Biographical Portrait

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Annegret Soltau
Artist, born 1946
Biographical portrait, 2008

What shaped me in childhood was deprivation. Compared to that time, my life now seems so full in every way – almost as if I were now being allowed to experience the other side of the coin. The deprivation I experienced had such an effect on me that my present life, the person I am now, revolves around it to a great extent. And the loneliness that I often experienced in my childhood is now part of my life as an artist. To work you have to be able to be alone, at least if you are going to reach the origins. This is not always pleasant. My childhood wasn’t always pleasant either, but this al-lowed me to reach out and find things that I otherwise would not have found.

I grew up on a farm, and I never had time to myself. When other children went swimming, I was told: “You have to collect hay, you have to bring in the beets, you have to pick strawberries.” Even in the winter I was busy: I had to go outside and separate the mayflower plants, or help with the butchering and sew up intestines. I couldn’t do what interested me; I had no time to read and didn’t have any books. I felt the deprivation, but I didn’t know how to change it.

Of course there were also positive experiences and good relationships in my child-hood. My grandmother was very important in my young life, but then I left her very early. Mr. Schubert, my teacher at school, was especially important to me. He took me seriously; that was extremely important to me at that time. He helped me so that I didn’t have to find a job and go to work after the eighth grade. I couldn’t go on to secondary school because we didn’t have enough money and no one felt responsible for me. My teacher helped me by paying for my schoolbooks. Because of him I was at least able to obtain my general secondary school certificate – even if I had to at-tend the trade school, which I didn’t particularly like, but it was certainly better than having to go to work on a farm right away.

I had to start earning money when I was not quite sixteen, because no one was there to support me. I never received a penny from my mother, who never gave me any-thing – no education, no allowance, and she never asked me if I needed anything. I worked for the Dresdner Bank and as an assistant to a doctor in the Hamburg harbor who treated accident victims. I did this work even though I didn’t have any training. Then I went to England to work as an au pair, and that was where I began to take art seriously. As a child in school I had enjoyed drawing, and Mr. Schubert often held up my pictures and praised them. That at least gave me some confirmation that I was noticed, that I actually had the right to exist. He also showed me that there was an-other way – small remarks that I never forgot. When I was in England, I began to paint in a dedicated way. I looked after five children and ran the entire household, but on many afternoons when the children were all in school, I had time to paint. I also attended an art class at a college in the evenings. From then on I wanted to study art.

When I was 19 I returned to Germany. In Hamburg I attended a school which pre-pared its students to take the art academy’s entrance exam. To earn money, I worked as a maid in a hotel, starting at 6 a.m. At noon I was free to go to the art school. I learned all the techniques in rapid succession and quickly assembled a port-folio, which I took to the art academy. They actually accepted me, and from then on I could develop freely. To earn money, I worked nights in a bar. At 9 a.m. the next morning, I was at the art academy. Of course I was often tired and once when a pro-fessor asked about it, I told him about my job. He said, “For God’s sake, you don’t need to do that. You should apply for a scholarship!” He wrote a recommendation for me and I received the scholarship, which meant that I no longer had to work nights.

I met my husband in the cafeteria. I worked there to earn some extra money, so I knew all the students, including a new student who was from Darmstadt. Darmstadt was so far away and, as a northern German, I didn’t really like the idea of it. And this student often went home to visit his parents and took his laundry with him. I thought, what kind of guy is that? What a spoiled middle-class type. He and I are still together.
We moved into an apartment together, but we always had trouble with our landlady. When we went up to our room in the evening, I stood on his feet while he walked down the hallway, so that our landlady couldn’t hear that I was going to spend the night with him. But at some point she found out anyway, and we decided, on the spur of the moment, to get married.

