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Annual Theme 2016: IDENTITY

The etymological source of the term “identity” comes from the two Latin demonstrative pronouns idem and ipse, which have determined two different meanings of the word “identical,” either as carrying the meaning of being the same or unchanged or having the sense of being equal/alike with itself. On the one hand, something “identical” is also (in the sense of idem) something that stays the same and remains unchanged over time. The opposite to this would be something that is “different” or “changeable.” On the other hand, being “identical” (in the sense of ipse) is the state of something corresponding with itself.

Even if these meanings characterize our notion of identity through this day, the term has changed over time and now has taken on meaning in relation to the external world. In the social sciences, identity is determined by socialization. The development of the individual “self” is shaped by a belonging to different groups. In addition, personal identity is determined by one’s own bodily experience or through the changes undergone through the experience of aging.

In the history of visual art the theme of identity takes on greater or lessor intensity depending on the epoch. In the Classical period of Greco-Roman culture, artistic means were used to precisely render and portray the human body and face. Numerous portraits of well-known personalities as well as typified figures of athletes or rulers have in particular been preserved from the sculpture of this period.

In the Romanesque and Gothic eras the representation of individual receded into the background in favor of motifs indicating belonging to certain groups. In Europe, works of art were largely found in religious, Christian contexts. Personalities were symbolically identified through stylized attributes, such as objects, hairstyle, clothing, and colors. For example, Saint Peter was shown with a tonsure and keys; Maria in a blue-red dress; the Evangelists with animal figures, etc. In secular art, the individuals represented were identified by crests and insignia.

The period of the Renaissance brought a return to the Greco-Roman tradition of individualized representation. Artists were viewed as individuals, and through their signatures links could be made between their entire body of work. Numerous new genres of art emerged, including portrait painting, the self-portrait, and landscape painting. In the images commissioned by a growing middle class, the personae of those portrayed was supplemented by a detailed depiction of their specific environment—interiors, clothing, and objects reflecting the social status and fashionable taste of the individual. The representation of the human body and deeper aspects of the personality reached a zenith in the works of Rembrandt and Peter Paul Rubens.

With the Enlightenment came a fundamental shift in people’s views and understanding of themselves. Reason and the ego formed the core of identity and became the center of natural and social processes. In this period of Classicism there was a return to the artistic forms of Greco-Roman historical examples. In contrast, in the nineteenth century a heightened definition of national identities led to the development of historical painting as a means of propaganda.

In the early twentieth century, with the dissemination of psychoanalysis, the individual once again become the focal source of identity. This “ego” can also be sick or deviant, and the effect of insanity, psychosis, and delirium was often a motif in the avant-garde art of this period. Self-reflection was contrasted by the intense group pressure exerted by the dictatorships that followed. Personality was replaced by ideology. All those with different ideas were repressed as were particularly groups defined as diseased or inferior. The propaganda art of this period reflects this inhuman viewpoint.


It is no wonder that after World War II the search for personal identity once again came to the fore (at least in the western world). The redefinition of social, political, ethnic, gender-specific, religious identity, the opposition of young and old, and the identity and role of artists was addressed by the Neo-avante-garde. New fields of art developed not only due to technical innovations but also by means of self-representation, in which one’s own body played a central role, as in Vienna Actionism, Fluxus, performance, and Body Art. Transforming of notions of identity were explored before the backdrop of an increasingly permeable idea about various identities, as visible in the treatment of gender in the works of Andy Warhol und Cindy Sherman.

Due to increasing globalization, migration, and multicultural experience, today’s diverse society—and thus also contemporary art—is increasingly infused with the often charged question of identity. The topic is current and relevant, and in the exhibition program of the European House of Art we present a number of aspects of this theme in 2016.

Eike Berg

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