SANDRO KOPP: VISUAL ARTIST
INTERVIEWED BY SHIR ARIYA
“The Concrete Masterpiece” is the first of three tales told in Wes Anderson’s latest film, The French Dispatch. It follows the story of Moses Rosenthaler, an incarcerated artistic genius who paints from live sittings of Simone, his prison guard muse. Rosenthaler experiences a shift from figurative painting to abstraction which propels him into global fame in the art world. In reality, these paintings were the creation of German-New Zealand artist Sandro Kopp, whose work primarily engages with the theme of presence and explores the intersection of classical painting and digital technology. He is known for his Skype portraits, his collection of eye paintings which often contain a reflection of the painter, and his captivating portraits of partner Tilda Swinton.
It was morning when I called Sandro and he picked up with a blanket of snow outside his window in Austria. We spoke at length as the day grew brighter about the idea of meaning and motivation behind his work, his fascination with the human form, and the balance of lightness and weight that accompanies his artistic process. Sandro was open, kind, and infinitely giving in his answers, and our conversation imbued his paintings with a fresh magic when I revisited them, long after the interview was over.
This transcript is an abridged version of the original interview.
"There was a moment during the sitting when something felt odd, like something was missing. Then I realised that I had completely stopped breathing. I think that was one of the earlier, conscious moments of flow state."
Does the development of a conversation during a sitting impact the quality of your portraits?
Sandro Kopp: There are many factors that play into it. I love conversations during a sitting and particularly with my Skype portraits, I’ve always said that the paintings were kind of a by-product of the conversation. Having said that, there can be too much of a good thing: If I get too wrapped up in a conversation, it can be a little distracting and also lead to the painting falling apart. I had that once when I painted a director whose work I really admire and we had such a great sitting—we were chatting, laughing, singing and the painting ended up looking awful. After that I said “Oh, okay, this didn’t work. Can we do another sitting in a week or so?” He said “Nope. I’m going to Shanghai to direct a movie.” I’ve never done another sitting with him, so I just don’t have that painting…but I guess I have that great memory.
I would say that slight engagement of my rational brain in the conversation allows my subconscious to function more freely, and there’s a stronger flow between my instincts and intuition for the painting. But I don’t want the conversation to get so intense that it blocks the flow of energy.
We often hear about artists creating art from a place of pain, love, or a fervent obsession with a particular subject. Do you ever draw from certain emotions or memories when you paint? Or is your motivation for making art born purely out of a desire for beauty?
Sandro Kopp: I think it's more a desire for expression in and of itself. I don't have anything that can be put into words that I'm trying to say with my work—it’s that desire to make something. There’s this Wittgenstein quote, which roughly translates to “That of which you cannot speak, you must be silent about” but it's a conscious activity of being silent about it. I feel the same way about art in general, and painting in particular, as it is the expression. The thing I'm trying to make can't be expressed in any other way.
Particularly with the abstracts, I try to psych myself up into an extreme flow state and that goes along with all kinds of emotion, which usually begin from a sort of aggressive, energetic, ragey thing. I listen to intense music. For all of the paintings in the film, I listened to Screaming Females. Later on, I'd switch it up and go into stuff like Nine Inch Nails. That sort of music triggers a particular response which allows me to really shut down my conscious mind. Sometimes after pushing through that aggressive attack of the canvas, I get to much more delicate emotions.
I read somewhere that you started off by drawing aliens and dinosaurs as a kid. When did the subject of your art shift towards the human form, portraits, and nudes?
Sandro Kopp: Well, as a kid I just drew whatever I was interested in, usually from my head, by making stuff up, or looking at photographs. Like many teenagers, I had that obsession with the Xenomorph alien. I think Alien 3 came out when I was fourteen, the Fincher one, and I was so into it. If you think about it, it’s effectively a big penis with teeth. So there's probably some kind of Freudian interpretation of why, at the moment of going through adolescence, I was obsessed with that.
Then when I was seventeen, I had a friend who said “Oh, my mate is pregnant. She’s so beautiful, you have to draw her naked.” We met at her house and I did a series of pastels of this pregnant, naked woman. And I just had this very clear sense of like ‘Oh, okay. This is what you're supposed to be doing with your life.’ I was also experiencing a really heightened form of concentration that I had never experienced before. There was a moment during the sitting when something felt odd, like something was missing. Then I realised that I had completely stopped breathing. I think that was one of the earlier, conscious moments of flow state. As an artist, you're always looking for that moment when you're fully surrendered to whatever it is you're doing—you just dissolve into it.
When I was about twenty, I stepped away from painting from photographs. I realised that photography to me is a finished thing unto itself, but a drawing from life, or even from a Skype conversation, contains an element of presence. That's what I'm really interested in. It's not so much about the features or the likeness, it’s about what this moment of people being together in a room or a video chat means for perception, and how can I make something out of that perception.
That moment you described of forgetting to breathe and experiencing that heightened sense of concentration, is that always cathartic for you? Or can it sometimes feel quite suffocating to be locked into one painting for hours on end?
