Having grown up in post-war Germany, painter Katharina Rapp knows that it takes greater strength to make light of, rather than to point out what is wrong, with the world. Her style is unquestionably anchored in German Expressionism, however, she manages to use exaggeration of the human form, combined with her innate use of colour, to create a feeling of warmth and happiness.
The humourous, irreverent elements in her work are what have made Ms Rapp’s oil paintings popular. She is a specialist in painting the better moments in a woman’s life, and for poking gentle fun at the foibles of the gentler sex.
Her works hang in private collections in Europe, USA and Australia, and her life-affirming images have been used on wine and champagne labels, as well as by the mental health profession for the healing effect that her images can have, particularly on women with depression.
You could argue that to own a Rapp painting is like hanging medicine on your wall: her works never fail to raise a smile.
CATRIONA MITCHELL: Katharina, you grew up in a small town in post-war Germany. What were some of the most marking incidents of your childhood that were to later influence your development and style as an artist?
KATHARINA RAPP: My father died after the War, six weeks before I was born. Germany lay in ruins, there was no welfare system, except for war widows. Women of my mother’s generation weren’t trained professionally, so she worked in a factory as a seamstress. Our life was one of extreme poverty. My strongest recollection is of weekends, when widows dressed in black, red-eyed from crying, huddled around the kitchen table for a weeping session.
Contrast this with climbing up through the forest to our local castle, Burg Hohenzollern, with its romantic towers. Inside hung portraits of pearl-wearing princesses, but what really impressed me were the huge, theatrical paintings of powerful men in medieval armour, brandishing swords. The hopeless misery at home made me crave for a show of strength. Since I had no protector in my life, I fantasized about riding on the back of my own trusty steed (the name Rapp means black horse), armed with a sword, and thus escaping harsh reality.
Do you think this life of deprivation gave birth to the artist in you? Would you have pursued painting as a career, do you think, had you had a more comfortable early life?
My father was a painter. Although I’d never had the pleasure of watching him at work, art was in my blood. As a child, all I wanted was a scrap of paper and a pencil. As a teenager, all I wanted was to study art. Being a widow, my mother could not afford to send me to art school—and besides, I was only a girl—so the next-best thing was for me to become an apprentice in the decorative arts, a trainride away in Stuttgart.
When and how did you stumble upon the idea of bringing a humorous element into your paintings? Or was that something that naturally evolved, without conscious intent?
In the English-speaking world, schoolchildren who are good at sport are given privileges. In Germany, if you excelled in the arts, you were celebrated. My talent gave me star status—to such an extent that I felt emboldened to follow my natural inclination: I became the school clown, drawing on the blackboard caricatures of our teachers when they had their backs turned. They must have known who the culprit was, but it caused such hilarity that all was forgiven. Besides, my drawings were always done with affection, never with malice.
I should add that when finally, as a mature woman, I studied for my fine art degree at university, my tutor told me that humour in art was simply not done. It was not fashionable. But that I should stick with it all the same—since it was as rare as hens’ teeth.
What role do you feel comedy has to play on a world stage – in a world beset by problems?
Actually, I have a confession to make. I’m more into nonsense than Humour with a capital H, or Comedy with a capital C. According to Dr Seuss, nonsense wakes up the brain cells, which in turn helps to develop a sense of humour. I can tell the stunned silence when I tell people that I have a PhD in Nonsense. They look at me, not sure what to believe. Until eventually there comes a little smile.
Humour is born out of adversity. If you can laugh in the face of something that goes wrong, your spirit has risen above it, if only for a short moment. Our world looks bleaker and more frightening than ever. We need light relief. Without hope and laughter the soul shrivels. A cheerful person is more effective in solving a problem than a miserable one. Wringing your hands achieves nothing. It takes greater courage and strength to remain optimistic than to point out what’s wrong with the world.
Why do you paint women in particular?
That’s easy to answer. Women are more decorative, full stop. I’m fond of men, but speaking from a purely painterly perspective… if I need an accent or a splash of colour, is it safe to give a man a kiss curl, or stick a rose behind his ear? Besides, I’m better acquainted with the foibles of my own sex. Editors say, write what you know. Same goes for painting.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
I wish I could call myself an ‘egalitarianist’, because basically I believe us to be equal. However, while the pay packets of women are lighter, the domestic and family chores are heavier, and the glass ceiling keeps us from rising in public office… how can I not be a feminist until we’ve ironed out these differences?
Let’s turn to some of your seminal works. Would you share a little about the inspiration and story behind some of your paintings?
1. THE THREE DISGRACES
Archetypes are my thing. Throughout history, they have been done by the great masters. What has not been done is the inverse. I love making up my own goddesses, especially non-existing or playfully naughty ones. At an exhibition I once overheard a group of women discuss my painting. One said, that one in the middle is my younger sister, and I’m the tipsy one on the right. I love it when people identify with my imaginary characters.
2. AND LIFE GOES ON
When I dreamt this one up, I had come to the end of a relationship. Looking back, it occurred to me how certain periods in one’s life feel like different rooms. We step from one into the next, but our baggage, especially the internal one, keeps following us.
3. AUSTRALIA FAIR
Following my penchant for archetypes, I was musing about the mythological Europa on the Bull. Living in Australia, I felt an antipodean equivalent was called for. Much of Australia’s wealth was created from the back of her sheep. Also, comparatively speaking, this is a very open, free country, and I wanted to convey that feeling.
Aha! You got me there. If you look carefully, you will detect coins of silver that lead to her throne, plus the favour-seeking apple given to school mistresses in my day. If you look even more closely, you might notice that two or three buttons of her blouse are undone. Is Bureaucratica as respectable as we are led to believe? Perhaps.
5. LATERAL THINKING
Staying in New York, I had an attack of verticalitis (I just made this word up). All those vertical lines. All those high rises, offices, people trying to beat someone else at their game. Not everyone can be a winner. Why not opt out? Think laterally. There must be open spaces where there is more to life.
6. MRS BACCHUS AT WORK
Everybody knows about Mister Bacchus, the God of Wine, and his orgies. But as usual, behind every successful man there’s an even stronger woman. She’s doing the hard slog of testing all his wines first… for quality control purposes only, of course.
7. THE STAMP COLLECTOR
A man who loves woman because he adores beauty, and because he cherishes the company of the gentler sex, is often a charmer himself and much loved back. The proof of the pudding looks you straight in the face. Or was it straight in his face?
8. PRUDENCE AND HER DOG LIBIDO
There is much to be said in favour of growing older. Imagine not being overly bothered by your hormones any more. Spare a thought for the young ones! That gnarly beast in their lap, not letting go until it’s had its way.
Photos of Katharina Rapp are by Catriona Mitchell.
You can see more of Katharina Rapp’s oil paintings, and also order her art cards and prints online (delivered anywhere in the world) here.