top of page



Christiane Ladleif



When looking at Jochen Hein’s portraits one involuntarily thinks, as already mentioned by Beatrix Obernosterer in her introductory text, of the great masters of light and dark painting, Caravaggio (1573–1610) and Rembrandt (1606–1669). The latter is renowned above all for his self-portraits, which are a main feature of his artistic oeuvre overall, in which he seems to constantly question himself anew, both as an artist and as a human being – unadorned, particularly in his self-portraits of old age (fig. 12)1. 

The by far most suggestive portrait by Jochen Hein, and also a supposedly “un­adorned” one, is that of his friend “P.C.” (2004) (fig. p. 10), who as a child was caught in a harvester and whose face is still marked by the consequences today.2 Affected by a culture such as ours, which is constantly striving towards a normed beauty, he generally rejects any pictures of him. However, this deviation from the norm, the view of his right eyeball, which is exposed more than usual due to the scars, fascinates us, seems to pervade us. Yet it is no way a threatening gaze – the upward turn of the mouth, by nature perceived as congenial, makes the person portrayed look relaxed, at peace with himself. The gaze of his right eye appears curious in comparison, open to life – the radiant blue color of the iris emphasizes this impression. In this respect, Jochen Hein knows how to cleverly implement the effects of light and shadow. He creates a shadow across the almost intact left half of his friend’s face in favor of the “blemished” side of the face – he purposely heightens the scarred parts using white, highlights them – the eye, the cheek, the lower lip and the chin. 

As far back as Renaissance painting, portraits of people with blemishes started appearing more and more frequently – something that is even more surprising as these were mostly commissioned works and the persons portrayed were at the same time commissioning an idealization of their appearance, so to speak. One of the oldest non-commissioned “private portraits” is a panel painting dating back to between 1420 and 1430 (fig. 13) by Robert Campin (approx.1375–1444). Angela Fabienne Huguenin describes the “Bildnis eines feisten Mannes”(Portrait of a corpulent man)3 to some extent as if she also had Jochen Hein’s portrait in front of her: “Some of the wrinkles are indicated as deep lines of shadow, in parts strongly contoured. The color of the flesh with the darker areas indicating a thick beard growth serves the precise rendition of the face. The blemishes are obvious and have not been concealed. In fact they are highlighted by the extreme close-up and the lighting. A proximity to real life is evoked…”4. Nevertheless: “The generally applicable standards of beauty, which are based on characteristics such as harmony, regularity, symmetry, the right proportions, clarity, unity and purity, have been relevant since ancient times and were still valid as a general rule in early modern times.”5 That is in no way different today, only, since the late 19th century and above all the early 20th century, artistic interest has primarily been focused on cracks in the personal and social fabric; in particular representatives of the so-called “critical realism” such as Otto Dix and George Grosz heightened their reality-based representations to a level of grotesqueness. 

However, Jochen Hein clearly sees himself as belonging to the tradition of the Old Masters. Although he makes use of the aids of Modernism such as photography and computers, he does not want to subordinate himself to a specific artistic zeitgeist, hence limiting or allowing himself to be categorized. “I would like to capture something, to stop time.” And: “There is no old or new painting – there is only good or bad painting.”6 Comparisons with portraits by Antonello da Messinas (around 1430–1479) come to mind, in particular the “Portrait of a man,” the so-called “Con­dottiere” (fig. 14).7 The man dressed in Flemish fashion with a black cloak and a black beret is immersed in the darkness of the background just like the people Hein portrays. This gives the light skin color of the face a special luminance, or, to put it another way, “… this beautiful play of light and color – which strangely enough is created precisely by the black picture.”8 The “Condottiere” also fixates the viewer, albeit with a three-quarter view and as a bust. As mentioned by Mauro Lucco, it is probable that at the time of creating this work, Antonello da Messina had seen initial portraits by the German painter of the Dutch school, Hans Memling (1433/40–1494), which were already being traded in Venice at that time.9 Indeed, Memling is still perceived today to be an important innovator of profane portrait painting – something that explains the early interest of the Italians in his work.10 The left side of a portable triptych (fig. 15) shows an influential member of a large Italian merchant family in Brussels, Tommaso di Folco Portinari (1428–1501).11 The stance and the eyes of the merchant are directed towards the center panel, as are those of his wife. Due to the dark clothing of the man and the black background, only the face and the devoutly folded hands emerge from the darkness; they become the sole communicator of the picture’s message – just as we encounter in Jochen Hein’s full-body portraits. 

