Behind the Mirror

Beings—subjects—cannot see themselves. And they can’t see themselves from behind. Nor from a long distance. The only way to look at yourself face-to-face is by means of your reflection in a mirror. This glass echo is two-dimensional and appears in reverse. This is the only way we can perceive our own faces and know: That’s me. Which also gives rise to the question: Is that really me? Looking becomes a way of reassuring ourselves.


Now eighty-three years old, painter and graphic artist Peter Dreher has rarely painted self-portraits. This makes him something of an exception among figurative painters. After all, self-portraits are very popular among artists. The only exceptions are the self-portraits Dreher made between 1977 and 1979 on the exterior façade of the University Library in Freiburg. These were planned and implemented as part of a Kunst am Bau (art for buildings) project. The artist explains why he specifically chose his own image, particularly sixty-six of them: “I was commissioned to produce a design for the outer façade of the newly-built University Library in Freiburg. After thinking about it for a while, it came to me that the idea of painting self-portraits on a public building was just about the most absurd thing you could do.” Passers-by observing the painter as he went about his work seemed to agree. Peter Dreher painted the ultimate plein air project in real time, visible to anyone who happened to be passing. One of them, who also happened to be a colleague, said to the painter: “You’d really like to cover the whole town with your self-portraits.” On a meta level, this meant: You’re so vain! The jibe was a fellow-artist’s jokey response to a project that he never would have dared to carry out himself.
Humility is still regarded as one of the most important German virtues. It’s fine when other people talk up your talents, but blowing your own trumpet is frowned upon. Self-regard is something that needs to stay in the studio.

Narcissism is an accusation that could never be leveled at a person like Peter Dreher. The intention behind this university library project was a matter of vanity, nor a way to express self-importance, but rather the opposite: the negation of one’s own personality and its significance. The subject matter became just another trope, like apples, buildings, weapons, coins and trophies. The subject became an object. By the same token, it was an object that finally became a self-portrait of the painter: a glass. His ongoing magnum opus Day by Day, Good Day depicts the same glass over five thousand times. It has been painted by day and night under exactly the same conditions, at the same distance, on the same worktop, and against the same background—sometimes under artificial light and sometimes by daylight. In order to keep the conditions as identical as possible, Dreher used a template. Art historian Angeli Janhsen astutely refers in her essay to an “experimental set-up”: “Here is the glass, here is the painter, here is the canvas, here is the lighting. By choosing the same lighting and positioning, it is possible to ensure that the same glass always looks the same.” She then asks the only possible question that prompts the questioner to seek their own answer: “Is he really interested in painting an identical image each time? Does he want to produce similar pictures or is he interested in how they differ?” Dreher explains how he feels it is not necessary to change the model or the subject matter in order to keep interest in painting alive. On the contrary, the unchanging conditions emphasise the significance of the act of painting itself. Yet at the same time, the small differences in the series reveal the mental state, the changes to and within the person who has made himself the instrument of this experimental set-up.


Many art historians and gallery owners tend to categorise Peter Dreher as a conceptual artist. This is one of the most significant mistakes about his work Day by Day, Good Day. His name is often mentioned in the same breath as On Kawara or Roman Opalka. This relationship is explained by the fact that all three artists produce serial works. But is this an adequate explanation? The intentions behind their works are completely different. On Kawara “paints numbers”; in his Date Paintings he uses his biography as raw material or focuses on human history, as Angeli Janhsen explains. This almost poetic assessment of Roman Opalka is also from her: “He painted numbers, counting by painting.”
However, Peter Dreher's main concern was not the creation of a series; nor did he plan the glass series as the materialisation of time or an example of a memoir in pictures. The series was the by-product of his activity after he stopped changing the motif. He painted glass X, and hung the picture on the wall next to its predecessors without even comparing them. Thus it disappeared into the series. Dreher purposely forgot it and returned to his model as if seeing it for the first time.
Angeli Janhsen summarises the links between Peter Dreher and the conceptual artists On Kawara and Roman Opalka as follows: “Roman Opalka was captivated by the ground rules of painting and counting; he was hostage to his own work because if he were to stop, all his previous efforts would have been invalidated. On the other hand, Peter Dreher's paintings follow on from each other in such a way that gaps are part of the story. They are not linked to each other, but are individual, independent works; he could stop at any time without compromising the value of the earlier paintings.”

