Else Meidner drew her Deathand the Maiden in circa 1918-25, while Henry Moore’s Woman Seated in the Underground was created 24 to 17 years later in1941.
WhileMeidner was a female German Expressionist, Henry Moore was British. Bothdrawings depict female figures and have are limited to black and white, due tothe usage of paper and different black media, but both share a common medium inwatercolour. Meidner combined this with charcoal and graphite, while Moorechose gouache, ink and crayon.Inthe following, it will be further explored how both pieces were created eitherin 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 influencegender and trauma take on the artists creative expression. Nearlythe entire space in Meidner’s Death of aMaiden is taken up by two figures, shown from the chest upwards, in anembrace while both are facing towards the viewer.
Whereas the seemingly femalefigure in the foreground rests under the other figure’s hand with her eyesclosed, the other figure is wearing a large hood and both hand and face areskeleton like. Thefigures are not hyper naturalistic but still more so than Henry Moore’s figuresin Woman Seated in the Underground. Here,on a support measuring 483 x 381 mm a single, presumably female, figure is inthe centre of the image as a knee-length portrait. Sheappears to be seated in a tunnel that stretches out behind her. On the upperright-hand side, one can see what might be more people seated along the roundtunnel walls.
Bothdrawings show female figures. WhileMeidner’s work shows two figures, but no background, besides some darkersmudges; Moore’s piece appears to show a long tunnel, on the side of which thefigure is seated. Vague outlines in white oil pastel suggest an endless que ofpeople trailing along the opposite tunnel wall. Inboth, Meidner’s and Moor’s works, the female subject is not alone in the frameand yet, they are the protagonists of the drawings. The focus lies on theindividual 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.
InMoore’s case, the woman is quite literarlly “backed” by a large group, whichmakes her stand out even more. She is in the foreground; therefore, all focuslies on her as she represents women during second World War Brittan. Judgingfrom the title of Women seated in theUnderground, the assumption lies near that Moore’s drawing is set in theLondon underground which was used as bomb shelter during the German Blitzkrieg attacks on London in 1940 (The Art of World War Two: A Culture ShowSpecial. (2010)). “Thishas been a quiet day for us, but it won’t be a quiet night.” (London Can Take It (1940)) Peoplewent underground to seek shelter; however, they could still hear the bombsdropping above.
Thetube shelters may have promised safety, but were by no means a pleasant placeto spend the night. Alf Morris, a survivor of the Blitzkrieg attacks on Londonwas a child when he was forced to seek shelter in the underground like so manyothers. He describes it as “… claustrophobic. The air in there was thick.” (The Art of World War Two: A Culture ShowSpecial. (2010)).
InWomen seated in the Underground thetunnel appears gloomy and dark. It is poorly lit and one can only make outrough outlines of the people in the background done in white oil pastel, makingthem look like “piles of … bones”. (TheArt of World War Two: A Culture Show Special. (2010))Now,after looking at the drawing more closely, the tunnel seems more like a massgrave, out of which the people will emerge in the morning, unsure of what theywill find.
Unsure, if they have been made homeless overnight and unsure of whohas died in the nightly attacks. Finding themselves in what the 1940documentary London Can Take Iteuphemistically calls a “strange new world” (London Can Take It (1940)).Thepsychological strain this must have put on people can be seen in the women inMoore’s drawing. Her crouched figure, nervously clutching her hands in an actof what could easily be fear and panic. (Tate, (n.d.) Henry Moore OM, CH Woman Seated in the Underground 1941.
) Many womenwill have found themselves in very similar situations to the one depicted. Moore’sabstract line makes it furthermore impossible to make out details, generalisingher features and her presence even further. She becomes anonymous andinterchangeable. She could be anyone and yet, she is everyone. Her emotionsmake her a symbol of the fear, insecurity and yet the resolution of the Britishpeople during World War II (Tate, (n.
d.) Henry Moore OM, CH Woman Seatedin the Underground 1941.). Death andthe Maidenon the other hand, has a more naturalistic style. The viewer is able to makeout 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, butrather of a personification of the people, women and economy of a whole country.Consideringthe fact that Meidner drew “The Death and the Maiden” from 1918-25 during herteens (Jüdisches Museum Frankfurt amMain, (n.d.) Biography Else Meidner.
), the assumption lies near that thescene is set in the Weimar Republic. Following the destruction and despair leftbehind by World War one, the Weimar republic was a fragile and futile attemptto reform a German state lasting only from 1919 to Hitler rise to, or moreaccurately seizure of power in 1933 (Crockett 1999, p.7). Thisfragility and uncertainty is reflected in the drawing via the line andsymbolism Meidner falls back upon.Interms of symbolism, the large skeleton like figure holding the girl in a closeembrace plays an important role. By itself, like the title suggest, it can beseen as a representation of death (Tate, (n.d.) Else Meidner Death and theMaiden c.
1918–25), which isoften portrayed as a skeleton with a black cloak and a Synge. The motif of deathembracing a young girl becomes a metaphor for the misery and despair; the lossthat society went through after World War one. It is a reminder of theproximity of death, as well as “transience andmortality” (Tate, (n.d.) ElseMeidner Death and the Maiden c.1918–25).
It is surely no coincidence thatMeidner, who was rather opposite to her husband Ludwig Meidner, whom she inreturn described in a letter to Joseph Paul Hodin as “shy,cautious, reserved and quiet” (Hodin, Ausden Erinnerungen von Else Meidner, Darmstadt 1979, p. 23; found on Arts inExile (n.d.)) chose a female subjectand motif of The Death and the Maiden. Astrong woman herself, only a woman or young girl seem s suitable to representthe German people. A large part of Death and the Maiden is filled by quick,dense, black charcoal strokes making the skeleton-like figures cloak.
