Pia Fries and Hendrick Goltzius

Valentina Vlašić

The work of Hendrick Goltzius (1558–1617) has exerted an unbroken fascination on Pia Fries for many years. She has so far created three groups of works based on her engagement with his multifaceted oeuvre, which cannot be subsumed in one single category. In the dedication inscription for the first sheet of his series of engravings The Annunciation, his six renowned “master engravings” at the apogee of his career (1593–94), the poet Cornelius Schonaeus (1540–1611) compared Hendrick Goltzius with a mythological figure from the world of gods of Ovid’s Metamorphoses: “Just as Proteus transformed himself in the middle of the water …, Goltzius, the admirable engraver and innovator … transforms himself by means of his multifarious art.”1 The artist biographer Karel van Mander (1548 –1606) repeated the honorific title Proteus, the name of the god of the seasons and metamorphosis, in his Schilderboek, 1604, in which he praised Goltzius’s talent for imitation: “[F]or, remembering the working methods he had seen everywhere, he demonstrated with one and the same hand the various techniques, following his own invention.”2 With the aid of the protean medium of graphic reproduction, during his lifetime Goltzius achieved an astonishing synthesis of his own personal creations and adaptations of the works of others, a rich reservoir of very complex pictorial creations whose variance and virtuosity continue to enormously inspire Pia Fries to this day. Her pictures connected with him result from a combination of art history and process art, from knowing the potential of color, and from a boundless desire for metamorphosis. Van Mander demanded “imitatio et aemulatio” from Goltzius, hence studying the painting of old sources, imitating them, and surpassing himself in dealing with them. By repeatedly making the work of Proteus a subject, by successively fragmenting and reassembling it so as to reinterpret it, Pia Fries proves to be a true Polymorphia3 alongside Goltzius, to be a master of polymorphism on a par with him.

In 2009–10, Pia Fries’s interaction with Hendrick Goltzius began with the engraving The Great Standard-Bearer (fig. 1, p. 123), which captivated her due to one noteworthy element. Goltzius produced it in 1587, at an interesting point in his biography, when he was influenced by Bartholomeus Spranger (1546–1611), the painter to the imperial court in Prague and an important driving force behind Italian Mannerism for the Netherlands, who, in the style of Cornelis Cort (1533–1578), developed a new engraving system, with which he quickly caused a furor—and which was also used in The Great Standard-Bearer.

In the engraving, it is possible to see a standard-bearer who is uncommonly young for his important function at the front of the army. He has a dynamic posture, which is underpinned by his fine, long limbs and his clothing, with knee breeches knotted on the side, a slit doublet, and a wide ruff. Standing upright, with his chest arched toward the front and back curved to form a hollow, with a springy step, he almost effortlessly carries an oversized banner into battle, whose tip extends beyond the top left half of the picture and whose billowing fabric falls diagonally over the entire picture and disappears into the right margin.

It was not this centrally depicted, striking male figure, but rather the cloth banner behind him, which takes up a good two thirds of the visual space, that inspired Pia Fries to examine Hendrick Goltzius more intensely. She recognized his absolutely spectacular handling of this banner, whose textures and volume he executed in a particularly realistic way in his masterful engraving technique. By means of swelling and tapering lines and cross-hatchings executed in parallel in curves and short arcs, Goltzius produced an almost realistic impression of cloth flung into the wind in majestic folds, which shimmers from light, projecting, almost unworked points to dark shadows, and has transitions consisting of multiple shades of gray.

Starting from Goltzius’s The Great Standard-Bearer, from 2010 to 2014 Pia Fries created two series of paintings and works on paper that she called fahnenbilder and fahnenpapiere and that examine the standard and its materiality. The human figure, which in her eyes is the personification of a proud, male individual who “forges ahead” and “leads,” was unnecessary for her work as a woman painter and not incorporated into any of her works. Pia Fries concentrated on the banner and how its substance changes when being carried and swung. Using the means of painting, she then multiplied the remarkable degree of abstraction that was also already present in Goltzius’s work. With silkscreen, she integrated parts of the banner from the engraving into her painting fahnenbild 6 (fig. p. 93), which she then supplemented and painted over with materially strong strands and clumps of paint. In an impulsive painting process, she poured, shook, spread, indeed almost whipped paint onto the surface of her picture, to then partially trim, mold further, or scrape it off again. Using paint, she translated the graphic linearity of Goltzius’s banner into another form of existence. She bundled the paint to create strands of movement that lead out of or into the picture, and combined them to make new relationships and connotations visible. By means of untreated white spaces, she positioned the elements of the picture under one another in a rhythmically harmonious constellation. She only allowed the portions of Goltzius’s banner to appear fragmentarily, only so much as to make comparison possible.

