Uncovering themes

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Uncovering themes in three of Hess’ painting

(d.m.a.) - Studies on the work and thought of Christian Hess begun in 2008 by young researchers working outside mainstream academic circles have led to some surprising discoveries, including the uncovering of the  conceptual themes of three paintings (“The Fortune-teller”, “Suggestion” and “Head and hand”) that critics had previously failed to decipher. These discoveries are the result of meticulous study which took into account a range of factors, including external influences, the historical situation, Hess’ personal experiences and what he intended to express with these three works. These latest interpretations demonstrate that interest in the life and work of Christian Hess is by no means dead and indeed continues to spread far and near thanks to the Association’s website, confirming still further the continuing relevance of his work.

“The Fortune-teller”: an autobiographical self-portrait    

Without doubt the most important revelation is that made in March 2009 by the researcher and essayist Cristina Martinelli. After visiting the Hess retrospective at the Municipal Museum in the artist’s birthplace of Bolzano, Martinelli decided to look more deeply into certain aspects of Hess’ career. She investigated a large range of archive material – including that available on this website – and found enough evidence to lead her to believe that “The Fortune-teller” (1933) should be seen as an “autobiographical self-portrait”. In the painting the central figure, who closely resembles Hess, has his back turned to the sea, expressing all the sadness of his Sicilian exile; a sadness which is lightened, however, by the simple kindness of the local people surrrounding him. Dressed as the “fortune-teller”, he expresses his need to pose questions about the future. Another emblematic detail is that the central figure is wearing the red and white striped t-shirt habitually worn by the young artists of the Munich-based Juryfreie movement – a symbol of his isolation from the group. Many of the Juryfreie paintings were destroyed in a mysterious blaze at the Glaspalast in Munich and the group was later banned by the Nazi regime.

Messina, Summer 1933 - At his sister Emma’s house, which has been partially transformed into the artist’s studio. Hess has just finished painting “The Fortune-teller” and poses next to the picture on the easel, wearing the same striped Juryfreie t-shirt and Sicilian cap as worn by the central figure in the painting itself. Next to Hess is his four-year-old niece Luisa. To the left we can make out the “out of focus” figure of Emma, who is shaking a rattle to amuse her baby girl Antonia held in her lap.

Munich 1929 - Artists from the Juryfreie (“Without Jury”) Movement wearing their habitual striped t-shirts at a Carnival party. Hess, second from the right, has been captured by the camera as he takes a drink from a bottle of beer. Two years later the Juryfreie artists found themselves under the surveillance of the Brown Shirts; their paintings were destroyed in the Glaspalast fire and the group was eventually banned and broken up by the Nazis..

The Essay by Cristina Martinelli

“The Anti-face” - portrait of the soul

No less important is the research carried out into Hess’ disquieting 1932 picture “Head and hand”. In the same year, Hess wrote from Munich to his sister in Messina: “The prospects for the future are not good, neither politically nor economically.” The painting has been the object of intensive analysis by the student of comparative theology Michele Steinfl, and the subject of his essay entitled “The Anti-face”. Steinfl considers the painting represents a “portrait of the soul” through which the artist makes available - to those prepared to look closely and questioningly - his internal struggles during the months leading up to his voluntary exile in Sicily. “The anti-face is hidden in obscurity because socratically speaking it ‘does not know’ … it ‘does not know itself’,” explains Steinfl. “And biblically speaking it does not recognise this ‘itself’ which it carries within its own heart as the place of residence of that which is Created.”
The Essay by Michele Steinfl

“Suggestion” and “The Birth of Venus"

Of particular interest is also the work of Cristiana Vignatelli-Bruni, who in June 2008 graduated from Rome’s "La Sapienza" University with a thesis on Christian Hess. The young researcher, who has produced a new and brilliant reading of Hess’ work, has discovered that Hess’ 1934 nude study “Suggestion” is a reworking of “The Birth of Venus” painted in 1863 by the French artist Alexandre Cabanel. “Hess takes the women out of the original context and places her against a background which is anything but naturalistic,” explains Vignatelli-Bruni. “In this way, the meaning which the French artist’s painting had assumed is completely overturned. While Cabernel’s Venus represents the “cleaner” technical and formal qualities required for official and academic approval in 1863, the woman in “Suggestion” is defined against a background which verges on the abstract. It is a decidedly avant-garde reinterpretation almost 70 years on from  the original classical and academic painting.”

Cristiana Vignatelli-Bruni’s degree thesis  (p. 76)