Drawing of Edith Sitwell. © Milein Cosman
Review - Lifelong Impressions: Paintings, Prints and Drawings by Milein Cosman at the Austrian Cultural Forum until March 26 2008
Milein Cosman has documented over half a century of both high culture and ordinary life in the UK, and London in particular. She also happens to be Jewish, but you would not guess from a quick inspection of her latest exhibition, a retrospective put on by the Jewish Museum.
She is best known for her line drawings of musicians, artists and writers from the 20th century. Many have been drawn at speed as the subject is moving, and this energy is captured in the strokes of her pen.
A number of these portraits are included in the exhibition, and they radiate personality. Francis Bacon is depicted with a red wash and tiny black flecks - an alarming intensity exudes from the image.
Drawing of T.S Eliot. © Milein Cosman
Iris Murdoch is calm and reflective. Viennese soprano Hilde Guden smoulders as Cherubino in the Marriage of Figaro. Others are humorous – you get the feeling Cosman had fun with TS Eliot’s nose, who she drew when she saw him in the audience at the rehearsal of one of his plays.
Cosman came to London from Germany in 1939 to study at the Slade School of Fine Art. She paid her way by delivering milk in ‘a little pony-cart’.
War had not yet broken out when she arrived, and she is not a refugee – she calls herself an émigré. Nor is she a ‘Jewish artist’. She says: “I’m not religious, I was brought up without religion, my religion is the arts.”
Drawing of Iris Murdoch as a child. © Milein Cosman
She has visited Israel but has little to say about it other than that the light was beautiful. This light can be seen in her painting ‘The Western Wall’, which shows orthodox Jews praying in Jerusalem.
Now in her eighties, Cosman is funny, and describes visual detail with passion. But she’s not analytical. “There’s no message,” she says, “I just want to do good drawing.”
For the generation that came over from Hitler’s Germany, it was not always the done thing to make much of your Jewish identity. An example is artist Marie-Louise von Motesiczky, a close friend of Cosman’s whose portrait is included in the exhibition. As a child in Austria, Von Motesiczky did not find out she was Jewish until a maid told her.
Drawing of Joseph Beuys. © Milein Cosman
Cosman admits, however, that “half the great fiddlers in the world are Jewish”, and she has drawn her fair share of them. A whole Jewish intellectual and artistic tradition was transplanted from Europe to elsewhere by the Second World War.
Cosman’s drawings document this émigré society. The exhibition includes portraits of art historian Ernst Gombrich, philosopher Martin Buber, Nobel Prize-winning novelist Elias Canetti, and Cosman’s husband, musician and writer Hans Keller.
The exhibition covers six decades and curator Ann Rau Dawes says she wants to “highlight Milein’s story, the people and places that have been really important to her”.
It includes several drawings of ordinary people, for example sheltering from the blitz at Belsize Park tube. Drawings of Balinese and Javanese dancers give Cosman another opportunity to capture movement.
Drawing of Francis Bacon. © Milein Cosman
There are also animals – a hare, a monkey, a giraffe and Benjamin Britten’s parrot. The parrot was drawn only after a battle of wills with Britten’s housekeeper, who did not want Cosman in the kitchen bothering the bird.
Cosman says: “The attraction of animals is their faces. I’m terrible, there are endless, wonderful little dogs who I talk to. Their strange bodies. The other day I saw one with jet black ears and it looked so wonderful and odd.”
Cosman is very much part of London. She settled in Hampstead, and has lived there in the same house for most of her life. She is well-known and prized locally. The exhibition is currently at the Austrian Cultural Embassy, but in acknowledgement of this it will move to the Hampstead Museum at Burgh House from April 9 to June 29 2008.
The next subject she has in mind could not be more English - the venerable Michael Foot.