On Michael Hedwig's etchings "Über Körper"
The human body and the associated manner of perceiving human beings was one of the central art themes in the past century. This was impressively demonstrated by Jean Clair on the occasion of the 46th Venice Biennale (1995) in the show "Identity and Alterity. Figures of the Body 1895-1995". The subsequent volumes of "KUNSTFORUM INTERNATIONAL" (Vol. 132 and Vol. 133, November 1995/January 1996 and February/April 1996, respectively) picked up the Biennale's theme, and Florian Rötzer underlined its topicality with 50 contributions by scientists, philosophers, artists, and critics reflecting on "How the Body is Seen Today" under the overarching thematic focus "Die Zukunft des Körpers" ("The Future of the Body").
The body is also the theme which Michael Hedwig has been exploring in an extremely consistent manner since the mid-1980s. The artist is, quite obviously, in very good company. Rötzer claimed that the thematic focus would theoretically and philosophically deal with "future perspectives" missed in Jean Clair's exhibition and with "functions and limits of the body in a time of a new excessive body awareness and the new body cults, coinciding with a threat of a dematerialisation in cyberspace" as well as with "the place of the SELF in face of phenomena such as body design, brain transplantation and genetic engineering, between stimulation and simulation"; in comparison, Hedwig's artistic approach is more stringent. In addition, his way of dealing with the body seems to be rooted more strongly in tradition and in line with the tendency in Modern Art which, running parallel to the manifold forms of expression of abstract painting, can be traced all the way up from the depiction of the body in Vienna Modernism (Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka, etc.) to the works of Francis Bacon or Maria Lassnig. It was Bacon, in particular, that Hedwig felt a strong affinity with at the beginning of his artistic career: Not only do Michael Hedwig's early works echo Bacon's formal deconstructions of the body, they also reflect Bacon's artistic intention of making visible the basic conditions of human existence and of expressing the existential truth.
Hedwig completed his studies in painting at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts in 1980 and has repeatedly made his presence felt in public since, both in a wide variety of exhibitions and in accompanying publications, in whose texts Hedwig's intentions as an artist are presented with great clarity and sensitivity. Actually, there is only little to be added to these texts.
In the Tyrolean arts magazine "DAS FENSTER" (issue 68, autumn 1999), Ulrich Gansert emphasises the connections and parallels between Michael Hedwig's paintings and drawings; he underlines that "line and colour" are "means of expression" of equal significance for the artist. This distinguishes Hedwig clearly from other Austrian painters who, at almost the same time, contributed to the "new beginning in painting" in Austria (S. Anzinger, H. Schmalix, H. Brandl, etc.) and endorsed the primacy of colour as the major means of ex-pression in their works. For them, colour is the sole mimetic medium, i.e. the sole means to mimic nature. They seek to express feelings and emotions, exclusively by the use of colours and colorations. By contrast, Michael Hedwig's works are informed equally by line and colour. This enables him express individuality and existential issues as well as feelings and emotions in his pictures.
These are not so much pictures of bodies as pictures about bodies. Hence, they are descriptions, first and foremost, devoted to "the body as the product of densified and interconnected psycho-energetic levels of reality" (M. Hedwig). For Hedwig, the body is a means of communication in so far as, in his pictures, the body itself becomes a space, a "communication space" (Gerhard Larcher), and also becomes the dominant social and communicative factor. Hence, the bodies depicted in Hedwig's "(floor-)level bodies" ("Etagenkörper") are not simply located on different floors but they are bodies on different levels, thereby conveying a existential feeling. His fairly recent Tent Series is similar. In these pictures the tent, as the equivalent of coat or architecture, and the bodies, located in them or in front of them, form an inseparable unit: The body is the coat, tent or architecture and thus an expression of a social imprint or convention.
In the past few years, Hedwig has concentrated on monochrome and polychrome printmaking. This graphical technique clearly suits his intention of combining painting and drawing and the idea of superimposing and interconnecting several levels. Hedwig's chosen means for translating his intentions into art are lithography and, particularly, polychrome etchings, involving the superimposition of several print media (two to three copper plates).
In co-operation with Josef Mühlbacher's etching studio, Hedwig produced the plates for the twelve prints shown in this catalogue. As Philipp Maurer explained, Michael Hedwig is fasci-nated by the etching process because of the material itself and the possibilities it offers: "Cutting and polishing the plates convey the romantic aura of the traditional crafts of former times; they impose calm and reflection, the mind is liberated through concentrated manual work." Printmaking - and here, above all, etching - allows the artist, more so than painting, to create several spaces by superimposing the individual print layers and, at the same time, also to enhance the elements of time and movement in the picture. Although, like the paintings, Hedwig's etchings show the individual bodies frozen in movement and rooted to their space, they are more strongly bound together through the colouring and the superimposed lines; they become communicative and interactive participants of a scene of seemingly general validity.
The 12 prints have been summarised under the overarching title "Über Körper" by the artist. And rightfully so. It is not really important for the viewer to know that the prints "Über Körper 4" and "Über Körper 5", for instance, are based on the artist's exploration of the theme of Easter and Whitsun for an altarpiece for the parish church in Vill (Tyrol). Here, as in all the other prints, the mostly faceless and sexless bodies are the main vehicles of the scene portrayed; interwoven and interrelated, these bodies express philosophical attitudes and ideas rather than convey narrative or literary content. Art history knows the pictorial motif of the "sacra conversazione" (Italian for "holy conversation"), which was particularly popular during the Italian Renaissance and involves the Madonna, sitting on a throne or standing, surrounded by a group of saints. Whereas, in the early Renaissance, they were painted in a dignified posture without conversing, depictions of this motif in High Renaissance and in Baroque show dramatic movement, with the figures often talking to one another. Michael Hedwig has transferred the theme of the "holy" conversation into an existential one. His prints do not represent people meeting accidentally or conversing, but show "entanglements in a situation, in a life context" (Philipp Maurer).
Günther Dankl, PhD, Curator at the Tyrolean State Museum Ferdinandeum, Innsbruck