It was probably was because of my childhood that I wanted to get married. I was an illegitimate child, and this was always considered to be a stain. In my village, people often referred to me as a Wechselbalg, a brat of unknown parentage, because no one knew who my father was. When I look back today, I think that I got married in order to compensate for my feelings of inferiority. When we were with our classmates at the art academy, we were somewhat embarrassed to be married. Those were the 60s, and people didn’t get married – they moved in with housemates and started communes. We lived near the headquarters of Springer, a large and powerful Ger-man media company, and we participated in the protests, yelling: “Nixon, wir glauben Dir kein Wort, Völkermord bleibt Völkermord!” (“Nixon, we don’t believe a word you say – genocide is genocide!”) Otherwise, we just lived on in the tiny 12-square-meter room we rented from our landlady. After we finished our studies, we were both lucky enough to get scholarships from the German Academic Exchange Service. I went to Vienna, and my husband to Milan. I found Vienna in the fall very dark and depress-ing, and so I joined my husband in Milan. I liked Italy so much better. My work just flowed, one picture after another, although we lived in a tiny and primitive room there, squeezed in on a corridor full of southern Italians. I drew Italian women wearing scarves on their heads; in the etchings they then became “wrapped figures.” I also made two etchings of Gudrun Ensslin (one of the leaders of the RAF, a German left-ist terrorist group). Later we returned to Italy, to the Villa Massimo. That was a differ-ent experience, because it was a German academy, and at that time I had my two small children with me. It was hard for me to adjust to life there, and I found the sepa-ration from my husband difficult, but all in all it was a very good year, both for me and for the children. I met a lot of new people, including other artists, writers, composers, and architects. Everyone had a large studio and an apartment with a cleaning lady. I had never enjoyed such luxury before. This was the period in which I began the hu-man/animal restitchings, which I later named Grimas.

When I had my first exhibition, the headline in the local paper read: “Annegret Sol-tau’s Women.” I wondered why they said that – did I only draw women? I had simply started with myself. I was a human being. I wasn’t drawing a clear distinction be-tween men and women. This headline made me aware for the first time that I de-picted women, which I then began to do more purposefully. At some point I began using only myself as a model. However, human beings are my topic. I don’t want to create the impression that only one half of humanity is interesting to me, and that I deliberately exclude the other half from my work. At this point I gave up on traditional techniques. This was the period when women were discovering themselves and wanted to work with new materials which did not have traditional associations. I sim-ply wanted to work in a direct, physical way with my own appearance. A photo is like a print that reflects reality, and I took photos as the starting point for my work.

My life with my husband more or less follows traditional gender roles. We have known each other now for 40 years. I spend more time on the cooking, laundry and things like that. I’m also the one who maintains contact with our friends. However, in other respects I am the man and he is the woman. When we were students, our artis-tic lives were mostly separate. We spent our days at the academy, where he at-tended sculpting classes in the basement and I was in the painting studio on the sec-ond floor. Even though we were together, we each had a separate working space. Later we went through a phase in which we worked more closely together. I heard him working, and we listened to the same radio. Here, once again, we work more separately. I work on the ground floor, and he works in an annex next to the house. It’s good for us to be able to talk when we want to. When I’m not making any pro-gress or need some distance, I go into his studio and watch him working. We usually spend our coffee break together in my studio, where he can see what I’m doing. This helps me feel more oriented, gives me some distance from my work and helps me get on with it.

I would say that things have gotten better and better between us, because many things have fallen by the wayside, such as feelings of competition. In the past we had very emotional conflicts. They could be truly exhausting sometimes, so I’m glad that things are simpler now, because I am more versatile. My habit of wanting to talk about everything still annoys him sometimes, because he likes peace and quiet. This is what I find annoying about him, but in general we have found a new way of being together. I can handle the differences between us much better now than I could in the past. The more I concentrate on doing my own thing, the better things work out be-tween us. He had to deal with this in a very specific way, and then instead of talking about things, I produced my pictures, which became my way of expressing myself. They were just there. And so am I. In this way he has learned quite a bit more about me. Now he even wants to have pictures I have made – he comes into my studio and says, “You know, I wouldn’t mind getting that as a gift.”

The desire to have children crept up on me unconsciously. I had heard of so many women artists who found it very difficult to combine their work with their lives as mothers of small children, and this made me afraid. In the history of art, there are hardly any role models for women artists with children. But at some point a voice in-side me made itself heard, and I had to have a child. Of course the logical part of my mind said – two artists with children? We’ll never manage. At this point my husband and I went through a very difficult period together, until he finally agreed. I quickly became pregnant and we looked forward to having the child, which turned out to be our daughter. It was just that it was a big adjustment in the beginning. During my pregnancy I had dealt with the condition of being pregnant and my fears in my work. Everything ran together, with the baby and breastfeeding and working. And then I wanted to have a second child, and we had our son. After this, everyday life became very hectic and it was exhausting, but somehow my work kept flowing. I myself was astonished when I saw the pictures at my exhibitions.

