Kathrin Longhurst’s visual language collides with the starting point of her own journey, as a child of the cold-war era, who has been to both sides of the iron-curtain. The contrast between war-propaganda imagery and glamorous promises of the other side of the wall, have been the inspirations of her early works. Longhurst reconsidered war propaganda aesthetics with ‘flying’ female warriors, in place of fearsome male figures of power. Her early works aim to bend the visual paradigm of men and women at war, imposed by the patriarchal power structures of the past. Longhurst’s initial approach is self-observational, rewriting the recent history to empower the idea of a gender-equal future.
‘Volatility’ has been given a new meaning with the arrival of the digital age, as the nuclear fear of the past has been suspended. Longhurst’s interest in the ethics of progression has inspired her to track the footsteps of other women’s journeys, to understand the future-challenges of digital natives. Women’s struggles are an important part of the undocumented history of our civilisation, carrying meaningful information to help analyse the mistakes of the recent history and to avoid any fallacy of progression.
A well-respected member of the Sydney arts community, Kathrin served as vice president for Portrait Artists Australia for some years and was the founder and director of the innovative Project 504, an art space that fosters collaboration between emerging and established Australian artists. She completes her 18th solo show in 2021 and has been a finalist in numerous awards including the Archibald Prize, the Darling Prize at the National Portrait Gallery, the Doug Moran Prize, the Sulman Prize, the Percival Portrait Award, the Mosman Art Prize, the Portia Geach Award, the Shirley Hannan National Portrait Prize and the WA Black Swan Prize. She won the 2021 Archibald Packing Room Prize. Her work is collected widely in Australia and internationally.
Exhibition Essay by Kate McAuley
“We Can Be Heroes” December 2022
During the summer of 1977, while David Bowie was writing and recording his now beloved anthem Heroes in West Berlin, the artist Kathrin Longhurst was spending her childhood on the eastern side of the infamous wall, living under the strictures of a Communist regime and learning her arithmetic using school books illustrated with ballistic missiles.
Much has happened for both in the intervening decades: Bowie remains a cultural icon despite his death in 2016, while Longhurst, who fled East Berlin for Sweden in the late 80s, ultimately emigrated to Australia, where she became an award-winning artist and a major champion of the feminist cause. Known for her bold large-scale portraits of charismatic and often defiantly strong women, Longhurst has long challenged the patriarchy and with this exhibition she continues her crusade.
For ‘We Can Be Heroes’ – the title of this body of work and a line taken from the chorus of the aforementioned Bowie classic – the artist conducted a visual thought experiment, recasting her female subjects into the heroic archetypes traditionally associated with the much lauded pursuits of (predominantly white) men. Through the works on display here, Longhurst asks the viewer to question how the world might look for us today if women had historically been given the same opportunities as their male counterparts.
What if the statues raised in our public spaces, the archival footage of amazing feats and the newspaper articles of glorious times past were given as much financial investment, air time and column inches to include all people, regardless of gender? And finally, what if it were women who chronicled who should be lionized and venerated?
To examine how these questions might be answered, Longhurst drew inspiration from historical photographs, particularly of heroic men, taken using the silver collodion (or wet plate) process. Due to long exposure times, and unnatural poses, these time-warn images are both dramatic and evocative of former glories. Instead of masculine exultation, however, we bear witness to powerful female leaders, military commanders, pioneers and explorers.
To achieve such a daring and gritty remit, Longhurst evolved her process from working solely in oils to incorporate a variety of different techniques to great effect. Pencil, charcoal and ink formed part of her canon. She also scraped her canvases with sandpaper and smeared them with red paint to create the illusion of time passing. The result is a powerful representation of what could have been.
It must be acknowledged that gender equality has made significant strides, particularly in recent years, but in a country where there are more statues dedicated to animals than women, we are reminded of how far women still have to go to reach any kind of parity. Representation matters. It feeds into our personal belief systems, how we define what is possible, and promotes the patriarchal status quo. There is no changing history, but by shining a light on this pervasive inequality and reaching back into the past to reimagine a different present, Longhurst reminds us of what needs to change now so that the future can be better for us all.
