Kathrin Longhurst was born in communist East Germany. A classically trained figurative painter, she began attending life drawing classes at the age of fourteen. When she was just fifteen, her family escaped from ‘behind the iron curtain’, relocating to Sweden. This jarring transition from a totalitarian regime to a democracy sparked Kathrin’s passion for exploring the concepts of freedom of speech and expression, concepts that continue to thread through her work today.
After travelling widely throughout Europe, Asia and America, Kathrin settled in Sydney with her Australian husband. She went on to work prolifically, showing her first solo exhibition in 2004 and becoming well known for her portraits of beautiful, scantily clad women in military attire, draped with symbols of communist propaganda.
Extensive travel provided Kathrin with a unique perspective on the role of women in the media, her more recent works referencing not only communist propaganda but also the power of advertising in our lives under a capitalist system. Her skillfully rendered subjects layer themes of sexuality and freedom, both seducing and challenging the viewer with their ruby lips, luminous bare skin and confronting gaze to illustrate her message that:
‘Propaganda is all around us. It’s not specific to a period of time, a country or a regime…it’s everywhere’.
A well-respected member of the Sydney arts community, Kathrin served as vice president for Portrait Artists Australia for some years and is currently founder and director of the innovative Project 504, an art space that fosters collaboration between emerging and established Australian artists. She completed her tenth solo show in 2014 and has been a finalist in numerous awards including the prestigious 2012 Sulman Prize, the Mosman Art Prize, the Portia Geach Award, the Shirley Hannan National Portrait Prize, the Korea Australia Arts Foundation Prize and the WA Black Swan Prize. Her work is collected widely in Australia and internationally.
Exhibition Essay by Alex McCulloch
“Fading History” February 2016
Portraiture was often a form of propaganda not only during the Cold-War, but in communist regimes such as North Vietnam. This exhibition has multiple visions in that it invokes a retrospective autobiographical stance of the artist whose childhood took place in East Germany before the Wall fell and brought about an annexation of the East into the West.
Kathrin Longhurst deals with her memories of being part of a world where communist aesthetics were at odds with capitalistic values, and the representation of those who fought for the Eastern bloc was necessarily stark and bespoke of solidarity of the group, rather than the individual. Fading History utilises old images of those times and brings them into the present acknowledging that the memories, the values, the solidarity fuelled by ideology are fading—just like a photographic portrait would—the texture embraces a sepia hue whilst the faces fade like the past into the background. Although these artworks acknowledge this ‘fading’, the personal vision of the painter looks at retrieving the past whilst recognising its disappearance from contemporary understanding of a global world. Our world is less divided by capitalist and communist ideologies; other conflicts emerge in these very different times: global capitalism, vast movement of refugees and terrorism closely aligned with religiosity. Longhurst’s paintings embrace a contemporary feminism, which defies any political or religious attitude to disallow a presentation of female sexuality.
Longhurst employs strategies in her use of acrylic paint, old newspaper images, charcoal, crayons, oil wax sticks and pencil to both keep the viewer at a distance whilst simultaneously seducing him/her into its world of estrangement, and loss. These works capture the last shadows of old attachments. It is as if she wants to make one final statement about these ‘warriors’ who stood for an ideology that is fast fading into history. Yet simultaneously, in some ways consciously (but also unconsciously) Longhurst plays with parody in her orchestration of the past and its propaganda techniques. Whereas soldier propaganda during the Cold War would by design be presented as austere, asexual and assertive Longhurst portraits, wearing the military garb of Eastern Europe, are strongly sexualized with carefully posed half-open glossed lips, moist eyes and the manner of a temptress. They may model the soldier’s uniforms but they are presented as models wearing them and in doing so are defiantly posed as women with appetites and the desire to count as an individual.
The portraits have a limited colour palette with the sepia of old photos, the chocolate of leather and the red bespeaking blood, communism, anger and passion. Longhurst plays with different emotions and standpoints of heroines: they take on the guise of the martyr looking into an untouchable future where a utopia will arrive; a woman sensual but attentive to her role including the right hairstyle of the times when there was access to fashion magazines (so inevitably more 1940’s style rather than that of the sixties through to the eighties); defiant in an overtly sexual way; or looking through her pilot goggles with the partly opened mouth seemingly staring at the viewer inviting them into her Janus-faced world and, then, there is the portrait with the goggles raised to the forehead with a look of alienation and even trepidation yet a mask is worn of fearlessness.
