Ruprecht Von Kaufmann: Return to Storyland

6 April - 11 May 2024 West Palm Beach

Private View: Saturday 6th April 2024, 3-6pm

West Palm Beach (Florida, USA)
Fragile, wavering figures and fantastical giant beasts dance in and out of focus amid fluid brushstrokes of blue, green and purple, within a circus ring, the grand setting of a stately home, against a stormy sky. This latest series of works by the German artist Ruprecht von Kaufmann explores the ways in which stories – from fairy tales and urban myths to personal and historical anecdotes – shape our understanding of the past, our perception of others and our sense of identity. Return to Storyland at Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery, West Palm Beach marks one of von Kaufmanns most ambitious shows to date and also his first solo exhibition in the United States for nearly 20 years: a return to the origins of his art. After studying art in California von Kaufmann is now considered one of the most recognised German contemporary figure painters. Featuring a new suite of oil paintings on linoleum as well as bronze sculptures, the show invites viewers into a magical and macabre world where nothing is quite as it seems.
Von Kaufmann has long been fascinated by different techniques of storytelling. His works offer glimpses of fragmented, precarious narratives that appear in the process of being formed or wiped away – his figures blurred into smoky swirls of colour while the settings around them waver at the edges, creating both a sense of decisive intrigue and uncertainty.
The exhibitions centrepiece and largest painting Die Vermessung der Welt (Measuring the World), for instance, satirises the genre of history painting, which was traditionally used to illustrate specific historical episodes or scenes from the Bible or Greek or Roman mythology. Von Kaufamanns painting, however, complicates the idea of a static narrative or universal truth by conflating a number of different tales and characters. On the left hand side of the composition is a giant, bearded figure, dressed in fur-trousers and crude boots. Inspired by reconstructions of the ‘Ötzi, the 5,300-year-old corpse of a man discovered in the ice of the Ötztaler glacier, this figure is, von Kaufmann explains, representative of attitudes that once defined our ancestors but are no longer deemed useful in modern society, such as superstitions and conspiratorial thinking. At his feet, is the elegantly dressed figure of Emmanuel Kant, one of the pivotal figures of the Enlightenment, which with its science-based and rational approach introduced a new narrative to the world, a return to classical rationalism. Kant is erasingthe giants feet with his writing, cutting through the dark mystery of fairy tales with the precision of logical thought.
Seated on the end of a chaise lounge behind Kant is Sigmund Freud, pulling on his socks. Freud searched for connections to the conscious world in the meandering, seemingly senseless lines of the stories that unfurl in our unconscious minds. Within the painting he serves as a bridge, positioned between two different spaces – at the intersection between blank walls and decorative wallpaper, the realm of analytical thought and that of emotion. The Sphinx-like creature and woman in stockings, meanwhile, are half-formed manifestations of desire and the imagination.
Rasputins Last Dance is another play on a history painting that draws on the many legends that surround the Russian mystic. Here he is depicted as a distorted figure, with his head whipped back at a dangerous angle, seemingly caught in some kind of trance-like movement. The unnatural angle of his limbs may also hint at the ways in which he has become a puppet-like figure who has been moulded and remoulded by the collective imagination. As von Kaufmann notes, Today, facts about Rasputin and his historical role are scarce. But in a way it matters little what the facts really were, because it is the narratives, the stories that are being told and retold, true or false, that people believe and react to today.
Elsewhere, von Kaufmann reinterprets traditional fairy tale narratives, such as Little Red Riding Hood. Instead of depicting the usual cast of characters – namely a little girl in a startling red cape –, Das Rotkäppchen envisions the spectre of a soldier in a helmet and a trench coat floating down the hallway of what appears to be a stately home into an ominous undefined darkness. Behind him hangs a gold-framed picture of a mother breastfeeding a baby while to the right of the painting the spindly outline of the approaching ‘wolf’ is cut through by a spiral of barbed wire that descends into the dark. The conflation of childhood fantasy with real-world violence points to the shadowy nature of fairy tales and is particularly poignant at a time when the world is wrought by conflict. Similarly, the painting Der Fischer und Seine Frau (The Fisherman and His Wife) takes a tale by the Brothers Grimm as its starting point. In the original story, the fishermans wife asks a magic fish to keep granting more and more wishes until eventually she pushes the fishs patience too far and it retreats, undoing all of the magic that it conjured before and leaving the couple in poverty once more. In von Kaufmanns painting, the wife is not depicted but her greed is represented by a gigantic fish that leaps up over the fishermans head and towards the viewer, threatening to either crush or consume everything in its wake.

This sense of threat pervades the exhibition, reflecting not only the precarious nature of truth, particularly in contemporary society, but also on the artists own role as an image maker, someone who conjures worlds and as such has the power to influence the perceptions of others. The potential risk of such a position is expressed through the bronze sculpture the Painters Hands which depicts two workmans gloves laid on top of one another in a gesture of both humility and redundance. And yet, von Kaufmans work is also filled with hope. The fluidity of his images and the interweaving of stories that transcend place and time also gesture towards a language of openness and interpretation. They serve both as an invitation to critically consider the narratives that we consume and to more actively engage with our own imaginations.