Hanjo Schmidt
Giant Painterly Gesture
talks to JP Delaney

If ArtProcess were to nominate a Star Artist, Hanjo Schmidt is the obvious choice. His huge figurative paintings of people posing, moving, and reacting in up-close proximity have been continually winning the highest praise from both fellow artists and an enthusiastic public.
He's also popular for a willingness to listen, debate, share matters of technique, and to liberally discuss the grand themes of art historical context and meaning.
One of the most prolific contributors of quality works and commentary to the site, he is unafraid of controversy in the search for a pictorial truth, and for the dynamism he employs in extending the boundaries of his own artistic experience.

The last works you posted on ArtProcess were from the "Gehäuse" project [LINK] which culminated in a big gallery show in the spring of 2018. You mentioned that the subject was triggered by the painful experience of dealing with your mother's succumbing to Alzheimer's disease. Given that this event was a large undertaking affording you a lot of exposure, were you worried that the public might not want to confront such a difficult subject?

No, I wasn’t. In the end it’s a question of how you approach such a theme. It’s not about aarrgh Alzheimer’s. It’s about communication. The most interesting thing in a face is not it’s beauty, whatever that is. Facial bauty is absolutely superficial. The most interesting thing in a face is that we can read it. And it’s very important that we can, for it tells us how to act. The Gehäuse series is about the connection of the outside world, the others, with the inside world of the self, enshrined in a casing, the skull, what in German we call a Gehäuse, with the face as the screen. Alzheimer’s becomes an obstacle in this until finally it destroys that connection completely. The five huge faces I painted are closed ones, mute and blind ones which we still automatically try to read even though there will never be an answer. Loosing contact with a loved one, a relative, a friend or a lover is always painful and everyone that sees this meaning immediately understands. My companion in this exhibition, my dear friend Jenny Winter Stojanovic, worked with Alzheimer patients the month before the exhibition and it was shown documented in photographs together with what she produced with these people using household film to wrap things into, like as if layer after layer the distance grows. So with all this together this show in spring 2018 was the most interesting, the most emotional, the most connecting one I’ve ever experienced. Some people even cried during the opening for being so deeply moved. So what started with some strange small portraits when Maria Xagorari visited my studio some years ago, in the end came out as being absolutely overwhelming.

A definitive exhibition like that obviously takes it's toll on the artist's emotional and physical energy. How did you feel by the end of the show, were you ready to delve into new works right away, or did you sense a need to stop and reflect on a new direction?

One of the questions the exhibition was asking was "How do we contact someone who has lost the ability for contact?" And Jenny offered the skin as a medium. The layers of film for her were representing the touchable skin and indeed feeling is the answer. In a still male dominated world intellect and abstract words are seen as the main tools while feeling is the answer. Feeling in it's two meanings, sensing a touch on one hand and having emotions on the other. This is the way one still can reach a completely demented person as well as a dying one and also animals by the way, on which words are completely lost. So skin was something on which to focus again and I enjoyed painting two larger pieces depicting this wonderful natural coat wrapped around Ulla, one of my models, with all of its colours and textures.

Can you bring me up to date on what else you've been working on since that show?

Well, the face thing didn’t fall from the sky. It has a history. And after having had a show with some faces you do not simply turn to something else. I’m still not done with the theme. The funny thing is, that in the beginning I had great difficulties with faces. I always tried to avoid them, choosing positions where they were hidden somehow. It was a bit like with genitals in the old paintings that are always hidden behind a piece of cloth or a fig leave. In a way I was looking for fig leaves all the time. And they were an obstacle for my quick brush strokes, for they needed more fumbling around. But fortunately I had the misfortune to have a very sportive model, Katja, that was jumping around and doing her somersaults all the time. That was very hard to catch on a photo for the autofocus never found the right time when to tell the shutter to do its „click“. And for she was skinny and small I always had to do lots of empty background that I found boring. So that forced me to go nearer and nearer to the object and unavoidable nearer to the face. And then I found that all that jumping and her exhaustion from it showed in her facial expression. Just looking at her mouth already indicated that she was kind of flying. And that there was no need to paint all that legs and arms in the air for there they already were, in her eyes, her mouth or her forehead. And eventually understanding that a misfortune had changed into a fortune taught me how to handle faces. And it’s my favorite object ever since.

