03da2186c2Knut Helms – art historian

• Born in 1972 in Lausanne (Switzerland), I have an academic education as an art historian

• In 1997 I finished my studies of art history, classical archeology and history in Berlin by the „Magister Artium“ diploma.

• Between 1998 and 2003 it was as a stipendiary of the German Forum of Art History in Paris that I participated in scientific projects on the German-French art life between 1870 and 1945. From then on I have been continuing publishing scientific articles in the special domain of the relation between art and literature in 19th century France.

• In 2009/2010 I got a lectureship about the relation between literature and painting in 19th century France in the Institute of Romance Studies at the Humboldt University of Berlin.

Going on further from an art historian to a painter and copyist of old master paintings

My work as an art historian has shown me a gap, a missing link between the art market, the museum and academic artistic education:

On the one hand, art historians mostly do research work about the history of art concerning its sources in libraries and archives losing often direct relation to the original artwork as a craftsman’s creation when considering it as a monument or document of the cultural history more likely than as a work of technically artistic material. Restorators on the other hand are dedicated to the conservation of art. Artists of nowadays furthermore want to achieve as a goal to find new artistic manners of expression being sometimes very reluctant to tradition. This is often because the painting techniques of the old masters are rarely taught and known practically while on the other side the amount of scientific research on it is constantly growing.

It is only mainly in its basic rules, but rarely exactly that we do know the coating of the paint layers of a classical painting like a Rembrandt. It starts with the monochromatic „dead colours“ building up the shapes of plasticity and preparing the sub-structure of the surface which is realized by coloured glazings giving life and depth and transparency to the subject in painting.

Painters of nowadays, many copyists included, neglect to take sufficiently into consideration the structure of the layers in the paint coating by studying the originals in the museums. Most works of nowadays remain very flat when executed in alla prima directly after a postcard with the colour mixtures in one coat on canvas. On the othe hand, the photomechanical reproduction works with a material completely different from an original old master painting. Other grounds, pigments, binders and procedures of painting not only logically but also visually create a different result.

So we may conclude that when building up a painted copy in original materials – raw and fine mineral and plant pigments, drying oils as binders – and techniques, the result is by far closer to the original. The light rays penetrating the paint layers are broken, reflected and dispersed.

It is by the overwhelming fleed of pictures intrusing our mind in the medial era that we risk to get too superficial in our habits of viewing. By this some people believe that an imitation alla prima or a photomechanical scan, a photograph worked up with acrylic mass might convincingly reproduce an original.

The lack of understanding the old masters’ techniques has led to experts being deceived by an artwork fakes like the ones by Jan van Meegeren having created a virtual Vermeer. Doubts initiated changing attributions of paintings to masters like Rembrandt. The public nearly doesn’t know anything about the secrets of the artistic execution shaping the essence of a true Rembrandt. The enormous progress of science, restoration and art historical research led to a fleed of new microskopical knowledge about colours, binders, underdrawings onto the painting’s support and the coating of the paint layers. The quest for the mostly lost experienced knowledge of the old masters, the effects of the colours in their coating in partially coloured, partially monochromatic underpainting to the final glazings gets in this way a chance to be rediscovered.

My conviction got true: The craftsman’s techniques of the old masters – source of their superior quality – are so less known, that they are rarely to be learned at an art academy (without questioning my deep respect for art and theory of modern painters). It was necessary to escape from a canon of rules and convictions of academic teaching in oder to confront myself to what the paintings teach me directly. I started understanding essentials of the old master techniques when experimenting it myself in a relatively large period of time to be financed by myself consulting and teaching.

I put the emphasis on the 17th century Netherlandish painting informing myself about the present level of scientific research in catalogues and reviews. For this project a plan was created, the colours necessary were listed as well as the components of the priming. Raw material like pigments and oils not being produced industrially were bought and then ground in linseed oil or egg tempera.

All these activities are inspired by the wish to open the treasure of creative experience of historic painting techniques. So since 2004 I have been dedicating to an experimental history of art, which is able to show to the visitor the genesis of a painting in historic materials and techniques according to the contemporary level of scientific research. As a painter and copyist I teach my experienced knowledge in theory of old master techniques either in its practical aspect during painting lessons in my workshop in Berlin-Pankow.

In this way, history and theory of the arts has led me directly to the practic of painting, having learned it mostly as an autodidact starting in my early years of a teenager. The collected experience when copying supported my conviction: The tricks and aesthetic experiences learned in the school of the old masters promise not only an enrichment for history of art, but also for the painting of our time. Why shall an artist not up to nowadays find his creativity in accordance with his own era he lives in by an intense reception of the older art.

In 2008 I experienced how my work could be transferred into the modern art scene. I participated in an art exhibition in Potsdam Sanssouci entitled „New Art in the New Chambers – Contemporary Art in Historic Rooms.“ There, I executed a copy after the „Unbelieving Thomas „by Caravaggio.