Oil Colours and Physics: Means to Explore Reality


When I was 4 years old, I found a book on my parents' bookshelf about the paintings of Mathis Neithardt Grunewald. I was fascinated by it and looked at it over and over. I was very upset by the artist's naturalistic portrayal of hell, and it took some time before I understood that the hell was painted and not photographed. But if it was painted, where had the artist seen this vision? Deeply impressed by his deception, I wanted to know how he had achieved this, just as any child wants to be able to imitate a skill that has impressed him, or at least to know how it works.

I soon forgot this artist, however, and instead enjoyed drawing the objects of my daily childhood world. Nevertheless, the urge not only to make drawings and paintings but also to understand things that cannot be observed, either with the naked eye or even with microscopes and lenses, was engendered in me and continues to influence my life.

Later, I visited a lot of studios of fine art in Mainz, Frankfurt, and Berlin, but I found out that I could not learn in them the painting techniques in which I was (and still am) interested. That is why I decided to become a self-taught artist and to study something else.

Finding out what that "something else" should be was a process of trial and error, supported by the liberal system of higher education in Germany. The history of arts crossed my path, as did journalism. And after attending a seminar about semiotics and reading lots of books by Charles S. Peirce, Bertram Russell, and Umberto Eco, I embarked on philosophy, which was quite close to what I finally graduated in: theoretical physics.

Although apparently completely different in their approach, the worlds of the arts and the sciences have seen many proponents who have been at home in both. C.S. Peirce, for example, was a mathematician and geodesist by profession, and he traveled with his reversion pendulum all over the world, in order to measure the fluctuations of the gravitational constant. And Da Vinci and Dürer were seriously interested in mathematics, so I thought, "Why not?"

I admit that when I took my decision, I had the great advantage of ignorance. The toughest lesson was that it is almost impossible to combine work in two quite different spheres if you are forced to concentrate on one of them. I had no time remaining to paint, except a couple of weeks during the semester break. Yet I changed my tools from brushes, oil paints, and canvas to pencil, paper, and computing power for years and finished physics with a diploma on the topic of many-particle theory, under the supervision of Prof. Nolting at the Humboldt University in Berlin.

Ever since I started to paint seriously, I have been interested in human beings. In the meantime, I have been influenced by the handicraft of Italian Renaissance and baroque painters such as Carravaggio and Il Guercino--in particular, their use of light, which gives the scene a quality of reality and, through this feeling of reality, gives the viewer a personal connection to it. Mostly, I paint a scene on a small- or medium-sized canvas. Then, I take this canvas and place it in a totally different context. A new context can be, for example, a larger canvas featuring a different background. This process enables me to present several themes and perspectives in a single canvas.

My paintings have one thing in common: The people in them are always depicted in the seconds before the scene comes to a climax. The story I attempt to tell breaks off at that point, and the outcome depends on the viewer's imagination or experience of life. This can be seen, for example, in the paintings "Jerusalem" and "Submerged" (see graphics), on which I have received totally different feedback and associations from different spectators.

During my years in physics, many ideas and pictures accumulated in my mind, and I started to work them out from the very moment I received my diploma. For me, it is still too early to tell if the scientific work has influenced my artistic work, most likely because I am not the type of artist who translates the behaviour of electrons in a solid directly to oil on canvas.

But just as there is no problem in modern physics that can be solved exactly, so with my art there are no "right answers." Similarly, in my paintings and in physics, the story usually ends way before the solution, and it depends on the physicist's imagination to get a good approximation. It is a very reassuring idea that even theoretical physics did not force me to change my view of the world.

More paintings can be viewed at www.fw-art.de.

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