Anne Simone Krüger
“In the work of art, it is through the simultaneity of present and remembered sensation that our world first becomes real.” – Jochen Hein
Sunlight is refracted by the surging sea, and then reflected. The wind sweeps sea spray from the radiant white crests of the waves, driving it along before itself. Blue and white swirl into one another and form a single moving surface. Water as far as the eye can see, spreading out before our eyes, very near and infinitely far. The entire pictorial surface is a single expression of seething and roaring, limited only by the edges of the canvas. Jochen Hein’s paintings depict the surface of the world in surprising correspondence with the surface of the painting. At first glance, these are fascinating instances of landscape painting. When we fully engage with them, however, the artist takes us on a metaphysical stroll. On our way through his landscapes, we encounter insights into our own perception, as well as into our own existence in the world. What do we see, and what do we think we see?
This question arises when we approach the images. Approaching here is to be understood literally. From a distance, the works of the Hamburg-based artist depict northern German landscapes: the sea in all its facets, at times gently undulating, at other times stormy, sky and clouds of fog. But with each step closer, the painterly image becomes increasingly atomized; the viewer is confronted with the fact that he is by no means standing in front of a realistic, finely constructed scenario. Instead, Jochen Hein’s painting emerges from curious experimentation—a laboratory of processes in which wet paints run into each other, drip, spray, are blurred with the painting cloth, removed, dabbed. What the eye initially recognized as truth disintegrates into pure color. Controlled chance is a constant companion to the pictures’ production process. Because Hein only can—indeed, only wants to—influence the application of paint up to a certain point. Painting thus becomes an adventure and an unrepeatable process. “Each painting is unique in two respects—first because it exists only once and second because it cannot be repeated,” the artist says about his painting. There is a long tradition of using chance in art. The Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli, for example, recognized nature’s self-painting potential, and Leonardo da Vinci took note of a colleague who threw a paint-soaked sponge at a wall and took the resulting stains as a source of inspiration. In those accidental structures, he “recognized an entire cosmos of human heads, animals, battles, cliffs, seas, clouds, and forests.” 2
In this way, the painting always remains surprising for the artist himself; it carries him away in the process of its creation and enables him to be more playful and free. At times, a horizon crystallizes out of the resulting structures and the picture pushes toward a blue sea landscape; in another instance a puddle on the paper is transformed into a coastal foreland. Such complex organic structures can never be intentionally created; interest lies in the process. Such practices were in full bloom some hundred years ago, when the Surrealists systematically and methodically applied chance and experimented with alternative methods of applying paint. As Kito Nedo writes, “The Surrealists loved techniques such as frottage, grattage, decalcomania and collage. These practices helped in the production of images that seem to reflect the insecurity and dissension of the (then) present.” ³ Roughly a century later, Jochen Hein is concerned not with the present, but rather with fundamental and timeless questions. It is no coincidence that he has dealt with the writings of the molecular biologist and Nobel Laureate Jacques Monod. In his book Chance and Necessity, Monod asserts that all life is based on chance and that “chance alone is at the source of every innovation, of all creation in the biosphere.” 4 As the line of painterly ancestors from Botticelli to Hein shows, this principle can also be made fruitful for art. From the untruth of color formations applied to an image carrier, a new truth emerges, one that does not imitate the world one-to-one, but rather creates its own world. And one that provides the artist, as well as the viewer, with subjective insights and experiences. Such a technical approach forces us to consider both what we actually see and what our perception makes us see through our knowledge. Because, as Jochen Hein argues, “it is not the world itself that determines the way we perceive it—it is human nature that merely gives us a certain window onto the surface of things.”
