In the spheres series (see images) faces appear on one half of mirror-polished spheres and look like mysterious moonfaces. The artist uses highly polished stainless steel spheres and paints a distorted face on one half. The other half of the sphere remains unpainted and functions as a powerful distorting mirror.
This series is inspired by a famous painting of the Italian Mannerism, Parmigianino’s Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror. (more)
In the scupltural hidden treasure series (see images), painting and mirror are amalgamated, transforming tangible paint into an ephemeral and virtual manifestation. As a result of the complex folds in the mirrored aluminium, most of the actual painting is only seen in its reflection. More, the painting seems to take life and even become animated, because the part of the mirror producing the reflection is uneven. As soon as the beholder begins to explore its secrets by moving from side to side, the work unfolds a surprising array of subtly shifting reflections of the painted image.
In the garden of delights series (see images) flowers make a grand entrance in the staging of large panels. The curved background's mirrored surface produces permanently shifting distorted reflections of the beholder and the space around the painting. The flower seems animated, because our eye and brain cannot process the perception of an image deriving from a solid object in which parts change dynamically and others remain stable.
Paintings on flat aluminum plates and paintings on canvas were the starting point of Herbst´s artistic caree and still play an important role in his work with the series Maria Magdalena , Bella and others.
essay by Zoltán Somhegyi
The works of Martin C. Herbst
The works of Martin C. Herbst invite the viewer to observe them from multiple perspectives, as we immediately understand that the art pieces work on various levels. They are curious, polyvalent as well as visually and intellectually appealing, similar to mercury, this fascinating element that has inspired thinkers, artists and alchemists since the Antiquity. However, it is not only the elegant and pleasing appearance of mercury, the bright silver colour that bears important similarities with the artist’s work, but also another feature: its constant movement. Also called quicksilver, a sense of continuous movement is attributed to the shiny and liquid metal that can be seen in parallel with the way that Martin C. Herbst’s art pieces oscillate between periods, genres and media. Therefore, mercury here refers to not merely the visual features, but also to the works’ ability to act as messengers (Mercurius) between other artworks, masters, ages, traditions, forms, media and aesthetic experiences.
At first sight it is the pure beauty and the meticulous execution that appears, pleasing our senses, and letting the viewer enjoy the clear and stainless objects. However, the artist does not stop at this primary aesthetic appeal, but includes multi-layered art historical references that stimulate the viewer to examine the relationship between the present contemporary work and that of the forerunners from older periods. Hence, Martin C. Herbst opens a continuous and inspiring discussion between art pieces, traditions, artist and public. By viewing the art objects, the observer can arrive at critical and noteworthy theoretical considerations on issues such as the becoming of an artwork, on the essence of an art piece, on the problem of what distinguishes a copy from a reference, and on the difference between direct quotation and inspiration.
It is important to note however, that these three aspects of the works of Martin C. Herbst – i.e. the pure aesthetic appeal, the historical references and their capacity of initiating considerations on the ultimate essence of art – are not in a hierarchy or in any kind of order or level of importance. One can choose one aspect or another, or concentrate on any of these. Perhaps one prefers to only admire the clear surfaces and the reflection, while others focus on the examination of the artist’s references to those earlier colleagues who inspired him, and again others employ the works in considerations on art itself. These aspects are thus both separate and connected, and show the multi-perspectivity of Martin C. Herbst’s art.
II. Beyond the primary
A further feature that stimulates the observer is the works’ ability to destabilise us as viewers in our position, and that instructs us to see beyond, and also how to see beyond. The art pieces guide and enlighten us to learn to challenge the first answer we find, that would be a (seemingly) obvious solution, with an easy explanation. We are practically forced to immerse ourselves in the work itself, we feel right from the beginning that there is something much more crucial going on beyond their shiny surface. In fact, at first sight the works look so direct, transparent and self-evident that this arises doubt in the spectator, and makes us understand that we need to start seeing and seeking beyond. And we are right in doing so, since several of the elements and aspects of the works and of the working process of Martin C. Herbst is not what it first appears. The primary impression or preliminary consideration needs to be modified after a conscious and attentive look – of course, the works, being inspiringly complex, do not let themselves be conquered easily by the interested observer. Nevertheless, even after examining them more in depth and ruminating on their characteristics, they still keep on “disturbing” us, naturally in a positive sense of the word: they keep on shining in our mind, making us reflect on their aesthetic potentials. We continue thinking of them, while trying to refine our interpretation. Let’s see a couple of examples and how the elements and working processes of the works are different and more complex than they first appear.
