No British artist has more thoroughly explored the female experience of family in the past 30 years than Anita Klein. A penniless London art student in the 1970s, she found she was pregnant the day she was offered a lucrative job with Good Housekeeping magazine. Klein turned down the offer even though she and her husband, Nigel, had no work and ever since that day family has been the subject of her art.
Two daughters and a grandchild later she sees her life as having come full circle (the title of her new exhibition in London). Klein’s first prints and drawings were of herself and her daughter, Maia, as mother and baby. Now, 1,500 prints and many paintings later, she is for the first time portraying Maia and her daughter as mother and baby.
At first Klein’s work was deeply unfashionable. Small moments like bath-time with two splashing children and a glass of wine waiting, or ironing with the television on in the background were not what art, let alone “women’s art”, were supposed to be about in the 1980s. Klein was aware of this and yet, to her surprise, she soon found she could earn more from printmaking than teaching or any other career that would have required taking on childcare.
By sticking to the subject of motherhood and domesticity, and to her small cast of family characters – daughters Maia and Leila, a few girlfriends and her husband Nigel – she has created a following. “I seem to have tapped into the zeitgeist,” she says in her Bermondsey studio. “Especially for young working women at the moment, who all suddenly seem inspired by my stubborn pig-headed determination to stay at home with my babies and turn it into a career!”
Now 55, Klein is a small, energetic woman who is clearly driven. Her own persona in the pictures is benign and serene, the thoughtful mother of daughters and the indulgent lover of “Nige”. But that woman is too dreamy to produce 25 original prints and 30 original oil paintings every year. While her own family life does seem as happy as the pictures suggest, Klein’s journey has been long and difficult.
At the age of 11, Klein, freshly arrived in London from Australia, was making pavement art outside Hampstead tube station to raise money to support her younger sister. Or that was how she saw it.
“When I was 11, my parents divorced – rather suddenly in my eyes – and my mother left Australia and took me and my sister to London. It was a sudden break from my father, extended family and friends. I did feel quite fragile and disorientated, especially as we had no network of family and friends here, and a divorced mother in the early 1970s did not fit easily into social circles. “So we were quite isolated as well as financially insecure. My mother was very young at the time and as the eldest child I felt keenly aware, maybe unrealistically, that if anything happened to her I would need to take charge.
“I used to worry that I didn’t know anyone in London to turn to and I didn’t even know how to make a long-distance phone call to Australia. Soon after arriving in London I remember taking some coloured chalks and drawing outside the tube station to collect for money, which I stashed away in case we needed it for food. I was probably wildly overestimating our insecurity, but I did feel very worried and as if the buck stopped with me.”
It was the acute absence of a secure family life that made Klein create a family of her own and in due course celebrate it in her art.
“My father is Hungarian Jewish and grew up in Timisoara, Romania. His family were extremely lucky to have survived there but, inevitably, life was hard and precarious and close family members died. Things got even worse for Jews when the communists took over. My father, with his parents and his orphaned teenaged cousin, escaped, first to Israel then to Australia.
“Like all Jewish children of my age, I grew up with the war and the Holocaust as a very strong background presence, although I remember when they spoke of lost relatives, conversations were always in Hungarian. And when particular names were mentioned, my grandmother would cry. I suppose that left me from a very early age wondering how it would feel to lose your home, family and ordinary life.”
Klein grew up ambitious and driven. At the age of 17 she went to Italy with a list of paintings she intended to sketch. In 1979, she enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art where she met her husband, Nigel, and was mentored by the Portuguese artist Paula Rego, but she found herself out of step with the abstract art expected of her. It was a notebook of drawings of her daily life that saved her from giving up art altogether. “It was Paula who encouraged me to draw what I wanted to draw.”
And so it was at the age of 25 that Klein – married, pregnant and unemployed – began making prints at home about her life and eventually about her role as wife and mother. Her subject matter has always been small moments: being besieged by two children wanting hugs at the swimming pool, mending a daughter’s teddy bear, choosing a guinea pig, driving young girls to ballet, a first day at school – but for all their apparent simplicity (for many years Klein’s figures simply had dots for eyes) they capture the rich essence of a minor domestic moment. Nigel in his boxer shorts catching an escaped mouse in the kitchen is hardly even a story, but with the two daughters clinging to their mother, it encapsulates the family dynamic and elevates the quotidian to an art form.
Family in Klein’s pictures is almost exclusively nuclear. There are virtually no pictures that include her parents or sister or indeed Nigel’s family. This was not a deliberate decision. “Generally the pictures are confined to intimate day-to-day life so unless I am actually sharing a kitchen and bathroom with someone, they don’t feature.”
Klein admits it may also have its roots in her attempt to create a happy family for herself: “I’m celebrating my precious little family unit.”
There is one other aspect of family life that she depicts explicitly. Her relationship with the ever amiable Nigel is celebrated in pictures such as Nige Gets his Legover, Nige Gets in my Bath, Without my Nightie, and Hotel Room Paris. But the two worlds only intermittently overlap. Although Nigel sits with the daughters (on the bath, at the breakfast table, in front of the television) and does useful things (catching pets and making apple crumble), he isn’t depicted doing the child-rearing. Daddy’s Home is a joyous bathroom scene with his smiling face coming round the door, but only Klein is in charge of the splashing daughters.
She admits that this reflects the reality of their family life: “Nigel did not really do much day-to-day childcare. We were very Janet and John! Not because he was unwilling – although he is useless at night and never seemed to hear them wake up – but we were very young when our babies were born and he had to work very long hours out of the house. I had never had a career to give up, and I threw myself enthusiastically into home and childcare, using nap times to draw when they were babies, and school hours to paint as they grew up. This sounds very old-fashioned by today’s standards, but it worked for us.”
That is the beauty of Klein’s life and her art. Painting and drawing only what concerned her and devoting herself to being a mother, wife and artist has created not just an extraordinary body of work that will tell future generations what it was like to have a family at the beginning of the 21st century, but also a happy family life – the life she yearned for when at the age of 11 she drew on those London pavements.
Anita Klein: Full Circle, New Paintings is at Eames Fine Art Gallery, London SE1, from 11 November to 6 December.
Anita Klein will be hosting a private view of Full Circle at Eames Fine Art Gallery on Wednesday 25 November, exclusively for Guardian Members. Book your tickets at membership.theguardian.com.