Dimensions: 210 x 210
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Together, the title of Anita Klein’s current exhibition, speaks very particularly to this moment in time. It marks the end of the third national lockdown, the opportunity to see art again in person and a special collaboration between Watts Contemporary Gallery and Eames Fine Art, who have represented Klein for over twenty years.
Bringing together paintings, prints and works on paper, some from Klein’s archive and many new works exhibited for the first time, Together reflects on Klein’s experience of the last year, the separation from her family and friends and joy of seeing them again. In her own words, ‘the pandemic changed all of our lives, making my obsession with capturing what I would miss if my ordinary life were somehow taken away, relevant to everyone. My work is a visual diary and a way of counting my blessings, especially for family, friends and intimate relationships. This past year ‘what I would miss’ has been thrown into sharp focus as ‘what I am missing’ - closeness to my grown-up children and grandchildren in particular. Together is an exhibition about that closeness that we treasure and previously took for granted, as we all take a few tentative steps back into normality’.
Although the themes of family and friendship have dominated Klein’s artistic output for the last thirty years, in this exhibition there is a particular focus on works that explore touch, affection and the intimacy of sharing your space with others. There are numerous works showing figures embracing one another - the tender clasp of a parent and child in Fathers and Daughters (2020, p. 24); of siblings in Grown up Daughters (2013, p. 31), a reworking of the classical trope The Three Graces; lovers in Anniversary (2018) and in a recent work, Hugging the Children (2021, p. 6), where we see Klein kneeling down to envelop her grandchildren after time apart, an image about ‘that special feeling of their little bodies and their arms around my neck’. As with all of Klein’s works, these are personal memories but made familiar, given a collective identity.
This idea is also reinforced through Klein’s extraordinary handling of composition and scale. Tea for Three (2020, p. 17) depicts Klein with her granddaughter Betty playing with a children’s tea set and wearing party hats. Almost embryonic, the figure’s legs are placed close to the picture plane, a loop of objects and limbs, the limits of the pictorial space reduced to child’s height. In a later reiteration, Tea for Two (2020), an exquisite work on paper, the figures are nestled inside a curved frame, a hiding place perhaps. Against the acid green background, there is nothing to distinguish time or place; this mother and child are lost in their shared imaginary moment. The composition of this particular work recalls that of Fra Filippo Lippi’s panel painting of The Annunciation (c.1450-3), now in the National Gallery, its arcing form dictated by its function as a door panel. In both works, light radiates from the figure’s faces, heads are bowed in acceptance and gifts of love are exchanged.
Klein has always been inspired by the work of early Italian Renaissance artists, stating ‘Those are the pictures that I find most beautiful. They hit me in a way that I can’t explain and I often feel moved to tears looking at them. I want my works to be as beautiful. What I’m always striving for is a balance - works that feel calming to look at, but like a Giotto or Piero della Francesca, also include the viewer by conferring dignity and beauty on the ordinary and depicting it as miraculous.’
This reverence for the everyday is made clear in a series of five monochrome prints that Klein calls ‘lockdown linos’, made during the last unprecedented 12 months. Each one has an economy of line and its design is driven by pattern and structure - stars and spots on clothing, hair and noses, the outline of rippling water or a flickering candle. There is a particular tactility that reminds us of the printmaking medium itself. In these works, the landscape format also recalls predella panels from a Renaissance altarpiece. They are of celebratory moments - busy scenes of family members gathered around the kitchen table, as in Passover (2020) and Family Birthday (2020, p. 25) - and deep contentment, as seen in Family Gathering (2020, p. 25) and Watching Maisy with Lo (2020, p. 9). Each narrative tableau provides further exposition for Klein’s larger works.
In this exhibition, Klein also reminds us of her dazzling facility with colour and form. In her large-scale paintings, her palette shifts from electric blues and sea greens to deep reds and umbers, each colour an anchor point for the composition itself. In Scooting by the River (2021, p. 13), a work about the ‘wonder of meeting up outside once it became legal’, we see the irrepressible joy of this reunion mirrored in the sparkling waters behind. Swimming, a recurring subject in Klein’s work - and the theme of her recent exhibition Water (2020) at Eames Fine Art - features in numerous works. In the Lake (2019, p. 27) features glossy lines demarcated in white and gold, transforming the surface of the print into something mesmeric. Klein describes a revelatory moment in this work, of finding yourself in harmony with each other and with the world at large.
We also see this in Planting Seedlings (2020, p. 5), a large-scale painting about the first lockdown when Klein was caring for her granddaughter Lois, whilst her baby sister was being born. ‘This was an intense time, not only because my daughter was in labour with my fourth grandchild, but also because I was not able to see anyone else, not even my other grandchildren. Lois and I spent those intense sunny days planting vegetable seeds in her small garden’. Klein responds to this memory with a tenderness - there is a softness in the treatment of her figures, faces are contoured in buttery yellows and pinks, a tonal palette of greens reminding us of renewal and growth. A reminder that for many of us, nature in lockdown was a source of joy and peace.
Together feels more timely and resonant than ever. Anita Klein’s works are beautifully considered, brimming with warmth and each one tells a story about the togetherness we have been longing for. Klein writes, ‘All these works are precious to me. They are fleeting reminders of moments and memories I’ve shared with my children and grandchildren, and my incredible good fortune to be able to share in them. The show is a celebration of what makes me happy and I hope it encourages visitors to be reminded of their own treasured relationships’. Whilst we have all experienced something unforgettable in the last year, Klein urges us to remember that together we can find strength, joy, beauty and love.
Nerissa Taysom, Watts Contemporary Gallery, April 2021