II/1. The use of the mirror
The first element that is not what it looks like at the beginning, and that is not used in the way we would think of, is the mirror. The mirror and the mirroring surface – created by either traditional glass mirror, polished stainless steel or by state-of-the-art alternatives like mirror-dibond and a high-end aluminium sheet used mainly in industrial settings and known for its high-quality light-reflection that guarantees a colour-true reflection – is one of the most easily recognisable connecting element between the series, and at the same time is a curious reference to a millenia-long topos and art historical tradition. However, it is not used in the way we can see it in this very tradition. Earlier it was mainly represented, i.e. directly painted in the image, as we can see it in the famous examples of Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife from 1434, or in Lukas Furtenagel’s The Painter Hans Burgkmair and his Wife from 1529. The use of mirror was then an ideal way of either including metaphorical and allegorical considerations – like in Furtenagel’s image, where the older couple’s faces are reflected as skulls in the mirror, thus referring to the approaching end of their life – or to put the artist himself in the image, like in Eyck’s portrait, where, even if in miniature, we can see the painter too. This latter will be an important approach for Martin C. Herbst in his own work as well, just like the well-known self-portrait of Parmigianino from 1524, where the flat surface of the round painting imitates what we can see in a convex mirror – or, actually, what the artist himself saw when painting his self-portrait. In the contemporary arts however, the mirror can have new potentialities when it is not only represented through painting, but also used as a medium, i.e. a base and material for the work. Again, from the endless instances we can remember the oeuvre of Michelangelo Pistoletto who both paints on it and often breaks it, or for example Mona Hatoum who also uses it as a medium for her conceptual works, or even Anish Kapoor who uses its glossy and reflecting feature as a sculptural quality. The curiosity in Martin C. Herbst’s work is that in his series he connects himself to all of these two traditions, i.e. to the representation of the mirror, to the appearance of the mirrored image and to the usage of the mirror as a medium. Thus the mirror will not only be a medium or a pure historical reference, more like a starting point for the creation of new artistic approaches.
II/2. Form and medium
The pieces of almost all of the recent series have a sculptural appearance when seen for the first time. The works from the spherical Parmigianino-series, or of the folded pieces of the Hidden Treasure or even the double mirrors of the Perfect Faces all have a primarily sculptural effect, being three dimensional forms in space or on the wall. Nevertheless, Martin C. Herbst strongly and decisively remains a painter. The works are thus in an intriguing balance between the two most basic and antique forms of artistic expression, i.e. three-dimensional sculpture and two-dimensional painting. The artist’s intention is not the creation of a sculptural work in the classical sense of the medium: he is not aiming to make a piece whose primary aesthetic force lies in the volume, in the proportion between occupied space and incorporated void or in the solidity of the material in itself. Instead of regarding the works as the results of an attempt of the physical extension of painting, we should rather interpret them as essential additions to the concept of painting, or its re-definition. As a similar case, we can think of the example of Frank Stella’s oeuvre, who after his famous shaped canvases started to create objects and assemblages, normally hanging from the wall. Although these works are three-dimensional, they still can be considered as the further development of Stella’s own approach to painting. Something similar happens in Martin C. Herbst’s oeuvre too: even though it seems almost paradoxical, we can say that whatever the medium is, he emphasises the two-dimensionality of the works, through the painted surface. To illustrate this, it is worth examining how the accurate use of the painting technique guarantees the importance of the surface itself, for example through the thin layers and their shiny and glossy appearance. Therefore, the reflection is always on the surface and thanks to the surface, the work remains a painting, keeping its two-dimensionality.
What then is the reason for painting a three-dimensional object if not the intention of a classical sculptural effect? Why having shaped forms as the bearer and medium of painting if their most obvious quality, the spatial seems to remain unexploited? Actually, it is exactly in the favour of the very painting itself. Through this working method the artist can gain more out of the painting, he can enlarge its potentialities and forces of expression and can have several – or perhaps an endless – number of images through the same painting. For example we can turn the faces of the Spheres even upside down to have another effect, and also the Hidden Treasures in the folded series are continuously changing their facial expressions even if the observer only slightly changes his position. Hence, we can see that the three-dimensional medium of the different series is not in the aim of a classical sculptural effect, more like expanding the possibilities of painting with the help of having the third dimension not only represented as a perspectivist illusion, but using it as the perceptive context of the very painting itself.