In this sense, Jochen Hein expresses it as follows: “Everything has been there before, has already been thought and meant. It would be absurd to consider myself so mature that I do not need the transmission. The posit of having to fulfill an eternally new form of art, creating everything anew and completely overcoming everything that has been handed down – that would only be possible if on the one hand I were to cleverly conceal my sources and on the other hand take into account the forgetfulness of the viewers. I feel sorry for the artist who believes that this is possible without his work suffering any damage. For me, to be a link in the chain means to add one’s own unique share to an idea – while still being conscious of its origins. Just because a possibility has been touched on before, or a thought already thought, your personal contribution to it does not become obsolete.”12 

Jochen Hein makes use of photography to secure a particular gesture or gaze. He positions his models in front of a black curtain. Both of them, the artist and the model, behave, according to Jochen Hein, “like ordinary people,” in order to create an expression that is as “self-evident and natural as possible.” In fact none of those portrayed are professional models: they are, with the exception of three portraits,13 exclusively family members or close friends. In addition, the first work in the series “J.W.T.” (2004) is exceptional because Hein used a black-and-white photo of his father at the age of ten (fig. 16). 

If someone stands, sits or lies as a photographic model for Jochen Hein, it could be that the gaze the artist is looking for cannot be called up for a long time – as happened in the case of his mother (“Annegret” (2005), fig. p. 115), whose absent, musing gaze he sought to capture.14 Alternatively, he asked his father to model for him (“Wolfgang” (2004)). When he took off his glasses, which he had needed for decades as a visual aid, his gaze became more strained and struggling for posture, if not to say more “statesmanlike” (Jochen Hein) (fig. p. 95). An unusual, unintentional sight for the son, who took this up as a coincidental new dimension for the portrait. Hence, the original idea can by all means be modified, however never so extremely that a planned portrait becomes something completely different. On the contrary, a picture of water may by all means become a forest during the process of creation. The gesture of clutching the sleeve of the other arm with her hand, made by his daughter in the portrait “Jessine” (2005), happened, according to the artist himself, because he was disturbed by the friendship bracelet (fig. p. 97). The aim was to eliminate this, as well as the clothes of the person portrayed. Clothes or accessories are always subject to fashion and as a result can be categorized in terms of time. They distract from the persons portrayed and interpret them in the context of their social standing and habitus. A year later, in 2006, Hein took up the gesture of “touching the black” (Jochen Hein) once again in the portrait of his first religious studies teacher “Kopp” (fig. p. 117): “… not the loving or the vengeful God, but 
… with a furious temperament.”

Jochen Hein positioned his friend “Kai” (2005, fig. p. 113) in an extreme frontal view, just like Dürer’s portrayal of Jesus. Hein, who defines himself as non-religious, here allows a successful businessman to slip into the role of Christ – perhaps a playful comment on the “Corporation Christianity”? At any rate, the gaze of his friend is by no means one of a power-hungry person, spoiled by success, but instead seems to express something “suffering,” something “needy.” 

In 2005, in addition to the portrait of his daughter, another child’s portrait was created, that of his niece “Xenia” (fig. p. 119). This little girl also has her head slightly tilted down­wards, yet still looks out at us from the picture. The portrait of his daughter on the other hand is the only one in which the face is not the main motif, due to the fact that it is inclined towards the hands and because of the long hair, which has fallen forward (fig. p. 97). The gesture of circling the wrist at the same time expresses a high level of internalization and seems to ignore the world “out there.” The portraits of his close family embody a special degree of intimacy: his wife “Corinna” (2005, fig. p. 103) also does not perceive the “outside” while sleeping. 

