Silke Hennig in conversation with the Berlin-based painter Ruprecht von Kaufmann
Ruprecht von Kaufmann, you have created a new series of paintings that we want to talk about. First of all, what defines this series?
Ruprecht von Kaufmann: The works are all painted on black linoleum and are of reduced color, and I have revisited an older cycle of works, the Black Paintings from 2004. These are very personal works in which I have tried to process the experiences now with the Corona Lockdown and the pressure that was on the family. That's really the "bonding" element.
How did all that start? When did you realize that a new series was emerging?
RvK: That actually already stems from my way of working, since I almost always paint in groups of works. And it started with black linoleum as a painting surface. However, there were still lines on it from an earlier work. I incorporated them into the new compositions. As a result, there is the possibility that the paintings are sometimes almost several images in one or are broken in a certain way. I wanted to have an effect like in early film screenings, where the image slips a bit and the synchronization of the frame doesn't work properly, resulting in shifts in the image.
Because that irritates the viewer and forces them to take a closer look?
RvK: Yes, not making the work immediately accessible and thus triggering a more intensive discussion is of course always an intention. But the content of the paintings was also very much about a shift in the sense of power. I had the feeling that this whole experience with Corona was actually almost like a movie that is suddenly no longer on the film reel or is no longer properly synchronized. Our life usually runs with a—hopefully—relatively regulated clarity. And suddenly all of that was questioned, everything was suddenly out of kilter, and things that we had taken for granted no longer worked. And politicians were just chasing after the situation.
You can see liveried figures marching in these paintings, for example, but the heads are missing. So these figures can't see where they are marching either, that is, on a small circus platform. These are precarious situations that you show there, but about which the figures themselves are perhaps not at all aware, because they can't see what's underneath or even behind them—a large animal, for example. How do you develop these scenarios?
RvK: Many of the paintings were actually made very intuitively: Like these two men in bellboy or circus uniforms who march in a circle on this small circus podium—and actually have no idea how small the podium is, on which they always seem to move in a circle. I was always fascinated, especially in the circus, that the uniforms they use there are clearly military references and I have always asked myself, is that a deliberate caricature of military posturing? Or is it something purely decorative that they have adopted? Or did it come from the fact that people from the circus bought military uniforms for cheap somewhere? I think it's remarkable, this overlap with the military because it actually makes this whole military posturing a bit ridiculous. And that comes up again and again—just like with the other man who has the huge white rhinoceros behind him and seems to lean against it so casually, as if he had nothing to fear and everything is under control, and yet, if you take a closer look, his body language is very stilted casual and you can tell that this is not a relaxed pose.
He's also in a tipping situation and you don't know which would be better for him: If the rhino takes a step forward or a step back…
RvK: They are situations on the edge, where it is not predictable what will happen in the next moment: Will it turn out well or badly? And that was also something that, at least for me, very much shaped this pandemic: I always plan my exhibition calendar at least a year in advance. And suddenly there were no more exhibitions and no one knew what was going to happen in the next two weeks.
Was that a situation that initially paralyzed you artistically or was the regular visit to the studio also a strategy to maintain normality?
RvK: Well, it wasn't even a strategy for me to maintain normality, because painters like me always work in 'home office'. In this respect, it was almost a dream situation for me personally, because all external distractions had disappeared and I was able to go to my studio and actually work on my paintings without too much time pressure. In the personal area, the effects were completely different. My family and my children in particular have suffered much more from the negative effects of Corona. That carried over to me too. And then of course the uncertainty, how will things go on? Can you still sell artworks, etc.? But in the end, I found it great to just be able to go through my daily work routine without any interruptions, where you have to pack paintings or take care of other things. I could just go to the studio every day and paint and that was a dreamlike situation for me.
You say that you also used painting surfaces that already had traces and that you then incorporated—to a combination of representational and abstract elements. Did that also arise from a moment of the 'revision'? Have you been to the studio and looked at old things to see what happens next? Or how did this combination come about?
