Sophie von Hellermannn’s current exhibition Genius at Greene Naftali starts with a spark. A red bolt shoots across a yellow canvas as a close-up of a woman’s face looks on, capturing a spontaneous and effervescent rush, the urgency of an idea, the essence of the word genius.
From there, a series of ephemeral vignettes playing off show’s the title unfold in increasing scale until they appear to engulf the gallery walls. “The expansion itself is a romantic idea of genius, something that becomes larger and bigger than you,” says von Hellermann.
The painter cites the work of J.M.W. Turner and German Romanticism as key influences. “The lonely little figure in the vast landscape is always where I come from and where I always go back to,” she says. “The inner world as a projection of the outer world — that connection is so often lost in contemporary life.”
One painting at a time, the Germany-born, UK-based painter is building a world that pulls from her subconscious and imagination as well as current events, literature, classical mythology and history. Upon close inspection, her whimsical paintings have dealt with various real-world topics such as the state of the climate, her response to Brexit, the Trump administration, families being separated at the U.S. border, space and time travel, and the digital age of information.
Von Hellermann is a world-builder dedicated to capturing the transient nature of time: in her works, the past, present and future collide. As an artist whose worldview is mediated by two languages, English and German, her paintings capture what is lost in translation. The ineffable unfolds on her canvases in murky yellows, opaque blues, and deep reds.
She is an observant storyteller with a deep love for literature, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses to Henry James’s Turn of the Screw to Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the past two decades, her ever-expanding universe has animated a wide cast of characters, including Medusa, surfers, young women dancing, Jane Austen, Prometheus chained to a rock, a plane crash, a werewolf, a lovers quarrel, angels, fairies, clowns, a roller coaster, a courtroom scene, a sleeping beauty, women killed during the witch trials of the English Civil War, and time travel. Her previous show at Greene Naftali was about the story of Faust.
Now, she is turning her gaze to the embodiment of genius in all its human imperfection. Her father was a brilliant nuclear physicist, and she sees the potential for genius in every person. “It’s something we all have somehow,” she says. She also explored the darker implications of the term. One scene depicts Prometheus chained to a rock; every day his liver gets eaten by an eagle. The ultimate image of the tormented genius.
Yellow Match Strike, 2023
The works on view in Genius blossomed from an investigation into the meaning of genius and a rule to make paintings that would increase in size in equal increments. “It was like a game, and I made up the different characters that should be in it,” she says. She also began painting and playing cards. “I really enjoyed the game part of it, and the whole universe of the card game,” she says. “When people are sitting together playing cards, that is the whole world. Fortunes and destiny: so many things could happen at a card table.”
Von Hellermann made all of the artworks for Greene Nafatali this year. She built upon each previous work until a colourful, immersive world emerged. “It was an opportunity to create a room again,” says the painter who has been toying with the painting as an immersive space since her early days in art school at Dusseldorf and at the Royal College of Art in London in the late 90s and early aughts. She also paints on walls. In 2018, she painted a massive three-story mural depicting the history of Hannover at the city’s Künstlerhaus.
Von Hellermann sees large-scale paintings as a way to create a space for performance. With her large canvas laid out on her studio floor, painting is a physical feat. “I am painting rooms to be in as well as acting against the backdrop of the painting,” she says. When she works, her body dances across the unprimed canvas as she reaches over to apply large swaths of a watery mixture of pigments and acrylic emulsion with an extra wide wash brush in hand.
“I see the paint itself as an act,” she muses. “I used to paint to perform.” For von Hellermann, painting is theatre, and the canvas is a stage. As a young painter, she would create backdrops for her artist friends to perform in front of. She once did a lecture at the ICA in London where she painted in front of an audience. Another time, she painted publicly at the Turner Contemporary in Margate. “The people watching created the space,” she recalls, noting that their responses to her movements also informed her process.
When she paints, she moves swiftly and steadily in a race against the drying pigments, which she slows with her bucket of water that grows more murky with every subsequent painting. If time builds up into a hurricane of minutes while von Hellermann is painting, then the artist is planted firmly in the eye of the storm.
Von Hellermann began painting in Germany when she was young and has never stopped. Now, she splits her time between London and Margate, a seaside town on the north coast of Kent where her studio is. While Margate is relatively developed, von Hellermann finds solace in the beach and the waves that lap against the sand. “I can’t help being inspired by nature. There was a beautiful sunset as I was walking the dog, and the water is constantly very inspiring,” she says. In the summer, music from the nearby fairground named Dreamland trickles into her studio.
The artist paints with music in her head. Songs from memory dance set the tone for her memories that materialise in her work. Ode to Joy, 2023, the final work in Genius, is not only a self-portrait, but also a portrait of her musical inspirations, namely the Canadian conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson who is the founding conductor and music director of the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra.
“I always had this idea of the maestro, the amazing performance, the curtain, and then somehow the promise — a work of art is somehow a promise or pledge, making something to make the world better,” she says. “I had just been listening to a live performance, a concert at the royal festival of Mahler’s version of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony Ode to Joy,” she continues, adding that Maler means painter in German. In von Hellermann’s work, the conductor has a paintbrush in her hand; the paint is her music.
This October, the painter will unveil a new series of works titled Dreamland with Pilar Corrias Gallery at Frieze London. “It is both a reference to the big fairground here that is called Dreamland, but also the dreamland of the subconscious, how different people can have the same dreams and share dreams,” she says.
Words by Meka Boyle
Sophie von Hellermannn’s current exhibition Genius at Greene Naftali will be on show until the 28th of July.READ MORE