Kathrin’s work reflects her diverse cultural background, having lived in many European countries and finally settled in Australia in 2000. Kathrin grew up in Communist East Germany where she started taking life drawing classes at age 14. Her work is strongly influenced by socialist realism and communist propaganda art. Kathrin spent a decade in Scandinavia visiting galleries in Denmark and Sweden as well as a year in Belgium where her work gained its Art Nouveau influences. She traveled extensively through Europe, Asia and America.
Kathrin has been a full-time artist for the past 8 years. She is actively involved with Portrait Artists Australia, Australia’s largest industry association for professional portrait artists, partaking on the committee for the last 5 years and as Vice President for three years.
Her work has been selected finalist in many art prizes such as the Sir John Sulman Prize, the Portia Geach Award, the Shirley Hannan National Portrait Prize, The Mosman Art Prize and the WA Black Swan Prize. It sells successfully in galleries in Australia as well as in the US.
Exhibition Essay by Emma Crott, PhD Candidate, College of Fine Arts
Children of the Revolution
Former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin once declared, “You cannot make a revolution with silk gloves”, yet paradoxically the women featured in Kathrin Longhurst’s recent body of work Children of the Revolution revel in luxury. Their nails are beautifully manicured, their skin pale and unblemished, provocatively pouting their rouge slicked lips – all signs of wealth, opulence and femininity discouraged by early communist regimes.
Having spent most of her childhood in East Germany before her family fled to Scandinavia two years before the fall of the Berlin wall, Longhurst is all too familiar with the complexities of socialist ideology and communist propaganda. It was in the German Democratic Republic that she unwittingly consumed a bombardment of imagery portraying strong, fearless women used as ambassadors for the dissemination of political messages and the indoctrination of social adherence. These women, featured in posters, advertisements and often seen at public events, were not only depicted as strong and muscular (the very antithesis of conventional femininity), they were often shown in professions traditionally associated with men such as aviation, military and aeronautics. Longhurst draws on this imagery to form the basis of her powerful series – she depicts women in various types of headgear symbolic of such professions. Yet she infuses these ‘socialist heroines’ with a sexiness and sassiness redolent of 1950’s American pin-up girls.
There is no denying that the Communist party had a profound effect on the opportunities and rights of women in the Soviet Union (and Eastern Europe more generally) – in Children of the Revolution Longhurst specifically references Valentina Tereshkova, the first women in space, and Marina Raskova, the first woman to become a navigator in the Soviet Air Force in 1933. She is particularly interested in the cult status these women attained, something Longhurst compares with the idealisation of ‘rockstars’ in the west. Yet such equality was achieved at a cost – female sexuality and femininity were heavily downplayed. This is particularly obvious in art history with the rise of Socialist Realism in the mid-1920’s, a style opposed to the progressive avant-gardism flourishing in Europe at the time, that instead declared to “depict the present day: the life of the Red Army, the workers, the peasants, the revolutionaries, and the heroes of labour”.1 Women were particularly portrayed as rosy cheeked, stocky workers dressed in ill-fitting, bulky clothing such as the female subject of Aleksandr Deineka’s painting ‘On expanse of Moscow buildings’ (1949).
While Longhurst’s figurative painting style is indebted to Socialist Realism, her female subjects are anything but sexless. The power of her work lies in a carefully balanced juxtaposition of opposing realities: the hint of nakedness, the supple flesh and doe-eye expressions of the women are in stark contrast to the harsh materiality of their headgear. So too is their model-like poses incongruent with the 5-pointed red star repeatedly featured, a common communist symbol used to represent the 5 ‘classes’ of socialist society. The slightly obscured Russian text in the background of many of the works, translated as provocative words such as ‘sassy’, ‘naughty’, ‘snob’ and ‘bitch’ is not only reminiscent of the format for magazine covers but also references the Russian Constructivists who used graphic text alongside abstracted forms and shapes, often imbued with politically charged meaning.
A historically, politically and socially attuned artist, Longhurst employs such visual techniques to explore broader dichotomies such as east/west, masculine/feminine and socialism/capitalism. Not only can the beautifully rendered works in Children of the Revolution be read as a profound satire of communist ideology, Longhurst also seems to be embracing two seemingly conflicting streams of feminism in her work – that where women seek the equal rights and opportunities provided to men by mimicking the qualities and professions typically associated with masculinity, and those who embrace stereotypical notions of femininity as empowering and differentiating.
Children of the Revolution is a series of works that are not only skilfully produced, but also conceptually strong – the proven makings of a truly successful artist. Longhurst herself has commented “I’ve really enjoyed producing this series as it’s allowed me to explore my own cultural heritage” and it is in that history that makes these glamorous, sexy, modern day women all the more powerful.