Since 2004, 17 of an undefined number of large-sized portraits have been created. The choice of picture size (all the canvases are 1.80 x 1.30 m) was preceded by a long period of testing to find the ideal format for the wide variety of representations, by a careful examination of the different sizes in the pictorial space: standing or lying, is it an adult or a child? This is because an important aspect of Jochen Hein’s portraits is that everyone represented looks at us from the canvas in their original size. In contrast to the usual practice in painting, in which those portrayed are enlarged by about 10–15 %, in order to create a life-sized impression, Hein places importance on adherence to the real proportions, conveying a particularly tender impression as a result. For this reason, at the end of the photo shooting, he measures the original size of the head, as well its entire length, and also the nose length, the distance between the ears and height of the ears, and, very important, the interpupillary distance. 

As Jochen Hein always – with just one exception15 – portrays only one person, who emerges out of the darkness, there are, according to him “… by all means people who in particular seek to perceive this forlornness, this aloneness. The individual as a boundary against everything else.” The artist does not contradict such an interpretation, but takes it up in order to direct the attention towards what is for him the essence: “As an overall work, however, as a group of individual portraits, they overcome their isolation and enter into a relation­ship with one another. This is why the portraits are so important for me as a series. The first step towards overcoming the experience of being separated takes place in the encounter of the viewer with the picture.”16 This level of relationship and meaning is also a real one, as all those portrayed, with the exception of three, are persons from Jochen Hein’s private environment. “We are all born alone and die alone. However, we are only humans in relationship to other humans.”17 

To come back to the actual process of creating the portraits: the editing on the computer, which is the next step, has the function of the classical compositional sketch. In all of the portraits, the person represented is positioned twenty centimeters above the floor space intrinsic to the picture, creating the impression of a view slightly from below. However, due to the black of the painting’s background, this is a device that can hardly be discerned by the viewer. Peter Bies aptly states: “This festive, ceremonial darkness elevates the persons portrayed and gives them a certain authoritative size and dignity,”18 while for Jochen Hein the black background above all has the function of a stage, on which he arranges his models, or rather stages them. 

This specification of the position of the person portrayed within the pictorial space can then be transferred onto the white basecoat structured by several coats. The areas for the face and hands remain free, in order to maintain the radiance of the base coat. In this way, Jochen Hein creates a much stronger contrast than he could if he were to paint it white. This is the reason, Hein19 supposes, why for example Rembrandt’s works seem – despite their radiance – almost five times darker. This appraisal must, of course, be supplemented, as due to the aging process in the works by the “Old Masters,” the color and the colorless oil coating have also lost their luminance over the decades. 

The positioning of his artist peer “Marcel” (2006, fig. p. 99) on the outer edge of the picture is particularly unusual. The way he has been staged is one that, according to Hein, “represents the Modigliani-style Dorian Gray.”20 Here, Jochen Hein does something that in fact goes against all the rules of compositional teaching. He gives the impression that the person painted is turning out of the picture – however, it is precisely this that creates a special arc of suspense, indeed adds a narrative moment to the portrait. 


In Jochen Hein’s work, the black of the pictorial space consists of a large number of layers. Supplemented by warm and cold hues, it is given depth and vibrancy. If one looks at the works in original next to one another, one can see that none of the “blacks” resemble the other. 

If one stands in front of the finished, large-format portraits, one might feel one can see the outlines of the bodies of those portrayed in the lively darkness. Even though the contours are not there, one thinks one sees them – one imagines them. “That’s what I am aiming at right now,” says Jochen Hein. He wants to “provide so much input that the viewer cannot bear the fact that it is not there.” As a result, the viewers tend to project their own worlds of experience and feelings into this darkness. In fact, there is only the suggestion of an outline in the first three pictures of the series. For example, Jochen Hein has not completely eliminated the outline of the bobble cap of his friend “P.C.” (fig. p. 107). 

However, let us return to the process of creation: Once the black has dried, the face and hands are sketched and then the painterly process begins, in which not only the paintbrush is used but also an airbrush and blades to scratch out the color. It is here at the latest that the painterly process takes its own course and is no longer simply a “handicraft,” despite the explicit description of the process of creation. Hence, the play of light and shadow can change, for example. It is important to be “cleverer than the photo, that’s the real key.” However, why have the photo at all as an intermediate step? Despite all his experience in painting, “facial landscapes” are the most complicated “landscapes” and not even the greatest of artistic imagination can “conceive” the diverse nature of the individual facial expressions. It is the freshest liveliness of a moment that the pictures aim to capture, which would often inevitably be sacrificed during long sessions for a cross-total of many moments, and as a result a much less exceptional expression. For this reason, Jochen Hein’s portraits aim to attest the greatest possible unity between the moment and the painting. 

