What Old Masters Reveal About the Present - An Interview with Holger Liebs of Hatje Cantz

March 13, 2017

We consume images. Every new day, we are confronted with hundreds of them. We scroll right past, taking hardly any time to read them in detail or to scrutinise their contents. But beyond our screens, in museums, completely different scenarios are playing out. Even the Instagram generation is affected. Who hasn’t spent hours in front of an old master like Rubens, or read Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Fight Between Carnival and Lent with the excitement of a child reading a „wimmelbilderbuch“. No matter how often you look at the these works, you always discover something new. And that also means you can always read these works in a new way, or add something new to familiar interpretations, as Holger Liebs — former Editor-in-Chief of Monopol and now Program Director at Hatje Cantz — is now demonstrating. He is even taking it a step further by asking what the works are about today. But what could these old masters possibly tell us about our image-flooded age of permanent digitalisation? Can works like The Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in his Painting Gallery in Brussels by David Teniers the Younger really make relevant statements about the present — in this case, perhaps even about the digital flood of images on Instagram?

Left Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas, 3.18x2.76m, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain Right Holger Liebs © Corinne Rose
Left: Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas, 3.18x2.76m, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain / Right: Holger Liebs © Corinne Rose

Holger Liebs and Past in the Present

Sabrina Moeller: In your new column for WELTKUNST, you investigate to what extent famous works and paintings can be read in the present, and what they might have to say to us today. What are you getting at with this — what sort of insights are you after? To what extent can the engagement with historical paintings tell us something about our present, pervaded as it is by an excess of images and digitalisation?

Holger Liebs: This is exactly the question that motivated me to write this column. Even today, we are witnessing the birth of images that won’t be forgotten. Just recently: Donald Trump surrounded by well-dressed men — and in the foreground, Kellyanne Conway on the sofa looking at her phone. The likes of that have never been seen before in the Oval Office.

The existence of the flood of images doesn’t mean that these images don’t have a tradition. It is precisely this tradition, or the history of art, that enables us to interpret these images today. It shows us that we’ve seen it all before.

A good example is Trump’s inauguration, which can be discussed in terms of Napoleon’s coronation as emperor, as represented by Jacques-Louis David: the desire to control the emergence of images of oneself is not new. David had to present himself repeatedly to Napoleon, had to repaint the work again and again, adding more people. This reminds us of Trump, who claimed a totally overblown number of attendees at his inauguration — many more than were actually there.

Sabrina Moeller: Aren’t you going too far in extracting the works from their original context?

Holger Liebs: In every interpretation, you add something new to the context. But it’s a double move: on the one hand I interpret the image anew, on the other hand I am putting an old image into a contemporary context and thereby making it visible again. That flood of contemporary images you mentioned at the beginning — we are often unable to feed it back into our understanding. This is precisely what historical works help us do. Bruegel’s Fall of Icarus, which I used to introduce my column, is a good example. It’s one of the most interpreted images of all time. Every period has it’s interpretation, and that also means that there is no ultimately valid interpretation. The history of interpretations of Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez is a case like this: the image was interpreted in a new and different way in every age, and it’s still happening today. What the image actually represents still isn’t resolved. That’s exactly what makes it so fascinating.

Kellyanne Conway puts her feet on Oval Office couch, via USA Today

Living Among the Old Masters

Sabrina Moeller: What critieria do you apply in choosing works? Or to put it differently, what images lend themselves to it?

Holger Liebs: That’s a difficult question, seeing as I’ve only just got started. Of course, figurative works are better suited than abstract works, and for now I’m concentrating on the old masters. In the renaissance there are a lot of references to ancient myths. Obviously, that’s a reservoir of stories that are in part still relevant today. The myth of Arachne — who was transformed into a spider by the offended Greek goddess Athena, and thereby damned to weave for all eternity — can be read as a story about misogyny.

In the Baroque, on the other hand, the painter’s relationship to his commissioner — as a presentation of the power of the Church or of the court — is important. This is also reflected in individual works and can be connected productively to contemporary conditions.

Sabrina Moeller: When it comes to the flood of images and Instagram, classical paintings are in short supply. This is at least in part because their visual language doesn’t work as well on Instagram and doesn’t correspond to the medium. To what extent is it problematic that on Instagram, engagement with history, with the past, barely even has a right to exist?

Holger Liebs: I follow a lot of accounts on Instagram, including those of state museums, so I regularly see old masters in my feed. So if you want to, you can also access these images on Instagram — it all depends on what you choose and whom you follow.

And yet I sense that Generation Instagram also has a need to reassure itself of older cultures. Recently a book came out titled “Life on Instagram”. It is a curated selection of the best Instagram shots published in book form. And it’s mostly teenagers who are buying it. This means that teenagers apparently aren’t satisfied, and that they want to translate their activities back into an older cultural artefact. They buy the book even though they have probably already seen all the pictures on Instagram.

Jacques-Louis David, The Coronation of Napoleon, 1805-1807, Oil on Canvas, 6.21 x 9.79m, Location Louris Paris France
Jacques-Louis David, The Coronation of Napoleon, 1805-1807, Oil on Canvas, 6.21 x 9.79m, Location Louris Paris France

The Meaning of Contemporary

Sabrina Moeller: What meaning does contemporary painting even still have in our time, characterised to the extent that it is by an excess of images and various media?

Holger Liebs: When photography was discovered in 1839, the painter Paul Delaroche said: “From today, painting is dead.“ He was wrong, of course. It’s more alive than ever before. I wouldn’t assign any particular task to painting, but I would say that even today it can provide us with a way of accessing the world.

One of my favourite painters working now is Nicole Eisenman — she paints figures, scenes, groups. Even though it’s an ancient medium, it’s widely practiced and has a lot to give. Painting shouldn’t necessarily be seen as political, but it can make certain statements that can be interpreted politically. And that’s very important.

Images used for illustrative purposes only.