In 2015, Pia Fries turned to The Four Disgracers, four impressive engravings that Hendrick Goltzius created in 1588 after paintings by Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem (1562–1638).4 Along with the artist biographer Karel van Mander, from 1583 to 1589 Goltzius and van Haarlem formed an academy whose aim was to refute the prejudice that “Dutchmen are unable to paint figures.” With The Four Disgracers in particular, they strove to catch up with the lead of Italian painting by even outdoing examples such as Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement (which they had at their disposal in engraved reproductions). Goltzius executed the bodies of the four men in copper in a remarkable way, which seem more precise and plastic than in painting as a result of the intensified chiaroscuro contrasts and tapered lines.

What are depicted, each filling the picture in tondo form, are the four transgressors of antiquity: Icarus, Phaëthon (fig. 2, p. 124), Tantalus (fig. 3, p. 125), and Ixion. They fall from the sky, reproduced with a striking physicality, naked and rippling with muscles. With a foreshortening that is impressive in terms of perspective, they spin around their own axis and paddle with their extremities. Goltzius summarily reinterpreted two of his motifs in terms of iconography: according to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, only Icarus and Phaëthon actually fall from the sky, while Tantalus and Ixion “merely” endure eternal torments. Icarus and Phaëthon are synonyms for pride: Icarus’s father, Daedalus, who was imprisoned with his son on the island of Crete, fabricated pairs of wings from feathers and wax for their escape. He warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun, since it would make the wax melt. In spite of his warnings, Icarus became cocky and flew too high. The wax melted and he fell and died. Phaëthon, the son of Helios, stole his father’s sun chariot and raced with it through the vast expanse of the heavens, where he then lost control of the chariot. When it threatened to scorch the earth, Zeus stopped it with a bundle of thunderbolts, at which Phaëthon was thrown from the chariot and plummeted to his death. Tantalus and Ixion in turn correspond to allegories of unscrupulousness: the powerful king Tantalus stole nectar and ambrosia from the table of the gods, for which they sent him to Tartarus as punishment. Ixion, the king of Thessaly, supposedly murdered his father-in-law. When Zeus himself wanted to rehabilitate him, Ixion then allegedly lusted after his wife, Hera.

Inspired by the stories and motifs of The Four Disgracers by Hendrick Goltzius, between 2015 and 2018 Pia Fries created the two groups of works windhand laufbein and corpus transludi, 2017 (figs. pp. 106–121), in which she examined the topic of falling and made it more potent with painterly means. In both series, Pia Fries once again made use of graphic reproductions by Goltzius with the aid of a printing technique in which she applied his Four Disgracers to her picture grounds with silkscreen. In doing so, she concentrated solely on expressive fragments— heads, legs, or hands grasping at nothingness—which she one time enlarged to fill the picture, another time reduced in size to become incidental. While Goltzius positioned his falling figures in the center of the picture in a quite elegant manner, in Pia Fries’s works they generally lie on top of one another multiple times, smash against one edge of the picture, or disappear in a block of painted color. Pia Fries rotated her plummeting figures against or around their own axis, one time by 90, one time by 180 degrees. She combined intentionally positioned blank spaces in a way rich in contrasts, with the body fragments interwoven from silkscreen and layers of paint. While the small-format series corpus transludi adheres more closely to Goltzius’s Four Disgracers, and the bodies of the falling figures, which are situated in real battle with the paint, are identifiable, the large-format works of windhand laufbein turn out to be more abstract and free in composition. The moment of falling culminated in them as a result of pure painting: strands of paint with strong materiality are bundled and intertwined to create a maelstrom whirling into an imaginary depth.

In 2017, Goltzius’s engraving The Farnese Hercules of 1592 (fig. 4, p. 127) inspired Pia Fries to create a third group of works, which she called aussicht und passage. In the work The Farnese Hercules, Goltzius portrayed the full-figure back view of the most famous demigod of antiquity, who, standing upright, supports himself in contrapost on his club, with the armpit of his left arm over the tapering handle, on which lies the skin of the Nemean Lion. In his right hand, which he has bent behind his back toward the viewer, he holds the apples of the Hesperides—his eleventh of a total twelve acts of heroism for the Mycenaean King Eurystheus—which Hercules succeeded in stealing from the garden of the Hesperides by means of a ruse, and gave the gods eternal life. The figure is a paradigm of virility: naked, powerful, muscular, and furnished with long legs and a broad back. Goltzius created his work based on a colossal statue of antiquity, which he saw and marveled at in the interior courtyard of the Palazzo Farnese in Rome during his sojourn in Italy in 1590–1591.5 The engraving is today among one of his most well-known works.