Hein’s working method enables him to capture more than the superficial appearance of things: it also enables him to also paint the atmosphere, the mood implicit in the moment. The tranquility when the mist wafts over the flat land or the roar when a storm whips the sea. “He did not want to separate the stable things which we see and the shifting way in which they appear. He wanted to depict matter as it takes on form, the birth of order through spontaneous organization,” the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty said about the father of the Impressionists, Paul Cézanne. 5 It is a formulation that applies equally well to the works of Jochen Hein. It is by no means a question of making the invisible visible, for, as the artist says, “the invisible cannot be seen—not even in pictures.” On the contrary, it is a matter of depicting everything that is visible, and above all everything that is perceptible, in the work of art, while at the same time preserving the freedom of form. For then, spaces of reflection open up over what is ultimately reflected on the surface, and it occurs to the attentive viewer that we generally only scratch the surface when we look at things, that we only see the “reflection of light on the surfaces” and just barely get our bearings. And “just barely being able to get our bearings is something that leads me to cloud interpretation in the pictures. This does not mean that I want to see elephants depicted in the cumulonimbus cloud, but that we are prepared to recognize something in everything, and already have our expectations everywhere, only leads us to recognize clouds where in fact I actually only wiped off some paint.” This is the crux of the matter when it comes to the landscape painting, which at first glance appears to be classical—it is by no means a matter of making a copy of the world. Rather, it is about recognizing through seeing and asking again and again about the “why.” Why do we want to assign a meaning in everything? Why does a sunrise over the sea touch us so much? Why is the horizon transcendentally charged as a border between heaven and earth? And how can these sensations be reconciled with the randomness of our existence as stated by Monod?
Jochen Hein’s painting is about creating “a flat, tender form of approach to this monster” that surrounds us every day. This may seem paradoxical at first, but after all—and this cannot be denied—what we ultimately see is a picture of a landscape. But is it really just a landscape? Is there not much more to discover beneath the surface, or rather on the surface, of the picture? Are the supposed deceptions not instead “dis-illusions” that raise deeper questions? These questions always also concern our perception, which Jochen Hein’s paintings trouble through the way they play with our viewing habits. Here as well, Hein ties in with a tradition that demands contemporary images through new insights. In 1950, the art historian Ernst Gombrich stated: “The upswing in the natural sciences and the newly awakened interest in observing nature meant that artists at the beginning of the nineteenth century also turned great attention to the problems of seeing. ‘The art of seeing nature,’ said Constable in one of his epigrammatic sayings, ‘almost has to been learned as much as the art of reading Egyptian hieroglyphics.’” 6
John Constable could not have foreseen the significance of his statement for a future in which quantum physics and string theory would influence our understanding of the world. Seeing and knowing—it is here that the circle closes—influence one another. The innocence of the eye propagated by the English art historian John Ruskin in the eighteenth century, something he attributed at the time to J. M. W. Turner, finds a contemporary counterpart in Jochen Hein’s paintings. The works are not created using photographic models or spaces of perspectival illusion. Rather, the artist looks at the world in the best phenomenological sense—with unadulterated curiosity—and paints things as he has seen them. In annoyed response to a naval officer who complained that the ships in his painted view of Portsmouth had no hatches, Turner argued: “My business is to paint what I see, not what I know is there.” 7 Often, we think we know everything, have seen everything, and forget to actually look. With his paintings, Jochen Hein strives to break this circle. With the specular reflections of the surface, he invites the viewer to look at the world with an unobstructed view. Looking becomes a contemplative experience. “The sea is not a landscape, it is the experience of eternity, of nothingness, of death,” Thomas Mann wrote in 1926. 8 It is a description that seems appropriate to the feeling that resonates during contemplation of Jochen Hein’s images of the sea. Nothing disturbs the unity of the viewer and the surface of the water.
This “nothingness” only now catches the eye, although it runs like a thread through all of the painter’s landscapes. They are all deserted. No monk walks along the beach, as in Caspar David Friedrich’s famous painting Monk by the Sea, painted between 1808 and 1810. Nor does anything remain of the repoussoir (or “pushing back”) figures that nineteenth-century artists used to bring viewers into their pictures. In Hein’s works, the unusual viewer standpoint and details, render a view onto nature so direct that figures would appear superfluous, almost disturbing. Particularly because the repoussoir figures of art history were typically symbols of moral-theological reflections. Jochen Hein’s sea does not strive to be sublime, nor is it religiously afflicted or mystically charged. Hein is not interested in romanticizing nature or finding answers, but is rather oriented toward recognizing the greatness of what lies there before us. He is concerned with how we derive our need for answers from the fact that we feel very small in the face of the vastness of the landscape. In the end, there is nothing left of the shore, because “for me, the shore—not the horizon—is the border to infinity.”
