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Contemporary Alchemy

Von Wolfe is a British artist of Polish-German descent. A virtuoso of a hybrid aesthetic that challenges our notions of authorship, Von Wolfe combines the filigree techniques of the old masters with the latest methods of image manipulation.

Everywhere it is always written only about your philosophical training. Did you study painting somewhere?
Yes, my father was an extremely skillful and talented painter. He trained me in a method known as the Carolus-Durand technique, which is somewhat similar to the 19th century art atelier system, but with more emphasis on tone and color. When I went to university to study philosophy, I had my own studio where I practiced my own method of drawing based on anatomy and mathematical perspective. I was determined to paint without a model. However, the Carolus-Duran technique only applies to work from life.
After mastering a few of these techniques, I finally mentally transported myself back to the 20th century to Picasso’s ideas and saw that he faced similar problems with the difficulty of using his skills to paint in a contemporary manner. Finally, an epiphany came over me as I was walking the ancient Roman walls of the city of York. I saw a strange battle scene on one stone, as if protruding from its surface. There was no actual drawing there, but it seemed quite real. I couldn’t remember that scene in the studio, and I had to return to that stone many times before I could draw the picture. Then I realized that after a while I could make such a “textured” stone myself with strange cracks, protrusions and curves. I used these “stones” to create new works, similar to divination stones in alchemy.
From that moment on I was determined to find art rather than create it, as I saw that my mind was more free to create when I had some kind of groundwork in front of me rather than a blank canvas.

How did your interest in digital art originate?
I had my “guessing stones” but soon realized that the best ideas are always only found in the smallest things. To explore this idea this, I started using a microscope, creating thousands of drawings on my stones. The drawings resembled geometric constellations, animals and human heads, referring back to prehistoric times. From time to time, I would ink them onto duct tape with an ink pen and project them onto a large wall of the studio, where they would appear as dark animals, shepherds, black trees and flying birds, each over nine meters tall. I rented a studio in an old streetcar stop building in York. At the time the first version of Photoshop had just come out, so I used it to scan and invert the tiny black constellations with light lines. After moving to London, I made a large oval light box from these digitized drawings and hung it on the wall of my studio in Bethnal Green. That oval constellation became a talisman for me.

After a few years I abandoned those strange drawings and started using Photoshop more like a petri dish, again juxtaposing thousands of images on a very fine scale, as if peering through a microscope. It turned out that it was as if some random images were attracted to each other on their own. This was different from simple superimposition and gave me ideas for my paintings. Finally, I moved on to learning Cinema 4D and ZBrush and started working in 3D. Recent technological advances, however, naturally led me to Artificial Intelligence (AI).

For quite some time you’ve been painting paintings inspired by art history, but last year you introduced the image of “screaming women” – tell us about this transition. And why are they screaming?
Before I started using AI, I studied symmetry in ZBrush using scans of casts of ancient sculptures. There, I discovered that by rotating and reflecting the images with different regularity, I could get them to fit together like figures within the same matryoshka doll, while still being very different from the original scan. I created 7020 of these 3D sculptures in a year of work and felt exhausted. It felt like I had reached the end of the road. I had hoped it would all lead to something new, but it was more like a project that was going to happen and didn’t need any additions. However, along the way I encountered glimpses of this new thing, and I felt that something had changed with the advent of the NFT. Then I realized that Nvidia RTX computer processors and VRAM were becoming more powerful and could be used not only in big theaters, but also by everyday people at a very affordable price. I’ve seen self-taught traders working with machine learning on their computers at home, mimicking high-frequency traders. At the same time, social media literally exploded with the work of digital artists who posted their work every day, like Mike Winkelman (Beeple) his #everydays. Traditional “flesh and blood” artists couldn’t keep up, but I caught up. I remembered what Michelangelo said while painting the Sistine ceiling. Someone once asked him if fast painting was bad for an artist, and Michelangelo replied that it was only bad if the quality of the work deteriorated. If the work remains skillful and beautiful, however, it would be even better if the artist could draw quickly and well. By using AI to improve and supplement my hard-won skills, I realized that I could work very quickly, at the speed of my own thoughts – and that’s how I found my perfect storm.

The series Always Screaming When Her Voice Is Cracked came about when the persecution of women began in Iran. I’ve always been inspired by strong images of women, like in Eugène Delacroix’s “Liberty on the Barricades”. I began to create images of women in action, climbing mountains and cliffs, running, not at rest. These women were strong and bold, full of energy. And I combined this high energy with the influence of Rogier van der Weyden, the first artist to paint tears in the 16th century, who also masterfully conveyed the horror of the end of the world and hell. It was then that I saw a Balenciaga fashion show in which bent-over women paraded through the filthy hellscapes. And soon I saw Jean Paul Gaultier’s show at Paris Fashion Week 2023, designed by the brilliant Haider Ackermann, with silhouettes reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch’s images. That’s how I started putting “pushed to the limit” women dressed in couture, the materialistic uniform of capitalism, into English landscapes that contrasted with them, as if the worst horrors from Heart of Darkness had been placed in the films of Emeric Pressburger.

What does the process of your work look like? Do you first digitally draw the images and then transfer them to canvas?
Asking about working with AI is like asking an alchemist how he melts metals in a crucible. It requires mastery, just as Newton had to first prepare himself ethically and philosophically before mastering alchemy. Using AI is like gazing into one’s personal abyss, like Narcissus gazing into his reflection. By nature, AI is not capable of evaluation: it is up to us and our preferences to choose between options. The whole process is built on repetition. I create a drawing, and the AI interprets it, offering many variations. Then, like a director, I choose among them. It’s like I’m back at that Roman wall in York. I look at AI and I find a lot of borrowing, repetition. There is no autonomy or selfhood in it; it can only be seen as an adept, used to seek but not to create. Then I ponder the translatability between different formats. Most people want to make a mold for a sword, pour the metal inside, hand-sharpen the edge, engrave the inscription, and finally say, “I created this sword.” I, on the other hand, take a different route. My Escalibur is given to me by the Lady of the Lake. Having chosen something I like, I then decide if I want to draw it. At this stage, the idea is put into a digital medium and is already a work of art in itself. It doesn’t need to be transferred to another format – canvas and oil – to increase its value. Transferring a digital work into paint does not make it more “legitimate.” An oil painting is simply an idea presented in a different format, while the medium can be anything. It used to be that the format strongly constrained the artist, it seemed as if the very process of creation predetermined the “painting” DNA.

Do you think AI will become more prevalent in artistic practices in the coming years?
AI is already infiltrating all aspects of our lives: it’s being used in smartphones, in writing letters, in customer service and in art. People used to assume that when AI got to us, it would come after ordinary laborers and truck drivers, then office workers, and only lastly lawyers and creatives. But it happened exactly the opposite… it came for people in the creative professions first. If some artists won’t use AI, that’s fine, no one is forcing them. Andrei Rublev’s icons are still as beautiful today with their lack of perspective, although Renaissance artists switched to using perspective and moved in a different direction. This is how paradigm shifts happen, and we must realize that just because someone participates in a new trend out of curiosity doesn’t mean it’s better. I just got curious and gave it a try – it won’t make my new art better than the old, but it will be exciting and different.

You recently created a series of illustrations based on the collections of various fashion houses. Tell us, would you like to do something in the fashion industry other than illustration?
I see my work as monsters that, like tyrannosaurs, devour everything around them to satisfy their appetite. I’m not interested in “fashion” as such, but in the artists themselves. Haider Ackerman and Jean Paul Gaultier showed everyone that they too are kings of their jungle. So I can imagine myself behind the design of the collections, yes.