The Glass Project

The glass that provides the model for more than five thousand still-life works with the same motif is referred to by many art historians as a simple or even humble object. However, this is to ignore the estimation of the originator of these works. Dreher regards glass as a very special material. He sees it as “something that seems not to belong to this world.” It is without doubt a complicated material: invisible, unreal, ephemeral. Its transitory nature suggests a different physical state, only perceivable for a short time, fragile, destructible—like a gaseous substance.
However, in reality, glass is hard and strong. The painters of the Golden Age in the Netherlands in particular focused on this paradox. They pushed their artistic skills to new heights and demanded that the observer should recognise the virtuosity of their works. Often a white dot or a delicate gray line had to suffice in order to evoke the object. It was no longer the material itself that was registered on the retina, but rather its immaterial quality: in other words, its reflective surface, its reflection.

People have been quick to invest this project with a degree of mysticism. Peter Dreher has often been closely identified with Zen Buddhism and his paintings have been declared a meditative exercise. There is no doubt that, for Dreher, painting is also a kind of meditation. But can painting be a Zen exercise? In this strict Japanese variant of Buddhism, teachers instruct their pupils to perform exactly the same exercise over and over again, requiring them to practise until the activity – archery, for example – seems to happen by itself. However, this literally misses the point of Peter Dreher's intention when painting. By repeating the motif, and by always keeping the same model, his aim is not to achieve ever-enhanced artistic skills until he reaches perfection. On the contrary, all his thoughts and aspirations are channeled towards forgetting what he has just experienced. You could say he chooses to become blind before the model.


Peter Dreher is committed to one thing only—painting. He is therefore part of the great tradition of the Karlsruhe School. Founded in 1854 by the Grand Duke Frederic I of Baden as the Großherzogliche Badische Kunstschule (Grand Ducal Baden Art School), its progressive teaching program soon made it an important center for painting in Germany. Major figures in the art world such as Johann Wilhelm Schirmer, Karl Friedrich Lessing, and Hans Thoma were involved with it. In the 1980s, two key exponents of Neo-Expressionism, Georg Baselitz and Markus Lüpertz, taught there. Following the Nazi regime and the Second World War, it was reopened in 1948/49 as the Baden Academy of Fine Arts. Peter Dreher began his studies there in 1950 under Karl Hubbuch, before switching to Erich Heckel and, after Heckel’s retirement, completing his studies with Wilhelm Schnarrenberger. During his time as a student, a gestural, expressionist style was predominant which can be regarded as a modification and development of the process that was started by the European Avant-Garde at the beginning of the twentieth century. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, the Fauvists in France and the members of Die Brücke in Berlin and Der Blaue Reiter in Munich experimented with different painting methods. Artists experimented with color and form, increasingly reducing and simplifying objects to the point of abstraction. In the 1920s, under the influence of social and societal tensions, a movement developed that became known as Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), which was critical of politics and society and therefore returned to a heightened realism. All of these movements were part of Dreher's experience as a student. He studied under an exponent of the Neue Sachlichkeit movement, Karl Hubbuch, and a former member of the Die Brücke group, Erich Heckel. During the late 1940s and 1950s, there was a deep mistrust of figurative, neo-objectivist tendencies. These had been fundamentally misunderstood and even abused by the aesthetic doctrine of the Third Reich under its leader, Adolf Hitler, himself a failed artist. For this reason, greater inspiration was drawn from the tradition of the major artistic groups of Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter, and movements in the United States such as Abstract Expressionism. Excessively realistic painting was regarded as tainted and was the subject of suspicion.
After his early more expressionist work, which was still heavily influenced by Heckel, and an abstract period that lasted into the 1970s, Peter Dreher returned to the figurative tradition of Hans Thoma and Karl Hubbuch in 1963, transforming it into his own unique painting style in two key works: Still Life with Cups I and Still Life with Cups II. These paintings form the link between abstract and figurative painting and already prefigure the artist's magnum opus Day by Day, Good Day. All the key elements are in place: serial works and repetition, the focus on time and space, and the central questions in relation to human perception. In both paintings, the artist reveals, almost as if with a drum-roll, the aspects that would drive his future work. In Still Life with Cups I, there is a black strip at the top of the picture, almost like a painting within the painting. On it appears a row of images of exactly the same object: the christening cup belonging to his maternal grandmother. In Still Life with Cups II this cup is placed on a sort of tall, spindly table. In this way its stable position is explained, so to speak. A line of three cups crosses the composition on the lower left of the picture, each framed and “retained” within a background of a different color. In the lower third of the painting, the cups float freely against the white background. The relationship between the figures and the ground has become superfluous at this point. There is no longer any need for a painterly illusion of space. All the objects are represented in a fragmentary way, as if the painter has abandoned work on them. The observer is now required to complete these fragments through his or her perceptual experience. In an unassuming position on the right-hand edge of the picture—almost as if there were not enough room on the canvas—is the artist's self-portrait. Here someone is looking in a mirror: That’s me. Is that really me? The underlying question: Is what I see reality, or just an illusion of reality?