College of Fine Arts, Paddington
1 The Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia, ‘Declaration’, first published in ‘Exhibition of Studies, Sketches, Drawings and Graphics from the Life and Customs of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army’, Moscow, June-July 1922
Profile by Robert Kennedy June 2007
Artists that travel and especially one’s that emigrate develop a greater understanding of how to get their message across, while building their oeuvre, Kathrin Longhurst is no exception. Born in Berlin, East Germany, in the early 1970′s, art and a visual influence never had the power to affect or inspire her to become an artist during her first 15 years in the GDR. There was a lack of visual stimulus, not just in the surrounding but also in the people, Kathrin says, “I remember women in East Germany being portrayed as rather unsexy, hard working, rosy cheeked farmers or labourers – I grew up longing for glamour and beauty.” Such as the beauty, you can see here in her painting titled A Night full of Treasure.
Location and physical surroundings can have an enormous affect on artists. Most artists can gain so much from the internal process of creation, (the thought and mind processes that creates visually ideas and images) but sometimes just as much can be added to a painting by using the artistic surrounding as inspiration. These can come from many sources, Kathrin touches on some of these inspirations from her early years in East Germany.
“My work has been influenced very early by the art that surrounded us in East Germany. I remember walking through the art collection at the almost demolished Communist “Palace of the Republic”. I was impressed by the realist approach of the painters, portraying the working class as heroes; these were strong women with round shapes and rosy cheeks, working hard in factories and in the fields. I didn’t necessarily agree with the subject matter but admired the artists for their painterly skills.
I was also drawn to the German romantics, like Caspar David Friedrich, it became a kind of reality escape to look at those fairytale pictures that were removed from the grey, everyday life in Eastern Europe.
If I came across a Western Fashion magazine, I would dream away and pretend to be the woman in the photo. To draw and paint allowed me to create my own little dream world, and I could play out the roles of the beautiful goddess or superstar that I wanted to be. So now I’m using realism as an art form to create a lifelike image of a dream world for myself.”
Dreams painted into art can be some of the most stimulating imagery there is; Kathrin does create a dream-like aura in her works, but getting that vision onto a substrate had to start somewhere, Kathrin talks about where it began for her. “When I was about 14, I was picked out as being artistically talented and sent to attend art classes, outside of normal schooling, which were sponsored by the government.
I started life drawing at a local art centre and then got fascinated by the human form – skinny, large, pregnant, male and female, all shapes and sizes.” Part of this influence was pushed into Kathrin by her first art teacher; he had no problems with getting undressed and posing for the class when a model could not be found. Kathrin may have gone down the path of being a traditional painter, given her early training, and that the GDR would have chosen for her what sort of artists she was to become, they suggested industrial design, but thankfully she was about to move on. The flowering of her artistic imagination began to form with her move out of the GDR in 1987. She moved to Sweden and grew to find herself being influenced by the “delicate and elaborate details of Art Nouveau”, which today enriches her paintings. The floating and sinuous artistic style of Art Nouveau, from people like the Austrian artist Gustav Klimt and the Czech artist Alphonse Mucha have had a strong pull on Kathrin’s style and content.
Kathrin would have loved to live around the turn of the 20th century, “Probably somewhere in central Europe. I would have loved to hang out with Klimt and Mucha. Art Nouveau and Jugendstil have influenced my work a lot. The detail, the patterns, the use of gold and those gorgeous colours.” All evident in her paintings.
Kathrin reflects on the possibility of her creating such works at the time of her youth in the GDR, and whether her paintings would have been censored, “I don’t know, maybe I could have told them that the women in the red drapes were actually draped in the communist flag. However, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been very popular, at least with the communist party people. Maybe I would have become an infamous underground artist, selling works to rebellious East Germans wanting to revolt against the regime. As it is, East Germany only lasted two more years after we left for Sweden in 1987. East Germans today have totally changed, they’ve embraced capitalism like few others, and it’s gone to the opposite extreme with consumerism going through the roof.”
Moving from country to country has had a stark influence on Kathrin’s life and art, but coming to Australia has been the most life changing experience for her. Her art has flourished, her viewpoint changed, her arts philosophy deepened, her whole life has progressed, she says, “It’s like I’ve found my real identity and my mission in life. Things just fell into place. I was still searching before I came here; I was painting flowers, landscape and people, and experimenting with different mediums. I now know what I’m about – I think coming to Australia has allowed me to reinvent myself.
