The Faithful Interpreter
On the paintings of Sandro Kopp
by Jasper Sharp
Said the Eye one day, “I see beyond these valleys a mountain veiled with blue mist. Is it not beautiful?”
The Ear listened, and after listening intently awhile, said, “But where is any mountain? I do not hear it.”
Then the Hand spoke and said, “I am trying in vain to feel it or touch it, and I can find no mountain.”
And the Nose said, “There is no mountain, I cannot smell it.”
Then the Eye turned the other way, and they all began to talk together about the Eye’s strange delusion.
And they said, “Something must be the matter with the Eye.”
Kahlil Gibran, The Eye
Our eyes are a barometer, signal lights for feelings held within. At times they are large and glistening, communicating delight, excitement and engagement. At others they seem almost to turn inwards, deadened and unresponsive. They can shed tears of happiness and weep tears of pain. They are the part of our bodies around which narrative most instinctively forms. What we are and will become often begins with the eyes; it is here that love first takes hold, that envy seeps in, that we put together the pieces of the jigsaw that forms the world around us. Organs of extreme sensitivity, they respond to surges of feeling or the physical effects of light and pressure, and broadcast that response. Charlotte Brontë referred to them as interpreters for the soul, unconscious but faithful. Shaped like a fish, they are often considered to carry some of the symbolism of that creature: fertility, femininity and the unconscious. Jung considered the eye to be the eternal bosom, with the pupil its child.
The eyes of Sandro Kopp are accumulations of highly specific but anonymous intimacy. Painted on small panels in sittings of several hours in cafes, palaces and gardens, they reveal both defiance and vulnerability, sometimes in the same person. Kopp paints people that he knows, with whom there exists at least a certain familiarity. He begins by looking closely at each subject, to select an eye to paint. That is followed by a brief pencil sketch, made in a few minutes, before he begins to paint, usually with the outer rim of the iris. From there he builds up the structure of each subject’s eye over the course of a couple of hours. The task that he has assigned himself is, of course, ultimately a hopeless one. Like a star in the night sky, the human eye has something inherently indefinable to it, a sense of infinite depth that is impossible fully to capture. But it is for this reason, perhaps, that he continues, completing one and moving on quickly to the next, moving a small step closer with each new eye to understanding is unfathomable complexity.
Much like we are are able to take measure of ourselves by returning at intervals to familiar places, so Kopp is able to measure his own
development as he works on each new eye. After finishing, he allows them to settle in the studio, a process of ripening which can occasionally result in him continuing to work on them at a later date.
To look someone in the eye is an act of intimacy. In western cultures it is considered a custom of honesty. Further east, eyes are turned away to convey respect or even covered to confer modesty and submission. The eyes that Kopp paints are wide open and full of language, full of conversation. Seen as a whole they make up something of a family, but a family of individuals with as many variations in mood and atmosphere as there are people. Time, we become aware, is an essential component of the work. Each single portrait is as much about time, and a record of
movements made during that time, as it is about the subject itself. There is an experiential quality to the painting that often continues beyond the sitting itself. At a certain point Kopp began to layer gold leaf onto the small panels around some of his subjects’ eyes, ennobling them and dignifying them with a certain spirituality. The process of gold leafing is an act of quiet meditation that dates back to the illuminated manuscripts crafted by monks in ancient monasteries, whose own dedication often resulted in them losing the gift of their own eyesight.
The eyes that Kopp paints are larger than life-size. Standing alone, they invariably bring to mind the single eye that has come to represent divine
omniscience. In Ancient Egypt the single painted eye of Horus was a sacred symbol, regarded as a source of light, knowledge and fertility. The pupil stood for sight, the right side of the eye for smell, the left side for hearing, the brow for thought, the curved tail for taste and the teardrop for touch. Seen together, they resemble a gathering of protective amulets, magical apotropaic antidotes to deflect misfortune and turn back malevolence. And they feel very much at home in Venice among the shimmering golden mosaics of Torcello and San Marco, in a city that shares their indefinability, a complexity that will forever remain fugitive.
Jasper Sharp is a British art historian. He is Curator for Modern and Contemporary Art at the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, for whom he has curated exhibitions of artists including Lucian Freud, Joseph Cornell, Susan Philipsz, Mark Rothko and Kathleen Ryan. He worked previously as Head of Exhibitions at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, and is a founding director of the philanthropic organization Phileas.