Sandro Kopp: Oh no, it’s always great! You chase it and if you try and get to it too directly, it usually slips away. It's a very, very ephemeral, weird, difficult thing. It's generally a case of creating the conditions that might make it more likely for you to get to that state. That means having the right materials, having everything prepared so that halfway through, I don't have to think about ‘Where's my cobalt blue?’. Everything would be prepared: my brushes would be clean, my palette would be laid out the way I want, but it also means that I've slept enough, I’ve done my yoga practice, I've done my meditation, I’ve had the right amount of food, not too soon before the sitting. All these things allow me to be the required mixture of relaxed and adrenalised. I’m trying to catch that balance between the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system in order to really let go and be in a flow state. You can't say “Oh, I'm just going to go and have a bit of flow state.” You have to seduce your own brain and woo it indirectly.
Have you ever worked on something for a long time and released it to the world in a state you were not yet content with?
Sandro Kopp: One example of that is the painting of Simone, Naked, Cell Block‐J Hobby Room in The French Dispatch. After doing nine different versions in Angoulême, there were only two that I felt good about. Then the schedule slightly changed around and one day suddenly they were shooting one of those paintings, and it wasn't done for me yet. Wes was happy with it. Everyone else seemed to like it, but at the time I was not certain that that was the best I could do.
When I saw the film for the first time, I said to Wes “I really liked the big ones and all the early stuff, but that one I feel like I can do better.” And he said “Well, if you can do better, do better. I’m happy with it, but go forth with my blessing. It's a square on the screen and I'll replace it digitally if you can come up with something better.” So I spent a year trying to come up with a new version of it, all that work is now the basis of this exhibition in Berlin, all those paintings that I did to try and make a better version of it. But what happened was, after about nine months, my perspective on the painting in the film changed. I really like it now.
Is there a woman, whether visible or not, in all of the abstracts that you did for The French Dispatch?
Sandro Kopp: They all had a body in them. Léa (Seydoux), of course, is the source of all the ones that I did in Angoulême. But because she didn't arrive until later on, we started out with a body double, who was a dancer from the town. I had her in the studio quite a lot and i took photographs of her, which I projected onto the white canvas first. I mapped out a very precise painting before continuing on to make them abstract.
Wes would always say the same thing whenever I wrote to him with a picture and said something like “Oh, look at this beautiful foot. Shouldn’t we leave that in the painting? Wouldn't it be good to have something more figurative in there? He'd always say: “Sandro, paint it out. But I like that you know that it's there.” I think these unseen things really do matter. They have a relevance to the resulting pictures.
“Oh, look at this beautiful foot. Shouldn’t we leave that in the painting? Wouldn't it be good to have something more figurative in there?" Wes would always say: “Sandro, paint it out. But I like that you know that it's there.”
I love all your life drawings as well and how you embrace motion and refuse to distill the body down to a single posture.
Sandro Kopp: I'll show you the stuff that I'm doing for the exhibition. So this is one of the designs. You can kind of see some knees and spines and ribs in there, like an accumulation of anatomical shapes.
It’s kind of disturbing in a really cool way.
Sandro Kopp: This is the thing, they’re very fleshy. I think there’s a kind of discomfort that comes with stripping back the skin and going into the body. These paintings contain the sense of something macrocosmic and microscopic at the same time. I always feel they're a little bit like when you do microscopy and have a droplet on the piece of glass under the microscope and fix the other piece of glass onto it. The moment that the surface tension sucks it down, flattens everything and locks it into place.
Is there a reason why you choose to leave out faces in those life drawings?
Sandro Kopp: Well, I’ve tried to do them with faces and I've just found from experience that it fixes it too much to the person. I do a lot of faces and naked portraits as well but as soon as you have a face in there, it comes with a whole set of story and baggage. If you leave out the face, it allows it to be a universal cipher. I don't know about you, but I find with nudity that there's always this really deep resonance in my self —a sense of relaxation from realising ‘Oh yes, under our clothes and our cultural trappings and all of these things in society, we’re just these breathing, eating, shitting, sleeping, fucking flesh machines that have evolved over the past few million years.’ There’s a sense of universality in that which I think is one of the reasons why there are so many nudes in art.
"Under our clothes and our cultural trappings and all of these things in society, we’re just these breathing, eating, shitting, sleeping, fucking flesh machines that have evolved over the past few million years."
Just to close off, because we’re quite big on inspiration, can you talk a bit about your favorite book, film and painting?
Sandro Kopp: I'm going to give you what comes into my head at the moment. I've just read Nina Simone's Gum by Warren Ellis which is a brilliant book. Warren Ellis is the multi-instrumentalist, but mainly violinist, for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. It's about Nina Simone's gum which he grabbed off her piano after her last ever performance in London. He jumped up on stage and took her chewing gum and her towel when she'd left the stage. It's become this totem and it's really about the power of objects. It’s incredibly moving, beautiful book. That's currently my favorite.
Favorite film is always The Darjeeling Limited by Wes. I just love that film.
Favorite painting is probably Two Plants by Lucien Freud, which is at the Tate Britain. It’s this super detailed, huge painting of two pot plants. Apparently it took him over a year and a half to paint and one of the plants started to die while he was doing it. It's psychedelic and it’s just so, so good…it’s interesting actually that my favorite painting would be something that doesn't contain any bodies or faces since that tends to be all I do.
You can see Sandro Kopp's exhibition Doch at the Mannheimer Kuntsverein from May 28 until July 31, 2022.
Find him on Instagram: @sandrokopp.