Exhibition Essay by Kate McAuley
“Mind-Field” April 2022
Spending time with Kathrin Longhurst, either in person or through her art, is to enter a world that both exalts and challenges what it means to be a woman. Regardless of the prism through which she views her subjects, this is the common thread Longhurst has woven throughout her acclaimed body of work – from her earlier pieces, where she championed feminine power by subverting the ultra-macho propaganda posters that dominated the visual landscape of her East Berlin childhood and adolescence, to Mind-Field, her latest offering here, which examines how gendered language, labels and stereotypes, create a complex and often hazardous environment for women.
In her seminal work, Rage Becomes Her, the author and activist Soraya Chemaly asserts that the language we use to describe men and women has an enormous impact on how we perceive both ourselves and each other, particularly when it comes to self-worth and agency. Chemaly also concludes that these words, more often than not, subjugate women while perpetuating male dominance and authority. With Mind-Field, a play on the word minefield, Longhurst interrogates this statement by placing her female subjects against the backdrop of emotionally charged words. In the work entitled Sweet, for example, a woman stares out of the canvas with an expression that is anything but saccharine, while for Boss her subject appears both hopeful and naive rather than assertive and bold.
By revisiting the use of text in her paintings and the addition of bold geometric backgrounds inspired by the somewhat controversial American artist Frank Shepard Fairey, Longhurst once again raises her female subjects into strong and dominant entities, pushing them to the forefront of the canvas. Unlike traditional figurative paintings, which render women diminutive, chaste and in need of protection, these works exude strength as well as vulnerability, forcing the viewer to consider the complex relationship between labels and identity. Longhurst’s subjects each have a different response to the designation that’s been ascribed to them. Some are defiant, while others question the validity of the assertion. Some exhibit sadness, anguish or disbelief, while others claim ownership or are resigned to their assigned role. As a result, Mind-Field is a masterful interpretation of the gender bias in language.
As an artist, Longhurst continues to be a relentless advocate for the feminist cause – and there is no better time to be working in this sphere than now. Thanks to the ground swell of the global #metoo movement and advocates and sexual assault survivors such as Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins, the discourse surrounding the rights of women and girls has been plucked from the margins and once again entered into Australian mainstream conversation. In the past, commentators have indicated to Longhurst that her art is too obvious; a suggestion that has only resigned the artist to amplify her message further. Change does not come about a result of subtlety and suggestion. The Patriarchy is under threat and with Mind-Field Longhurst is adding her powerful voice to the revolution.
Exhibition Essay by Joey Hespe
“Fighting Spirit” December 2021
As with most plans over the last two years, Kathrin had to pivot hers for Fighting Spirit, to accommodate an ever-changing and unpredictable world. Due to months of lockdown, the women she wished to paint and embody in this series, were suddenly inaccessible. It was this inability to control her environment and what would usually inform her creative process, that make these works so special.
For Longhurst, control and the constructs of power are not new territory. Her upbringing in East Berlin, counting tanks and wearing military uniform is a powerfully foreign image from iconic Australian allegory. Fighting Spirit reconsiders Longhurst’s themes on power dichotomies and paradigms while continuing the dialogue on themes of control. Post Me Too, women across the world stood in their power, knowing they had a chance to take back control of their bodies and their traumas. Just when it felt like progress was finally being made, we watched on as Afghani women lost the right to an equal life, young women in Egypt are jailed for the way they dress and act, and abortion is criminalised as women are stripped of the right to own their bodies in states of the United States – something that is all too common in countries around the world. Here, in Australia the collective of women sigh as yet another male with conservative views on women’s rights and equal marriage rises to power, a serial gang rapist walks back into the community and another woman is murdered by her partner. Forced lockdowns and a world enduring the spread of a pandemic only served to highlight the fragility of the human condition. Longhurst asks the viewer; Do we sit like Body and Mind, eyes closed, praying for something to change? Or do we take action, like Make The Days Count – hands strapped, ready to deflect the next punch? No matter the answer, her heroines give hope for what lies around the corner.
