We are pleased to present RUFF HOOD, the first London solo exhibition by the German artist Volker Hermes.
Volker Hermes is internationally renowned for his ‘Hidden Portraits’ that make digital interventions into historical portrait paintings. Taking textures and patterns from within the antique image, he creates masks and new adornments that obscure the sitters’ faces and in the process sheds new insight on how fashion functions in historical imagery. This distinctive approach has seen collaborations with the Metropolitan Museum and Christies in New York, and Leighton House in the UK amongst many others.
Volker’s ‘Hidden Portraits’ are playful and mischievous; they delight in the sensory exuberance of historical dress. But they also help us to understand how historical portraiture operated in its original context. Of how elements such as fabric, opulence, and armour were used to create an image not simply of a person, but also of a society, its values and its hierarchies. The symbolic nuances would have been obvious to viewers at the time, yet to us they are at best obscured if not totally forgotten. As a result we often focus more on the individual within and perceive their attire as only superficial decoration. By obscuring that character’s face and bringing these accoutrements to the fore, Volker’s work brings the focus back on how a society’s codes and values are expressed through fashion, whilst also then evaluating them with a contemporary sensibility.
The works in RUFF HOOD approach this from a number of different angles. In one portrait the hair has grown to completely obscure a young man’s face. The original painting, by Jacometto Veneziano, featured a haircut that was the height of fashion in Venice at the end of the 15th century. Volker’s work exaggerates it so that this fashion statement is all we see, in an image that graced the cover of New York Review of Books in October 2022. A work based on a portrait by Rembrandt does the same with the ruffs that were indicative of social standing in 17th century Holland. Volker’s woman is nigh-on consumed by her stack, almost smothered by privilege. This obscuring of the face taps into the dramatic potential of the mask, which has featured for millennia as a theatrical tool from Greek theatre to the Venice carnival to TV wrestling and beyond. In several works Volker uses it to question the stereotype of hard masculinity, such as in a piece based on a painting by Leon Wyczółkowski where the sitter’s extravagant morning coat becomes a playful mask for his eyes, or another where Catena’s portrait of the Venetian Doge Andrea Gritti sees his golden smock rise up to become a veil. The absurdities of feminine fashion are also explored, as in a work based on a portrait by Johann Georg Ziesenis where the woman’s dress becomes a fetishistic mask that echoes her absurdly thin waist, or an adaptation of a portrait by Moroni where the lush fabric of the woman’s dress completely smothers her face save for her nose. The concealment of the face allows for a playfulness akin to fancy dress which in turn affects how we perceive the being behind. Volker uses this dynamic in an elegantly playful way to underline how in historical portraiture, fashion is a mask of a different sort: serious, social, ambitious and imposing, but also an external skin hiding a human being within.