Else seemingly female figure in the foreground rests

Else Meidner drew her Death
and the Maiden in circa 1918-25, while Henry Moore’s Woman Seated in the Underground was created 24 to 17 years later in
1941.

While
Meidner was a female German Expressionist, Henry Moore was British.

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Both
drawings depict female figures and have are limited to black and white, due to
the usage of paper and different black media, but both share a common medium in
watercolour. Meidner combined this with charcoal and graphite, while Moore
chose gouache, ink and crayon.

In
the following, it will be further explored how both pieces were created either
in the aftermath or during a World War and show the effects they had on people,
specifically women. The aim is to achieve a deeper understanding of the influence
gender and trauma take on the artists creative expression.

 

Nearly
the entire space in Meidner’s Death of a
Maiden is taken up by two figures, shown from the chest upwards, in an
embrace while both are facing towards the viewer. Whereas the seemingly female
figure in the foreground rests under the other figure’s hand with her eyes
closed, the other figure is wearing a large hood and both hand and face are
skeleton like.

The
figures are not hyper naturalistic but still more so than Henry Moore’s figures
in Woman Seated in the Underground. Here,
on a support measuring 483 x 381 mm a single, presumably female, figure is in
the centre of the image as a knee-length portrait. She appears to be
seated in a tunnel that stretches out behind her. On the upper right-hand side,
one can see what might be more people seated along the round tunnel walls.

 

Both
drawings show female figures.

While
Meidner’s work shows two figures, but no background, besides some darker
smudges; Moore’s piece appears to show a long tunnel, on the side of which the
figure is seated. Vague outlines in white oil pastel suggest an endless que of
people trailing along the opposite tunnel wall.

In
both, Meidner’s and Moor’s works, the female subject is not alone in the frame
and yet, they are the protagonists of the drawings. The focus lies on the
individual female figure as a representation of women during and after a war.
The emotional toll war takes on a persona mind is undeniable and both artists’
works speak of the psychological affects and aftermath on the female mind.

 

In
Moore’s case, the woman is quite literary “backed” by a large group, which
makes her stand out even more. She is in the foreground; therefore, all focus
lies on her as she represents women during second World War Brittan.

Judging
from the title of Women seated in the
Underground, the assumption lies near that Moore’s drawing is set in the
London underground which was used as bomb shelter during the German Blitzkrieg attacks on London in 1940 (X). “This has
been a quiet day for us, but it won’t be a quiet night.” (London can take it) People went
underground to seek shelter; however, they could still hear the bombs dropping
above.

The
tube shelters may have promised safety, but were by no means a pleasant place
to spend the night. Alf Morris, a survivor of the Blitzkrieg attacks on London
was a child when he was forced to seek shelter in the underground like so many
others. He describes it as “… claustrophobic. The air in there was thick.” (BBC, The art of War)

In
Women seated in the Underground the
tunnel appears gloomy and dark. It is poorly light and one can only make out
rough outlines of the people in the background done in white oil pastel, making
them look like “piles of … bones”. (BBC,
The art of War)

Now,
after looking at the drawing more closely, the tunnel seems more like a mass
grave, out of which the people will emerge in the morning, unsure of what they
will find. Unsure, if they have been made homeless overnight and unsure of who
has died in the nightly attacks. Finding themselves in what the 1940
documentary London Can Take It
euphemistically calls a “strange new world” (GPO Film Unit, 1940).

The
psychological strain this must have put on people can be seen in the women in
Moore’s drawing. Her crouched figure, nervously clutching her hands in an act
of what could easily be fear and panic. (X)
Many women
will have found themselves in very similar situations to the one depicted.

Moore’s
abstract line makes it furthermore impossible to make out details, generalising
her features and her presence even further. She becomes anonymous and
interchangeable. She could be anyone and yet, she is everyone. Her emotions
make her a symbol of the fear, insecurity and yet the resolution of the British
people during World War II (Tate).

 

Death and
the Maiden
on the other hand, has a more naturalistic style. The viewer is able to make
out the subject’s face. And yet, even though her features are clearly visible,
she could be anyone. The drawing is not the portrait of a specific person, but
rather of a personification of the people and women.

Considering
the fact that Meidner drew “The Death and the Maiden” from 1918-25 during her
teens Tate, Ese Meidner Death and the Maiden), the
assumption lies near that the scene is set in the Weimar Republic. Following
the destruction and despair left behind by World War one, the Weimar republic
was a fragile and futile attempt to reform a German state lasting only from
1919 to Hitler rise to, or more accurately seizure of power in 1933. (X)  

This
fragility and uncertainty is reflected in the drawing via the line and
symbolism Meidner falls back upon.

In
terms of symbolism, the large skeleton like figure holding the girl in a close
embrace plays an important role. By itself, like the title suggest, it can be
seen as a representation of death (X), which is
often portrayed as a skeleton with a black cloak and a Synge. (X) The motif of death embracing a
young girl becomes a metaphor for the misery and despair; the loss that society
went through after World War one. It is a reminder of the proximity of death,
as well as “transience
and mortality” (Tate).

