Annegret Soltau: Art, Self-Portraiture and the Search for One's Roots
Bodily attack (pregnant), 1977-1978, © Annegret Soltau, VG-Bild Kunst, Bonn 2020
Interview with the German visual artist Annegret Soltau who has taken an essential part in shaping the development of performative and experimental art in the late 20th century.
Annegret Soltau, born in 1946 in Lüneburg grew up with her grandmother on a small farm village where she was called a changeling by the villagers. Feeling isolated and under-challenged, she tried to leave the small town as soon as possible.
At the beginning of the 60s, she moved to Hamburg and had to work in various jobs to earn money. In 1967 she began studying painting and graphic arts at the Academy of Fine Arts in Hamburg. She completed her studies in the master class of the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna with Professor Anton Lehmden.
Later on, in 1957, she broke away from traditional techniques and went public with a "permanent demonstration", after which she made her first photo-sewings, then photo-etchings and photo-overstitching. Annegret is a mother of two children and has incorporated the pregnancies, births and growing up of the children in relation to herself and society into her artistic work. The confrontation with the problem of art/children dragged on for many years and became an existential theme. For several years she has continued to work on the pieces of generational consequences, age, violence, the image of the body and the search for one's roots.
Nose, 2011-2016, © Annegret Soltau, VG-Bild Kunst, Bonn 2020
Tell us, what does art mean to you?
Without my artistic work, I would be afraid of losing myself. Art is my life-expulsion and therefore, existential for me. I have been active as an independent artist for over 50 years and can no longer imagine a life without art; I will very probably never stop doing it, not even in old age.
How would you describe your aesthetics?
As a young artist, I used to focus on portraiture, but then I started to focus more and more on self-portraiture. I use myself as a model because I can go the furthest with myself. This way I don't have to worry about an aesthetic image, and I'm always available. I have broken away from the traditional techniques of painting and graphics and been able to break through my pictorial reality to renew myself and come to a different, more profound conclusion.
SIM-Card#Debitel, 117, 2007, © Annegret Soltau, VG-Bild Kunst, Bonn 2020
In your art, the body serves as both an art medium and an art object. What fascinates you the most about the human body that makes you want to create art with it?
I am interested in how the body and mind are connected, and I seek to think with the body. Through history, I was aware that the woman's body was considered lower and filthier, while the man's mind was considered superior. In philosophy, for example, the woman's body was seen as dirty; therefore she was not granted mental abilities. This justified the oppression of women. Because of this, there were hardly any female artists in the public sphere and no professional training for them. Women thus remained invisible in public, including in art, where male artists usually portrayed them in an idealised way.
Since the 1970s, however, there has been an appeal from women: "The private is political". This period was a revelation for me and opened up an entirely new perspective and enormous productivity and creativity, from which I still benefit today.
Kali - Daughter (Teeth III), 2000, © Annegret Soltau, VG-Bild Kunst, Bonn 2020
How do you go about deciding on a person for your photo sewing collages?
My pictures are not created in an empty space. I don't have to go far away to find sources of inspiration. Often it is the closest thing around me that inspires me. I, therefore, draw inspiration from my own experiences and life processes, for which reason I include myself, my children, my mother, my grandmother, my partner and sometimes a good friend in my work. As a result, in addition to my self-portrayals, I always have " paragons" for my artistic works.
Your work is regarded as fundamental to the development of performative and experimental art in the late 20th century. Has your perception of art changed since then? If so, how?
Just like life, my artistic work is always a process of change. It's not about reflecting on my own self, but working on myself as a representative to reflect on our society. In the process, my perception also changes. With the years, the understanding becomes more comprehensive, yet simultaneously more concrete.
Myself depressed #3, 1977, © Annegret Soltau, VG-Bild Kunst, Bonn 2020
What do you want your audience to feel when they see your art?
I want people to feel touched by my pictures. Besides that, I don't specify anything. I want the viewers to bring in their own perspective. If my work can do that, I feel connected, and it brings me happiness.
Which artwork you have created is your favourite and why?
That's a challenging question for me because I don't really have a favourite painting, but always one corresponding to a particular phase that is close to my heart. One of these is a very early small overstitching that has been sold long ago through the Saltoun Gallery in London: a small self-portrait from 1974/75 with the title Selbst im Netz mit Maske (self in a net with masks).
This little painting is one of the first overstitching artworks I did; in fact, it was still an experiment for me since I didn't really know how I was going to go on.
It originated when I had a permanent performance demonstration that was about to be staged, and even though I was very excited inside, I had stage fright. To calm me down and to bridge the time, I came up with the idea of sewing directly on photos. For this motif, I stretched a thread net with black sewing thread around my head and sewed over the eyes and mouth. It is unique because I sewed over the entire surface as if I were plugging a hole that made it impossible to speak and see.
Self in A Net With Masks 1974/75, © courtesy Richard Saltoun Gallery, London
In a previous article with the “Kunstzeitung” you say that as an artist, you live in a constant lockdown, a kind of isolation because the artistic work requires being alone. So, would you say you can get more in inspiration from isolation than the outside world?
No, I wouldn't see it that way. The outside world inspires me. It's more of an exchange from the outside to the inside or vice versa. I don't live in isolation, and I'm interested in people. I was referring to the isolation during the working process, which is only possible in a separate space: I take things in and give them out again. However, during the process of creation, I have to concentrate and I can only focus when I am alone, isolated.
Could your art benefit in any way from Covid-19?
Yes, it has inspired me, and I am still in the process of working on some stitching on this subject. I didn't really want to do it, but then I saw the images in STERN magazine, and there have been prints of self-portraits on my work table for a long time that I had recopied in colour. Thus these two coincidences led to the idea of combining them. There will be 7 works, each 30 x 40 cm.
© Julia Wehmeyer, VG-Bild Kunst, Bonn 2020
In addition to your work as an artist, you teach at various schools and universities. As an experienced artist, what is your most valuable advice for anyone who would like to pursue a career as an artist?
Always try to stay true to yourself, and don't let yourself be dissuaded from your own ideas, even if it triggers criticism and incomprehension. People's views change with the generations, and suddenly something is being seen that was invisible before.
Female hybrids, 5, 2002, © Annegret Soltau, VG-Bild Kunst, Bonn 2020
Annegret Soltau has had teaching assignments, workshops and lectures at various institutions as well as the Hochschule für Gestaltung,Offenbach a. M. / Fachhochschule Bielefeld / Universität Köln / Internationale Sommerakademie für Bildende Kunst, Salzburg / Universität, Flensburg / Technische Universität, Darmstadt / Johannes Gutenberg Universität, Mainz / Kunstakademie Braunschweig / Hochschule Darmstadt / Freie Akademie Nürtingen / Institut für Philosophie, Darmstadt / Goethe Universität Frankfurt am Main as well as the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst, Leipzig.