WHO IS HILBERT?

DAVID HILBERT (1862–1943) Professor of Mathematics Eugen Spiro, 1928, oil on canvas Mathematical Institute

David Hilbert (1862-1943) looks up from his desk and stares at the viewers of his portrait directly in the eyes, as if his reading session had only just been briefly interrupted. It is noteworthy that Hilbert’s 1928 painting was executed as a classical oil painting and was thus created at a time when photography was already dominating the genre of scholarly portraits. It shows that portrait media are not always bound to a certain time period, even if this is suggested in the structure of this exhibition. Depending on the occasion and function—as here at the ceremonial opening of the Mathematical Institute in Göttingen—different portrait media are available, each of which serves its own purpose. Thus, Hilbert is prominently represented in the exhibition: he appears on cartes de visite, is depicted on postcards, as an oil painting and as a bust. Thereby each medium creates, in a manner of speaking, its own Hilbert. Photographic portraits are equally close or far from the “real” Hilbert, as is the case with the bust or the oil painting. This way, the search for the “true” Hilbert finds many different answers.

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