Magali Nachtergael  Migrations under Glass (2022)

Art history has an expression that very much appeals to me: “Alberti’s window.” It summarizes at the same time a vision of the world, the predominance of the author, and the masculine genius of the Renaissance, while associating the painting with an interface toward the outside world. An artificial world, of course, but a world in its own right. The idea of the window implies looking through a frame, a structure that not only has determined artistic practice for centuries, but also implies the notion of transparency. As if a thin and invisible film separates us from the outside—or the elsewhere—without our being able to notice it. Two contemporary media theorists, Jay D. Bolter and Richard Grusin, call this illusion of direct contact, which manages to make us forget the medium, “immediacy.”1

This little detour through Alberti’s transparent window offers us another view of Thilo Westermann’s reverse glass paintings: In a world populated by digital screens, a double or even triple vision of the image unfolds under the meticulous technique of this visual artist. Westermann’s windows, however, are black, a deep, glossy black similar to that of precious Chinese lacquerware, from which flowers and plants appear like virtual ghosts.

Transformations of a Floral Motif

How Thilo Westermann creates his works remains enigmatic, but it sheds light on their many-layered structure, consisting of manifold planes and layers, which provide them with depth. The artist’s favorite subject is floral motifs. As if he were building up an herbarium, he collects images of exotic plants and flowers found in botany books and paintings as well as on porcelain ware and the panels of folding screens. Such flowers and plants are often elements of decorative designs of which they form only a discreet part. They were originally selected for their aesthetic value and used to adorn interiors or provide an elegant and natural background to a painting. Their identification is the result of intensive research based on precise surveys. Each flower, each plant carries within it the story of its various representations during the period of intense colonial and commercial exchange that determined our image of the Orient and influenced various artistic movements, in particular Romanticism.

Westermann picks these plants and flowers from their original surroundings, crops them and reproduces them, sometimes with the vases in which they were previously presented. Through this transposition and amplification, he transforms the plants into singular objects of representation, as if floating in an infinite space. The mise-en-scène of these vitrifications recalls the nocturnal museography of museums of art and popular art, which present their exhibits in showcases theatrically magnified by lighting control.

To achieve such light-and-shadow effects, Westermann uses a needle to reproduce the floral fragment on a blackened glass plate: dot by dot, he removes the thin layer of black paint to recreate the silhouette of the plant motif in black and white, but with all the nuances of the original. The tiny dots that gradually reveal the flower are reminiscent of the silkscreen printing process, dear to Pop Art, yet in Westermann’s case, are created entirely by hand. Inspired by the great tradition of glass engravers, Westermann’s works are much more closely related to photography than to 3D portraits, which more recently it has become common to laser into acrylic glass blocks. Likewise, the translucent depth of the artist’s floral series is not intended to create a realistic nor a spectacular trompe-l’oeil effect, although such works generate a stunning impression of volume thanks to both their various shades of gray and their subtle, extremely precise gradation.

The resulting small-format image directly reflects the artist’s craft and highly precise drawing. The picture is then scanned, enlarged, and printed in a unique print that presents the reverse glass painting in a mechanically produced, large format. Finally, Westermann creates photomontages that document the transfer from one medium to another and that place a digital version of his work in a specific environment, which, although artificially recomposed, is still realistic. Thus, the black-and-white image is placed in a new setting and supplemented by color pencil drawings as the situation permits. In the course of the transformation process, Westermann’s photomontages incorporate various motifs and transfer them from one medium to another. The plants and flowers remain distinctly recognizable on the different media, although they change decor and size, metamorphosing to reappear in an increasingly unreal space.

Aesthetic Migrations

This dynamic, perceptible in the recurring of particular floral motifs adorning Westermann’s reverse glass paintings, unique prints, and photomontages, is also a way of producing an image itself. Becoming part of a larger reflection, it links the history of plants and the technique of reverse glass painting. Indeed, the migration of motifs is not a matter of serial thinking or material transposition. If this were the case, the respective context into which Westermann places his works would have to be deleted from the images because, as we know from Conceptual Art, not doing so would disturb the serial effect. Westermann rather calls for an inversion of the gaze, for increased attention to detail.

Roger M. Buergel, director of documenta 12, coined the expression “migration of forms.” This concept is also evident in Westermann’s process of creating works, and which he uses in the title of his book, Migrations by Thilo Westermann (2023). But the plants he chooses extend beyond the migration of forms: a real flower becomes a motif, then a design, and finally an artwork in its own right. They illustrate migrations on a global and historical scale, and bear traces of the human and natural exchanges that have changed the face of the world. In its collective manifesto on migrations, the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris shares this view:

“Mobility is essential to maintain life on Earth. Animal and plant populations move along migratory and dispersal routes, and biological corridors that enable them to survive. . . . The dispersion of seeds in the kingdom of plants and of individuals in the kingdom of animals is thus a dynamic phenomenon that is essential to the maintenance of populations.”2

Are such scientific observations also valid in the domain of art? Dispersal in painting, photography, and the decorative arts enriches the dynamics of the creative process, as it allows for experimenting with forms and shapes, as well as for crossing, developing, and grafting them like living organisms. Westermann’s flowers under glass, behind a window, or in a showcase, travel further to another time-space, to the borders of a science-fiction vision.