With your phenomenal production rate I was reminded of this item [LINK] when you were building a new shelf in your store room. Even with (hopefully) healthy sales, that room must be pretty full by now?

Two things: the first one is that as an artist you usually have one studio after the other for these rooms have to be cheap, so they are in old houses that sooner or later get torn down what forces you to move out and look for a new one under the same conditions. I had five of them so far what is an average of three years per studio. Moving a studio is not that easy, as you might well know. So in particular when the next studio is smaller than what you had, you are confronted with the urgent question where to leave all this stuff and is it really necessary to keep this or keep that? When I had to leave studio number three, the one where I had Maria as a visitor and which was big enough to easily do the Gehäuse series, (each painting 230 x 190 cm) I did not find a new one in time and had to move home, where we live, into a room of hardly 15 square meters and no chance of storage elsewhere. So I divided my paintings into three categories A, the best ones to be kept on the stretchers, B, the good ones to be taken off the stretchers and rolled and C, the ones I decided to destroy and rip into stripes, what lead to the so called Dead Sea Scroll Project, if you remember (there is a funny text about that somewhere in AP or at least had been, involving Malevich, Ad Reinhard and the devil). So almost a third of what I’d done so far got lost in that massacre. „One has to let loose“ the psychologists say …..

The second thing is, that the better you become and the more important is what you are doing the higher the expectations become, as stated before. So you are no longer attacking the canvases with a happy naïvety as you have done in the beginning with about four paintings a week. You slow down a lot! And you realize, that the more paintings you have, the bigger the storage problem becomes as well. In the end the pain of having to abandon quite a lot of your works is almost in balance with the pain not to know where to put them. So what I have now at hand are about 200, 250 paintings. And most of them are huge. Against my insight that keeping small paintings is much, much easier than keeping big ones I simply love to do them big, bigger, biggest. The only exception is that collection of faces 40 x 30 cm, I started when having to work in that closet of 15 square meters. And it took me quite a while to adjust my arm movements to the new dimension but I think it was worth it.

Destroying a third of your body of work sounds like a pretty drastic solution to a space problem. Wasn't there a possibility of announcing a big discount sale of paintings in your studio, or even just giving them away?
You described your need for scale very nicely here [LINK] where you also mentioned that you are a trained architect. I noticed your words
Later I came to painting by chance..

and furthermore in the link in my previous question, you had said
Not painting for me is like wasting time. I needed so much time to find my way..

My question is, as a young man, instead of architecture, had you not considered the possibility of an early career as an artist?

( By the way, if you type in the words dead sea in the search box above, some links will appear to that project you mentioned. )

Of course I had, with a burning heart so to speak. I was fascinated by sculpture and immediately after finishing school when I was 16 I went to the local art school, showed to the professor what I’d done so far and got the official permission, to work together with his students. But after a while my mother intervened telling me that she would not support me becoming a sculptor, a profession without money etc. She urged me to become an architect instead and for in 1960 one came of age at 21 I simply had to do what she wanted. So I started my three years apprenticeship as a bricklayer, a requirement for being able to start studying architecture. But I continued with my sculpting and drawing in the art school after work until ten or eleven at nighttime. But when finally my studies in architecture started there was no time left for anything else. It’s a hard education with lots of lots of math, something I‘m not exactly brilliant in. So art faded away and I became an architect for more than twenty years.

So after more than twenty years, how did art fade back in? What happened that you later came to painting by chance (and not your beloved sculpture)?

I had always done some art all of my life, drawings, water colors and small objects, no matter what I was earning my money with. Small things one can do at a weekend. I still have some old photographs showing a few of them. But I had never painted. I thought that this I couldn’t do. But nevertheless I was seen as „The Artist“. Once I had done a big drawing of a pig with antlers in bright red paint on a big plywood panel about 160 x 200 cm out of a joke but it caught the eyes of a friend and he bought it. Years later his new girlfriend that was living in another town wanted to have it so he needed another „painting“ for himself and so he asked me to do it. It came out, that he wanted to have combination out of a sailing boat and one of my small sculptures with dancing women on a boat. But I had no idea of any kind of sailing boat. So I had one try after the another until I was into painting with no way back.

