Daniel Hees
Printer and artist

Wilfried Onzea

I met Daniel Hees through Yunnan tea... It happened in the city of Mainz, where the Minipressen Messe of 1993 was held. He showed me a book, a leporello, or concertina book, the six pages of which had been immersed in Yunnan tea. The title In den südlichen Wolken (‘In the Southern Clouds’) is printed on the (also immersed) envelope. As I am not a tea connoisseur, he explained to me that Yunnan tea is a black tea grown in Yunnan Province in southern China, Nan meaning south and Yün meaning cloud, from which he derived the book’s poetic title. Not much printing is to be seen in the book: on the first page is printed ‘eingefärbt [dyed] mit Tee aus Yünnan Daniel Hees, Mühleisen Presse, Köln 1993’ and the printer’s mark, the iron spindle of a mill-stone. This ‘Mühleisen’ sign is in fact part of the coat of arms of the Von Hees family.

As this ‘book’ is only 4 mm thick it may easily get lost in one’s library, but last year I picked it up once more and wondered whether the Mühleisen Presse was still in action. It turned out that it is very active indeed, and participates in a good number of book fairs devoted to private press and artists’ books. Hees and I then arranged a meeting at his workshop in Cologne. It is only twenty minutes’ walk from the cathedral; after crossing the green inner ring avenue you come to a pleasant street with a church at the end and a park a bit further on. Hees’s house escaped the bombings of 1945. The workshop is located in the basement and contains a proofing press, an etching press and typecases holding mostly Palatino and Folio. Other types include some Arabic and Cyrillic founts. The workshop is a library and an artist’s studio at the same time, and it also comprises a large kitchen, for Hees is a good cook and likes to surprise his visitors with special dishes and excellent wines.

Daniel Hees was born in 1939 in Düsseldorf. He studied at the art academies of Düsseldorf and Rome, and for more than 20 years was professor of printmaking at the University of Siegen. In 1990 he founded the Mühleisen Presse: Verlag für eigene Künstlerbücher (publisher of his own artist’s books). His books and prints have been exhibited all over the world and can be found in a great number of museum collections.

In 2006 Daniel Hees printed the first three sentences of Georg Büchner's posthumously published tale Lenz (1839) in a book with the title Im Gebirge (‘In the Mountains’). In these few sentences you follow in the footsteps of the poet Jakob Lenz, a contemporary of Goethe and Schiller, as he starts walking in the Vosges mountains of Alsace to meet the social reformer and priest J F Oberlin. The text plunges you into a misty, humid and greyish landscape, echoing the poet’s mental illness. It is accompanied by rubbings from used slate roofing tiles printed on Japanese paper. Hees uses a roller to ink the slates, puts the paper on top and rubs them with a Japanese rubbing disc, called a ‘baren’. You can see traces of nail holes and the roundings of the slates. The fusing of text and illustration in this book is remarkable. The idea of using part of a text and giving it an artist’s response is something you find in many of his books.

An important aspect of Hees’s books is his fascination with the East. Egypt, Yemen, Oman and Syria are among the countries which he has visited on several occasions. Some of the artefacts he brought home from his travels can be seen in his workshop and are an inspiration for his art. The little booklet of 1994, Sindbad der Seefahrer (‘Sindbad the Sailor’) (13 x 9 cm), refers to the well-known story from The Thousand and One Nights. It is a delicate leporello of translucent paper dyed by watercolour on which Hees printed eight comical variations on the title, inspired by James Joyce, such as ‘Tindbad der Teefahrer’. It is housed in a yellow cardboard slipcase on which sand grains are glued. You have the Orient in a little box.

Sindbad der Seefahrer (‘Sindbad the Sailor’)

Another ‘oriental’ book is Au Nil – Am Nil (‘On the Nile’), extracts from Flaubert’s Voyage en Egypte printed in French and in German. It is a small landscape book, 14 x 19 cm, bound by Hees in Japanese style. His pen drawings of ships, buildings, birds and palm trees along the Nile form the counterparts to the extracts of Flaubert’s diary. It is printed digitally.