Like acocoon it surrounds the female figure while the death like figure holds her inan embrace. The stark contrast and rough lines make the drawing more dramaticand dynamic. They give an additional urgency to the imagery.
The style ofline is rather rough, thanks to the use of charcoal, and stark black and whitecontrasts dominate. Itis hard to say, which artistic period this drawing belongs in, since even ifher husband was part of the Expressionist Group Die Brücke (Barron1988, p. 6), the art of the Weimar republic was,like David Crockett describes it in German post-expressionism: the art ofthe great disorder 1918-1924 “a hodgepodge of trends and intentions” (German post-expressionism:the art of the great disorder 1918-1924. 1999, p.7) and aconstant exchange between artist and styles was the norm. Oppositeto Meidner, Moore’s lines are not black on white but reversed, white on a blackbackground. This creates a rather intense, vigorous line.
Additionally, perspectiveplays an important part in Moore’s work. The way in which the tunnel stretchesout behind the subject makes it seem sheer endless and creates an illusion ofdepth, adding to the dramatic impression the scene leaves on the audience. Death and theMaiden onthe other hand, brings the subject closer to the viewer in comparison toMoore’s Woman seated in the Underground;perspective is secondary to distance. This closeness works for Death and the Maiden, because it makesthe image more haunting and more powerful. In Moore’s case, distance is key, asit underlines the sheer size of the tunnel and the mass of people, which againleads the scene to be more striking. Nonetheless,both works are similar in colour and are kept solely to black and white; both aremade with watercolour, next to other media.
Anothernotable aspect to add to the analysis of the two drawings is the purpose thesetwo drawings had at the time and continue to fulfil to this day.ChrisRose from the Rhode Island School of Design, once called drawing the “embodiedform of memory” (Drawing Conversation. (2013)) andboth works are a way to document and memorise the mentality of a nation at apoint in history. They are timeless, in the sense that they still are able toeducate and inform the audience to this day.
Butin contrast to Meidner, who created Deathand the Maiden while taking drawing lessons from her later husband LudwigMeidner and attending several art schools (Jüdisches Museum Frankfurt am Main, (n.d.) Biography Else Meidner.), Moore was hired by the WarArtists Advisory Committee, which was a government institution, andcommissioned to make war art. His official job as an artist lay in the artisticdocumentation of World War Two Brittan (TheArt of World War Two: A Culture Show Special. (2010)). Usually such art wasmeant and used by the government to encourage the general public and underlinethe heroicness of war (The Art of WorldWar Two: A Culture Show Special. (2010)).
This does not really seem toapply to Moore’s haunting portrait. He himself went to the tube shelters inorder to draw what he saw and create his famous Shelter Drawings Series, which Womanseated in the Underground is part of. (TheArt of World War Two: A Culture Show Special. (2010)). Meidner’s work isnot based on a real-life scene and therefore, in this aspect, less naturalisticthan Moore’s work. However, this does by no means mean that the two drawing areanything but highly realistic in the way they expose the mentality and psycheof women during war. Takingthese thoughts into account, one does wonder, if perhaps other factors playinto the perception and study of the two works. For example, the artiststhemselves and that one piece was drawn by a female artist, while the other onewas a man portraying a woman.
Onecould argue, that both, during the 1920 Weimar Germany and 1940 Brittan, therole of women I society seemed to shift. Asstated in Visions of the “Neue Frau”:Women and the Visual Arts in Weimar Germany, women were on the one handexpected to be good housewives, but on the other hand more likely to find work (Meskimmon,West et al. 1995, p1). This suggests a certain degree of independence for womenin Weimar Germany and is part of the idea of the Neue Frau (New Woman).
Butwomen also played an important role in World War Two Brittan. They worked onfarms as so called “Land Girls” (The Artof World War Two: A Culture Show Special. (2010)) and as female munitionsworkers like in Dame Laura Knight’s RubyLoftus Screwing a Breech Ring from 1943.
Thesejobs made women vital workers during the war.However,the question remains, weather a female and a male artist would portray awoman’s despair differently. Whencomparing the two pieces based on the artists themselves, two more aspects cometo mind. Thefirst one being that Meidner was primarily a painter (Arts in Exile (n.d.) Else Meidner, Self-Portrait, 1938.) while Moore was a sculptor as well (Henry Moore Foundation (n.d.
) About Henry Moore.). As such, drawing would be a priorstep towards the final end product, the sculpture.
Even if Moore never plannedon turning his Shelter Drawings intosculptures, the curve in his line and the contrast in line and shadow seem tounderline the three dimensionality and physicality of the subject. WhileDeath and the Maiden contains just asmuch contrast, the outlines and lines within the drawing are much less clear,which could also be credited to her choice of medium, chalk. Thesecond aspect would be the artists’ nationalities. Moore was a British artistdocumenting British people in Brittan during an attack on Brittan led by theNazis. Meanwhile, Meidner was a German born Jewish artist portraying theaftereffects of the First World War on the German People. Even if Meidner lateremigrated to and died in London after she left Germany in 1939 just a few weeksbefore the Second World War broke out (JüdischesMuseum Frankfurt am Main, (n.d.
) BiographyElse Meidner.), she stilllooked at the suffering of the German people from a German Point of view. Both, Meidner and Moore were notobjective in their portrayal, but efficient in communicating the mindset andsubjective experience of a World War. Inthe end, Else Meidner’s Death and theMaiden and Henry Moore’s Women in theUnderground are in a way very similar. In both drawings, the subjects seemto be representatives of women in their respected countries and time periods, showcasingthe emotional toll the two World Wars took on women in Europe.Theymight differ greatly in execution and style, but both works underline thesuffering and trauma people are in during and after War.
They make the viewerquestion the legitimacy and necessity of war, if it comes at the price ofpeoples’ suffering.