Anita Klein's work is about painting the perfect painting in the knowledge that this is impossible. This is no fool's errand. It is what drives her work and has done for the past forty years. It is the key to understanding the astonishing creative drive of this most prolific, beloved and constantly interesting of artists. The results of this quest are countless beautiful works that have found a happy place on thousands of walls throughout a career of enduring popularity, relevance and excellence.
With Water, her latest show that it has been our pleasure to host in the gallery for the last three weeks, Anita has found yet another impossible challenge to grapple with. "Water is so damn difficult," she readily admits, adding, "I don't want to paint what it looks like, I want to paint what it feels like." A difficult assignment indeed and surely one better suited to a practitioner of abstraction rather than this famously figurative painter. One would expect that such a task would require a different set of tools, a fresh approach, a reinvention of technique.
The Grebe | Acrylic on canvas, 2020
Into the Lake I Acrylic on canvas, 2019
On one obvious level, Water provides plenty of evidence of this. There is a new and exciting visual language at play here. Anita's familiar, hard-edged, precise 'disegno' has been softened to an extent by the demands of this infuriating, fluid subject. Gentle veils of green and aquamarine in The Grebe and The Beautiful Water compete for attention with the fluttering brush strokes of Nel Fiume and Into the Lake, while the writhing ochres, reds and blacks of Reflections in the Dock and Royal Docks Swim, provide a subtle counterpoint to the almost sculptural rendering of the current in Treading Water and the superb In the Lake. Water is an ever-changing, lively and forceful personality in this show and Anita has conducted a fascinating duel with this mercurial protagonist with relish.
In the Lake I Acrylic on canvas, 2019
So far, so straightforward. A new challenge naturally requires new tools and we would expect an artist of Anita's calibre to fashion them without too much difficulty. Anyone who has followed Anita's career will know that through a fertile dialogue between printmaking and painting she has cultivated a myriad of mark making. It is a formidable arsenal and Anita has always had the confidence to use it. The important point to make is that Anita manages to do this while retaining a convincing sense of self. This is not mimicry of a borrowed art historical language, there is no pastiche Impressionism here. Anita is too good an artist to fall into this trap. Each of these new paintings, while charting ambitious new territory is still definitively and reassuringly an Anita Klein.
So much for the appearance of things. Where these paintings succeed in Anita's stated aim of capturing the feeling of water is by exploring the contrast of two sensory realms to suggest the visceral experience of water, or more accurately, swimming. Anita has spoken vividly of how swimming underwater, whether in the dreamlike embrace of a Tuscan pool or the inky depths of a lake, river or dock, lulls the senses and therefore makes the visual riot of reflections of buildings, the warmth of sunshine or the chill Cumbrian breeze all the more intense when returning to the surface. It is a sensation that any swimmer can relate to and sensory excitement is palpable in these paintings. One of my favourite canvases in the show, Swimming in the Rain (the subject is also interpreted in the remarkable screenprint Rain on the Lake) is described by Anita as a cherished memory of a 'peak life experience' and it takes its place among a series of works that capture beautifully the exhilaration of senses coming alive, of life being lived intensely. It is one of the achievements of this show that Anita has been able to share this feeling with us so generously.
Rain on the Lake I Screenprint, 2020
There is a heightened emotional pitch here, therefore, but its roots go deeper than the excitement of being in the water. Inevitably, these works have been shaped by the events of this year, by months of lockdown and dislocation. Of course, for a time, Anita was denied the opportunity to swim at all this year. Travel to Italy was impossible, pools, lidos and gyms were closed. It is possible to detect a sense of yearning, of loss in some of these works. Paintings such as The Beautiful Water hint at an anxiety about a ritual pleasure that has been suddenly snatched away. Are these paintings about swimming surrogates for swimming itself perhaps? Furthermore, as this subject has come to dominate Anita's work, it is tempting to see these paintings as a metaphor for how she has been living this year. Intense, anxious, meditative, introspective and solitary. It is telling that Anita mostly depicts herself alone in these waters without the usual cast of characters that inhabit her works alongside her - husband, children, grandchildren. A poignant reminder of a year lived like no other.
The Beautiful Water I Acrylic on canvas, 2020
But surely this is to be expected from an artist whose emotional world will always find expression in her work. Painting for Anita is her way of making sense of the world, of representing it, interpreting it, distilling its most cherished moments and then sharing them with us. Without wishing to push the metaphorical thesis too far, water is the perfect subject for Anita. Her intention has always been to capture fleeting, elusive memories before they slip through her fingers. Her ability to communicate this in a way that resonates and connects with so many people, to transform the personal into the universal is a fundamental reason for her enduring appeal.
Water is a compelling reminder of the core principles of Anita's work and has provided the inspiration for some of her finest paintings to date. Perfection may have to wait but in the meantime, this beautiful, moving and irresistibly human show will more than suffice.
Vincent Eames, October 2020