In a comment [LINK] on an early study for the large heads, you discussed three dominant aspects of your paintings as firstly, the representation of the three-dimensionality of the corporeal structure that constitutes the human anatomy, secondly, human expressions, and thirdly, the effects of light reflected from the body's surface. These strike me as very physically sculptural attributes of interest. You furthermore mentioned that you come at your paintings from the basis of a sculptor, but you don't appear to make any. Can you explain why painting for you has fully subsumed and replaced the act of making sculpture?

Art – not producing nice little things – requires your whole awareness and dedication. You really have to dig in it every day. It’s nothing to dwell on every third weekend. Every day, week, month, year you go deeper und understand more of it. Without that knowledge it’s hardly worth to be called art at all. So sculpting I did as a student of very young age and from then on only every third or even sixth month on a weekend or so. Out came some nice things in the course of time, preferably small ones, things one could do as a sideline. But when I fell into painting I did that every day for I did nothing else, no job no nothing. And there, in painting, I began to dig deeper and deeper. One can see the process of learning when you look at the beginning, then the next year and then the next to that.
Of course I could convert my knowledge and experience, the seriousness of my painting on something like sculpture. I would confront that with quite another understanding now. But I feel no need to do so. I still have to learn a lot about painting. I’m still at the beginning. There is still a lot more digging necessary. And by the way, you, out of all, will know that the storage problem and the selling opportunities with bigger sculptures are much, much more difficult than those with paintings.

You have referred to each of your paintings as a

page in the heavy book of facial expressions that tells the story of life

It occurs to me that you shy away from any metaphysical reference in your work and stick to purely the functional logic of the figure, and the depiction of the transformation a life lived makes to the facial lineaments. Take, as an example of this utilitarian approach, where you translate the German painter Johannes Grützke discussing a desire to bypass the brain for a more direct eye-to-hand co-ordination [LINK].
Can you, by contrast, allow for the presence of an inner self or spiritual element, or is that left to the whim of the observer?

Hm, I was told that Lincoln once said that quotes from the internet are not always trustworthy. „Heavy book of facial expressions“ my goodness!
Okay, „metaphysical reference in your work“. To be honest, I do not really know what that might be. I only know, that I do have a deep distrust in human fantasy. There are many very bad things that came out of that like religion or ideologies of all kinds. So lets look at this case from the other side: I look at something completely sober and without nothing metaphysical attached to it and that brought something to me that I felt the urge to paint it. Given I paint the thing together with that metaphysical element I had the feeling was attached to it, the beholder might miss the metaphysical element completely and only sees the plain sober thing. That would be a pity wouldn’t it? So I better paint the sober thing just as it is and hope, that the same what had happened to me might happen to the beholder as well and leaves her enriched. That would be nice. Can you follow? What I mean is, that you cannot paint metaphysical stuff without becoming kind of embarrassing or makes you even slip into kitsch. It’s like you cannot paint the „soul“ of a person. So you better concentrate on what you see, trust your brush and let the beholder decide what she makes out of it.

I'm wondering why you paint such large formats. In "Watching and Speed" [LINK] you said

I still haven't found a solution for how to make a viewer rest his or her eyes on a painting longer than just for a jiffy

Do you think that painting ever bigger and bigger will get them to stop for longer?

In your fifth question you mentioned that I once wrote on AP why the big format for me has such an attraction. And it is still one of the reasons why I do it. I said: „Well, earlier in my life I worked as an architect. So for many years my drawing work only required small movements of my hands. All the lines not much longer than some centimeters, then adding some small numbers or words for explanation. This work had been very exiting and sometimes stressful but this never showed in the body. Looking at me from behind one could not see if I was drawing at all. I have always suffered from this contradiction: inner turmoil but outer calmness. Later I came to painting by chance and what attracted me most was that here, in the big format, suddenly the inner turmoil was accompanied by quick and mighty movements. The whole body was engaged in the process. And sometimes I even got near physical exhaustion. So this gave me an enormous satisfaction. Painting then was not only a thing invented in my brain and translated into one hand’s minute movements but a thing about me and containing me as a whole.“
Another reason is the question what you want to achieve with a painting. As one can see on that photo showing Maria visiting my studio I started the Gehäuse series with my usual format for Faces of 120 x 100 cm. But for what I had in mind it didn’t work. I wanted the outrageousness of Alzheimer’s overwhelm the beholders. I wanted them to be confronted with a shock. I wanted them to stand in front of the painting muted themselves. No chatter but respect! And that did work in the final format of 230 x 190 cm. Format can make a difference when necessary. If one perform the same scene with the same actors on stage or in your living room makes quite a contrast. Just have a look at the photo below.