There was no family or circle of friends that knew me as a certain person, or to put me in a box, where it’s so hard to escape. I came here and I could be who I really was. As a teenager, you tend to grow into a certain role that is expected of you by your peers and family, and it’s difficult to change that. My husband, who is Australian, has been an enormous support to me. He’s always seen me as a way bigger person than I thought I could be, and it’s helped me as an artist, and I find it amazing to live into that expectation.”
The support Kathrin receives is given back to the arts and her community through teaching fine arts. Along with her involvement with, www.theartsanctuary.com.au which is an artist run gallery, located in Fairlight (Northern Beaches, Sydney) in an old church; Kathrin not only teaches visual art there, she runs various artist workshops. It also acts as a great support network for her. In 2003, Kathrin also founded an artist cooperative called Northern Expression as a way of creating a further support network for her newly embarked art career. It now has over 40 members. She finds that teaching visual art has affected her artworks, on teaching she says, “It gives me a lot of confidence in my own work, if someone wants to learn from me, it must mean that my work is of a standard, which encourages others to learn from me. It’s been pretty hard too, since I am still experimenting and learning myself, so my own technique changes frequently. People rather expect there to be a magic formula that you follow – they get very disappointed when they find out there isn’t. I tell my students that I can only pass on what I know, but it may not necessarily be the best method for them, just a different one.” Kathrin’s own arts training has been quite diverse, she hold a Masters in Business Administration, and once a councillor advised her not to get into the arts – which goes to show that some people should steer well clear of advising others on a life career. Kathrin explains, “I’ve been to countless art classes and workshops over the years, learning everything from still life, to oil painting techniques, painting on ceramics, figure drawing and more. Since I was focusing on a business career these classes were taken in the evenings and weekends and tended to become more of a coffee and cake get-together for older women. I did end up learning something from each class or workshop, but I now wish I had done a full arts program at some stage; hanging out with and learning from people that are really serious about art, instead of the hobbyists. But I guess that’s no guarantee to becoming a good artist, if you know how to do it in theory but can’t apply it.
My career counsellor at High School advised me strongly against doing an arts program. Being one of the top students in my class, my grades were way too good to ‘waste my time’ on a practical, rather than a theoretical program. I do believe things happen for a reason and maybe my business acumen will help me focus better and work towards my goals in a more disciplined and detailed manner.” Kathrin pays close attention to detail, in her paintings, and also to the titles of her works. You will notice that each one reveals something more of the painting, like a little poem explaining some of the inner meaning, which enhances all her works.
Kathrin uses models for her paintings, but people have commented that some of her works do look a bit like her. After a show at the Arthouse Hotel, a viewer asked her, ‘Do you always do self portraits, or do you occasionally use models as well?’ She thought that that was a bit weird.
Kathrin admits that, “In a way, each painting I do is a bit of a self portrait. I need to be the viewer when creating the composition, frame it, just stand back and see what works in a pose. If I wanted to do a self-portrait, even if I had mirrors large enough to pose in front of, it just wouldn’t work for me. I can’t really pose or take photos anyway.
I can’t have anyone else take the photos either because then it wouldn’t be my view or my perception. It’s a tricky one; while I do get people asking if it’s me in the pictures, subconsciously, I think I always either add my nose or change some features to make them look a bit like me.”
Kathrin does not paint portraits of herself for many reasons, but I was keen to find out if there was anything inside her that was holding her back, or if there was a problem with self-esteem, or revealing herself on the canvas. Kathrin subtly stated, “I’m quite comfortable exposing other people’s images and spirit in my works; one of my favourite models told me that ‘when you paint me you capture my soul’ and that’s so rewarding. I don’t know if I’m ready to do that with myself, or reveal myself that way, I don’t want to be seen as vain, and I’m still growing and learning as an artist, maybe, maybe one day.”
Kathrin’s business administration degree, prior to her decision in become a fulltime artist, lead her into a career with an international office equipment company, where she states she hated going to work every day, and she was getting stress headaches because she knew she should be painting. This was just one of the things that she gave up when becoming an artist, but with that, there are many connections, she explains, “Financial security was the first thing to go, my husband was working casually when I left my full time job, and I cried for about a week after making that decision, it was very scary. I gave up that routine of work and the stability that comes with it, and just threw myself out there.
Anything could have happened, it’s very scary and exciting, and it is like going on a big adventure where you don’t know the destination, but it all worked out, I made it work out for me. Now, what I get to do is just so fantastic, the kind of people I get to meet, other artists, the model shoots, meeting clients in a cafe down at the beach, I can’t believe that this is my job – it’s crazy.”