Serial works play a key role in Peter Dreher’s output, as in, for example, the Day by Day, Good Day complex already mentioned, or the landscape and sky formation series recording the environs of Dreher’s studio in St. Märgen in the Southern Black Forest, the Silverbowls series or the Vitrines, to name only the most important. What is it that interests the artist about creating serial works? We can exclude the aspect of the pure concept. Likewise, the explanation of painting as an act of meditation and exercise seems inadequate. The answer is as simple as it is difficult to put into words. Dreher is interested in nothing more or less than focusing on what painting can do. Although someone once called him a “happy Sisyphus,” a reference to the sheer numbers in his complex of glass paintings, we should probably now call him a “happy fool,” as his works——mostly small, detailed cabinet paintings—are nothing other than an attempt to create a microcosm. Having elevated a lack of ego to an ideal and following the principle of aimlessness—without ever issuing a manifesto to this effect—Dreher has transformed himself into an instrument with the aim of playing every possible musical note. He has been given an infinitely precious talent, which makes him a Stradivarius of color: his absolute vision. His brain, or rather his visual center, is capable of something familiar from the area of high-performing autism and better known as “savant syndrome.” His senses are so finely attuned in chromatic terms that they can calculate every tone in the finest fragmented detail and restore it to the palette manually. This ability is found perhaps in one out of every thousand painters. It is the works of such painters that light up museum walls, glowing with an inner fire like precious jewels: the masterpieces of Jan Vermeer, Henri Fantin–Latour, Gustave Caillebotte, and Vilhelm Hammershoi.
There are striking examples from the area of hyper-realist painting, such as the work of US artist Richard Estes and Swiss painter Franz Gertsch. “How can this be?” you ask, when faced with the incredibly painstaking streetscapes and gigantic portraits that are made by human hand and yet seem to be something a camera would produce. The ability of the human being to mimic a machine seems to be the main focus of this fascination. One might be tempted to speculate about why modern photographers pretend to be painters in their work, while painters behave as if their creations are the results of a mechanical process. Is it about truthfulness? Is it about a distrust of reality? Or perhaps about a distrust of one’s own perceptions? If one considers a portrait by Franz Gertsch, one will see flat, impregnable, perfect surfaces that look as if they were made by a machine. But in fact someone has made themselves into a machine: something that is subject to strict parameters, as provided by projectors and templates. The painter becomes a “manchine.” Viewed from a certain distance, Peter Dreher’s paintings are hyper-realistic, but as you move closer, the illusionistic surface dissolves into nothingness. Dreher himself referred to his painting process as placing islands of color side-by-side. These become clearly visible as you look more closely. There is no magic spell being painted here. The highlights are almost impasto, while the lines of the reflections are close to coarse, and yet, at a certain distance, they coalesce to form the perfect illusion—like a conjurer's trick. This is the work of an artist who enjoys huge freedom and infinite self-confidence. Nothing seems calculated. It becomes clear that Dreher can afford to dispense with virtuosity.