Like the pressure that forms coal into diamond, the heaviness of a world in turmoil pushed Longhurst forward into new terrain. Followers of her work will recognise the essence and stoic nature of the feminine portrayed in her heroines, however Fighting Spirit conveys less emphasis on symbols of power. Gone are the militarized uniforms and glorified, made up women – instead, Longhurst plays with the idea of silence and vulnerability as indicators of strength. To the artist, the ability to face hardship and adversity with courage and compassion are what defines a strong woman and these paintings are a greater exploration of this belief. Stylistically inspired by the Film Noir era, a number of these works display somber tones and a darkened palette, reflecting the disenchantment of our times. Not only do Longhurst’s subjects convey a softness and a tender passiveness that draw the viewer into their world; they exude a fragility that only comes with extreme vulnerability.
Fighting Spirit holds a mirror to the viewer asking us to surrender to what we can’t control, but to remain hopeful for what we can. For when we lose control, what we value is truly called in to question. They may connote a softness and docility, but Kathrin’s women are as enduring as they’ve ever been. There is power in silence and Longhurst’s heroines are observing and listening. They whisper, “I’m still here, I won’t give up”.
Exhibition Essay by Ralph Hobbs
“Indoctrinated” May 2021
In 1961, a wall of concrete and wire appeared on the streets of Berlin. The Soviet-backed regime—The German Democratic Republic (GDR)—constructed it almost overnight to stem the flow of people to the west. The brutalist structure, by design, became an eponymous symbol of social control. The regime was free to indoctrinate generations of its citizens who now lived without easy access to counter-ideologies and cultural influences.
It was in the shadow of the wall that Kathrin Longhurst spent her childhood and where experiences of youth were to be informed by an overtly militarised government. It was a place and time in history where the power of the state was constantly celebrated through the subtle (and, at times, not so subtle) propaganda machine. Through the consistent indoctrination of its people, original thought and independence was curtailed to ensure the longevity of the body politic.
The detritus of the autocratic symbolism that pervaded all corners of her childhood, informs Longhurst as a contemporary painter. In Indoctrinated, Longhurst draws upon her upbringing, delving into her personal family archive while morphing memories of school camps run under military protocols and classrooms where counting was taught by adding and subtracting tanks and soldiers.
For the artist, memory is not always bleak—family and life bring their own colour. Longhurst’s investigation draws on the photography from her personal history alongside some of the more iconic documented moments from post-war Germany. Paintings are reimagined as polaroid images, complete with light bursts disrupting the picture plain—faded splashes of colour that humanise the workers’ utopia. Her painterly interference of the image shines a light on the imperfect notion of memory. It is particularly poignant in the hands of this artist, who has humanised the realities of geopolitical history. The occasional appearance of text locates the imagery in a personal context—the audience becomes active participants in her journey.
Indoctrinated uses the artist’s personal narrative to point us to the broader contemporary social question. She questions the extent and nature of governmental control in a Covid world. Longhurst’s observations of changing narratives and the day-to-day control of society, have reminded her of a time behind the wall. This exhibition is not a sermon, rather, it is a humanist vision of a life that has experienced much—what can be, and what can’t be taken away.
Exhibition Essay by Joey Hespe
“Standing Strong” July 2020
To truly see Kathrin Longhurst’s work is to be moved by something invisible; a sense of wonder that seeps through her portraits and pervades deep down into the very core of the viewer. To scratch at the surface of her paintings and unravel the significance of her heroines’ stories is to understand her story. As someone who vehemently supports other women, Longhurst isn’t afraid of calling out unequal power structures; she doesn’t just investigate oppression and solidarity, it’s part of who she is. As a child of Cold War former East Germany, Longhurst lived through displacement and oppression, where Soviet regime and anti-Western propaganda informed her early ideals. Longhurst’s response to her past traumas and the inequality and injustice in our world is communicated through archetypal warriors who play heroic protagonists in her deeply personal visual novel.
