Mushrooms as big as penises, vulnerable heads in alabaster and mushroom threads like artistic miniatures of oil paint. Different in form and language, as a way of life. “The urge to experiment never goes away,” says artist Sofie Muller.
The large entrance to the annex studio of Sofie Muller’s house in Ghent is impressive. Own sculptures are stylishly packed with antique statues. It betrays the origin of the artist. ‘I come from a family of antique dealers. My grandmother and my parents owned an antique store. I also worked for that, and my brother took over the business. That background certainly plays a role in my art, which has a classical component. I also do not like the strict separation of ancient art and contemporary art. For me they form an organic whole.’
What she means by this can be seen in the exhibition ‘Alabaster’ in Museum M in Leuven. It presents an overview of alabaster works of art between the 14th and 17th centuries, complemented by weathered alabaster heads by Muller. It is a difficult material for contemporary artists. ‘How many times have I had to hear: alabaster is a flutter. Something for hobbyists, not real artists. Of course, that is not correct. I used to see some alabaster statues in my parent’s shop. Some were full of cracks and fissures. Often they were poorly restored. It just made them expressive.’
Sophie Müller (48)
- Born in 1974 in Sint-Niklaas.
- Studied painting at the Royal Academy of Arts in Antwerp. She then followed a course in graphics and sculpture in Ghent.
- Gave long lessons at Sint-Lucas in Ghent.
- Has been represented in Belgium for 17 years by the Antwerp gallery Geukens & De Vil. Internationally, she works with Gallery Fox Jensen from, among other places, Sydney and New Zealand.
‘Alabaster’ is one of three institutional exhibitions of Muller’s works that can be visited. “It happened by chance because of the corona pandemic, which messed up the schedule.” She is happy about that, because while she has often exhibited in foreign museums, it did not happen here. ‘And certainly not in museums of contemporary art.’
She hesitates to finish her speech. It is sensitive. “I am not the only one who questions the choices made by some museum directors. We are not chauvinistic enough in Flanders. It’s different in France, you know. The museums and art festivals overflow with French artists. Sometimes it seems that you have to come mainly from abroad to the Flemish museums. So it’s a bit of a disappointment, yes. She lives with a lot mid-career artists.’
Muller followed a classical painting course at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. ‘My parents saw me more as a nurse, but I suited that. I was far too creative for that. In the end, they agreed to the art course. Becoming an artist was not immediately an option for them. Too uncertain. My parents were business people. They like certainties’.
It took years before Muller fully chose art. ‘I immediately started teaching at Sint-Lucas in Ghent. After a few years I felt like I couldn’t use my creativity anywhere. My fellow students from Antwerp made a fast career and I was stuck. Then I started studying sculpture and graphics. It was a difficult period, but not necessarily bad. It forces you to make clear choices for yourself.’
Muller stopped teaching 17 years ago and has been working on his career ever since. Emphasis is placed on sculpture, but she also does a lot of work on paper. Her photos show a lot of vulnerability and memory.
Muller describes himself as an introvert. But in her art, she is a master at creating dialogue with the viewer.
Light never shines in the eyes of her head. “The gaze is inward, not outward,” she says. Sometimes her pictures are processed with smoke, other times she paints with blood. Muller does not make art out of nothing, but gives the tradition a personal and contemporary interpretation. She says about herself that she is introverted. But in her art, she is a master at creating dialogue with the viewer.
Muller’s 18th-century house, once inhabited by neo-Gothic architect Jean-Baptiste Charles de Bethune, the founder of Sint-Lucas in Ghent, resembles a mini-museum. Rooms filled with beautiful art, by her and by other artists. “I live in my own paradise,” she says.
Marjan Doom, curator of Ghent University Museum (GUM), came up with the idea for the exhibition ‘Phallus’. Muller has long collected mushroom models that closely resemble male genitalia. ‘Marjan saw some of those models in my studio. She asked if I wanted to continue working on it. Of course I would have that.’ Hidden among plants and trees, Muller placed 14 cabinets with small models in the greenhouses of the GUM botanical garden. The eye first falls on ‘Phallus impudicus’, an enlarged image of a ‘shameless’ mushroom that leaves little to the imagination.
‘When I started it I was asking for advice left and right. Women said keep it small and modest. Men said: it can’t be big enough. I thought that was funny’.
Muller’s interest in mushrooms and fungi is closely related to her search for the building blocks of life. She shows this at the group exhibition ‘Finis Terrae’ in Antwerp. In the Museum Plantin-Moretus, she shows anatomical images of fungi and hyphae, each of them beautifully painted miniatures. “For billions of years, fungal filaments have formed a network that forms the basis of all life on Earth,” she says.
The search for knowledge is a constant. “I feel like the eternal student. At 80, I still want to learn. I deliberately take time for that. Making art means an endless journey of discovery for me. For the next two months I will immerse myself in oil painting. I lost touch with that somewhere along the way.’
2023 will be the year of public contracts for Muller. ‘I designed a monumental installation for the new hospital ZNA in Antwerp. I can’t say much about it yet, but I’m very happy with it. The work must be fully located in March 2023 and it will be inaugurated in September. I made two sculptures for Alexianen Tienen, a psychiatric center for young people. They are a continuation of the bronze series from 2011. Public tasks are important to me. This is done by people who rarely come into contact with art’.
“My 16-year-old daughter keeps my feet on the ground,” says Muller. “But otherwise I recognize a lot of myself in her. She is very creative, even though she takes science and mathematics. Can she become an artist? She can be whatever she wants. But you cannot decide to become an artist, it is in your genes. I strongly believe in the usefulness of an art education, even if you don’t use it professionally later on. An art education broadens one’s view of the world.’
I ask her if she feels the best is yet to come in her career. – At 48, I no longer have the energy I had ten years ago. But I am much more deliberate and selective about what I want to do. We’ll see how it continues. I don’t have many obligations to other people. I don’t run a studio with multiple people working for me. My own place and my solitude. I don’t need any more.’
‘Alabaster’ in M Leuven and ‘Finis Terrae’ in Antwerp run until February 26. ‘Phallus’ runs until April 16 in GUM, Ghent.