© the artist, courtesy Maureen Paley, London
'Wilhelm Leibl painting’ is a ‘portrait of a portrait’. It forms part of Wolfgang Tillmans’ (born 1968) investigation into the 19th-century painter, Wilhelm Leibl’s (1844 - 1900) work. This culminated in the Tillmans-curated exhibition 'Wilhelm Leibl', held in his 'Between Bridges' gallery space in London in 2008. Tillmans’ photograph was presented in the context of original works by Leibl. Tillmans describes the work as “realism that is political”. This photograph is also emblematic, therefore, of Tillmans’ own commitment to social and political engagement.
Leibl’s painting shows a farm boy slouched in an oversized chair, looking at the viewer in a typically self-conscious, adolescent fashion. His measured use of light and shadow resonates with Tillmans’ own preoccupations with the formal properties of light. Leibl’s painterly approach, in which he throws the light upon the young boy’s face, is mirrored in Tillmans’ own photographic focus which draws the viewer’s eye to the upper part of the boy’s figure.
Tillmans offers the viewer a fragment of the original through a crop that serves to enhance the physical reality of the painted and framed object that is the photograph’s subject It is not known whether Leibl’s painting is a study or simply unfinished. In the act of photography, offsetting the image in a seemingly awkward fashion to include a glimpse of the frame, Tillmans adds a further state of contemporary uncertainty to the painting. The effect is as if the camera shutter has fired at random as the artist’s eyes have scanned the room in which it hung. Tillmans’ photograph stands as a tribute that elevates a humble subject and an artist whose success was limited and whose reputation was neglected in his homeland - Leibl was always valued more by his French contemporaries for the qualities of realism in his work.
The chosen portrait is also a nod towards the images of male physical beauty that are a continuing presence in Tillmans’ work. Indeed, in 2008, Tillmans included this photograph in an intervention at the Walker Art Gallery that drew further attention to the beauty and sensuality of the male body. Tillmans moved William Hamo Thornycroft’s sculpture, 'The Mower', into a room of nineteenth-century Impressionist and naturalist paintings. He stripped the walls of several of the existing paintings and added three of his own photographs. The first was a large photograph of a young male punk, entitled 'Empire (Punk)'. The second was a smaller scale photograph of a young male, market vendor, Cameron (also in the Walker Art Gallery collection, WAG 2014.5) and the third was this photograph, ‘Wilhelm Leibl Painting’. 'The Mower' was positioned to face in the direction of the punk, whilst the farm boy, in the Wilhem Leibl painting looked on from the side. The idea was to ‘queer’ the viewer’s perception of 'The Mower' by casting the male eyes in Tillmans three photographs towards the muscular physique of the sculpture. By drawing the viewer’s focus away from the subject of the sculpture’s role as a farm worker, Tillmans enabled his beautifully, toned body to be reconsidered as the subject of admiration.
Belying its intimate scale, ‘Wilhelm Leibl Painting’ reflects many of Tillmans’ core preoccupations, from formal qualities like light and surface, through a persistent interest in traditional subject matter such as portraiture, to the ways that art and society can connect and maintain their continuing influences across the centuries. It is also a contemporary statement about a painting in a public collection and it draws attention to the overt relationship between historic painting and contemporary photography present in Tillmans’ output.
This photograph is number 2 of an edition of 3, plus 1 artist's proof.