Philipp Fürhofer interview: Heart problems haven't stopped painter's ambitions for the top

Painter drew inspiration while spending six months in a Berlin hospital with 'grave' heart problems

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The Independent Online

Descending a steep slope into a painter’s studio seems wrong intuitively.

Painters normally gravitate towards light and height, the antithesis of Philipp Fürhofer’s cave-like space, a former Hells Angels garage, that he found in the Moabit sector of Berlin near to where he was then living. He tells me that the area was never patrician. Home to soldiers  and prisoners it was as proletarian  as it was possible to find in Berlin. “When it rains the biker oil comes up,” he laughs, having replaced  much of it with smears of oil paint from his experimental paintings ranged around the wall.

Fürhofer came to Berlin from Munich in 2001, two days before 9/11. He applied for the School of Fine Arts at the University of Berlin and was accepted and settled in in the city. “Now, I say it is fate. I like Munich but it is not a place to live as an artist.” Fürhofer was born in 1982, in Augsburg, near the Bavarian capital. “I went to Munich at weekends to opera and museums. It was my refuge.”

He initially could not decide whether to pursue a career as a pianist but decided to be an artist when he discovered that he “did not have the necessary performance skills to be a pianist”. Hans Neuenfels, a leading exponent of German experimental theatre, came to see his work while he was a student and asked if he would like to go and work with him.  

Assisting him for two years in Bayreuth and Zurich, he came in contact with world-class singers, going on to make his London Royal Opera debut in 2013 creating set designs for Les Vêpres Siciliennes, directed by Stefan Herheim,

Opera was a release from his art studies. “It was very competitive in my class, super-hard and competitive, and then I met these theatre guys and I liked that energy, doing something together.” He is clear though that he will continue to make his own art while doing his opera projects.

“I am not a set designer. I try and do one or two operas per year.” In  the studio are working models of  the stage projects he is currently working on. “Doing a stage design,  it has to work for three or five hours and it has to work for the whole time. It should not stay the same as it is  so boring.” I am enchanted by these magical mini tableaux that transform in front of my eyes.

Standing in front of his multi-layered art works, he tells me that he was gravely ill with heart problems when he came to Berlin. He spent six months in hospital and it was while lying in bed looking at his X-rays and focusing on their transparency that he started trying to re-create layers of works, building up structures, with light tubes and acetate, painting on the backs of the material creating these complex structures.

With plans for operas in Karlsruhe, Helsinki and Amsterdam in the pipeline, along with a solo show of his paintings at the trendy Galerie Judin next year, he is fully engaged.