IN 40 years' work as a sculptor, Ghisha Koenig derived inspiration entirely from ordinary people. She is best known for her scenes from factory life, and she rejected the superficial, ephemeral and fashionable in art, believing that sculpture should be based on serious observation.
Though Koenig came from a thoroughly Jewish background - of which she was immensely proud - it was never a theme in her work except in one piece, Ezekiel: survival (1956), a bronze in memory of people who perished in the Holocaust. The milieu from which she came was, however, very rich in Yiddish tradition. Her father, Leo Koenig, a poet, writer and art critic, born in Odessa, was one of the first people to review a Modigliani exhibition in Paris, where he was also friendly, and shared accommodation, with Chagall.
Leo Koenig settled in London, where Ghisha was born in 1921, in Kensington (which she never failed to mention), and was brought up in an impoverished, stimulating and political milieu. After a disastrous academic career at school, Ghisha won a scholarship to Hornsey School of Art in 1939. She left the college in 1942 and spent four years serving in the Army. She went back to art college in 1947, to Chelsea, where she studied under Henry Moore.
Moore's only legacy to Koenig was the understanding that an artist's life is a serious and difficult one, with no short cuts. This belief was manifest in the way Koenig worked towards producing her scenes from factory life in terracotta relief. She spent many hours drawing, sometimes months at a time, on site, at factories, clocking in for work daily. Her magnificent sketches form a body of work in their own right and were diplayed at the Boundary Gallery, in north London, for the first time in 1986, to coincide with a retrospective of her work at the Serpentine Gallery.
In the solitude of her studio, first in Kent and for the last nine years in Camden Town, north London, she would work in terracotta from her sketches often for two years at a time on a project. For her series The Tent Makers (1978-80), depicting the people who produced the tents for an Everest expedition, she produced five reliefs, the largest of them 1.5 metres wide, together with five figures in the round.
Her reliefs are almost theatrical; some look like models for stage design, either to be hung on the wall or placed on a plinth to be seen from above. Though anonymous, often with their backs to the viewer, Koenig's figures are not heroes or stereotypes of workers. She portrays the truth: the bent necks, the fatigue, the drudgery of long days spent standing in the same position. She elevates the status of manual work to a ritual and conveys the worker's relationship with machinery.
Her individual figures in terracotta she fired, then stained with dark ink before burnishing them. This inking and polishing process was unique to Koenig, and she used it to bring back the original life and richness of clay, which is usually lost during firing. Her laborious methods and her insistence on perfection, meant that she worked slowly and without help.
In Manny Tuckman, whom she married in 1950, she found a partner who not only believed in her work, but helped in bringing up their daughter so that she would have more time to devote to it. It was her husband's group medical practice on an industrial estate, the first of its kind in Kent, that provided her with the material for the first 30 years of her career as an artist. A more recent project, which she worked on between 1985 and 1986, was a commission for a school for the blind in Sevenoaks. She lived at the school, apart from weekends, for nearly three months. It gave her tremendous satisfaction that the three resulting reliefs were mounted in a way that enabled the children to 'see' her work by touch. In the same project were a fourth and fifth item, depicting the blind school's swimming pool, which marked a new artistic departure in which figures and background merge into a flatter, more expressionistic composition. Her very last work, which took her even longer than usual because of her failing health, was a relief based on children at a local sports centre in north London. It was finished just before her death.
Koenig died in the very week she was featured in a new book with Barbara Hepworth and Elisabeth Frink. Writing on the Wall is a selection of 20 essays by leading women writers. Each was asked to write about their favourite work by a female artist in the Tate Gallery collection. This will also be the theme of an exhibition to be held at the Tate. The writer Sue Townsend wrote an essay on Koenig in the book. It amused Ghisha, she wrote to me a few days before she died, that she had found a new fan in Townsend. In Townsend's latest book, Adrian Mole: the wilderness years, Koenig is mentioned with Matisse as Adrian Mole's girlfriend's favourite artist. It was something that appealed to her lively Jewish sense of humour and I can just hear her smoky brown, velvet, raspy voice describing this with a mocking undercurrent to her voice - utterly pleased but pretending it was just funny.
She always pursued a fiercely independent course; going her own way, she said, was good for her in the long run because it gave her time to develop.
She was a generous woman. Every time she sold some of her work, she would spend half of the proceeds on the work of a fellow artist still seeking recognition.
Her work can be found at the Tate Gallery, the Museum of Labour History, the Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield, Homerton College, Cambridge, and many other places throughout the world.
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