INTERVIEW WITH LEONARD HURZLMEIER
Christian Ganzenberg: Portraits of women, in particular nudes, have a really long history in art. Artists—most of whom are male—have tried to draw the viewer in with the gaze of a woman since the Renaissance at the latest, and to portray women as looking out at the viewer. Your women seem to have little to no contact with the viewer despite facing them straight on. What moments are you trying to capture here?
Leonhard Hurzlmeier: Manet didn’t paint Olympia as an idealized goddess, but as a real woman with less than ideal proportions, that is to say, realistically. In contrast, my women are idealized again, divorced from the world. They are stylized in formal terms and portrayed as types rather than individuals. It’s hard to say what moments I’m trying to capture. Moments of strange reverie fascinate me. Moments in which women unconsciously withdraw from their surroundings, turning away from the external world and toward the inner world, to experience intimate states of excitement, all while behaving normally on the outside.
CG: According to John Berger, that could be called intrinsic. While the presence of a man—even in an image—is above all linked to the promise of power that he embodies, female presence is defined by an intrinsic perspective, but also by an awareness of the omnipresent male gaze. Berger concludes that men act and women appear. Men watch women and women see themselves being watched.
LH: That’s the classic elevation of the woman as a divine being. I try to show that Madonna-like quality, too. But I also bring her back down to earth with humor, eroticism, and pop.
CG: What are the differences between painting a man and a woman?
LH: Take Mann mit Hut and Frau vor Rot again. If I hadn’t painted the hat, I’d have been left with a short-haired man and a lot of background. If I had painted him with an elaborate hairdo, it would’ve looked strange, too. And hats are far too fashionable, too deterministic to use all the time. If I’m painting a woman, I can fill in large portions of the canvas with her hair, cover her face, or draw attention to compositional axes—it’s very practical. I can also add makeup and earrings if I like. I can adapt the alternating concave and convex shapes of the chest, waist, and hips as required by the image. Just like the old cliché, women seem more appropriate, more versatile, but also have more potential, like the female body itself Finally, the wardrobe also makes a difference. Women can wear anything, from boots to push-up bras. A man in a dress is a transvestite; a woman in a suit is a chancellor.
CG: You sometimes talk about the “strict criteria” that have become integral to your style. On closer inspection, your portraits of women, in particular those produced since 2013, display symmetries and repeated geometric forms as well as proportional relations and the repetition of certain circular forms. How do you construct your images?
LH: According to Courbet, drawing and sketching is emotional and painting is analytical. It’s the same for me. The moment of inspiration usually comes when I draw in my sketchbook. Once I’ve chosen a motif, I transform it into a graphic-style vector image, but by analog means—with a measuring tape, pencil, and compass. All the component forms are constructed using a strict measuring system. Each isolated element represents a self-contained geometrical shape. The dimensions of the frame determine how far the figure expands into space, and I try to expand them as much as possible. I multiply or divide the basic dimensions depending on the image, which defines the horizontal and vertical lines and the circles. Then I add a diagonal axis, sometimes two, and a perpendicular one, which are symmetrically mirrored, so four diagonals in all. If I want a finger here, a lock of hair there, I need to make it work with the system that underpins the image. It’s a strict, constructivist approach. That’s how it differs from Classical modernity, where figures were broken down in a very spontaneous and free manner, only appearing to be geometric and constructivist. The painting style and expression were more important than a strict approach. It’s precisely this approach that I want to explore the potential of.
CG: Do you see your works as crystallizing current debates on society?
LH: Leisure and Rebellion are designed to do just that. They represent a collision of two extremes in the canon of female behavior—the hedonistic, carefree woman and the militant activist. Curiously enough, these two types merge every year in Izmir, Turkey, at the Fancy Women Bike Ride. I actually only heard about this event half a year after finishing the paintings, but it shows how versatile these motifs are. They’re characters and they can tell different stories. My professor always said: “Good art is both of the moment and timeless.” I’ve always tried to maintain that balance in my images; contemporary commentary is only one of many layers of meaning.
The complete interview is being published in Leonhard Hurzlmeier, Neue Frauen