And it is precisely the absence of people within them that leads these landscapes to touch the viewer directly, to render something deep within him audible. For it is precisely the partial abstraction, the free manner of painting, and a technique that is distinctly not “painterly” that provide an open narrative for the viewer to fill with subjective ideas and make, to a certain extent, his own. Here, imagination is the beginning of all education. Immanuel Kant already saw in the power of imagination “the pure form of all possible knowledge,” because only the ability of man to imagine “all objects of possible experience,” 9 to visualize them, to get an idea of them, makes it possible for him to also comprehend these objects. According to the art critic Hanno Rauterberg in his book Und das ist Kunst?! Eine Qualitätsprüfung (2008), ideas become forms of recognition. From this, Rauterberg concludes that recognizing is then “simply another word for in-depth seeing, for viewing that does not encounter ready-made answers, but [that] produces new, individual, inner ideas of art and the world.” 10 This in-depth seeing is made clear by Jochen Hein’s amazement when contemplating the world. And it thus lays the foundation for understanding the world. As Gombrich wrote, “The ancient Greeks said that to marvel is the beginning of knowledge and where we cease to marvel we may be in danger of ceasing to know.” 11
At the same time, in-depth seeing also provides the answer to why the places in Jochen Hein’s paintings seem so strangely familiar, despite the fact that there are no photographic source images. Jochen Hein is, in fact, a passionate photographer who always carries his camera with him on his travels. But whether in Antarctica or on the North Sea photography ultimately only helps him to deposit what he sees in his mind, “because I can draw a square around it. I rob it of the exuberant, so to speak, and break it down into something as ordinary as a square for the wall.” The photograph is thus merely an inspiration, or the chance to compare whether the colors presented indeed existed as such. The actual motif, however, is derived from memory. Especially since, in Hein’s pictures, the painter “prefer[s] to push through to other things that cannot be photographed at all.” Hence, Jochen Hein’s landscapes do not depict specific places. One generally recognizes North German motifs in them. They seem familiar to those of us who have at some point traveled in the direction of the North Sea.
The presumed recognition, however, results from the typologies that Jochen Hein distils for us. He shows us the landscape and the sea as an echo of our own memories. The French writer Marcel Proust would probably have enjoyed the paintings. In his epochal work In Search of Lost Time, he describes how he dipped a madeleine in his tea and was immediately transported back to his childhood. 12 This form of memory potential is also activated by Jochen Hein’s paintings. In its immediacy, the sea triggers in every viewer the possibility—in his mind’s eye—of superimposing his subjective memories over the picture he sees and of transporting himself to any random moment that he himself had spent at the sea. In this way, seeing and knowing are linked, not scientifically or objectively, but empirically and subjectively. “For Marcel Proust, seeing—and indeed any form of sensory perception—can never be separated from the memory of earlier sensations,” 13 writes Philipp Heide and, with this, could also describe the paintings of Jochen Hein.
“In the work of art, it is through the simultaneity of present and remembered sensation that our world becomes real.” It becomes real because we actually experience it, because we look behind the surface. And it is precisely then that we find ourselves within the realm of meaning. The sea does not gaze back at us, it does not care whether we contemplate it or not. Even in the Anthropocene, the first epoch in which humankind has been the most important influence on the Earth’s biological, geological, and atmospheric processes. 14 Our own insignificance has always led us to search for meaning: myths have arisen out of this search for something greater, for something that would bespeak the necessity of human existence. The necessity, as Jochen Hein’s pictures tell us, lies within ourselves. The moment we find our own memories in nature and perceive the world with our senses, we are truly in it. It is therefore Jochen Hein’s concern to recreate the surface, to recharge it and inscribe it with the riddles that surround us. In this way, he renders them able to be subjectively experienced and tangible and creates individual reflections in his pictures—for himself, as well as for the viewer.