It is surely no coincidence that Meidner,
who was rather opposite to her husband Ludwig Meidner, whom in return she
described in a letter to joseph Paul Hodin as “shy, cautious, reserved and
quiet” (Hodin, Aus
den Erinnerungen von Else Meidner, Darmstadt 1979, p. 23; found on Arts in Exile,
 Else Meidner, Self-portrait, 1938) chose
a female subject and motif of The Death
and the Maiden. A strong woman herself, only a woman or young girl seem s suitable
to represent the German people.  

 

A large part of Death and the Maiden is filled by dense
black charcoal strokes making the second figures cloak. Like a cocoon it
surrounds the female figure while death itself holds her in an embrace. The
stark contrast and rough lines make the drawing more dramatic and maybe even
stage like. The
style of line is rather rough, thanks to the use of charcoal, and stark black
and white contrasts dominate.

 

Opposite
to Meidner, Moore’s lines are not black on white but reversed, white on a black
background. This creates a rather intense, vigorous line. Additionally,
perspective plays an important part in Moore’s work. The way in which the
tunnel stretches out behind the subject makes it seem sheer endless and creates
an illusion of depth.

 

Death and
the Maiden on
the other hand brings the subject closer to the viewer in comparison to Moore’s
Woman seated in the Underground,
perspective is secondary to distance. This closeness works for Death and the Maiden, because it makes
the image more haunting and more powerful. In Moore’s case, distance is key, as
it underlines the sheer size of the tunnel and the mass of people, which again
leads the scene to be more striking.

 

Nonetheless,
both works are similar in colour and are kept solely to black and white; both are
made with watercolour, next to other media.

 

Another
notable aspect to add to the analysis of the two drawings is the purpose these
two drawings had at the time and continue to fulfil to this day.

Chris
Rose from the Rhode Island School of Design, once called drawing the “embodied form
of memory” (Vimeo, Drawing) and both works are a way to
document and memorise the mentality of a nation at a point in history. They are
timeless, in the sense that they still are able to educate and inform the
audience to this day.

But
in contrast to Meidner, who created Death
and the Maiden while taking drawing lessons from her later husband Ludwig
Meidner and attending several art schools (Jüdisches
Museum, n.d.),
Moore was hired by the War Artists Advisory
Committee, which was a government institution, and commissioned to make war
art. His official job as an artist lay in the artistic documentation of World
War Two Brittan (BBC,
The Art of War). Usually
such art was meant and used by the government to encourage the general public
and underline the heroicness of war (BBC,
The Art of War). This does
not really seem to apply to Moore’s haunting portrait. He himself went to the
tube shelters in order to draw what he saw and create his famous Shelter Drawings Series, which Woman seated in the Underground is part of.
(X) Meidner’s work is not based on a real-life
scene and therefore, in this aspect, less naturalistic than Moore’s work.
However, this does by no means mean that the two drawing are anything but
highly realistic in the way they expose the mentality and psyche of women
during war.

 

Taking
these thoughts into account, one does wonder, if perhaps other factors play into
the perception and study of the two works. For example, the artists themselves
and that one piece was drawn by a female artist, while the other one was a man portraying
a woman.

One
could argue, that both, during the 1920 Weimar Germany and 1940 Brittan, the
role of women I society seemed to shift.

As
stated in Visions of the “Neue Frau”:
Women and the Visual Arts in Weimar Germany, women were on the one hand
expected to be good housewives, but on the other hand more likely to find work (Meskimmon, West; page 1). This
suggests a certain degree of independence for women in Weimar Germany and is
part of the idea of the Neue Frau
(New Woman).

But
women also played an important role in World War Two Brittan. They worked on
farms as so called “Land Girls” (BBC,
The Art of War) and as female
munitions workers like in Dame Laura Knight’s Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring from 1943.

These
jobs made women vital workers during the war.

However,
the question remains, weather a female and a male artist would portray a woman’s
despair differently.

 

When
comparing the two pieces based on the artists themselves, two more aspects come
to mind.

The
first one being that Meidner was primarily a painter (X), while Moore was a sculptor as
well (X). As such, drawing
would be a prior step towards the end product, the sculpture. Even if Moore
never turned his Shelter Drawings into
sculptures, the curve in his line and the contrast in line and shadow seem to
underline the three dimensionality and physicality of the subject.  

While
Death and the Maiden contains just as
much contrast, the outlines and lines within the drawing are much less clear,
which could also be credited to her choice of medium, chalk.

The
second aspect would be the artists’ nationalities. Moore was a British artist
documenting British people in Brittan during an attack on Brittan led by the
Nazis. Meanwhile, Meidner was a German born Jewish artist portraying the
aftereffects of the First World War on the German People. Even if Meidner later
emigrated to and died in London after she left Germany in 1939 just a few weeks
before the Second World War broke out (Jüdisches
Museum, n.d.),
she still looked at the suffering of the German people from a German Point of
view.

 

Both, Meidner and Moore were not objective
in their portrayal, but efficient in communicating the mindset and subjective
experience of a World War.

 

In
the end, Else Meidner’s Death and the
Maiden and Henry Moore’s Women in in
the Underground are in a way very similar. In both drawings, the subjects
seem to be representatives of women in their respected countries and time
periods., showcasing the emotional toll the two World Wars took on women in
Europe.

They might differ greatly in execution and style,
but both works underline the suffering and trauma people are in during and
after War. They make the viewer question the legitimacy and necessity of war,
if it come at the price of peoples’ suffering.