II/3. Approach and style
In several groups of works we can find familiar motives that are well-known from the classical art historical tradition. Some of them are concrete elements, for example one of Michelangelo’s Libyan Sibyl from the 1511 from the Sistine Chapel in Martin C. Herbst’s Re-Re series, while in other cases we can see famous and particular motives re-worked by the artist, like the convex self-portrait of Parmigianino in the aforementioned series. However, also these re-elaborations are not what they seem at first. Martin C. Herbst is not intending to create copies, but re-interpretations, using the known forms and solutions for creating new meanings by the special reading of the original art piece. This becomes obvious if we examine his works and the concept behind the series, and trace the differences. For example when using Parmigianino’s Pallas Athene from 1539 as a starting point, the artist had chosen a slightly changed format compared to the original, and painted different versions, where he put diverse focuses, one is more accentuating the sfumato qualities of the of the original, while others examine the relationship of Parmigianino to the classical Graeco-Roman art heritage, again another version concentrates on the gestures, as well as on the bodily and facial expressions. All of them however get a significant “contemporary touch” by the use of vibrant and flash colours and vivid brushstrokes that can be very well observed also on the giclée-prints made of the painting. Besides this however, the most curious “contemporarysation” is the insertion of a Walt Disney-figure in the medallion of the Antique goddess. Actually, in a similar way, noteworthy alterations we can observe in the pieces from the Re-Re series too: Michelangelo’s Libyan Sibyl was chosen as a starting point, taken out of her original context, not only by cropping her body, but also by eliminating the book from her hands as well as all the other details around her body and in the background. Using the deconstructed form of the original subject, Martin C. Herbst then created thirty variations with different colours and tonalities.
These examples already show that he is not interested in following the direction proposed by Pop-art; his re-interpretations are exactly the contrary of what the intention of the first representatives of this movement was alike. The classical pop-artists tried to blur the line between high- and popular culture, on the one hand by including pop-phenomena (media stars, products of mass consumption, widely-read cartoons etc.) in the sphere of elite culture, on the other hand by multiplying the motive and thus depriving the original subject of its authenticity that sometimes led to the banalisation of this very original itself. Looking from this perspective, Martin C. Herbst’s re-interpretations are not that of a pop-artist’s action. In fact, there are several differences: when working on a classical subject, for example motives taken from the Renaissance and Baroque masters’ work, the artist does not choose them because of their fame and popularity, but rather to create a dialogue between the historical periods, between his present and the old masters’ past. He strives for a better understanding of the idea behind the classical artists’ images, to re-interpret the theories and to show his version manifested in his own work. Thus, he is not copying, but transferring the theme to his own style by changing the sizes and stretching out the proportions, using other colours that are remarkably diverse from the original, and accentuating individual aspects of the image. Therefore, what he does is not a devaluation, more like a re-evaluation, seeking and analysing the qualities and forces of his departure point, of the original work through the series. And this is how his opposition to Pop-art will be more understandable. Instead of the multiplication, exactly the single differences will be emphasised, since each of them, i.e. each version of the series will definitely be unique, giving a new reading of the same subject.
II/4. Series and the dialogue
The viewer may be surprised by another unusual approach and method of the artist: i.e. the lack of separation between the various series and groups of works in the oeuvre, and thus the lack of a strict chronology. Sometimes a solution or form from an earlier series turns up in a later work, or a new piece is added to a previous body of paintings. The focus is not on the developing of a closed set of series, but on the constant development of his painting in itself. A continuous research characterises his artistic approach, a desire of being in an artistic and intellectual dialogue with the old masters. This also explains his method of choosing a certain aspect when creating his versions of the classical masters’ work, thus initiating the dialogue, and giving a form for the re-interpretations. For example, in the aforementioned series based on Parmigianino’s Pallas Athene, the artist not only painted his new versions that are – as mentioned – examining and emphasising certain aspects of the original, but curiously connects himself in another way too: he made giclée prints of his own paintings, and in the case of this series, these prints are to be considered the final artwork. Through this multiplication he also managed to create another layer of reference to the late Renaissance master and his age, since it was the period when knowledge, forms, inventions and discoveries started to get disseminated at an exponential speed thanks to the recently invented technology of printing. Martin C. Herbst’s dialogue with Parmigianino then consists of not only a direct re-interpretation of some pictorial aspects of the Italian master, but also indirectly in examining how the 16th century culture, shaped by the experience of printing and the 21st century world of the digital revolution relate to each other. And just like he regularly turns back to his favourite old masters’ for conversation – almost as if they were both physically present in a Renaissance-type paragone – he is also often reconsidering his experiences gained from his own previous series. Hence we can say that just as Martin C. Herbst is creating an intellectual dialogue between the works of his forerunners who inspired him when creating his art pieces, he actually keeps the same conversation ongoing with himself too.
II/5. The artwork
As in previous cases we could find in the oeuvre of the artists’ elements, aspects and creative processes that turned out to be different or more complex than what they seemed at the beginning. The same happens when we start to think a bit deeper on the questions related to the (painted) image, the artwork as a whole and its context: in many examples we have a deep exploration of the traditional appearance, functioning and effect of the artwork itself. Especially because of the multifaceted use of the mirroring surface, the viewer can often be unsure where the work is? This will be especially intriguing when thinking of the Hidden Treasures-series. These pieces were developed from the Spheres, using the same mirroring surface. At the beginning the artist was just painting a portrait on a metal layer but then folded it in to make a preliminary change of the facial expression. Later however it turned out to be a more intricate display than just a simple painted and folded surface: the image appears in a kind of mirror-cage, only in the reflection. It then becomes a very fascinating problem that actually we can never see the original painted face, or at least not the complete face. Once it is created, it is folded in, or we can say: locked inside the mirror-cage, from where we can observe it only through the reflection behind. Naturally here too, just like in the case of the Spheres, the face will have multiple expressions as the viewer changes his position.
