top of page



Holger Liebs


»We have forsaken the land and gone to sea! We have destroyed the bridge behind us—more so, we have demolished the land behind us! Now, little ship, look out!
[...] and there is no more ›land!‹«  – Friedrich Nietzsche 1



Appearance and Perception

Landscape aesthetics was conceived on April 26, 1335. On this day, the Italian poet Petrarch climbed Mont Ventoux in France, driven by an interest in the direct contemplation of nature at the great altitude of the mountain. It was an experience of enlightenment. The ascent was simultaneously born of practical objectives, from the use of nature, for example in agriculture and animal husbandry, to its perception as a landscape in free contemplation of the spirit: the view into the valley had for the first time become an aesthetic one that revealed the harmonious order of the entire cosmos. 

This laid the groundwork for a theoretical history of the contemplation of the world that, although it varied over the centuries, always linked the impression of the external senses to the observing mind and imagination. For Alexander von Humboldt, the basis of aesthetic pleasure was the »reflection of the image received by the external senses onto emotion and the poetically tuned power of imagination.« It is precisely this interplay of external appearance and inner perception that constitutes Jochen Hein’s painting. »I expose sensations,« he states, and the connection between technical-optical metaphor and emotion in the description of his own painting is set consciously, since he refers to the aesthetic tradition in which Humboldt also wrote that nature must be represented »as it is reflected on the inside of human beings.«  Paul Cézanne likewise saw himself as an »optical tool«  that, when painting, surrendered itself to nature. 

Of course, Cézanne did not really lose any control, and Jochen Hein, who in his paintings also reappraises the history of aesthetics, who with full knowledge of the pictorial tradition produces new pictures which we in turn compare with the pictures in our own minds, maintains the balance between appearance and perception as he pleases. While this balance has been inherited, Hein’s technique is new and unprecedented. The whole conception of the paintings is also contemporary, as is their radical cropping, which, for example, depicts the reflection of the sun on the sea but does not depend upon frameworks such as observing figures within the picture itself. The works rather only reveal the glittering floodwaters without accompanying narrative, so that one naturally thinks of the dictum of Clemens Brentano and Heinrich von Kleist with regard to Caspar David Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea: »[...] since, in all its uniformity and boundlessness, it has nothing but the picture frame as a foreground, when looking at the painting it appears as if one’s eyelids had been cut off.«  


Illusion and Deception

For centuries, illusion was the daily business of art, three-dimensionality and perspectival space its means. But if art wished to play with the viewer’s limited perception and expose this as deceptive, it had to be given something competitive and even circus-like. It was best able to do this with so-called trompe-l’oeil, the most striking feature of which was that it presented the painted space and the objects within as real. Illusions of depth were less plausible here, since it was possible that the paintings could no longer be indistinguishable from the real world surrounding them. The painted surface had to appear to be identical to the real background of the painting. 

The origin of trompe-l’oeil can be found in Pliny the Elder, who described the competition between the painters Zeuxis of Heraclea and Parrhasius of Ephesus. According to Pliny, Zeuxis, in competition with Parrhasius, painted grapes so naturalistic that birds flew in to peck at them. The cunning Parrhasius then showed his rival a painting of a linen curtain. When Zeuxis impatiently asked Zeuxis to finally push it aside to look at the painting behind it, Parrhasius triumphed because he had managed to deceive Zeuxis. The curtain was painted.

The competition for the greatest virtuosity was won by he who managed to deceive not only animals but also an intelligent being. That virtuosity as an end in itself was suitable for the ennoblement of the artist has changed in the modern era, explicitly since the invention of photography. It has since been the task of art to push its status as a creation and an aesthetic artifact into the foreground of its objectives. Since then, perfection in craftsmanship is no longer so highly esteemed, which means that it either makes itself strategically invisible, is exaggerated into absurdity, or is deliberately negated. Jochen Hein succeeds in creating an illusion with virtuosity, only to immediately deny it again with painterly means; in other words, he creates a constriction of illusion and disappointment that ties in both ancient ideas of mastery and modern ideas of aesthetic self-reflection.   