When and why did you move to New York?

My older daughter lived there and after visiting her in spring 2001 for the first time I got the feeling, that I should be there much longer. The main motive was being near to her. She had been in NYC for some years already and I missed her terribly. But on the other hand I had just started painting hardly two years ago, and didn’t want to loose the drive while being there. So after I went there in September (unfortunately exactly when there were the horrendous 9/11 attacks) I immediately started looking for a studio, being successful after three days, organized my material at Pearl Paint in Canal Street, just outside the closed zone, and started painting like mad during the daytime. Later I looked for a gallery, which organized a show for me in May 2002.

Sounds like you had got off to a good start! How long did you remain in the US, and what were the motives for your eventual pulling out?

I was only allowed to stay for three month a year so I had to repeat this. My daughter finally returned to Europe when she got pregnant in 2006. That was the year when I was appointed a NYFA Fellowship for painting from the New York Foundation for the Arts.

Quite a few years ago, you were honest in communicating familiar emotions of frustration [LINK] that all serious artists understand too well. Do you feel that your life as an artist has improved since those times?

In his famous novel “The Magic Mountain” Thomas Mann wrote: "For the sake of kindness and love man should not grant death dominion over his thoughts". And so it is with frustration! Quite a lot of my artist friends or colleagues have become such a bore, for I'm so fed up with their constant ranting, complaining and whining. They have lost all confidence and joy. It's a pity, how they darken their own days and the mood of those listening. One should avoid this negativity. Try to put all of your energy into your art, Try to astonish people with what you do, try to move them and don't waste your energy on ranting and whining. And all this stupid talk of so called experts. It’s a very, very old game, so called experts play with artists. In Ancient Greece already the rich and powerful alone occupied judgement about brush work, style and meaning. Looking down on artists as mere craftsmen, "banausos" is the old Greek word for it, craftsmen who have no clue of what they are doing. And so it was in Roman time, renaissance, baroque, classicism etc. up to our days. Every gallery owner, every critic, every curator, the whole bunch of lay people feels superior. I clearly remember the guy that commissioned the murals in Cosenza telling us, that artists never know what they do. Only he, a cultured person, was entitled to judge and approve, what we did. And by the way, don’t ask me questions about Cosenza, I will NOT talk about it!

My art is art not for other people say so, in particular gallery owners or curators, how dare they judge? They do not even know how to wield a brush. My art is art because I say so and I do know what I am talking about. So stop complaining! Rather take your brush and your paint and enjoy your day!

On your website [LINK] there are some images of painted wall murals you´ve done at a café in Stuttgart and a bar in Berlin. How different was the return then to an architectural setting - this time as a painter, and not as the architect?