Hence we can say that we can never see the original painted motive. But in fact, what is the original and what is the new? Or, the ultimate questions that the pieces of the Hidden Treasures pose will then be: where and what this final work is? Is it the (partly) invisible painted surface only that is folded inside, or is the metal medium an integral part of it? Is it at all possible to divide the image and its reflection only because the original remains partly invisible forever? Actually, the theoretical problem that Martin C. Herbst is investigating through these series is that since the “original” or “real” painting, that is the result of the direct interaction of the artist (i.e. the process of painting itself) is partly unobservable and sometimes physically untouchable too, the reflected mediation by the distorted mirror will become the true image. The original painting practically becomes virtual, but at the same time the complete artwork, including this original motive’s reflection will become real and substantial. The hidden original, the reflecting metal surface and the mirrored image of the original will then together create the final artwork.
Still as part of the questions on the essence of the work we can mention the curious feature of many of the pieces that due to the use of mirror, the context of the work is reflected through it. It becomes especially spectacular in the case of the Spheres, where the unpainted and accurately mirror-polished half of the artwork renders the environment, including the gallery space, the other exhibited artworks and last but not least the viewer himself. As part of his continuous dialogue with the respected forerunners, Martin C. Herbst thus initiates to reconsider the concept of painting as being a mirror to and a painted representation of the world. The Renaissance masters interpreted the painting as a mirror of the world, trying to grasp an order in it and represent it through the very image. Martin C. Herbst divides the metaphor, and by this separation shows that the painting and the reflected image in the distorted though all-inclusive convex mirror is just two sides of the same endeavour of understanding and representation. None of them is more objective, more true or more valid than the other and none of them provides us with the exact answer, even the objective-seeming mirror cannot give us certainty because of its distortion. In their strong presence the works aesthetically reveal to us their own truth, and are convincingly showing that both of these “images” are valid. There are no ready answers, and just like the artist was striving to find his interpretation, we as viewers are invited to do the same. And this instruction and invitation is beautifully illustrated by the fact that in the sphere we can find ourselves too.
III. Artist of the contemporary
As we saw, the works from the different series of Martin C. Herbst have a great potential to surprise the viewer. Their trick is some of the elements and creative processes are not what they first appear. We often have something beyond the primary aspect: the complex use of the potentialities of the mirror as a medium, the sculpture-like works that maintain their pictorial focus and qualities, the process of using the classical motifs not as copying or a pop-art-like exploitation but with the aim of introducing new considerations by the themes’ re-interpretation. The desire to create an intellectual conversation with the forerunners and with the artist himself through the dialogue between the series and, last but not least, the analyses of the essence of the work and its relationship to both its context and its viewer – these are all intriguing details in understanding the effect of the pieces.
However, the works of Martin C. Herbst are noteworthy not only because of this surprising elements beyond the primary aspect, but also in the way how they can demonstrate the contemporaneity of their creator and the influential force of the classical tradition in our present. The artist can become truly contemporary not because he does something completely new, but something that describes his epoch. And in order to do this, an ideal way is to shows how his age is rooted in the tradition, how the period relates itself to the previous ones, and what is our current reading and appreciation of our predecessors. Although sounding paradoxical, we can say that by getting inspired by the older masters’ works, we can become “more” contemporary. The aim of being contemporary, i.e. an artist who is a noteworthy representative of his given particular historical period does not need to be part of or follow a current fashionable movement, especially because trendy styles, voguish movements and ephemeral hypes quickly change. A solid approach however, a theoretically and historically well-based intellectual dialogue is never out of fashion. If we accept that art is one of the ways – and definitely among the most pleasing ways – of better understanding our historical and present existence, then such works that display the results of an artist who continuously strives to show his current state in relation to his tradition is never out of date. Therefore, the title of this present volume becomes even more clear by now: what we saw as a key particularity of mercury, i.e. the sense of constant fluidity of the appealing element is analogous to Martin C. Herbst’s own approach. His elegant and surprising works are in constant oscillation between tradition and contemporaneity, between the respected original and the creative novel elaboration of it, as well as between numerous genres and media. When enjoying and interpreting his re-interpretations, the observer is thus provided with thrilling examples of how to approach and re-vitalise the strength of classical works to transmit their force in the present through novel pieces of art.
text published 2021 in the book 'mercury'