|Interview with Anita Klein by Pure Arts 2012
I was born in Sydney, Australia. There were no artists in my family as far as I know but Paula Rego was a visiting tutor when I was at the Slade and she was very encouraging to me, especially as figurative work was extremely unfashionable at the time (and still is) so perhaps she was a main influence.
Now I have a studio near London Bridge but I also paint in my studio in Italy for one week every month. I make my prints in London and I paint in Italy. The business side of what I do happens in London. I am very lucky that I make a living out of my work, but the downside of this is that I have to spend a lot of time on admin and other mundane aspects of running your own business. In Italy I am free of that. I put a line through one week every month in my diary and go to Italy, usually alone. There I have time to dream, play, experiment and take risks with my work. It is a great luxury and extremely productive. I feel that one thing an artist really needs is a peaceful and happy home life, so you can concentrate on your work and not on other problems.
I studied painting at the Slade for my degree then did an MA in printmaking. Those were the days of no fees and full grants, so amazingly I had seven years to experiment with being an artist and to find a way of working that was really mine, and that was fulfilling for me rather than just fashionable or for other people’s approval. I am lucky that I started to sell some work while I was still a student, and managed to make a living from selling my work from quite early on.
I was very surprised to sell all the work in my postgraduate exhibition at the Slade and I was offered a show by a London gallery. I was married (to Nigel Swift, a fellow Slade student) and pregnant with my first child when I left the Slade. We lived for a while on the proceeds of my Slade show and we both taught art part-time in adult education.
Then Nigel got a job as a runner for a film company and I combined staying at home with our baby with making pictures when I could – on the living room floor in our council flat while the baby was asleep, and I also continued with the teaching, taking the baby with me. As I said, a London gallery had offered me a solo exhibition, and because I had sold my student work, I knew I had a year to fill a gallery, which was a great incentive to carry on working.
I didn’t have a studio – no facilities or equipment, and very little time, so I had to simplify the way I worked, particularly to make prints. I made drypoint etchings at home which I printed at an evening class once a week.
My first show was a success and I was offered another one a year later in a different gallery. Meanwhile I had been approached by four or five galleries who had seen my work at the Slade or in group shows and they began to sell my prints. By then I was also pregnant again with our second daughter. My intention was always to return to part-time teaching when my youngest child went to nursery, but by the time she was three I was earning more by selling my prints than I could have by part time teaching. And by the time she went to school I was earning more than I could have by full-time teaching. So it all just snowballed really. I feel that I was lucky to have those early years not expecting myself to make much money because I was looking after babies full-time. We lived very frugally, but that was fine. I could combine making pictures with bringing up my children so I have never had a ‘proper job’. My children always laughed at me when I said that I was working. To them I just seemed to be sitting on the floor covered in charcoal. But I am extremely fortunate never to have had to work for someone else.
My art is for anyone who likes it. I do it because I enjoy it and feel the need to do it to stay sane, because it gives other people pleasure and because it pays the mortgage. In that order. I’ll leave the art historians to decide if there are underlying meanings in it. I want to celebrate life in my work, particularly small, ordinary moments and intimate relationships. The starting points might be pushing past my husband to get to the bathroom mirror, having breakfast with my family, having a cup of tea with my daughters, watching Holby City with a glass of wine or more often these days a solitary walk in the beautiful Tuscan countryside.
I don’t think that art should need to be explained in words. If my pictures don’t communicate without a commentary then they are not good enough. Having said that, after working for thirty years, I can look back at my work and see it a bit from the outside. Therefore I can tell you some things I think it is about – but I would much prefer that you had your own story. I think we all have a lot in common and the people who like my work see themselves and their lives in it. I don’t want you to think you have a picture of me on your wall, I’d much rather you felt that it was you. What I feel I want to do is celebrate ordinariness, I want to celebrate the poetry of the everyday. The things we are all too busy to notice.
I paint in oils and acrylic and I use a variety of printmaking methods, chosen for the different types of mark made possible in each one. My favourites are drypoint etching, woodcut and linocut. I like simple methods with the minimum of technical interference between the drawing and the finished result, and I will use any materials that work to make the image look how I want it to look. Unlike many printmakers I’m not really interested in techniques, unless they are a means to draw better. I usually print the first ten or so prints in an edition to try out the colours and the drawing. When I’m happy with the way a print looks, my prints are editioned by Sanju Mathew.
My work has changed in style gradually over the years. Style is not something you invent. It is just how it comes out for you. For a long time I did very autobiographical, prosaic pictures of my children and husband at home. I am still doing that, but during the last seven years my work has become more fanciful and dream-like. This is the influence of the Italian week each month. Being there is like a retreat, and after a week on your own you get a bit weird. I try not to censor what I paint and if I have an idea for a painting, I have time to make myself try everything. Pictures that happen there are a bit further from prosaic reality. I roll them up and bring them back to London, and when I open them I am quite often surprised – like when you wake up from a dream and wonder “why did I dream that?”
I like stories and fairytales. They say something very deep to all of us. But my pictures don’t have a story. They come out non-verbally from a place in me that doesn’t think in words. I can’t tell you why I painted a woman collecting stars in her skirt and I’m very happy for people who look at my pictures to see their own stories in them. But the essence of what makes me want to paint is the very small things in life that we don’t appreciate enough. When I go to Italy I’m able to stop and hear the grass grow, and notice small things. That is very important.
I grew up with a very strong sense of possibility of everything being taken away. I am Jewish and my father’s family lived in Eastern Europe during the war so they lost everything. I remember as a child being very aware of how I would feel if everything were taken away from me suddenly: my family, my home, my daily life. I still have that awareness everyday, and I know that what I would miss are the very small things like having breakfast with my family, cleaning our teeth together… not holidays or birthdays or the photo-album version of life. Not the things we record but things that go past, slip through our fingers, things we don’t manage to enjoy. I hope my work touches people in a way and that makes them appreciate the everyday.
I believe art should be beautiful. That’s very unfashionable at the moment. Students in particular often want to know where the angst and unhappiness are in my work. I think we all have difficulties and life is not easy, but I want to hold onto the things to celebrate. I’m not trying to deny pain, but I think we all are incredibly lucky in the lives that we have. Beauty is a gift to all of us. I have been very inspired throughout my career by early Italian renaissance painting fresco painting. Those are the pictures that I find most beautiful. They hit me in a way that I can’t explain. I can feel moved to tears and ideally I would like my work to be beautiful like that. It’s what I’m striving for – a balance that feels calming to look at, but like Giotto or Piero della Francesca, includes the viewer by conferring dignity and beauty on the ordinary and depicting it as miraculous.
Composition, by which I mean the design of the picture, where it begins and ends at the edges, and the shapes that make up the image, is extremely important to me. The more tightly and carefully designed the internal space is, the less fleeting and more of an object the painting becomes. When I draw as preparation for a print or painting I use an eraser as much as I use a pencil, constantly correcting until I feel everything settle into a stillness, a bit like putting the last piece in a jigsaw. I don't expect people to necessarily notice this about my work; I want it to seem simple. But I do hope that my quest for pictorial harmony means that people feel soothed and calmed by the end result.