10 Mar 2024

When art and film become entwined: painter Sandro Kopp

From Culture 101, 2:00 pm on 10 March 2024
Tilda Swinton as arts correspondent JKL Berensen before The Rosenthaler Paintings in The French Dispatch.

Tilda Swinton as arts correspondent JKL Berensen before The Rosenthaler Paintings in The French Dispatch. Photo: supplied

In 2018, film director Wes Anderson asked Sandro Kopp to create ten monumental paintings in less than three months for his film The French Dispatch

The paintings needed to look like the work of a singular genius (the fictional “criminally insane” artist Moses Rosenthaler, played by Benicio Del Toro) who had created the work while imprisoned over three years. 

Sandro Kopp completing paintings for The French Dispatch

Sandro Kopp completing paintings for The French Dispatch Photo: Caris Yeoman

No pressure then! Kopp has described the project as the most challenging and satisfying of his career thus far. 

The paintings themselves went on to be seen by 40,000 people in London in 2021. When shown in Berlin in 2022, Wes Anderson said of Kopp: “He invented his own personal genre for us; boldest brushstrokes, blasting colour, a dazzling and wonderful sequence of images which transformed our film.”

Sandro Kopp

Sandro Kopp Photo: Marina Terechov

For Sandro Kopp, of German and New Zealand descent, painting and film have often been entwined.

He met his partner, actor Tilda Swinton, on the set of The Chronicles of Narnia in Aotearoa - she was the White Witch, he a centaur. He’d previously appeared as an elf in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. 

Yet Kopp’s passion is clearly painting. He attended art school in Wellington and has exhibited extensively internationally with experimental approaches to figurative painting. A portrait featuring the hair of its subject mixed into the paint ‘Dave all round’ was a finalist in the 2020 Adam Portraiture Award in New Zealand. 

SANDRO KOPP Anthropomorphosis (2023)

Sandro Kopp, Anthropomorphosis, 2023 Photo: Glenn Frei

Kopp has lived in the Scottish Highlands since 2006, but continues to make return trips to Aotearoa. His first solo exhibition since 2011 in New Zealand, GalaXcell is at Ōtepoti Dunedin’s Milford Galleries from 15 March until 11 April. 

There’s an echo of the fictitious artistic journey of The French Dispatch’s Rosenthaler in Kopp’s shift from realism into abstraction in his latest exhibition. 

GalaXcell provides bright and busy bodily abstractions that, as the exhibition title suggests, express both the world at a human cellular level and our explosive galaxies beyond. Yet Kopp’s surreal, voluptuous forms remain expressive of the moving language of the human body.

Being based in remote Scotland and also travelling frequently, Kopp has developed his own approaches to painting. In the 2010s he started doing portraiture via video call, well before Zoom became ubiquitous.

Kopp’s ‘Skype Portraits’ depict his subjects in pose and the way they are painted as mediated by a computer screen. Friends captured are both the relatively unknown, to artist celebrities ranging from John Waters and Willem Dafoe to Michael Stipe. 

Culture 101’s Mark Amery caught up with Sandro Kopp to talk art and film while he was back in New Zealand for his latest exhibition. 

He tells RNZ that adapting his practice to paint and draw as he travels internationally means he can inject 'new energy' from each place into his work.

And he has the benefit of a clear space to work in, not tied up with the earlier trappings of an artist's studio.

"Unlike in the studio where I have dozens of paintings that I've been working on for years, it's very fresh, so I feel like I stay on top of my artistic impulses quite readily because I'm always in a different environment, and I always have to make sure I'm really authentic to how I feel there in that place."

Returning to Wellington recently after a long time away he says he's been blown away by the rush of raw energy here, from both people and the place. 

The Dunedin exhibition is satisfying for how much of his work it encompasses, including the recent writhing abstractions of bodies, he says.

Sandro Kopp, Of Trees and Lichen, 2023

Sandro Kopp, Of Trees and Lichen, 2023 Photo: Glenn Frei

"There's always been abstract work that I've done, but the figure is very very strong and I just love good figurative painting. I mean a good portrait or good nude gets me terribly excited.

"But I'm equally just very excited about colour, I think that the atmosphere and the feeling that you can create just by putting colours together, that's sort of the basis of so much of art to me.

"I have tried to pull together all the disparate aspects of my art for this show, and I think it's the most complete Sandro Kopp show that I've done to date.

"Because it puts together the very very abstract stuff like the things I made for Wes Anderson as well as the very highly detailed super-realistic things that I've done in my Eye Portraits, and the live drawing figurative stuff that I've done since I could pick up a pencil."