Vanitas! Vanitatum vanitas!

“Not mine the years’ time took away, not mine the years that might yet be. Time’s wink is mine, and if I tend it, then the maker of years and eternity is mine.” These are the words of the famous seventeenth-century German baroque poet Andreas Gryphius. His observations regarding the unremitting march of time and the finite nature of all life concerned his contemporaries and fuelled their anxieties. The words Vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas might nowadays be translated to mean: Everything is meaningless; whatever happens, nothing has a point. The idea that human endeavor is entirely trivial and that our own existence is meaningless may have a negative or even crushing effect on today’s humankind. After all, people still have a sense of purpose and are convinced of their capacity to improve their own lives. What matters is the individual. People no longer find a role or scope for self-expression in or through social groups, as was the case in the Baroque period or even the Middle Ages. Likewise, religion and the Church as an institution have lost their significance and been substituted by ersatz religions and gods. Anything goes—even in the spiritual realm. However, our fear of the great unknown—death—remains unchanged.
Death is the eternal taboo. This also explains the frequent reactions to a series of images and graphics by Peter Dreher that are based on the skull as a motif. Some gallery owners recoiled when they first saw the skull pictures; their standard response was that this would be too much for their clients. During the Middle Ages and in the Baroque period, people knew how to read pictures. In a society in which more than eighty percent of the population was illiterate, a knowledge of Christian iconography was taken for granted. The Church used artworks as instruments of propaganda and terror. Demons and hellfire were drastic illustrations of what awaited the sinner in the next world. The skull seems to have lost none of its power to terrify. In a society in which life can be prolonged almost to an endless degree, in which the human genome can be manipulated or surgery can be performed on a foetus in the womb, death is a troublesome side-effect that is hidden behind the doors of old people's homes, hospices, and hospital rooms. In the old days, people died publicly, surrounded by their families:
“For many, many days now, Christoph Detlev's death had been living at Ulsgaard, and talking to everyone, and demanding. It demanded to be carried, demanded the Blue Room, demanded the small salon, demanded the hall. Demanded the dogs, demanded that people should laugh, talk, play, and be quiet, and all at the same time. Demanded to see friends, women and men who had died, and demanded to die itself: demanded. Demanded and screamed.
For, when the night had come and those of the exhausted servants who were not sitting at his bedside were trying to get to sleep, Christoph Detlev's death would scream, scream and groan and roar so long and so incessantly that the dogs, which at first joined in with their howls, fell silent and did not dare lie down and, standing on their long, slim, quivering legs, were afraid.”
Dying in the midst of the family was a constant reminder to those left behind that life was finite and unrepeatable. These days, death has become invisible. Death has come to embody equity, as we all have to die.
Efforts to render the external signs of the natural ageing process invisible are also becoming increasingly grotesque: foreheads so tight that they threaten to burst, mouths fixed in rictus grins, and absurdly pouting lips that are reminiscent of caricatures of babies.
At the same time, there is an untrammeled drive towards individuality, self-realization and optimization. Scientific knowledge is harnessed to this endeavor. As the only unknown factor in our brightly lit world, death makes us anxious. But perhaps the anxiety that lurks beneath this individualism, behind the mirror and under the ground, actually makes us who we are: the universal, naked face, stripped of skin and flesh, constantly grinning. Speaking of his decision to paint the skull, Peter Dreher says that he was intrigued by this curved, spherical, and therefore perfect form. He might have been less interested in the significance of this model if he had been aware of how the outside world would react to it and assimilate this information. Since 2005 Dreher has produced six large paper works focusing on the skull. The pieces measure 156 x 300 cm and show the motif in a variety of settings. The painting surface was a ten-meter length of paper which Dreher cut into various rectangular formats. He then primed these with black acrylic paint. This had to provide good cover, and be durable and isolated in such a way that it would not mix with the motif placed on top. It took a great deal of trial and error before the right paint was finally found. Once the priming process was complete, the artist used a template to draw the outlines of the skulls. Within this set boundary, he then allowed the very liquid white gouache paint to run over the surface. He intervened very little, allowing the surface too more or less paint itself. Thus, random chance became the “artist.” There are several works where the “skulls” are placed on a white background because the artist repainted the surrounding area in white. The agitated brush-strokes are clearly visible at these points. This makes the process of painting the surroundings apparent to the observer. Because of the sheer volume—some formats contain up to a hundred closely-ranked skulls—the individual motif loses its weightiness and therefore its capacity to frighten, becoming just a shape.
