A Life in Print - by Ella Foote for www.whynow.co.uk
“I want my pictures to say what things feel like, rather than what it looks like,” says Painter and Printmaker Anita Klein. “It’s always about the feeling of whatever it is. If I am doing a picture of holding a baby, I will close my eyes and get the feel of it in my hands. I don’t work from photographs, if I had a visual reference then I would be concentrating on the look.” Anita and I are sat in her studio in Bermondsey surrounded by her paintings and prints, some hung on the wall and others hidden under bubble wrap. There is a distinct scent of paint and paper, a smell Anita doesn’t even notice anymore.
Over the past 40 years Anita has created over 2,000 different prints and hundreds of different paintings. Her work is famous for representing family life and celebrating ordinary daily moments. “It is an obsession, a madness and a joy, but it also really helps that people buy my work,” says Anita. “You don’t start a career by thinking – this is what I am going to do – doing the same thing, but different. I just can’t stop. There is this amazing feeling when it all goes off to an exhibition, there is an emptiness and I can start filling it again.” Anita studied at the Chelsea and Slade Schools of Art, first painting and later learning printmaking. “The thing with studying art is, that when you leave school no one gives a toss what you do, it all goes under the bed. So, by the time you leave you have to find something that can keep you going whether someone likes it or not.”
Not only did Anita discover something to keep her going, but people loved her work. By the time she got to the end of her postgraduate degree it was the buoyant 80s, she sold everything in her degree show and was offered another exhibition a year on from then. “I was pregnant with my first child, had no pictures and a gallery to fill in 12 month’s time,” she says. “I had to keep doing something. I did all the drypoint etchings on the living room floor while I was pregnant and then when my baby was asleep. I would attend an adult education printmaking class once a week to use the press and print madly for two hours.” Anita gradually started selling her prints to galleries across the country and she had a show every year. From one show another gallery would offer another exhibition. “I always had something to work towards and I wasn’t just a mother, I was doing something.”
Anita came to London from Australia aged eleven with her mother and sister after her parents had divorced. Her father was Hungarian-Jewish, and his family carried the sadness of the war, which she didn’t understand as a child. Her grandparents lost everything and moved to Australia via Israel and started again. She had a difficult relationship with her mother, which has driven her need to be a good mother herself. “It is really difficult to be different from your parents,” she says. “You just find yourself slipping into it all the time. I always think of it like a wonky trolley at the supermarket. You know how it keeps going in the wrong direction and you have to keep pushing against it. I have got this wonky trolley part of me that is always pushing me to be something I don’t want to be and so I have to work a lot harder at keeping the trolley straight. We all have our wonky trolley about something, a thing that is difficult for us, but for me it is having a happy family and being a good mother, I know I can do it badly. I suppose my pictures are partly a celebration of the achievement but also reminding myself how precious it is, I don’t take things for granted, for even a minute.”
Looking back over Anita’s career it is like looking through a family photo album. Today, Anita has two daughters and three grandchildren. The grandchildren are at similar age to when Anita was painting her own children. “The funny thing is that I didn’t realise for a long time that I was creating a bigger thing,” says Anita. “When I had my first retrospective exhibition, around 20 years ago, I hung three or four different prints from each year in chronological order and suddenly I saw. I wasn’t making individual pictures; I was making a story. Recently my granddaughter learned to ride a bike without stabilisers and my daughter sent a video. I immediately thought of a print I did of her doing the same thing.” What I love about Anita’s work is how she never got her children to pose, she captured pictures of things that you would never normally notice, small things and things you would forget. “If you look through a photo album is looks like life is just holidays and birthdays,” says Anita. “But it is what happens in-between those things, the small things you do – that is life. It is only in retrospect that I understand my compulsion illustrate these things, to cherish them and hold on to those moments. The fact that the things that are most precious to us are the things that we don’t necessarily remember or think of, because they are so ordinary.”