My Direct Self-Portrayal Was Considered Offensive: Interview with Annegret Soltau
Annegret Soltau, Self #12, 1976. Photo overstitching, 38.7 x 29.4 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.
Originally published via White Hot Magazine, February 2022.
Annegret Soltau (b.1946) is a well-known feminist artist in Germany. Coming from a generation of civil protests of 1970s, Soltau internalized feminism and artistic disruption through her controversial photo portrayals of nude pregnant bodies, of herself and others enveloped with simultaneously healing and menacing black thread. In her works feminine and feminist bodies become abstract forms, source materials that Soltau has cut and stitched together for years to come. There is something surgical in this disembodiment and reassembling. Stitches are ties of memories, gender roles, values, empathies that hold some of Soltau’s alter egos together as figures go through life-changing transformations. And she continues to transform her bodies and bodies close to her even today, now working in digital collages.
Nina Mdivani: You were the pioneer female artist during the second wave of feminism when private became political in the U.S. as well as in Germany. Did you actively identify with this movement at the time? And what do you think happened to feminism since? Does it continue to be a life-changing philosophy for women globally? Do you still identify yourself as a feminist artist and why?
Annegret Soltau: I studied at the art academy in Hamburg from 1967 to 1973. Those were the years of student protests and rebellion against the encrusted 1950s, as well as against the denial and speechlessness about the guilt of our parents’ generation. For us then art had to be socially relevant, the emancipation of women was not yet envisioned. This changed quickly when the women’s movement emerged from this social protest and I was swept along. I read Simone Beauvoir’s The Other Sex as well as Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, and these books became spiritual models for me. After my studies I exhibited in a women’s gallery in Berlin, founded by a lesbian couple, no men were allowed there and they called it Galerie ANDERE ZEICHEN – Frauen + Kunst. In the meantime, I had given birth to a daughter and was pregnant with my second child and I showed my newly created pregnancy and birth pictures there. At that time neither men nor women had understanding for these representations. For men it was not a suitable subject of art-making. And for women my art was problematic because they were divided and rejected motherhood in order not to fall back into old gender roles. My works at the time were caught up in this dichotomy, but I didn’t let myself be distracted and continued to work. At the same time as the pregnancies, I created my videotapes, in which I invented performances for different phases that corresponded to my respective state. Some of them were titled panic, discord, hope, being alone, separation, confinement, memory, address, being born. In 1983 I showed a large video installation with these performances at the Frankfurter Kunstverein. It was received very controversially and no newspaper wanted to write a review. The nakedness of the pregnant woman in my direct self-portrayal was considered offensive.
I have an impression that a lot has changed with regards to feminism, especially in recent years. Younger feminist artists are now discussing how art and motherhood could be combined. For example, there are currently digital interviews on this topic parallel to a Paula Modersohn-Becker show at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt am Main. Today’s female artists no longer want to limit themselves and have to choose only one option, but they want EVERYTHING and to decide for themselves how they want to live!
I still feel connected to the feminist movement in art. For example, on January 21, 2017, I gave a rally speech at Römerplatz in Frankfurt am Main for WOMEN MARCH. Starting in March 2022, I will be involved in a feminist art project in Santiago de Chile. This exhibition presents a project with Chilean and German women artists who enter into a dialogue with each other. The works that clash in the exhibition reflect the respective personal contexts of the artists. A transfeminist living in Chile’s capital Santiago will probably have different experiences from a woman with indigenous roots or someone who grew up as a Black woman in Germany have lived a different path from an artist of the feminist generation of the 1970s. What unites us is desire to stimulate discussions about feminist utopias with their art.
Annegret Soltau, Self #1,1-14, 1975. Photo performance, 250 x 100cm. Image courtesy of the artist.
NM: You have started working with a thread for your performance series permanent demonstration in 1975, when you have wrapped up volunteers at the Darmstadt gallery Kunstwerkstatt. What has initially prompted this decision? And had the conceptual attribute of the thread change over time? In some works, the usage of thread has benevolent feeling to it, yet, sometimes it seems to attack a person, almost looking as an abstract, violent force. Did you consciously change this shade of feelings across works or do these gradations come organically?
AS: In addition to painting I have studied drawing and especially etching. In this technique I had a special interest in how an intaglio and the line have to be engraved or carved on the plate, so, it was a haptic line in the metal plate before I printed it. The first subjects were different states of women, but also self-portraits in which I depicted myself as if enclosed by my own hair. Furthermore, I created portraits of the German female terrorists of the 1968 movement Ulrike Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin, as well as portraits of female writers Ingeborg Bachmann, Karin Struck and Christa Wolf.
