Anita Klein: Subject and Style
‘At the sharp point of the living gaze, artistic style and vision of reality are consubstantial; and this oneness does not make the present vision retrench itself behind the world of art, but leads the works of the past back to the present of vision, embodied at this precise moment by one picture or another.’
The subject matter of Anita Klein’s paintings and prints - the life of married love and family, the enthralling banality of the domestic - is so immediately affecting that is easy to underestimate the art that makes it so. For the truth is that subject matter itself cannot ever be the primary agency in the effect of art upon mind, emotion and spirit. The beauty and truth of any true artist’s work lies, precisely, in its art: in the disposition of those means proper to the art to the realisation of the intellectual and emotive effects of the individual work, ‘the one picture or another’. And this is a matter of much more than technique, narrowly conceived; it is the outcome of a distinctive vision of life operating through a formal economy of the means available, which is style. In her recent paintings, Anita Klein has demonstrated a ever-growing mastery of those underlying, essentially abstract, principles that give life to art.
First, however, it was necessary to define a subject and a purpose. Klein achieved this at the moment, when, sometime in the early 1980s, as a student in crisis, she abandoned the abstract painting encouraged by her teachers and began to draw in a diaristic way the everyday activities of her life. (A purely abstract style must, of course, like any other art, have a subject and purpose; the distinction between non-figurative and figurative modes is not at issue here.) As a committed printmaker for many years thereafter, she created and developed an expressive graphic manner that skilfully exploited the strengths of her favoured media, drypoint etching and woodcut. The uneven imprecision and scratchy burr of line characteristic of the former gives the impression a informal immediacy that perfectly suits the intimacy of the imagery; the grainy imprint of the woodcut gives an emphatic physicality to the image, a tactile sensuousness that intensifies mood. Each in their different ways have perfectly suited Klein’s persistent theme.
A crucial discipline of intaglio and relief printmaking alike is that of the formal relation of the image to the given shape and size of the plate or block, and from the beginning, even in her earliest, most cartoonish prints, Klein was acutely sensitive to the dynamic possibilities of that constraining relation. For some years during the ‘80s, the emotive pictorial cramming of German expressionist woodcuts and the marvellous freedom of Picasso’s disposition of figures, faces and profiles in the neo-classical etchings seem to have provided formal models for the graphic treatment of her own small-scale domestic dramas. Later, the morphological abandon of Picasso’s 1932 ‘bathers’ and the monumental classicism of his paintings of 1920-23 were adapted, somewhat reductively, and with remarkable insouciance (chutzpah might be a better word) to the lightness of the quirky personal style of what she has described as her ‘visual diary’.
These knowing and unselfconscious borrowings made it clear that Klein was concerned from the outset, however, with more than the simple record and wryly affectionate celebration of homely incident. Having found her subject, she could thereafter take it for granted; there is, after all, an abundance of daily happenstance. What she personally experiences, seeing and feeling things at the closest quarters, in constant vital contact, is represented in her work through the distancing conventions of an art that has become increasingly sophisticated in its refinement of a highly formalised style. Pierre Schneider’s opposing terms ‘vision of reality’ and ‘artistic style’ (as quoted above) are borrowed from André Malraux, whose thought-provoking distinction is between the everyday perception of the former and the imaginative invention of the latter. This stylising invention in art is almost always (and most certainly in the case of Anita Klein) the consequence of an engagement with earlier art, with Schneider’s ‘works of the past’.
Through the early ‘90s the easy spontaneities of touch and the apparently artless composition - the artful artlessness - that characterised Kein’s earlier printmaking gradually gave way to a more considered formality. It was at this time that the stylising devices and compositional complexity of the classic ukiyo-e Japanese woodblock print became a more insistent presence in the work. Given Klein’s habitual subject, and her evident love and knowledge of historical printmaking, this was perhaps an inevitable development, for ukiyo-e was pre-eminently an art of familiar intimacies, and a great deal of Japanese woodblock printmaking in general was, as a genuinely popular art form, committed to ‘the dailiness of life’, to the depiction of ordinary people doing ordinary things.