I did not think of architecture at all when I did it for it was a painterly challenge in the first place. A friend of my youngest daughter ran that bar in Berlin at the Karl-Marx-Boulevard in former East-Berlin. It had been a beauty parlor in DDR times and he turned it into a hotspot with the speciality that the long wall on its backside, behind the bar counter, 3 x 11 meters, was used for art presentation, with another artist performing every month. So he asked me for my turn. The difficulty was that I had to know how much time and paint I would need and if I could do the painting without having to use a ladder. So I used my studio wall as a test site and painted one third of the motive on it, counting the time and the material to get an idea of what I had to take with me to Berlin and what time I would need to do it. I did a photo of my main models fitting into the 3 x 11 format and started painting at the studio wall. No problem, everything perfect. Not that much paint and only a day for one third of the whole thing. It was May 2006, sunny days, summer approaching. So the next day I arranged my rose laurel and my studio chairs and table into a café scene and took that photo you find beneath. It looked great so I felt prepared for Berlin.
But when going there I grew quite uncomfortable with the idea that I had to paint at least for three days with the guests watching. I hate when people watch me while painting and even worse start talking to me, let alone asking questions. So I did a very radical step in finishing the whole thing on that one day the bar was closed for „renovation“, what meant painting over what the artist before me had done, to clear the „canvas“ for me. That included painting the whole 33 square meters black as I usually do as an ground coat, putting a grid of 30 x 30 cm lines upon it, doing the chalk sketch and painting the whole motive altogether in about eight, nine hours. I arrived in the morning and left in the evening with the whole work done and all 206 bones of my body hurting immensely. A canvas is elastic, a concrete wall is not! So the rest of the week I spent in the bathtub and in bed, reading Hustvedt’s „The Enchantment of Lily Dahl“.

Well, what I learned from it is the following: In the first model photo the light only came from the window in my studio and shone on the faces but leaving the feet in the dark. So I took another photo with light on the feet, too, thinking how funny, light from two sides hehe, strange thing. When finally there in the bar I realized that on both sides of the wall were Windows so it was only natural and absolutely perfect that the faces as well as the feet hat bright light on them. And in addition the wall hat a door in it leading to the toilets and that door came to be exactly where Katja’s bum was. So I understood that there was something like a supervisory board in our brain that preconceives everything in advance without really telling us. And so, like in a dream, we do just the right things without even sensing that they are the right things. That’s amazing!

That really is a compelling story of preparation and execution. I certainly don't know any other artists who would take on a commission in that way.

So looking to the future, are you planning a new series of paintings, and is there anything you haven't done yet, artistically speaking, that you'd like to undertake given the opportunity?

Yes, I think that there is another series in the pipeline but I’m still looking for the key that will unlock it. Although the portrait of my demented mother was the trigger for the Gehäuse theme, only the discovery of the blue face made it possible to become a series. So at the moment I’m waiting for another „blue face“ so to speak.
The trigger this time is the portrait of a dead friend. He had been an acclaimed writer and poet but dementia reduced him in the course of five years to a small, crooked, mute and absolutely helpless thing like a puppet on a string. It was awful to watch this decline. But then he died in January and suddenly I found him in his coffin looking just as every other dead person. So death had taken from him this outrage upon his dignity, and made him an ordinary person again, just another dead writer and poet. My, what a relief! And again, like with my mother, I painted his dead face to really grasp this fact. I have no idea how a series will look like but I want to do it in oils instead of acrylics this time. Oil paint keeps it structure while acrylics flatten, loosing its brush work structure.
Why is that important? Well, many people nowadays burn their dead relatives and I abhor that. Our life starts in the microcosmos of invisible ingredients, combining and developing into what appears as a baby nine month later. This whole phase of the beginning we do not notice, we do not accompany, for it’s invisible for our eyes. Subsequent the decay begins. A decay we start noticing at say thirty or forty? And that goes on until we are eighty, ninety or older unable to walk, to hear, to see let alone jump or run. Flesh and skin wrapped loose around the fragile bones but all of this is still us. We notice and accompany it. And then comes death and the body starts its final decay, every day a bit more until its elements reach the invisible world of the microelements again and only here the cycle ends. This phase we do not notice and not accompany for in the coffin it’s invisible again but we know that it’s there like we knew that the belly of our mother contained the baby.
So with keeping the structure of the brush work I want to make the surface more haptic not just an image but something more material with clearly visible and touchable globs and scratches. I’m really looking forward what that will be …..

Allow me to wish you good fortune in locating the gateway to the world of oils that you so eloquently describe. I'm quite sure that it will result in many remarkable paintings, in a continuation of that adventure that began as the sixteen-year-old Hanjo showing his works to an art school professor.
Finally, in conclusion to this interview, I'd like to express my gratitude for your participation, and to warmly thank you for giving us an engaging window onto your artistic life and work.

John Paul, you're welcome. It has been a pleasure and perhaps I might regret the absence of your questions


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