German-born collagist Werner Hornung moved to Paris after high school and never left. Throughout his career running his own advertising studio, he kept himself creatively fulfilled by creating collages in his free time. In 1993, he started scanning his handmade collages and digitally enhancing them.
With decades of these personal digital art pieces in a backlog, Hornung was perhaps more prepared than anyone when digital art was revolutionized by NFTs. We spoke to him over Zoom from his home studio in Paris to discuss his process, inspirations, and how his work has evolved since he started selling NFTs.
MP: Can you tell me about this quote I see on your social media profiles: “The better you look, the more you see.” What does that mean to you?
WH: There are two meanings. The first meaning is a general description of looking at things. It’s obvious: if you’re looking at it more carefully and with intention, you might see more than if you just look superficially. But that’s what everyone understands.
What people don’t get and what, for me, is the most important reading, which is a bit cynical, is that if you are good-looking, you are designed to be shopped around, to meet more people, and to see more things. So that was my way of looking at it, you know, but that’s the aspect that nobody talks about too much.
MP: Your pieces are incredibly dense with imagery. How do they start, and how does the complexity build over time?
WH: It started over 50 years ago. I started making collages with pieces of paper and glue because there was no machinery to help. Collages were always my kind of expression, you know, taking pieces from all over the place and putting them together in a new order to create a new world.
I think it was in the 90s when I started with a computer. I started to scan these older collages, these handmade pieces, which were huge with thousands of pieces. I never minted NFTs of this work because I don’t want to sell them that way. These collages were base work, which I transformed afterward with a computer.
I have never drawn anything in my whole life. I always took existing pieces and transformed them in a way that you don’t recognize them as they were in the beginning. You couldn’t look at some piece and tell where it came from or what it looked like before.
I had an advertising agency in Paris for many years and a huge photo archive. The complexity comes from — if you take something from the past and you work on it, you put more layers, it gets denser. I might pick up a piece from 10 years ago and start working on it and even simplified, the passage of time gives it depth.
MP: I’ve noticed several recurring images and pieces from collage to collage. Have you found digital to be thematically advantageous in that you can re-use the same piece over and over to accrue meaning and effects?
WH: I’m never short of inspiration or materials, so if I re-use something, it’s because that’s how I feel it should be. Working with digital tools is okay as long as it is your servant and not your master.
I see so many works that are all technique and the touch of the human hand and soul is missing. It’s something you look at it, say okay, you understood what it is, and then go to the next one. I think working with the human hand and some tough of human soul is still necessary when you use digital tools.
If you ask what I think is the most important thing about these tools, it’s that you can explore things at the speed of your mind, and you can go back if you don’t like something and try something else. That’s something you can’t do with paintings. I always have an idea, and I want to see what it looks like. I am kind of chasing phantoms on my computer, running after what I have in my mind to make it visible on the screen. I hope that makes sense.
MP: Absolutely. Though, to clarify the question, I was thinking of a few salient motifs across your work on MakersPlace. You have several pieces with the same chair in the center of the work, and there’s also this tip-toeing alien animation that pops up a few times in your work.
WH: Five times. Ha! I don’t know. This particular alien… Maybe he’s tiptoeing to get away without being noticed. Because he did all of this. Him being me. (laughs) It’s always difficult to answer these types of questions. I like to have movement in my pieces. Things that move are alive.
I made these things over many, many years before NFTs and crypto. This is why I have so many pieces. I had made so much in advance, and I couldn’t do anything with it — put it on Facebook or Instagram or whatever. That’s all. You get your Likes, but you don’t get any money.
I went to galleries here in Paris, and the gallerists would always say, “Oh, that’s wonderful, but how shall we show this?” No one had thought to put a screen on the wall. I’m talking about 15 years ago. Some of the pieces on MakersPlace are as they were 15 years ago because there was no way to commercialize this work before.
And you mentioned the chairs. It’s always the same chair. I don’t know why I started this, but I think NFTs gave me the idea to make a series. It might have been a reaction to seeing the Apes. I think it started with making a piece that was recognizable, then making another, and another, and then, “Okay, I guess this is a series.” I think I’ve made 25, and only two are left.
MP: Your work calls to my mind the genre of cosmic horror, writers like HP Lovecraft. Do you have a particular narrative world in mind as you work?
WH: You are the first one talking about this that way, comparing to cosmic horror and Lovecraft. I take it as a compliment because I love his writings. But I’ve never thought about a connection between what I do and what he did. I like what you’re saying, but no, there was no intention to get close to that.
There’s a European painter, Gustave Moreau, who was painting a little bit before Lovecraft, but I’ve talked to many art dealers who’ve called me the Gustave Moreau of the 21st century. I took this as a compliment too. There are even certain pieces by Moreau that look like collages. But so these are comparisons that I like (laughs), but I never sit down intending to be Moreau or Lovecraft.
MP: Your piece “Keep it natural” seems to be a possible key to understanding your work while still being an outlier in your body of work. Do you see your art as revealing a heightened version of reality as the invisible painter from “Keep it natural?”
WH: I found the idea wonderful, you know, to see the painter is imagining his world. It doesn’t matter if there’s nothing around. So to make the world black and white with a drawing, and on his canvas, he has the whole world. Maybe that’s how live? Maybe our dreams are the reality, and reality our dreams. Who knows? Maybe for some people, it would be better that way. (laughs) So what is reality?
I mean, here we come back again to digital tools. I mean, they are so great. It’s like a pact with the devil. They are too tempting. It can be dangerous because technique can kill creativity.
MP: That’s interesting. Can you maybe comment a little bit more on technique killing creativity?
WH: Well, as I said, using bits and pieces and making connections, putting them together, creating a new world — being able and willing to accept randomness plays an important part. Some people don’t accept randomness. They know in advance what they want to do.
When I start a piece, I never know. It’s about rhythm, color, all these things. And it’s the same if you paint the caves of Lascaux in France or if you make an entirely new kind of work. So the dynamic is fast, light, and simple.
But about technique. Technique is I’m sitting next to me, looking at myself doing what I do., concentrating it away.
I compare it to surfing. If you catch the wave at the right moment, meaning the inspiration, then you can let go, and it can carry you. Otherwise, the wave can engulf you and break your neck. But that’s up to you.
Another thing I always say is that the more you practice, the luckier you get. It’s always about practice. You find solutions you didn’t see before or weren’t even looking for, but they came up to you and are proposed to you. And then, if you’re ready for it, you accept them and go on to the next one.