RvK: This combination came about because the linoleum that I used had a more or less very abstract, very reduced, linear painting. And actually, the first thought was: Okay, I've kept this here for many years now and I won't use it again as it used to be—also because I knew I wanted to process the black background. And then I realized that it was very exciting to see the painting surface without any painting and to see what will happen now with these line fragments of the original painting when they are so dismembered and arranged in a new rectangle? There is one image where the man seems to be looking into a hole and there is a big bull behind him. The lines simply suggested a space that is actually not there. After all, it's pure abstraction, just two or three white lines on a black background. And I found that very exciting to assume and continue to work with.
Painting on linoleum—that is, oil on linoleum, and then applied to wood: What makes these materials or this way of working so attractive for you?
RvK: There are several aspects. First of all, I am very much inspired by the color of the linoleum itself during the coloring process. That gives me a certain starting point—like a composer who is given a certain key. And then it enables me to incorporate much more abstract elements because the linoleum allows large areas of the painting to be left unprocessed. Usually, with an oil painting, I have to work on the entire surface so that the work looks finished or closed. And the characteristics of the linoleum are similar enough to oil paint that you can simply leave it and there won't be a hole. I find that very exciting. And then it has an incredibly nice feel to it, which I can work with very well, on which the oil paint can be applied very nicely and the brush glides very nicely. And at the same time, through the solid carrier—that is to say: there is a wooden plate underneath—the possibility of working with a spatula, with a lot of pressure, with force, to bring a lot of physicality into the work. And that has actually changed and shaped my painting style a lot in recent years. And the last element is that I often cut into the linoleum again at the very end and thereby destroy parts of the painting, questioning the value of an oil painting´s surface and taking it apart and sometimes using the incisions as a separate painting element—or as a flaw, like a hole in the painting.
These are the elements that are almost reminiscent of marquetry and look brownish in color?
RvK: Exactly, they are brownish in this case, because the color of the linoleum changes slightly when you cut into it and the surface then also appears rougher, more porous. With some of them, I then filled out the flaws again with white paint—so to speak, filled the hole with “nothing” again –and thereby actually highlighted the flaw that was patched even more clearly.
There is such a bluish-violet-gray light in these paintings. Would you say that they are night-time paintings?
RvK: You could see it that way. Or maybe they are twilight paintings. Paintings that are created at that moment when the human eye can no longer recognize color. Or perhaps paintings in the moonlight and thus also the attempt to give the paintings something more mysterious and somber due to the fact that the colors are so reduced and cold.
What role does mystery play for you in your paintings?
RvK: Mysteriousness plays a major role insofar as I try to do a tightrope walk: to find a motif that attracts the viewer and tempts the viewer to grapple with the puzzle and still defy simple interpretation. I think, especially with figurative painting, there is often the danger that the painting simply opens up too quickly and you think, 'Ah yes, okay, that's what it's about and now I can check it off for myself and go again'. However, if the painting repeatedly raises questions, then it will occupy you for a long time. I think that the paintings should actually create space so that the viewer can bring his own self into the work.
Then the abstract elements come into play again. But they also focus more on painting itself. Are you interested in negotiating not only a specific topic but also the type of presentation yourself?
RvK: Yes, ideally a synergy should result from 'How is a painting painted?' to 'What does the painting want to convey?' or which emotions—as Francis Bacon did very, very successfully. Much of the content of these paintings is conveyed through how they are painted. I try to come as close as possible in my paintings. And in fact, for me, the difference between abstraction and representationalism is more of a theoretical one, because every representational image must of course function primarily as a composition on an abstract level. And if it doesn't, you can still paint the most beautiful objectivity—then it's just not a good painting. In this respect—if it is often said that painters develop from objectivity to abstraction: Personally, it is actually rather the other way around, that objectivity develops from such an abstract level.
And then you have a smooth transition from painting to drawing to painting and also from formulation to blank spaces or abstract symbolism. Is it a matter of putting these elements in a tense relationship with each other?