Daniel Hees’s inclination towards the Orient and objets trouvés can be seen in Sharouni’s ungedruckte Blöcke (‘The Unprinted Blocks of Sharouni’). During his first stay in Cairo, in 1978, where he was invited for an exhibition, he stayed at the studio of the artist Sobhi El Sharouni. There he saw a number of wooden blocks originally used as supports for the metal plates of illustrations for books on Arabic art and literature.The zinc plates had been removed and the blocks kept to be used for burning. Hees discovered that the wood showed all kinds of traces of a router, of nails, the scraping away of parts of the wood, and so on. Moreover, the bizarre forms of the blocks themselves roused his imagination. He got permission to use them, and printed 66 of them in black ink, one on each page forming abstract designs. The book has a foreword by Sharouni in which he tells the story of Hees’s find and the subsequent printing. The Library of Congress in Washington bought ten copies of the book which were distributed to various university libraries in the USA. The Victoria & Albert Museum in London recently acquired a copy, and other copies can be found in the print collections of Munich and of the Kunsthalle Hamburg. For Daniel Hees this book with its original prints is very important.

Stimmen der Schatten (‘Voices of the Shadows’)

The idea of making graphic art out of found objects recurred many years later in Stimmen der Schatten (‘Voices of the Shadows’), a series of prints made from some planks of wood which Hees saw in the store of an artist friend in Egypt. Before they were transformed into fancy furniture, he was allowed to print from 20 different planks, on strips of paper of about 340 cm long. These works were shown during various exhibitions, in a museum, in a library, in Rome and in two churches.

Another fascinating technique used by Hees is cardboard cuts. Sheets of cardboard are cut out, coloured with a roller and printed in the same way as linocuts. Both sides may eventually be printed. They can be used as separate prints or made into a book as he did with Acht Drachenschuppen (‘Eight Dragon’s scales’). In 2012, Hees was invited to Japan as an artist in residence. The studio where he remained for two months was called Ichiuroko, meaning a dragon’s scale. As the book contains eight variations from only three cardboard cuts he gave it its title. Only five copies were printed.

Now and then Hees uses the technique of the cardboard cut to make ‘Unikate’, books of which only one copy is made. The colours of such books are the result of printing and overprinting so that each page is unique and cannot be repeated. Hees explains this as being a kind of ‘painting on paper’. These are in fact picture books without text and only the title gives you a clue as to what the book is about. Mostly the cardboard cuts are abstract, sometimes they are in the form of arabesques. A fine example is Sehsam öffne dich! (‘Open Sesame’). As a child Hees was fascinated by the story of Ali Baba and the 40 thieves. The colourful ‘illustrations’ might then refer to the fabulous treasures found in the robbers’ hideaway, for which only Ali Baba remembered the verbal key. Another book in this series is Sehweg nach Indien, also very colourful, the title of which is a play upon words. Here a certain knowledge of the German language is necessary: ‘seh’ means see and ‘See, which has the same pronunciation, means sea. These books are works of art in their own right, beautiful objects of art and printing.

Hees is left-handed, but was obliged at school to write with his right hand. But no one objected when he continued to draw with his more able left hand. Even in the 1960s he was experimenting with drawing with both hands. Gradually he developed a technique of drawing on sheets of paper, the dimensions of which coincide with the range of his arms. Over the years he started drawing with coloured crayons and eventually he found musicians who could read his lines as a grapic notation. During the performance, the audience can see the creation of the drawings and at the same time listen to the interpretation of the soloist. During these performances all kind of instruments have been used so far: organ, flute, cello, piano, Japanese koto. The performances have been organised in many different places around the world. Now and then Hees makes a book out of his two-handed drawings: he cuts them up, arranges them into a random order and gives them the title Zugefaltet, again a wordplay: ‘gefaltet’ meaning folded, and ‘Zufall’ meaning a chance occurrence.

It is not easy to define Daniel Hees’s work. It does not fall into the category of private press books although he has the equipment for it, type and a printing press. He is not interested in printing complete texts. Now and again he does print part of a text, only to transmit to the reader the impression it made on him and to accompany the pictures.

At the foundation of the Mühleisen Presse he defined it as a means for publishing his artist’s books. But what about his two-handed drawings, the musical performances, the enigmatic charcoal drawings which fall outside the scope of this article? The variety of Hees’s art, his bookmaking, printing, drawing and performances allow us to choose freely among them and to enjoy what fascinates us most.

This article is based on an interview with Daniel Hees in his workshop and on correspondence by e-mail. I also consulted the exhibition catalogue ‘Daniel Hees, Zeichnungen und Drucke’, Siegburg, Stadtmuseum, 2014.