As an example, I then took myself as a model in 1975, because I can go furthest with myself. Instead of carving into the metal plate, I now took a black thread and “marked” my own face with it until I could no longer see, speak or hear, until I was incommunicado, so to speak. I laced the thread so far around my face up to the point of deformation, penetrates into the skin up to the pain limit. The details of my face seem to have disappeared and frozen, it resembles an act of mummification. I reach for the scissors and free myself. The black thread remains as a document and forms the last sheet to the 14-part photo sequence.
On the following days, I continued this performance every evening in the gallery for a week. For this I took friends or visitors as models and called what was happening a permanent demonstration.
The black thread is ambivalent for me, first of all it is my working material, but then also a traditional thread that women use for sewing as well as the healing thread that a surgeon uses during operations
Annegret Soltau, Motherhood, 1980. Photo restitching, 12 x9 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.
NM:I have read you have had quite a traumatic childhood that included unsupportive family, missing father and a general lack of human connection. Do you think that the thread you have worked so much with throughout your artistic career spanning from 1975 onwards could be a Freudian attempt to find such connections with the outside world and the people in it?
AS: I see myself as a child who should not be born and finding art has been a thorny path for me. I first had to fight my way through the undergrowth of not being understood. At that time I could never have imagined being able to live as an artist. I was a lonely child, conceived during the war and born outside of wedlock. My father, a soldier, remained unknown and my mother gave me to my grandmother when I was a baby. So, I grew up as a changeling in a small village on the Elbe in northern Germany. At first, we lived in a horse stable, because our house burned down during the war and only the cattle stable remained. Art was a part of life there, it just did not exist. But I felt an unconscious suspicion that there must be something else and followed this “star.” Even if I could no longer see it in some phases of my life, it remained an orientation for me and flickered on again and again. My husband, the sculptor Baldur Greiner, wrote a biography about this early period of my life entitled Annegret Soltau: I was on a quest describing these challenging times. As a young artist, I was often smiled at and my paintings dismissed as embarrassing.
I got comments such as ‘She only exhibits her private life,’ but the slogan private is political always was an impetus for me – to break up existing relationships and orders in life and in art as a woman and an artist. We are all treated to the image of women, how they should be and look like. I have created counter-images for this.
I don’t analyze myself; my pictures are (my) reflection and I could read it there. It’s about touching people so that they can find themselves in my pictures. With this thought I feel relieved and connected.
Annegret Soltau, Bodyopenings, Nose, 2011-2016. Photo restitching. Front and back of the work, 15.1 x 10.1 cm.
NM: Questions of reality, its perception and your identity as a way of positioning yourself inside this reality seem to be foundational for you as an artist. Why did you choose a nude body of you and of your family members as subjects of this positioning? How did they react to your appropriation of their physical identities and usage in a non-linear, disarranged, way?
AS: As a woman, my body seems to me like a battlefield, where everything is acted out beyond the pain threshold. Some young women flaunt their styled bodies on social media, as if in a shell, but there are others who stand by their bodies, no matter what they are, it takes an inner strength to stand by them. Growing old, on the other hand, is still a special challenge.
I myself have worked with my changing body since the 1970s. From being a young woman, a pregnant woman, to being an older woman with the traces of transience. In the generative paintings I have depicted the chain of the four women of my family naked, starting with my daughter, me, my mother and grandmother. I wanted to show the connection of the women with each other; the young woman carries the body of the old woman, the old woman carries the body of the young, etc. These pictures were censored at some exhibitions because of the ugliness of the old naked women’s bodies. Also, the publisher Siegfried Unseld of the renowned Suhrkamp Verlag stopped the printing of a book with my generative – pictures. This happened although I had a contract and everything was agreed with the editor and the author, he said: The ugliness of the pictures of Annegret Soltau would not find his tolerance.
Annegret Soltau, Puberty- DAUGHTER twice, 91, 1994-1999. Photo restitching, front and back of the work, 270 x200 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.
NM: Stitched bodies and faces arbitrarily brought together and apart – are they stand-ins for patriarchal and societal pressures projected upon women? Or are they a story of any woman who grows up to carry and birth her own child either physically or metaphorically?
AS: Already as a young artist I have dealt with social and patriarchal constraints in my work and have shown the destruction and violations of women in society. The acts of violence against women in our world are not over, there is still much to do. I made a postcard with the motif of the last image of my 1975 self-performance, there I cut open the web of thread with which I am enclosed. For this I have printed my own statement, which I understand as a warning to the future:
THE ACHIEVEMENTS OF MY GENERATION ARE FRAGILE
DIE ERRUNGENSCHAFTEN MEINER GENERATION SIND ZERBRECHLICH
Annegret Soltau in her studio, 2018. Photo by Axel Deus.
Galerie Anita Beckers, Frankfurt, Germany
Richard Saltoun Gallery, London, United Kingdom / Rome, Italy WM