Here, too, the artist is “working through” an important theme for painters: the relationship between the figure and background. The basic shape, which never denies the use of the template, is kept as simple as possible. There is no modulation of light and shade, no illusion of three-dimensionality on the surface. Instead there is an unending variation of different islands of color.
It is clearly apparent that what matters to Peter Dreher here is the act of painting itself. Plus the idea of himself as an instrument. Plus random chance. The confrontation with the relationship between motif and space is expressed in different ways in the various groups of work, many of which are serial works. In the Day by Day, Good Day series (begun in 1974), the spatial illusion is created by the reflection that continues from the surface on which the glass stands to the lower edge of the picture. In the case of the supra-illusionistic Silver Bowls (begun in 2012), this reflection is omitted and the objects seem to float in the white surroundings. Dreher evokes this illusion of floating even more clearly in his Bulbs series (begun in 2013). In this case he dispenses entirely with the template that determines the uniform size and positioning of the object. The motifs are placed freely within the image and their smooth, delicate surfaces evoke associations with soap bubbles—a popular symbol of vanity in the Baroque period. Dreher now allows greater variety in the background: because of the way they are cut off, the objects seem to float freely in space, beyond the format of the picture. The static impression produced by the glasses and silver bowls gives way to a more dynamic effect. The picture becomes a snapshot.
As well as the “skulls” in large paper formats, there are small cabinet paintings the same size as the glass. They also show a white skull on a black background. Here again, Dreher used black cartridge paper, using this uniform color to undercut the importance of the background. Completely round shapes continued to captivate the artist: in 2006 he produced about twenty small black-and-white drawings roughly the size of postcards (15 x 10 cm). The fascinating thing in this case is not so much what is there, but what has been left out. The drawing of the skull is only visible as a fragment.
Peter Dreher is fascinated with Edmund Husserl's doctrine of “phenomenology” and the aspect of this philosophical teaching known as “shadowing.” This is the term used by the philosopher for the impossibility of perceiving an object in its totality. Objects can be observed from an infinite number of perspectives. However, each of the observer’s perspectives necessarily obscures the other possible “perspectivist aspects” of the object. Thus our perception is only an illusion. In essence we only ever see “one image,” a detail of the bigger picture. Our brain relies on experience to fill in what we don't see. Therefore our vision is fragmentary, incomplete and, strictly speaking, two-dimensional—as two-dimensional as our reflection in a mirror. Peter Dreher clarifies the act of perception with the works he classifies under the working title “Fragments.” In these “fragments,” observers play a much more active role in the artist-work-artwork triad than they would in a work that is fully formulated to the last detail. You cannot see what already exists within yourself. That's why every genuine perception also always entails recognition.
In 2014, Dreher once again turned his attention to the Skulls series. His interaction with this motif replaced his activities based around the “experimental set-up” involving the glass series. On a good working day without any disruptions he will produce one skull painted in oil on canvas, or one drawing. The parameters that demanded so much from the artist while he worked on the Day by Day, Good Day series, the stringency of an “experimental set-up” that largely prevented any variation, have now been replaced with enormous freedom. With almost childlike enjoyment and a boundless appetite for discovery, he tries everything: finger painting, drawing with ballpoint pens from every possible perspective, freely floating on the page, motifs using audacious combinations. Instead of “guns and roses,” Dreher paints “flowers and skulls.”
He no longer needs any restriction in order to celebrate what he loves and what is as natural to him as breathing: the act of painting.
What an exciting prospect for his “late work!”
Carpe diem.

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