Pia Fries approached The Farnese Hercules cautiously, although it deviates considerably in terms of motif from her method up to this point in connection with Goltzius. The engravings that she had previously selected as the starting points for her work had an element of movement that was congenial for her as a painter. With the steps of the young standard-bearer, the banner of The Great Standard-Bearer billows out to obtain a remarkable materiality; The Four Disgracers plummet to the ground from enormous heights, whirling around their own axis. In contrast, The Farnese Hercules, at rest in himself, is a structurally anchored and hence solidly physical figure.

Pia Fries once again dealt with the subject matter progressively: in a first small-format series on paper with the title disloziert, 2018 (figs. pp. 105, 116f, 129), she looked for a point of entry for dealing with the powerful body of the hero. She decided to first extract him from his static surroundings and to then present him in a new context. Fries cut the body out accurately and transferred it to the paper as a silkscreen—eccentrically arranged, tilted diagonally or diametrically—one time as a template without interior drawing, another time in black and white or color. At the same time, she used an unconventional printing method that makes the individual surfaces and contours that she molded visually appear quite sharp-edged. She gave rise to a swift visual impression by emphasizing individual portions (a leg, the buttocks, or the back) in color and combining printed portions with painted ones. By layering the picture elements rhythmically, she produced an almost crystalline and translucent surface that makes Goltzius’s fine lines still appear only fragmentarily. Pia Fries completely excluded narrative portions that Goltzius’s engraving possesses, for instance, as a result of the insertion of two small heads at the feet of the statue (which for a time were falsely interpreted as personifications of Goltzius himself and his son-in-law).

In a second series with the title fussfusion, 2018 (figs. pp. 71, 132f.), Pia Fries experimented with and reduced the body of Hercules to rudimentary parts, until she finally, in her third, now large-format series parapylon, 2019 (figs. pp. 135–141),6 goes even a step further: she completely removes the human form and concentrates on a significant and fundamental element of Goltzius’s engraving: the club on which the Hercules figure leans, which merges with a boulder and seems column-like as a result of its fissured surface. With silkscreen, Fries transfers the precisely cut-out object, which, without its narrative supplement, appears individual and physical, to the picture ground not only one time, but two or multiple times. As a result of the form-giving character of the column, she thus seems to string together formal fragments and to assemble them in a new constellation, an action that results in an astonishingly radical monumentalization of an element that is actually used en passant and might hence be continued infinitely. Fries then supplements the printed column fragments with clear, indeed rudimentary or playful, but still ostensibly geometric painting, which lacks any metaphorical or anecdotal quality.

In these pictures, the filigree lines of the engraving and the clearly visible, process-oriented painting converge without any conflict. They flow into one another in a logical and conciliatory way and thus quasi decelerate the appreciation of viewers. Fries’s corresponding pictures are composed in a controlled and stringent manner; they distance themselves from Goltzius’s original in an unprecedented way—and nonetheless respect it in doing so. In his oeuvre, Goltzius always mastered a model canon of ideal proportions, which made the human figure the highest and true subject of art and transported dignity and grandeur by means of classical symmetry. Pia Fries consistently disengages with the postulates of imitating antiquity and finding an antiquarian sense of style, and in her painting nevertheless takes into account the harmonious consonance of diverging elements. With a clear, linear formal language, she creates a self-contained composition that indeed lacks any classicist tendencies or emotional impulses, but pays homage to the Old Masters as never before. Viva Polymorphia!7

  1. The Annunciation of 1594 is the first plate from the series of engravings The Life of the Virgin.
  2. Karel van Mander, The Lives of the Illustrious Netherlandish and German Painters (from 1400 to ca. 1615), trans. Hessel Miedema (Doornspijk, 1994), p. 397.
  3. The artist Hans Brändli came up with the term “Polymorphia” in 2017 during preparations for an exhibition of Pia Fries in which her works were shown alongside those of Hendrick Goltzius for the first time; see the exhibition Hendrick Goltzius und Pia Fries: Proteus und Polymorphia, Museum Kurhaus Kleve, October 8, 2017–February 11, 2018.
  4. Of which only one painting—that of Ixion—has been preserved and is in the collection of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam.
  5. The 3.10-meter-tall colossal statue of The Farnese Hercules is today in the National Archeological Museum in Naples.
  6. The author was still unfamiliar with these paintings when this text was written in November 2018, since they were only completed in spring 2019. All that existed were preliminary sketches.
  7. Long live the polymorphic!