The places of collective visual memory function as tools. Hein says, “In my pictures, I seek the familiar, the seemingly most familiar. By daring to be accessible in this way, I can get to the essentials.” This applies to all of his series of works. The blue landscapes depict the sea in all its facets, while the green landscapes are dedicated to the North German meadows and coastal forests. The black-and-white landscapes inflect chiaroscuro modeling and provide the artist with insights, which he then leads back into color. The series of portraits extends his approach to landscape to the depiction of people. Only faces and hands stand out against a black background—the forms are without anecdotal elements such as clothing or other attributes. The people depicted seem as strangely familiar as the landscapes do. Finally, the hair depicted refers to the artistic potential of structures and to the fact that a good picture always works—even when it concentrates on a detail like a shock of hair. What all of these series have in common is a focus on reduction. Hein says, “Everything we expect from the world begins with very little. And to make this very little not boring is actually my goal in painting.” In this, Hein is decisively influenced by Minimalism. He feels particularly connected to the artistic approach of Robert Ryman. In his shaded white paintings, Ryman explored the boundaries of abstract painting. Instead of flat canvases, he presented three-dimensional works and the smallest details in the process of creation. 15 Ryman’s idea of the picture as a body in space is also the basis of Hein’s works, except that Hein covers the elaborately produced surface of the pictorial body with an ostensibly illusionistic level. The all-over quality of many of Hein’s motifs is reminiscent not least of all of Jackson Pollock’s action painting and the resulting drippings. Like Pollock’s large-scale works, Hein’s paintings are also inscribed with the gestures of their creation. Typically, the large canvases in the Hamburg studio are placed on the floor as the artist sprays paint over them and moves around the picture. At this moment, it once again becomes clear that the works are not constructed landscapes but rather images that emerge from within the artist, and that seeing is stored—in the creative process, the artist brings out moments of collective visual memory from his own memory. Everything thus begins with very little and ends as something complex. Painting is joined by sensation; the “less” of color is charged with the “more” of subjective perception. This is why, according to Hein, it is a joy for him when viewers recognize his places—even though they never truly existed as such. But this is precisely the potential of his painting: perception, imagination, memory, and reflection overlap to produce a sense of recognition that makes an authentic picture possible in the first place.
¹ All quotations without further reference are by Jochen Hein and were derived from a conversation with the artist in his studio in Hamburg on December 20, 2018.
2 Leonardo da Vinci, Trattato della pittura, ed. Ettore Camescasca (Milan, 1995), § 57, p. 54, quoted and translated in Horst Bredekamp, Der Bildakt (Berlin, 2015), p. 312.
³ Kito Nedo, »Kalkulierte Kontrolle,« Art. Das Kunstmagazin, July 2018,
pp. 18–37, here p. 36.
4 Jacques Monod, Zufall und Notwendigkeit. Philosophische Fragen der modernen Biologie (Munich, 1975), p. 108.
5 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, »Cézanne’s Doubt,« in Basic Writings, ed.
Thomas Baldwin (London, 2004), pp. 272–90, here p. 277.
6 Ernst H. Gombrich, Kunst und Illusion. Zur Psychologie der bildlichen Darstellung (Stuttgart and Zurich, 1986), p. 20.
7 Philipp Heide, “Marcel Proust und die Zeichen der Malerei,” Kunstforum 139, Kunst und Literatur, Teil I (1997), pp. 220–23, here p. 221
8 Thomas Mann, quoted in Rodney Symington, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. A Reader’s Guide (Newcastle upon Tyne, 2011), p. 254.
9 Immanuel Kant, Kritik der reinen Vernunft, ed. Raymund Schmidt (Hamburg, 1976), p. 168.
10 Hanno Rauterberg, Und das ist Kunst?! Eine Qualitätsprüfung (Frankfurt am Main, 2007), p. 268.
11 Ernst H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (Oxford and Princeton, 2004), p. 8.
12 Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost time, vol. 1: Swann’s Way, trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin (New York, 1998), p. 60.
13 Philipp Heide, »Marcel Proust und die Zeichen der Malerei,« Kunstforum, no. 139, Kunst und Literatur, Teil I, 1997, pp. 220–3, here p. 223.
14 Sven Titz, “Ausrufung des Anthropozäns. Ein gut gemeinter Mahnruf,” Neue Zürcher Zeitung, November 4, 2016, https://www.nzz.ch/wissenschaft/klima/ausrufung-des-anthropozaens-ein-gut-gemeinter-mahnruf-ld.126251 (accessed September 16, 2019).
15 “US-Maler Robert Ryman ist tot,” Monopol. Magazin für Kunst und Leben, February, 10 2019, https://www.monopol-magazin.de/robert-ryman-tot (accessed September 16, 2019).