity unfolds
before one's eyes. And the viewer may yield to the illusion of closeness to the work of the person portrayed that the familiar portrait
suggests. We feel we "know" Goethe whenever we see Joseph Karl Stieler's picture of him. In the case of Beethoven, too, the frequent
reproduction of his portrait by Stieler has conjured up a legendary countenance of the composer of genius.: vera icon. The subject's gaze,
directed at or past us, possesses a familiarity with which we too readily identify: we feel his art to be within our reach. The individual
personality, despite its actual absence, becomes present in the portrait, unmistakable in its uniqueness, and this fascinates us.
Already in the late 18th century, when the creative individual was enshrined in the notion of genius, physiognomy was an occasion for
sometimes overdone reflections on the connection between character and a person's external appearance. In his book "On Physiognomy", Johann Caspar Lavater wrote: "Reason jibs indeed at the idea of someone claiming that the soul of Leibnitz or Newton, the great metaphysician and mathematician, might have inhabited the body of an idiot or of a person out of an asylum; that one of them might,
within the skull of a Lapp, have conceived the theodicy, or the other, within the head of a black with a squashed nose and eyes starting out
of his head, his lips so swollen as hardly to cover his teeth, all thick and fleshy, might have weighed the planets or split beams of light."
Eccentric, not to say discriminating, as such remarks strike us today as being, they make clear the promise held out by the aspect of the
visible face, even up to the present.
In an age in which any picture is technically reproducible in unlimited quantities, the iconic effect is all the greater, since most of the
paintings we have in mind originated at a time when a portrait was something unique, a rarity, and also not always preserved, whether in oil or as a photograph.
We know our Shakespeare as depicted with a beard, thinning shoulder-length hair, and earring. We know our Mozart topped by a wig
with a pigtail, or with tousled hair and wide-open eyes; Goethe's notably large nose and projecting lower lip, even when his teeth had
become fewer; and our Hermann Hesse with short white hair, sunken cheeks and round metal-rimmed spectacles. But when we are
confronted with an early photograph of him at the turn of the 19th century, with dark hair and dense beard, is that still Hesse?
The author of "Ulisses" differs from the author of "Steppenwolf" by reason of the prolongation of the face with its projecting lower jaw, and
glasses the same shape but with noticeably stronger lenses.
The repertoire of past pictures of famous heads, with the feeling of proximity to the great that they stimulate, has survived to join the
modern flood of pictures in the media. Mahsberg conjures up this reservoir of intellectual history, preserving it for our time through the
simple but very effective device of the portrait - through the heads of the "dramatis personae". There is your Mozart, there Beethoven,
there Schubert.
II. The act of painting
Mahsberg draws on this reservoir of icons, takes them as a point of departure, commences his painting by proceeding from these pictures.
The ancestral gallery of resemblance first takes shape in the head. It is the cognitive result of a process of coordination; structures are
explored as when reading a word, structures which are features, facial features. Recognisable traits turn shapes into portraits.
Mahsberg's work proceeds from this familiarity, and works, using disturbing formats, to create portraits alienated "into all recognition".
In the original Latin sense of the word, he "pro-tracts", or draws forth, the essence, creates features that in the mind of the viewer combine
in indications of faces, moving towards the notion of an unmistakable face. This is an appropriate enough use for painting.
Mahsberg's paintings wallow in paint, thickly spread and raised so as to create the impression of a a stark moon landscape. His pictures
are multi-coloured; he transforms the likeness, already alienated by the black and white print of an old encyclopedia, into something new
and expressive, indeed to some extent expressionistic. The paint is at the same time the surface, a mountain range behind which a head
appears to be concealed.
Mahsberg's works are characterised by the indefatigable persistence of painting. First, pieces of wood cut to shape are put together to
form a surface, then bound in cotton, without grounding; this produces a sequence of continually new works. The process that commences
following the stage of picture-finding in the encyclopedia is, in the case of the hundreds of pictures 7.5 x 7.5 cm in size, that of a stirring up of most restricted space, sometimes also merely a gesture towards shapes, followed by a coarse smudging with a brush or spatula.
The portrait, passing from the encyclopedia into the artist's mind, gives the impression of having receded to an unattainable distance,
sometimes recognisable, but sometimes also crushed out of recognition.
Distance, too, is an important aesthetic viewpoint in Mahsberg's work. The painter consciously takes up the temporality that is also to be
felt in a portrait. An historical consciousness becomes evident for which Mahsberg frequently combines with the oils a new material,
silicon. Many of his larger-sized paintings are covered with a layer of silicon 5 to 10 cm thick. Beneath this milky surface, the facial features
rendered in oil are blurred: beneath the relief of the thick layer of paint, similarity is no longer discoverable, but veiled so as to be reduced to
a mere hint. Especially in the case of the large formats of 75 x 75 cm, this is combined with the need for the viewer to stay at a considerable
distance from the picture, so that the diverging individual shapes can recombine in a face. In this process, oil painting becomes sheer
priming. Like the imprimatur of Italian medieval panel painting, in which the human skin was structured against a background of
Green Earth in varnishes of white and vermilion, the layer of paint beneath shimmers through the layer of silicon. This reduces the
proportion of the visible to a shadowy structure which, for instance, reduces the feminine features of the engraving of Novalis to the dark
patches of the large, wideset eyes, and the fleshy mouth, flanked by the indistinct outlines of the prominent cheekbones.
There is a constant succession of suggestive spaces, evoked by the sparse brush-strokes or the veil of silicon. The viewer - if he has
the idea of portrayal in mind - fills them in with the familiarity and closeness that one feels oneself to have in relation to the particular writer,
musician, scientist or painter. From the number of small squares already made and rapidly being created, one could almost read something like "peinture automatique", self-painting pictures that appear to the artist as the real result of his efforts.  The aim is not
portraiture as such; Mahsberg's sole goal is painting itself.
III. After painting
The portrait is a familiar and accustomed element in the museum. In the case of the Leopold Hoesch Museum in Düren, there is a stock
of mainly classsical Modernists, including an unidentified "Girl with a Red Bow" by Jawlensky, a male portrait by Davringhausen, and the
concrete portraits of Otto Dix, his father, his mother, or of Emil Nolde.
The museum has been taken over by Mahsberg's portraits. This is required by the particular formats and the sheer quantity of pictures.
There are no rows, but the various squares, circumscribed by empty surfaces above each other or beside each other, fill the walls of the room.        
However, the richness does not only manifest itself and culminate in the hanging, but spreads around, taking possession of the
environment. Here, the museum's collection is suddenly pervaded by Mahsberg's small squares, which engage in a dialogue with the
"classics", showing classics themselves - and at the same time remaining what they are: paintings.
Joachim Geil (Leopold Hoesch Museum, Düren)
1 Lavater, Johann Caspar: On Physiognomy (Von der Physiognomik), Frankfurt/M
- Leipzig 1991 (originally 1772), p. 14