Sophie von Hellermann
Sophie von Hellermann’s new series of paintings are based on her interest in Dream of the Red Chamber (1791), one of China’s Four Great Classical Novels. The book has been important for von Hellermann, as well as her grandmother and parents, and they spoke about it often at home when she was little. The artist recently became engaged with the story again, her first encounter with it in decades. She acquired a number of different translated versions of the novel and began to paint – not most faithfully according to the book, but more based upon her recollection and imagination.
The title of the online presentation, Idle Life, refers to the theme of idleness woven throughout the narrative. This resonated with von Hellermann at the time, who felt there was a parallel between her idle lifestyle this past year, and working in her studio, coincidentally called ‘Ileden Barn’. From the outset, idleness and destiny are intertwined as guiding tenets in the story which ultimately determine the course of fate for the characters. There exists a play between reality and the unreal, truth and fiction, which the artist sought to explore, viewing her studio as akin to the ‘Land of Illusions’. She recreated the dream-like world on her canvases, using gold pigments to give the images a gilded hue, alluding to the romanticism of a bygone era, or the illusion of one. Von Hellermann’s brush becomes the ruler of fate, as she envelopes the different protagonists within psychological landscapes according to her inner eye.
“The way I painted them is I set the scene with a tone, in this case literally gold."
"I began to see my studio as the Land of Illusions, a site to play with dualisms present in the book, like reality and unreality, truth and fiction. The production of art and image-making, as well as the art of landscape design is often discussed in the novel. In preparation for the paintings I was looking at Chinese landscape architecture, particularly important elements like rocks, water and flowers as these symbols are representative of some of the characters, and the way the cycle of life shifts through the story. I looked to ancient Chinese art and the work of the Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou, who were working during the Qing Dynasty at the time Dream of the Red Chamber was written.
"Though many of the works are identifiable as scenes within the story: the boy born with the stone in his mouth, his entangled love for the women living in the house; the magical garden full of flowers; the descriptions of family life in the big, illustrious homes - I paint using my inner eye, inventing psychological landscapes for the characters using my own recollection and imagination. At the same time, I referred back to the book during my process of painting, almost like a conversation.
"The way I began to paint is to set the scene with a tone, in this case literally gold. I prepared the canvases with a big bucket full of gold pigment with acrylic emulsion and water and using a very wide brush to swiftly fill the whole canvas – a reference to the book as a memory of a golden age. The gold became a vessel for me to enter my ideas and thoughts, to put myself into each scene. Painting using loose pigments and acrylic binder, which is water-based, makes it necessary to work more quickly and creates a sense of fluidity within my work. As long as the water does not evaporate, I enjoy the speed of it, the ephemerality of it. A lot of what I paint disappears as well, which lends itself well to the novel’s theme of illusion.
"The entire story of the novel is set out in the ballad at the beginning, The Dream of Golden Days, sang by a Fairy named Disenchantment - this is very romantic moment, like a figure projecting onto a vast landscape. Fate and destiny play a very important role in the events that follow, through dreams and premonitions, as a way to understand love and relationships. Love, and how it travels through time and space, is central to each work in the series. Each painting is a failed attempt to avert fate, to create permanence when that is impossible."