I was friends with Karin Struck for many years after meeting her in the 1970s. She also dealt with the topic of motherhood; we were both interested in womanhood, in women’s private lives and bodies. We knew each other casually, and then at some point she asked me to make drawings for her book about her grandmother, Die lie-benswerte Greisin (The Loveable Old Woman). So I did. We wrote to each other of-ten and visited one another. We were interested in the question of how women’s pri-vate lives were also political. Our children were born – she had four and I only have two, but of course her life was very different. She lived her life with various partners, and each of her four children has a different father. I remained in a stable relationship with one partner.

I have dealt quite a bit with aging, by which I don’t mean to imply that I have reached the higher ground of being totally unaffected by it. I still mind when I see myself and think: “That is me, this metamorphosis.” These days I often have to dig out pictures from the past, because of the current interest in the 1970s. For example, at a recent exhibition in Los Angeles, only work produced before 1980 was shown, with the in-tent of depicting the new beginning made by women artists in the 1960s and 1970s and how they influenced the direction art has taken. Of course, in these earlier pic-tures, my face looks much younger. But I also like it when experience becomes visi-ble on one’s face and body. That has actually been my most important topic all along, because I think we should wear these things openly. I think this in my own case as well. I have to deal with the fact that others see me as I am – I myself don’t always find myself beautiful. I show myself to the world nevertheless, because living the truth in this way is important to me. I want to stick with it, to experience the truth about my-self and accept it, a little bit more every day.

Eroticism has become more and more important to me. I love the eroticism of the body, sexuality. The eroticism you find everywhere – in nature, in a tree, in a leaf – isn’t what I mean.

To me, the purpose of my life is continuity. Sometimes it is difficult for me to maintain and live it. On the other side, I can also see how much I have gained from continuity: the ability to remain true to my work, to create my art and to take it further and fur-ther. I see how the topics develop along with the topics in my life. It’s not that I depict my life as it actually is or was, but in my art I reflect on the processes that have taken place. During my last exhibition at the Mathildenhöhe, a museum in Darmstadt, I ti-tled the first section “selbst” (“self”), the next one “schwanger” (“pregnant”), the third one “generativ” (“generative”), and the last one “hybrids,” for the hybrid beings. This made it very clear to me once again how important it is to follow one’s own process of development, to consciously experience it and accept it, to enter into it deeply, bring it to the surface and represent it in art shown to the public. The positive reactions have shown me that other people can also see themselves in it. It isn’t my wish to represent myself only.

I’m not truly religious. But my friend Karin Struck converted to Catholicism late in life, and because of this I’ve thought a lot about this topic. I have the feeling that now I can only rely on myself. This feeling has become even stronger since Karin died of cancer one year ago. She didn’t want to have an operation, because she believed that she would make it without one. It was her decision and she had to do things her way. But her story has made me think things over quite a bit. I have become less re-ligious or less spiritual than I used to be.

I have begun to think about what I will leave behind when I die. My mother’s stroke and Karin Struck’s death shocked me and almost derailed me in my own life. My mother lies in bed now, completely helpless. She can’t speak, can’t eat and can’t do anything anymore. This happened from one moment to the next, and before this she had never even been in a hospital; the women in my family have always been very healthy and robust. I always thought that I could find closure with her on many things, that we would get to it at some point. The finality of this event shocks me. I find it worse than if she had died. She’s still alive – she is still alive, and yet no one can reach her. This experience has led me to take a few things into account in my own end-of-life planning. I have begun to think about where and to whom I will leave what. I’ve talked to my husband about it and we have drawn up a living will together. I have an envelope in my drawer where I’ve assembled all the important information for my children, including a list of the people they can contact so they won’t have to bear the whole burden themselves.

I also have whole boxes full of old journals – who am I going to leave them to? Who is going to read them? Really, no one should read them. One work of mine is a chronological series of pictures and continues on into the future – I titled it personal identity. It begins with the original copy of my birth certificate, and I have had my daughter promise that after I die she will sew my death certificate into it. It includes all the documents and cards I have had in my life. The last photo in the series will be the death certificate or whatever electronic device is then used. But I like the idea that I will live on in my work. That I will leave something behind.

From: „60 Jahre und ein bisschen weiser“ (Sixty and a bit wiser) by Ute Karen Seg-gelke, published by the Gerstenberg Verlag, Hildesheim, 2008.

Translated by Heather Krehbiel