The oval lacquer paintings form an artistic counterbalance to the large portraits that have been composed down to the smallest detail. The first time that Hein experimented with this technique, the layer of lacquer was supposed to give the green color of the small landscape painting a note of particular freshness. However, the layer of paint below it disintegrated and blurred until it was unrecognizable. Such “‘accidents’ in the studio often [produce] valuable breakthroughs. Then the experimental aspect not only creates liveliness but above all adventure in painting.”21 This experience of the dissolving layer of paint, as well as a visit to the St. Michele cemetery just outside Venice were the inspiration for the “Sepultura-Series”: many of the oval enamel portraits of deceased persons on the gravestones were hardly recognizable anymore. Although they in fact had the function of helping the bereaved remember the faces of those who had died, they disappeared a second time, so to speak. In many cultures, especially the southern ones, death has a very different value, and each individual is much more strongly aware of his or her own perishability. In our culture we try to keep death and the act of dying as far away as possible from the living, in order not to have to deal with it … 

Yet this is the starting point for Jochen Hein’s series – he deals with the theme of disappearance and allows for the loss of control as an aspect of creative design. To begin with he applies almost “untidy” white and black sections as a base coat in several pastose layers so that a wildly bumpy background is created, which is itself a product formed by chance. Jochen Hein sought special advice with regard to the carrier material: It is made of the most durable wood, which does not rot, even after 200 years under water. It is a plywood board used for boatbuilding, 44  mm thick – correspond­ingly, the lacquer sealing serves the preservation of an image that has “disappeared” to different extents precisely as a result of this technique. A chalk-drawing portrait by Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) of Isabella d’Este (1499/1500, fig. 17)22 creates a sense of disappearance similar to Hein’s memento mori series. According to André Chastel, despite the fact that da Vinci made numerous drawings of the duchess, he did not realize them in oil as “it was only possible to escape a client as exploitative as Isabella d’Este with politeness.”23 The portrait, which shows a strict profile view, dispenses with the usual idealization and makes the client, who had hoped to capture her youthful beauty, virtually “disappear” by only clearly rendering her contours. 

Hein’s portrait “Volker” (2005, fig. p.128) has ultimately disappeared altogether beneath the milky, opaque coat of lacquer. Here, too, the artist used a photo as a basis, which he transferred in acrylic to the carrier material specific to the series. Several layers of acrylic lacquer, each mixed with opaque white or – in the case of other works – glazes of different colors, can ultimately give a picture a completely different character. In the case of the Ratzinger portrait (2011, fig. p. 128) of Pope Benedict XVI, who has since resigned, Hein mixed in some drops of magenta and chromium oxide green in various different layers of glaze. During the drying process, these flowing colors move – ultimately coincidence “decides” in which part of the portrait the layers of paint stop. In the work “Schädel” (Skull (2005), fig. p. 128), Jochen Hein dabbed two sections of the picture during the drying process, creating the impression of a skull. For the artist a fascinating moment and a reason to no longer “lend a hand” to this work. 

A comment made to Peter Bies comes to mind in this context: “The pure fear of death, which one perhaps feels more strongly as an artist than other people – that is a suffering, which I can only counteract with my work. How else? I resist, I face up to the inevitable, I face up to my ludicrous desire to be immortal.”24 The work “Alberto,” the appearance of which is ultimately only a co­incidence, is a reference to the sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966). In his artistic oeuvre, too, it is always about the distance the artist feels to the person portrayed, the disappearance of the figures during the painting or sculptural process, in which they become increasingly smaller and thinner, the desire of the artist to capture those portrayed yet in fact only to document their disappearance. The sepulture series is, according to Jochen Hein, “the only series to which I take a playful approach, although it is the most serious in terms of content.” 

bottom of page