“What I had to give up wasn’t much in comparison to what I’ve gained. With moving to a new country, there’s a natural progress in leaving some people behind, but this has brought me closer with many people here. I feel I’ve explored more of my emotional side because there was no one here that I was close to, so I had to re-build things with people, in new ways.”
Making new artworks for Kathrin always begins with the human form, just making things up is something that she feels is not for her. She remembers when copying a picture when she was a young girl, a teacher said to her, ‘well I don’t think you’ll be a real artist, you might do well in commercial art somewhere’ and this stuck with her for many years, thinking that she couldn’t create from nothing.
Kathrin says, “I don’t think I could just imagine an apple, then paint it. I do frame things in my mind, but these are the images and positions of a model, suitable to be painted, not something totally abstract.”
The images that Kathrin creates are void of any abstract visual, and this might be because her GDR upbringing was void of any conceptual or nonrepresentational forms; everything had to look like what is was. There were no strong emotional responses allowed in art or in a day-to-day life. Was this something that today stifled Kathrin’s works? “Communist art was very representational; it was always images of the sturdy working class. The art I grew up with was limited, with almost no abstract imagery – this was all I knew.”
“Actually a government initiative in 1951 instigated at a parliamentary sitting, tried to proclaim a ban on abstract art in East Germany. The head of the communist party at the time stated, ‘We do not want to see abstract pictures in our Academies of art anymore. We neither need moon landscapes or rotten fish.’
“So there was nothing like abstract art accepted or present in my upbringing, we were taught that what we see is all that exists, there is nothing outside that. So yes, my time in the GDR could have a bit to do with the type of art that I create today.”
The arts today are for Kathrin a wellspring of inspiration and joy, “there is so much on offer” and she uses other arts to help her create. She constantly has music on when painting, and the style of music she listens to when creating is dependent on the mind frame she’s in, “I’ve done a whole series of painting to jazz, contemporary jazz more than traditional. I have a selection of chill out classical that I like to use when painting also, but film has a really strong influence on me and my paintings.”
Which films have you thought about including in your art? “the House of Flying Daggers, by director Zhang Yimou. It was so beautiful and well done, in combination with the music, the movements and acrobatics. After seeing that I wanted to paint a whole series of dancers, and I’ve always enjoyed ballet, so it will happen.”
Have the other arts affected your paintings? “I’m involved with the Australian Singing Competition, which is held at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music each year. I’m donating a portrait work for a prize in the competition, and through that, I’ve meet people like Dame Joan Sutherland, and Fiona Janes, who’s a mezzo-soprano. I spent a day with Fiona at her house down south of Sydney, sketching and photographing her for a Diva series I’m doing, she’s making a wonderful subject.”
On the choice of subjects in artworks, was there anything that Kathrin felt she could not include in her paintings? “Well I’m not much into the dark side, but I don’t self censor my works, still there’s a lot subjects that I wouldn’t touch because there’s plenty of other artists that are good at exploring darker material than mine. That said there’s a fine line between doing a nude and pornography; I wouldn’t do explicit stuff, but some people already think that my work is a bit erotic, I’ve had comments from people.
One of my main driving forces in life is the energy I have within, and I want people to see and feel that in my painting, along with the enhancement of beauty. So at the moment I can’t see myself doing a suicide series or anything like that, but in the future there might be some trauma or something different that I’ll want to explore visually, and put down on canvas – so why not.”
If Kathrin were to move in other directions with her work now where would it be? “As I’m still so early in my career a major change now, would probably see me as being labelled a scatter brain, so I still need to explore what I’m doing more thoroughly, before I can go off and seriously experiment. Which is a shame in many ways, because as an artist you feel that you want to go and do everything.”
For now, development and achieving an exactness of character are the main goals for Kathrin’s art, she feel that this lies in improving the composition of her works.
“I’m a very modern artist, I do a lot of my pre-work on the computer, and I might shoot hundreds of photos of a model. Then I sample various effects and designs, changing colours and props to help achieve a perfect design, which were all initiated by the image I had in my head to start, so it makes my life easier, but they are only guides.”
The composition of Kathrin’s works are already so compelling, there is so much craftsmanship, and perfect positioning of her models that you wonder how they could be improved. Kathrin’s says’ “Well you should see my art storage space, I’ve done a lot of crap, they’re just shocking, I don’t know what to do with them. I have to work very hard to achieve what I do, I didn’t stumble over my finished artworks, but everything can be improved.”
Kathrin and her art are growing all the time; she has her first international solo show in Florida, USA, coming up in January 2008.