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The aquatic theme of this exhibition was partially arrived at when Anita Klein was awarded the 2020/21 ‘Printmaker of the Year’ prize at Printfest, the renowned annual print festival based in Cumbria. This award includes a residency in Ulverston in the Lake District and a commissioned print based on the local area. The resulting piece was the linocut Into Lake Windermere, which captures in sensuous blues and greens the rolling hills of the countryside that mirror the ripples of the body of water in which the figure swims.
While this prize may have spurred the creation of some of the works in this show, swimming and water are not new artistic interests for Anita. When the ‘Printmaker of the Year’ prize was awarded, Anita was already working on paintings and prints based on her experiences of wild swimming in Lake Lucerne in Switzerland and in the river Tiber in Tuscany. Anita has been in love with the sensations of swimming, particularly its meditative quality, since childhood. She grew up in Australia, where she honed her swimming skills in an Olympic sized outdoor pool, in rivers, dams, and the sea. Once she moved to London aged eleven, she spent her summers in the Parliament Hill Lido and could be found swimming outside whenever she was able.
Swimming was made difficult in March 2020 because of the lockdown. Initially unable to visit Italy, as she does regularly, and unable to swim in lidos or even travel around England very easily, Anita found another solution: she discovered a group of swimmers at the Royal Docks in East London. “Even though this year has been weird and terrible”, she says, “the experience of swimming in the Thames has been a lifesaver.” The linocut Reflections in the Dock and the painting Royal Docks Swim capture this specific experience from a very odd year, while also remaining – as Anita’s works always do – relatable to the lives of a wide audience.
The subject of bathers appears often throughout art history. Famous paintings on this topic usually depict multiple people within or around a body of water and this is a more typical subject, historically, than the individual swimmer. One of the most famous of these works is Paul Cézanne’s The Large Bathers of 1898. In contrast to Anita’s work, this painting is more concerned with formal elements, like the triangular composition of the women and the water, rather than how these women interact with the water next to them and how this water makes them feel, both emotionally and physically. Anita’s water paintings and prints play upon the history of swimming and bathing as a subject in art but speak more to the interiority of the swimming experience. Perhaps a better comparison might be made with Duncan Grant’s Bathing from 1901, originally painted as a mural for the Borough Polytechnic in London and now held in the Tate collection. While there may appear to be seven nude men diving and swimming in this work, one analysis of the piece suggests that the scene is actually a depiction of one single person diving into, moving through, and then emerging out of a body of water. This is the feeling that Anita captures in her works, but the sensation is embodied in just one autobiographical figure. Both Duncan Grant and Anita Klein depict water in a way that captures its movement and its varying hues, and this contributes to the feeling of a body moving through water. The ribbons of colour in Anita’s paintings like Reflections in the Dock and Treading Water are more than just strips of blue or green or grey. They suggest subtle sliding movements that disturb the surface of the water but bring peace to the swimmer.
In these works Anita clearly conveys what she wants people to see in her art: “the physical feeling of my favourite moments…. the experiences that literally slip through my fingers”. In this new body of work, the passing of time is succinctly symbolised by the movement of water, something that never stays in one place for more than a moment. To show this type of motion, Anita has “had to invent a completely new visual language… to paint the feel of water in all its guises”. She had to do this in order to express how she really felt while having what she calls “peak life experiences”: the bodily sensation of swimming in the rain, the silence of swimming in the wilderness, and the joy of a cool pool on a hot day. This slippery feeling of water, and time, passing through one’s fingers is deftly depicted in Anita’s new paintings Swimming in the Rain and Swimming in Lake Windemere. In these pieces, the figure’s hands glide through the silky water that is either disturbed by droplets of rain or only by the body slicing through it. This intangible moment, sliding through the water’s surface, is gone before one even realises that it is happening.
The curved and fractured body that hides just beneath the surface of the water - portrayed beautifully in Anita’s painting Treading Water, among others - shows how we can become a new person through this transformative experience of swimming, whether that be in a pool, at the beach, or in a silent lake in the mountains. This experience is meditative for Anita:
“Especially in open water swimming, when underwater is darkness, the water surface is an abstract pattern of light, and all you can hear is your own breathing and the splashing water. Thoughts come and go but often the sensory experience is all that fills my head, and time passes with no self-conscious awareness. Modern life gives us so few opportunities to be so truly alone with no external interference. Life used to be much more boring when I was growing up - we had far fewer distractions to fill our empty moments. And I’m sure that it was those boring empty times that were the real fuel for creativity as well as the moments that taught us to enjoy our own company.”
This act of pausing just for the sake of calm and reflection, and to invite creativity, is a continuity between Anita’s newest water-inspired works and those that show her interactions with her family. It has been said before that Anita’s paintings and prints are about the fleeting moment: the one that we don’t appreciate until it has passed. Her work makes us stop to really notice and fully understand that these times are special – and that they can easily slip through our fingers, like water. We can see the combination of these two loves of Anita’s life in paintings like Betty Jumping In or First Time in the Sea. The chance to swim in wild water, or to visit a lido with your friends or family, was made even more precious in the months since lockdown. These are the instances – of touch, of socialisation, and of normal activity – that we must savour all the more intensely during the best of times, so that we can lean back on our memories during the worst.
Christine Slobogin, September 2020