Ptisidyskolos or Life is Levitation. Remarks on the Art of Lilli Hill

By Gerhard Charles Rump



The modes of appearance of figures are determined by ideals of perception or by principles of form and style. And that is true for all eras. In the archaic art of Ancient Greece, from about 700 to 500 BCE, there was the so-called “archaic smile”, which wasn’t a smile at all, rather it was an inevitable consequence of the formal principle applied, which was based on the round stele, giving (bas-) relief to the surface, but which did not aim at creating a functioning, anatomically correct corporeality. In the 19th Century methods like that remained virulent still, like, for instance, in the work of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. He once painted a portrait of Ferdinand Philippe, Duke of Orleans (now in the collection of the Musée Hyacinthe Rigaud at Perpignan, France), in which he subjected the figure of the man to the formal principles of a Greek vase, making the right arm of the figure unnaturally long and bent like a handle. Ideals of perception summarize other methods of figure composition. All those not following a defined formal principle count among them, especially those emulating specific ideals of beauty. These are, for instance, the ethereal, super-slim, small-breasted nudes by the members of the Cranach family of painters, or the massive women of Sir Peter Paul Rubens. Looking at the images of women by Lilli Hill one cannot escape the notion of the “Rubens woman”, which is the way strong women often call themselves in lonely hearts ads. This kind of corporeality permeates the universe of ideals of female beauty almost equally frequently as the “dashing wild variety” (“schneidige Wildform”, Konrad Lorenz), independent of the fact that in western societies an (extreme) excess of weight is usually judged to be a negative characteristic. This is reason enough for Lilli Hill’s images to polarize, especially as the nude, strong figures attitudinize erotically. To think of seduction(s) here, is only allowed in a very differentiated manner. What is seductive in images of the type “female nude” is often due to a fundamental error which doesn’t separate what’s depicted from its figurative way of representation. The so-called “elegance of craft” (Linda Nochlin) is more seductive than anything else. The problem of the Magritte pipe which isn’t a pipe can come up in an even stronger manner, as the motif is obviously carrying heavy baggage. The artist, on her website, quotes Walter M. Gehlen, the director of Art.Fair 21 in Cologne: “The image by Lilli Hill attracts through an irritating mixture of self-assertion and serious pride, other-worldliness and defiance. The artist has deeply touched the public by her revealing work: It is not about how you look but that life is something wonderful to be honored.” What was meant was the painting “Spagat” (split) from 2007, which exists in two versions: One seen from the side, front right, one from behind, one towards the right, one towards the left. A very self-assertive depiction indeed, but also one falling in to soften certain prejudices, like those about agility. The split is done jumping in the air, shown as held in suspense, and with the lightness of the painterly appearance, it easily counteracts the imagined, empathized bodyweight. What’s heavy becomes lightweight, in painting one is free, the spirit transcends the body. The presentation of the appearance of the figures – they are practically all self-portraits showing a then, a non-current state of the body – is specifically enhanced by color. The incarnate (flesh-tone) is porcelain-like, a specifically tender interpretation of the color of the skin, and it therefore matches a traditional ideal of beauty. Only that those are in constant change. Just recently the pale, the Snow White ideal gas become popular again, like in the ”Burlesque” and “Gothic” groups. This way, the paintings by Lilli Hill present themselves as individuated and special. Some images by Lilli Hill will inevitably remind you of the reclining nude by Lucian Freud (Benefits Supervisor Sue Tilley), but only as far as the motif is concerned, as the painterly execution couldn’t more different. Rubens has a distinct brushstroke and likewise the later Freud, a trace of the brush that carries emotion even incorporating it. In contrast, the paintings by Lilli Hill prove to be restrained, inapproachable: The smooth surface provides esthetic distance. Here the perfect painterly execution comes into play, which is, on the one hand, “illusionistic”, but keeps its distance, on the other, from “trompe l’œil“, thus defining the character of the painted as being painting, defining the image not a life, but as art. This distance is also part of the subject matter, as it declares the suppositious (and misunderstood) accessibility and vulnerability through nudity a deception: The figures are strong and secretive and only let that happen what they want to. Their actions may be frivolous or sassy, but always self-assured. It is the manifestation of the image of womankind set firmly apart from “kitchen, church and kindergarten” (a kind of “cricket on the hearth” type of person, solely taking care of household matters), embodying an emancipation making use of forms of presentation, which are usually deployed in representations of women as erotic objects, creating an unusual self-evidence of being a woman. This claim to suchness is an act of liberation. Every now and then the women carry accessories or attributes of associative power, like rat traps or solanaceae (plants from the night-shade family). Or even bank notes. The evoking of associations through accessories or attributes has a long tradition in art, and it is especially frequent in religious painting and in allegories. Lilli Hill’s paintings therefore appear as allegorical representation, how realistic they may seem. The figures are mostly embedded in a dark, diffuse background, from which they are retrieved, even chiseled out, by a spotlight, which points toward a certain self-sufficiency and autonomy, and occasionally reminds us of levitated Saints, like the slightly larger than life “Assunta” from 2088, benignly looked upon by all those going to heaven from Titian to Murillo. Here we do, of course, also find a pinch of irony, but it is a fest for all the recurring resurrections in life and the flights of fancy of artistic imagination. Mimics, in some paintings the faces, every now and then verging on the grimace, are more down-home elements. Without presenting an intensive typology of the grimace, like Franz-Xaver Messerschmidt did in his “Charakterköpfe” series of sculptures (Character heads), and without dwelling too much on the problem of making grimaces as an amplified form of self-expression, the painter achieves a state of special and noteworthy intensity, one that cannot be achieved through dreamy, hazy-gazy melancholy. The facial expression of Lilli Hill’s nudes is a deliberate one, a strong one, but not a superimposed one. That’s not acting, it’s a realism of sorts.

Translated by Mason Ellis Murray