At first, the reverse glass paintings and unique prints captivate us with their beauty, which is made even more gracious by its floral motifs. Then, however, we discover the interplay of light and shadow of these negatives: behind the spectacular and baroque effect of the chiaroscuro under glass, the plant’s negative history shimmers through, like a devitalized version of itself. However beautiful, it remains as if x-rayed, discolored, and broken down into small dots. Paradoxically, in his color pencil drawings, which are independent of the series of the reverse glass paintings, Westermann uses color, which disappears behind the glass and during the digital processing of the images. On the large formats, when the colors have vanished, only the spectral form of the flowers or plants remains, like a distant memory. They seem to be petrified in immemorial time, frozen, ceaselessly oscillating between a pre-revolutionary floral mannerism and the modernity of the material used by the artist. How “realistic,” also how discreet, they once were within the pictorial compositions, which they served as ornaments: on that porcelain plate from the Qing dynasty or as an illustration by Vishnu Persaud in Nathaniel Wallich’s Plantae Asiaticae Rariores (1830–32)! Such representations, of blossoming Bougainvillea, Amherstia nobilis, and Papilionanthe Miss Joaquim (Singapore’s national flower), as well as of lush Chinese peonies, reflect the intense exchanges particularly during the Enlightenment and nineteenth-century colonial expansion. These plants were sent on journeys to supplement the botanical collections assembled by amateurs or learned missionaries, or simply to circulate as “mirabilia of the new worlds.” They were introduced into Europe to enrich cabinets of curiosities and to inspire craftsmen in the service of aristocrats and other wealthy people with new forms.

Window-Screen: From Transparency to Opacity

Westermann’s reverse glass paintings are thus both windows that open on another world and showcases of a practice that is ultimately very domestic and specific to Europe. This practice consists of appropriating natural and cultural forms in order to integrate them into painting and the decorative arts. Westermann’s negative images also recall the beginnings of photography, as well as Nicéphore Niépce’s first heliogravure, meanwhile archaeological itself. Composed of coarse grain, it renders the forms barely recognizable. Moreover, Westermann’s works revive the tradition of floral still lifes, a genre that the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture considered the lowest in the hierarchy of art and therefore often reserved for women. Nonetheless, the ancient and Dutch traditions considered floral still lifes to be allegories of vanity and therefore of high value as images of abundance and symbols of the powerful reign of nature in contrast to the fragility of human life.

At the intersection of these traditions, Westermann’s works locate the flower in a new and different pictorial logic: it becomes a sign of symbolic investment and a history of cultural migrations. By isolating details from objects as trivial as porcelain ware, botany books, and bourgeois ornaments, the artist comments on the geopolitical and mythographic background of the flower motifs. Westermann’s flowers do not convey a strict political message, as do those in photographs and installations by Taryn Simon and Kapwani Kiwanga, for example; they are rather historical plants transformed and somehow crystallized under his glass pane. His floral X-ray images reverse glass thus embody a gesture that can be described as both pictorial and scientific, as it feeds on the multiple histories and trajectories that nourish and justify the presence of the image in this space, specially designed to newly represent plants, in a negative and on an empty background.

While deploying a visual imaginary that involves windows, black screens, and vitrification, Westermann positions his artistic practice also close to sculpture. His flowers result from progressively removing the pictorial material, like a sculptor chipping away portions of stone. Placed in a new, artificial environment—in glass or acrylic glass, its modern avatar—, the flower is frozen between two temporalities, between transparency and opacity. No longer a real plant, nor a drawing or a photograph, the mineral phantom of the flower is the result of the attention paid to an element that used to be neglected, marginal, and only appreciated for its decorative virtues. Meticulous transposition (i.e., the vitrification of the flower) adds temporal thickness to the process of laying bare, and thus refers to early photography and the time needed for the chemical development of the picture. Westermann’s journeys—through the periods of art history and through the geography of the decorative still life— are snippets, fragments of history. In the end, our own image, reflected on the glass surface, absorbs us in Westermann’s mirror glasses. We become another element of the décor, which thus becomes the ultimate instance of visual appropriation and fixation in the image.

1 Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998), pp. 11–12.

2 Aline Averbouh et al., Manifeste du Muséum: Migrations Reliefs (Paris: Muséum national d’histoire naturelle, 2018), p. 15.

Translation: Mark Kyburz

Published in Thilo Westermann et l'art de dessiner sous verre, ed. Vitromusée Romont (Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, 2022), pp. 207–11.