RvK: Yes of course. That is what I mean by the fact that an image has to work on an abstract level. Because these are exactly the means with which an abstract painter works: You try to create opposites and then bring them under one roof in a composition, that you create contrasts, that you create harmonies. And that is exactly what happens in the paintings—with the only difference that there are additional figures and through the recognizability of human figures, the viewer's emphatic feeling is addressed additionally. That is why I have remained true to figuration over the years: Because it is so exciting that we as humans cannot help but respond emphatically to other people. And over billions of years of evolution, we also have a finely developed sense of interpreting even very subtle gestures. Or to record very subtle shifts in a pose as an emotional message. This is something that fascinates me very much, because it gives the painting, in addition to the painterly elements that underline a certain emotion, the possibility of going deep into the viewer´s psyche.
Then we have to mention animals at this point. It's striking that animals appear again and again in your paintings. You seem to have a special relationship with rhinos in particular—what is the story with these animals?
RvK: Animals are very interesting on several levels: we actually have to deal with fables all over the world as children, and therefore many animals are tied to associations: The sly fox, the quick but dumb rabbit, the clever hedgehog, and so forth, giving us access to expectable reactions. So a shark will trigger fascination, but also terror, in almost everyone to some degree. And the rhino—that has two sources of inspiration: First, one of my favorite books as a child was Brehm's Animal Life, and there's a passage where he describes how the rhinoceros, once it gets into a rage, runs blindly toward the target of its anger and keeps running until at some point it forgets what it was actually running toward—in a blind rage. I thought that was great because it actually transfers our idea of "blind rage" to an animal. And the second, of course, is the play by Eugène Ionesco "Rhinoceros", which I think is absolutely fantastic. In it, the rhinoceros is a symbol for such fascist thinking that takes hold in a city, and suddenly we're all just rampaging rhinoceroses that run through the city and trample everything. I found that quite fitting now with the Corona situation, where at the same time as the disease, conspiracy theories have spread incredibly in Germany. And almost like this transformation in "Rhinoceros", they have pulled more and more people into this black hole.
And these animals always stand behind the figures in such a way that the respective figure cannot see them. This also applies to this figure who looks into this black surface or this abyss—however, you want to read it. Immediately behind her—she should actually feel the animal's breath—there is this bull. But it is obviously important to you that these animals are not clearly a threat: it is ambivalent, you do not know what the animal is going to do. Basically, the rhinoceros also holds onto this tilting armchair.
RvK: That's exactly how it is and the other way around, it makes this tipping armchair even more wobbly for me, because you know exactly that this rhino is extremely unpredictable. And this equilibrium, which the man has just found for himself in his wobbling chair, becomes even more precarious as a result. By relying on the rhino, he no longer has any control whatsoever. So for me, it made the feeling of a loss of control even stronger.
You said at the beginning that there was already a series of Black Paintings. Is there a connection there—apart from the fact that both series are "primed in a dark tone", so to say?
RvK: Yes, there is a connection beyond that, because both series deal to some degree with the journey into an abyss. The Black Paintings were inspired by the Orpheus story—where Orpheus travels to the underworld. And for me, this story beautifully reflects the process of grieving—more than it deals with death. How do we as those left behind deal with the loss of a loved one? There was also this helplessness, this being at the mercy, which can be seen in the new paintings. So there are some parallels because I also dealt with a situation that is completely beyond our control. We are suddenly confronted with the fact that this feeling of being able to control and steer our lives is actually an illusion.
Is this new series now over or are you continuing it?
RvK: It is now complete.
And now there are brighter paintings again?
RvK: Now the paintings are brighter again. So I'm currently working on a series of paintings—based on works that Otto Dix and George Grosz in particular took of their contemporaries in the 1920s—about my contemporaries in Berlin in the 2020s. Because there, too, I think there are some parallels, and I thought to myself, it's actually quite nice to paint my contemporaries that I see in the city with such a bit of caustic sense of humor.
I am excited. Thank you for this insight into your work, Ruprecht von Kaufmann!