Land and Sea

We live on land. We are familiar with images of the solid ground beneath our feet, the view onto a vast meadow that perhaps opens up into a park landscape, surrounded by tall trees with wide branches, which in turn reach to the ground, as can be seen in many of Jochen Hein’s paintings. These pictures assure us of our existence and calm the troubled soul; we feel at ease. And yet for our path through life, we have chosen the metaphor of the unsafe voyage on the high seas, as the philosopher Hans Blumenberg explained: »There are coasts and islands, harbors and high seas, reefs and storms, shallows and calm winds, sails and rudders, helmsmen and mooring grounds, compasses and astronomical navigation, lighthouses and ship pilots.« 

We know all this from political and existential speech. It reflects emotions. The sea represents a visible boundary of human endeavors: it is unpredictable and dubious; one can be shipwrecked and perish in it. We have embarked and feel the infinity and insecurity of the turbulent ocean. The two spheres of our existence, land and sea, which are also used as metaphors of existence, are projection surfaces for our existential worries. Jochen Hein plays with this knowledge when he bundles our ideas, expectations, fears, and longings into landscapes and seascapes which, on the one hand, emphasize the fact that they are merely details—nothing hinders the view onto the glistening surface of the water; no fence, no animal disturbs the seemingly pastoral idyll of the landscapes—while on the other hand, identifying those very surfaces as painted by the visible brushwork.

He thus transforms metaphors of existence into an aesthetic process of recognition, which is always also a question of distance: do we look at the world from afar, do we approach it, are we in the middle of it? And what effect does this have on us? The play with perception in Hein’s landscape pieces can also be compared to an experience of the journey that Goethe described as illusionary in his Sorrows of Young Werther. Although the horizon attracts us, it ignites fantasies of hoped-for happiness; whoever sets out to meet it must inevitably be disappointed—and is in turn confronted with himself and his own expectations, longings and hopes, with insights into his own self that art can trigger. Werther thus looks »upon that lovely valley from the hillside,« only to sigh, »But alas! when we have attained our object, when the distant there becomes the present here, all is changed: we are as poor and circumscribed as ever, and our souls still languish for unattainable happiness.«  


Surface and Depth

Above a smooth, calm sea are dark storm clouds that herald rougher weather. The roaring, foaming tide, splashes spray and sweeps away again, forming whirlpools. Powerful and darkly rolling waves, breakers, with the next ones already piling up behind them. How can all of this come together so perfectly in the viewer’s eye and yet remain pure painting about painting? Hein is a technician of the surface who suspends the differentiation between surface and depth. 

This sounds paradoxical, but it has its origins in the history of ideas. Traditionally, one who finds himself on the surface has not yet penetrated to the depths of truth. Epistemologically speaking, the surface has a bad reputation—a hierarchy of various degrees of knowledge is built up the more »thoroughly« one proceeds, the deeper one »penetrates« a problem, and so on. True knowledge lies solely in the depths. In contrast, one who merely scratches the surface remains in the world of appearances, a world in which nothing is true or real. 

Thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche opposed such dichotomies early on. Nietzsche knew that the surface, the appearance, is insurmountable; those who attempt to penetrate into the depth will only find new surfaces, never the desired goal; the profound truth is only an image suspected to exist behind the moving, deceptive surfaces that must remain. Does it not seem as though, with this concept, Nietzsche were sketching an aesthetic that Jochen Hein claims for himself? And does it not almost seem as though he had already theoretically underpinned Hein’s seascapes? 

It is certainly no coincidence that Nietzsche used nautical metaphors. He thus wrote in The Gay Science: »All people of depth find happiness in being for once like flying fish, playing on the outermost crests of waves; what they consider best in things is that they have a surface: their skinnedness—sit venia verbo.«  In Hein’s painting, the aesthetic appearance, the »skinnedness« of the pictures, is a promise that, instead of being fulfilled, creates depth. The essence of painting is contained in this ambiguity.





¹ Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, ed. Bernard Williams, trans.
Josefine Nauckhoff (Cambridge, 2001), p. 119.


2 As quoted by Joachim Ritter in »Landschaft. Zur Funktion des Ästhetischen in der modernen Gesellschaft« in Subjektivität (Frankfurt am Main, 1974), p. 153. 


³ Ibid. 


4  Ibid., p. 154.


5 Heinrich von Kleist, as quoted in by Christian Begemann, »Brentano und Kleist vor Friedrichs Mönch am Meer. Aspekte eines Umbruchs in der Geschichte der Wahrnehmung,« in Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte, 1990, no. 64, p. 90.


6 Hans Blumenberg, Schiffbruch mit Zuschauer. Paradigma einer Daseinsmetapher (Frankfurt am Main, 1997), p. 9.


7  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther, ed. Nathen Haskell Dole, trans. R. D. Boylan (Boston, 1902), p. 27.


8 See Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, ed. Bernard Williams, trans.
Josefine Nauckhoff (Cambridge, 2001), p. 150.

bottom of page