Standing Strong reconsiders Longhurst’s previous themes on women needing to take a masculine stance to gain equality over patriarchal power structures, and instead suggests that what the world needs right now is the embodiment of the feminine. As allegories of the human condition and the current state of the planet, her heroines personify morality and call into question countless discrepancies that weep for us to stand strong together. If the role of the artist is to draw attention to gaps in their view of the world, then Longhurst shows us just how broad the Conflict paradigm really is. The recent destruction of sacred Indigenous land that held 46,000 years of artefacts in the Pilbarra to mine for iron ore, the Black Lives Matter, Me Too and Climate Change movements, countries politicising the outbreak and spread of COVID-19; the choosing of money and ego over precious human life. Longhurst’s heroines portray the suffering of the feminine in all of us and our propensity to turn away when things get too uncomfortable to face.
Flowing tendrils of hair; the poetic expression of freedom and owned sexuality peek out from behind open helmet straps. Their military shirts unbuttoned as if having just returned from battle, her heroines communicate through subverted gazes and heavy stares that have witnessed too many injustices. Instead of yelling ‘We Want You!’, they whisper through clipped tones, ‘I’m exhausted, I can only do so much’. They ask each of us to consider how much more the Earth can take before precariously tumbling from its axis and toppling somewhere into the ether.
Although tragedy underlies every heroes story, Longhurst communicates that the road to healing can only come if we choose human defiance; love over greed, life over loss, solidarity over conflict. But we can only do this if we open our eyes and stand strong together. Perhaps said best in her own words, ‘we live in devastating times and never has the approach to solving a crisis brought our inherent values into focus as now. It is a reminder to take time out to reflect, be compassionate and respond with love and empathy. Because when all of this is over, we will be standing stronger than ever.’
Exhibition Essay by Ralph Hobbs
“Protagonist” June 2018
In 1965, Robert Rosenquist completed his pop vision of a flawed utopian paradise. The title of the 26 metre long prophetic masterpiece was “The F1-11″—the ultimate Cold War killing machine, morphed with cheesy icons drawn from the daily advertising Leviathan that was 1960’s America. The work pointedly described the dichotomy of a nation profoundly conflicted, and a crisis of identity that has, if anything, expanded in today’s contemporary society.
For us, everything that was old is now new—a new Russia/China/USA Cold War marching forth in ways that fifty years ago was never imagined—now, manifested through cyberspace. Driven by the Orwellian dictate from Animal Farm ”All pigs are created equal; just some are created more equal than others”, it is a world where communism and capitalism ideologically fight by day, yet make financial bedfellows by night.
More recently, the idealisation of the 1960s feminist movement is driving a stake into the heart of patriarchal society, publicly disgracing the perpetrators through the #MeToo movement. As always, the touchstones of society—visual culture, writing and film—are used by thinkers and artists to enhance and propagate variations of well-worked ideas from history to improve our society. It is a world now crowded with information and methods of dissemination to its audience.
Kathrin Longhurst is a child of the Cold War—having grown up on the grey side of the Berlin Wall. Her childhood was in a society indoctrinated and controlled with totalitarian vigour through the rule of law and a virulent propaganda machine. The perceived glamour of the west filtered through to the artist as a girl via beaten up glossy magazines and word of mouth stories that one could only dream of.
Longhurst’s childhood of counting missiles in school books and experiencing firsthand the results of a society where everything is watched, has left an indelible impression on her. Five decades after the Rosenquist’s F1-11, Longhurst pointedly pushes at the outer edges of the ideological boundaries in our world.
Protagonist is an exhibition that delivers its message in a playful way, yet, ideologically nuclear in its motherload of social commentary. It is an exhibition that speaks to a world that struggles with identity—not only from the nationalist point of view—but with male/female ideology. Yet, like all great artists, Longhurst can keep a sense of humour, albeit laced with the irony and lessons from history.
Exhibition Essay by Professor James Arvanitakis PhD
Falling Girl: A Reflection on the work of Kathrin Longhurst
Epochal moments of change emerge on us in surprising of ways and at times of contradiction. For example, the most powerful nation in the world has elected a reality television celebrity and misogynist as President (who can forget the ‘grab them by the pussy’ video?) at the same time as the #MeToo movement has emerged to challenge some of the most entrenched male dominated power structures.