Here is an artist coming to terms with her past. Whilst acknowledging the austerity of living in the Eastern bloc Longhurst also has an ambivalent need to tell its story of potentiality. Part of that story is defiant and critical, part of it wants to acknowledge something great about it but mostly Longhurst wants to give a female representation that subverts the suppression of the energy, sexuality and potential of the female soldier. This is parody at its best and a close analysis of the works shows a fascinating texture in the use of materials. The artistic process was, in itself, wrestling with the questions of what was lost and what was gained during the Cold War for people in the East during the ‘war’ and long afterwards when they were annexed and beaten into a submission.
These portraits tell a complicated story of an attempt to catch the last of the artist’s memory, as much as Longhurst’s re-invention of a time that now has lost significance in world movements.
Exhibition Essay by Sophie Parsons
“Heroes and Villains” November 2014
Growing up in East Berlin ‘behind the iron curtain’, Kathrin’s access to glamour was strictly limited, she longed for ‘pretty dresses and pretty things’. Her paintings recall this love of luxuries formerly forbidden, while her female figures challenge varying definitions of feminism through their combination of strength and desirability.
Ruby lips, red lingerie, luminous bare skin, the subjects of Kathrin Longhurst’s paintings provocatively sexualize symbols of communist propaganda. Growing up in East Berlin ‘behind the iron curtain’, Kathrin’s access to glamour was strictly limited, she longed for ‘pretty dresses and pretty things’. Her paintings recall this love of luxuries formerly forbidden, while her female figures challenge varying definitions of feminism through their combination of strength and desirability.
But reclamation of feminine allure in the wake of communist era ideology is only one layer of Longhurst’s work. This recent exhibition continues the exploration of the concepts of propaganda and media, in particular referencing the use of heroes in Eastern European government posters. Longhurst loans signature features of these posters to her subjects, her large scale paintings focusing on a solitary figure towering proudly over us, most often posed before the hammer and sickle flag. The role of the hero was crucial to the success of communism. People needed to identify with the hero or heroine in propaganda to be motivated to continue to serve their country, striving to accomplish the deeds that had elevated that person to heroic status. ‘They would take certain people and turn them into heroes, people that aligned with their ideology’. Military heroes and heroines saturated Longhurst’s education and shaped her childhood ideals. ‘At school, even our history books were different. In maths… we learnt to count with little tanks and soldiers’. When her family fled from Eastern Europe to Sweden, at the age of fifteen Kathrin was forced to assimilate to an entirely new system of beliefs. ‘Everything I had believed to be true was fiction. It was a story… pushing someone else’s agenda. I felt so betrayed – thought, why have you fed me these lies? I was so angry at the media, angry at the lies that had been pushed on me’. Longhurst’s tumultuous experience of extricating herself from communist ideology is echoed by the skillfully captured belligerence in the expressions and poses of her women, who handle the automatic rifles carelessly, wear their uniforms irreverently. ‘I feel liberated using these props because I can freely show these symbols now, make fun of the past, comment on it – I have freedom of speech, of expression now…’
While on the one hand the paintings mimic the depiction of the soviet era women promoted during Longhurst’s childhood, their voluptuous curves and pouting mouths are more reminiscent of 50’s pin up girls than the sturdy peasant ideal presented in socialist realism. A young Longhurst and her friends pored over American fashion magazines smuggled in to East Germany, admiring the models and coveting the fashions. Unable to travel themselves, they took the glossy images as true depictions of American women, of American life. ‘For us it was like a dream world – we assumed that was what the west was like and thought ‘I want some of that’. Longhurst purposefully references American ideals of sexuality, weaving the recognizable communist and more subversive western forms of advertising together. The introduction of male figures in this series casts further light on constructions of gender in the media. Juxtaposed with the confrontational female figures, Longhurst’s boys are gentle, their poses calmer and the typical depictions of the sexes seem reversed. Expanses of bare flesh and the saturated tone of her palate highlight the contradictions and further illustrate her view that ‘propaganda is all around us. It’s not specific to a period of time, a country or a regime…it’s everywhere’.
The narrative backgrounds in these new works display a transition from Longhurst’s previous poster allusions to a more subtle reference to Communist historical paintings. Dramatic lighting and the velvety, sumptuous flag, appearing almost as stage curtains, construct advertising and propaganda references as forms of theatre. In Longhurst’s own words ‘everything depends on who is telling the story’. Expert rendering of facial expressions prevents her subjects from being constrained by the genres she references. As the figures flaunt their overt trappings of sexuality and communism, they address the viewer with a gaze so authentic, objectifying them becomes impossible. This combination of technical proficiency and conceptual depth enable Longhurst to successfully layer varying interpretations of sexuality, themes of freedom and media to create works that are thought provoking, masterfully constructed, beautiful.
Exhibition Essay by Emma Crott, PhD Candidate, College of Fine Arts
“Children of the Revolution” May 2013
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