The visual impact of Japanese woodblock prints was a function of conventional compositional device: the taking of a dramatic diagonal viewpoint of objects and events; the arbitrary truncation of the image at the framing edge; the compressed energy of complex curving linearity contained by the straight edges and corners of the rectangle. The effect is often as if the viewer were actually within the pictured event. (In erotic prints this dynamic has an added charge.) Klein was already predisposed to incorporate these elements into the present world of her vision.
If I have concentrated so far on the development of the graphic work it is because printmaking remains central to Klein’s artistic life, and has provided conceptual and formal materials for her recent painting, which has assimilated each of those stylistic elements I have touched upon so far, and extended them in ways that only painting could have made possible. As with her prints, the paintings have moved progressively towards a greater simplicity of forms, towards a more extreme stylisation of figure, facial feature, costume and object. Her figures inhabit the enclosed theatre of the pictorial, their forms deployed, often contorted and folded, against the confines of the support edges, their cups, wine glasses, shoes, books and umbrellas are props, simple signifiers of actuality, attributes of domesticity.
Colour has brought its own emphatic music to this process of abstract simplification: the direct decorative colour of Matisse and Beckmann, a sign for colour in nature rather than a representation of the complex colours of nature itself. Tone still plays a part, in the stylised modelling of figure and face, but it is the tonality that establishes monumental mass and the shadow and light of the mask rather than that which creates the illusion of naturalistic form and of physiognomic feature in perspectival space. Colour and pattern - whether of a dress or swimsuit, of the green leaves in the garden background, of the tiles on a bathroom floor - are intrinsic to the design of the painting as an object in itself, subordinate to the requirements of pictorial economy rather than to the realistic demands of literal report. Depth in the paintings is shallow, and figures and objects are pressed against the frontal plane, and laterally confined at the edge which gives the support its shape.
This perhaps explains Klein’s preference for board rather than canvas: leaving aside the emotive historical baggage that the canvas brings with it as the favoured support of diverse species of historical naturalism, its weave and snag have been valued for their textural collusion with an expressive mark-making in which Klein shows no interest. Board is by its nature flat, neutral and inexpressive as a support. It takes colour and painted shape literally as surface: what we see is, so to speak, on the face of it; it has thus the blankness of a wall. Expression in these paintings comes from pure colour and linear division, rhythm and rhyme, repetition and reversal: these are the geometric values of an art of design as opposed to a painterly art of texture, fusion and kinesis.
Those values of disegno - line and division, pure colour planes, formal pattern and interval - are those of the great mural painting of the early renaissance - the art of Giotto, Piero della Francesco and Masaccio - that Klein reveres above all others, and to which she has paid the closest attention. Like theirs, hers is an art of stillness, of action caught and suspended in the transfiguring moment. In the latest paintings this is more so than ever. Consider the girl lying spot-lit in darkness, the dazzling pattern of her magenta zigzag dress in visual counter-dynamic to the dominant diagonal, its pattern as flat as a Matisse wallpaper, and her figure a rising composition of geometric planes; or the pattern created by linear divisions of surface in Tea After School, with its half bright, half dark rhyming trio of poised ellipses across the top of the containing rectangle; or the rhythm, counter rhythm and reverse rhyming of forms and colours against the emphatic geometric support of the three-part The Spider, its centre panel organised as spiral and counter-spiral around a moment of perfect dramatic stillness.
These are the elements of abstract style, the components of the formal economy to which I referred at the outset. They are to be found in some of the most optimistic art of twentieth century modernism (in much of Picasso, in Léger and Matisse among figurative artists, in Theo van Doesberg, Ben Nicholson, Ellsworth Kelly among abstractionists), and also in the quattrocento modernism that placed such revolutionary value upon the depiction of ordinary men and women in extraordinary circumstances, conferring dignity upon them by abstract formalities of figuration and placement. Klein puts these grand principles of ‘artistic style’ to work in the transformation of the South London quotidian, creating out of household events and holiday pleasures images of a resonant contemporary myth of love.
Mel Gooding April 2006
Pierre Schneider is quoted from ‘At the Louvre with Giacometti’ in Encounter, March 1966. Schneider acknowledges in a footnote the borrowing of terms from Malraux’s theory of art.
‘the dailiness of life’ is a phrase from ‘Well Water’, a poem by Randall Jarrell.