The “#MeToo” movement has become so ubiquitous that it may surprise us to be reminded that it only began in October 2017, spreading virally as a hashtag on social media to highlight the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment across workplaces, social spaces and education facilities. While this hashtag was popularised shortly after public revelations of sexual misconduct allegations against Hollywood producer and power broker, Harvey Weinstein, we can trace this back to countless women who have fought for gender justice: from the suffragettes at the turn of the twentieth century, to the Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentine who are the mothers whose children “disappeared” during the state terrorism of the military dictatorship, between 1976 and 1983) and the ‘Destroy the Joint’ movement that reminds us of the number of domestic violence deaths that occur in Australia on a daily basis.
The hashtag itself, #MeToo, was originally used by Tarana Burke to empower other women of colour that had experience sexual abuse. Long before it became mainstreamed by Hollywood, Burke showed the solidarity that has characterised these other movements.
It is within the context that we can place the work of Kathrin Longhurst.
Kathrin has a long history of painting strong female figures who challenge us. Historically, she has been inspired by Soviet-era propaganda art, providing insights into her childhood. This Socialist realism emerges as Kathrin grew up in Communist East Germany, ‘behind the iron curtain’. Years travelling after the fall of the Iron Curtain and decades in Australia has seen her influences change and alter – but that edge of propaganda art remains.
Kathrin’s figures are portrayed in different poses: sometimes staring into the distance and other times directly at us; sometimes standing firm on the ground and at other times floating through the air. Regardless, these are women who are part of a larger movement: challenging, confronting, defying and defiant.
Art has a unique role in our society, it always has. Like their predecessors, today’s artists are our conscious – mirroring the things we should be proud of, the things we find challenging, and sometimes, reminding us of things that we would prefer to forget.
Kathrin’s work simultaneously falls into each of these categories. We are reminded of the power and defiance of the women that her work represents, as well as the suffering that women have endured, and continue to endure, as they fight for justice. The epochal moment of #MeToo is reflected in the work of Kathrin Longhurst, and so much more.
This exhibition captures defiance and power: true feminine and feminist qualities. It is for this reason that Kathrin’s work has never been more important, both visually and philosophically.
Artist Statement by Kathrin Longhurst
“Forging of a Human Spirit” March 2017
Forging of a Human Spirit is a body of work in progress. “Forging” refers to the process of metal working whereby a metal can be hardened by applying pressure to it. Applying too much pressure can make the metal snap and break. The same goes for humans, in my opinion. A hallmark of very successful people I know is that they have, at some stage, experienced extreme hardship—out of which a strong desire to better their lives and make a difference for themselves and others was kindled. Some of the most inspirational people in my life have been through hell and back.
Borne out of my own experience of overcoming suppression and adversity—growing up in Former East Germany, a feeling of displacement and insecurity when moving to the West and later experiencing the devastating effects of schoolyard bullying with my own children—I felt the strong desire to turn dark and difficult experiences into something powerful and positive.
The creative process can have an enormous healing effect on anyone experiencing adversity. For my own family, it was a vital therapeutic tool in combating my daughter’s lack of confidence and self-worth when facing the soul-crushing effects of bullying. Painting her forged strong family bonds and increased self-confidence. It also made me realise that there were families who have experienced far more difficult challenges with their children. Their stories were worth being told and so a new body of work was started.
My vision was to focus on asylum seekers and refugees, but my criteria grew to include other traumas such as surviving natural disasters, the loss of loved ones, bullying and other life-changing events. The first ten or so paintings were all sourced from my own personal network and I am hoping to reach a wider group as the project evolves.
The choice of colour, compositional poses and painting style are all deliberate and symbolic. Referencing the hero images from my youth in Communist East, I wanted the faces of the children to tower over the viewer as larger than life heroes and idols—like monuments or sculptures, untouchable and strong. Leaving part of the faces as raw background symbolises the loss they have experienced, or the sacrifice they had to make. I deliberately chose to leave out the darkest areas of their faces as it is their darkest memories they are leaving behind. I opted for soft, subtle, earthy colours that almost dissolve into the background, to remind us of the children’s fragility and softness. My goal is for the project to be a positive experience for the children and their families alike and that the focus on them will make a difference to their lives.
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
“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