NewsAnita Albus turns 80: "We forget to see beauty"

Anita Albus turns 80: "We forget to see beauty"

Created: 07.10.2022 Updated: 10/07/2022, 5:08 p.m

„Wo ist sie denn, die Inspiration?“ – Anita Albus in ihrer Wohnung in München, 2015. isolde ohlbaum/laif
“Where is it then, the inspiration?” – Anita Albus in her apartment in Munich, 2015. © Isolde Ohlbaum/laif

Anita Albus has been watching her whole life because she wants to find out what holds the world together. A conversation with the painter and author about nature as a teacher, the pace of the present and the dark side of aging

If you want to visit Anita Albus and walk from the main train station in the direction of Munich’s Maxvorstadt, you will pass around 5000 years of art history. Behind the Old Botanical Garden lies Königsplatz on the left, lined with magnificent facades, behind which all sorts of antiques are presented. Opposite: the University of Music and Theater. Further up the Arcisstraße is the Egyptian Museum on the right, behind it the Alte Pinakothek and the Bavarian State Painting Collection. Anita Albus has also dedicated her life to art and the beauty of nature. But for her, who celebrates her 80th birthday on October 9, the splendor is not as large as the columned portal of the Glyptothek. Anita Albus always painted in small formats, applying the colors layer by layer over weeks to let the peacock trogon’s wing shimmer like in nature, always with colors that she mixed herself. Luckily she recorded how this works in one of her books for posterity. Old Master, this word is often found in texts about this petite woman who is now opening the door. She invites them into the study, where she sits down on her lime-green chaise longue and then answers the questions with a calm and friendly smile, but also with determination.

Ms. Albus, in your “Botanical Drama” you painted and described 24 flowers, some of them exotic, from life. A few years ago you dedicated a book to sun moths and moon moths. For your most recent work, Affentheater, you dealt with our closest relatives. Why the monkeys?

I had the impression that these beings also reflect the different types and characteristics of our species. Some are unpleasant fellows, here and there. But that’s not meant as an accusation, just an observation.

Which of the species you describe touched you the most?

The Hamadryas Baboon.

Why this?

Because these animals are so intelligent and sensitive. Not only can you herd goats, but I also tell the story of a baboon who set the points and gave signals on a railway line in South Africa. I was very impressed by this gift of understanding connections and basically communicating with people like a human being. On the other hand, a baboon does not have it easy among its own kind.

Could that also be a reason for your sympathy?

You mean because I’ve always stood a little apart among my own kind? Might be.

What kind of monkey did you not find so pleasant?

The majority actually. As I said, most of them have pretty rough manners, so you don’t necessarily want to mix in with them. On the other hand, they are all part of creation, and while nature can be cruel at times, it is worth preserving. And not only because among all the wild and cruel individuals, no matter what kind, there are always gentle and circumspect ones to be found. Think of the mountain gorilla or the Bornean orangutan. They also have their uncomfortable moments, but most of the time they are there for each other and give each other a lot.

In the “monkey theatre” they talk about a total of 41 species of monkeys, where and how they live and how they were discovered. And again and again how badly the predator man, as you call our species, treated them. When you read what people used to do to study animals – which usually meant killing them – does it hurt you?

Ah pain. It always sounds so big, so accusatory. For me it’s more of an encouragement or confirmation, if you will, that my work is not only fine art, but also transcends itself. That I also move something in other people with my intensive examination of nature. Or at least able to touch.

Is there sometimes anger when you see or read what people are doing to nature?

No, not anger. I’ll be more sad. But you know , people, I’ve always found that problematic. Who are the people? I don’t even know the people. I’ve always been a bit suspicious of people. My family, my friends, people I’ve dealt with through my work, even with you, I would say: I know you a little now, so you’re comfortable with me. The rest, as I said, is rather suspect to me. On the other hand: We can’t look at our backs ourselves, only the owls can.

Nicht nur in Alfred Brehms Augen einer der schönsten Affen der Welt: der Guereza.
Not only in Alfred Brehm’s eyes one of the most beautiful monkeys in the world: the Guereza. © Anita Albus

You once said that as an only child you learned to live with loneliness. Writing and painting are rather solitary activities. Have you drawn your strength and your ideas from being alone?

Definitely every now and then. But this loneliness was mitigated above all in my childhood by the animals that I took care of. I had a squirrel that I raised. When I found it, it was so tiny that it fit in my cupped hands. It also allowed me to pet it later, long after it had lived outside in nature. And only from me. I found that cute.

But squirrels aren’t just cute and nibbling nuts – they rob nests, eat eggs and little birds…

Sure, nature is cruel, as I said, and the squirrel is no exception. That’s why it doesn’t surprise me that cruelty is not alien to humans either. And my art has always been a way for me to oppose the destructive power of humans. For me at least. I have learned a lot from nature for my life.

For example?

That things take time. Sometimes a lot of time. It takes a year or two for a seed to become a black cosmos. It takes decades for a sapling to grow into a tree. It took hundreds of thousands of years for us humans to become what we are. The researcher and poet Jean-Henri Fabre also learned from nature because he studied it so closely. So I’ve always tried to look as deeply and intensively as possible, to devote myself to the flowers, the butterflies. I also learned a lot about living with nature from the birds.

You have also repeatedly written about the finding birds that have accompanied you since you were a child…

Yes, all the little tits and the owls and the swallows that once belonged to me… I especially remember the swallows, one of which didn’t quite want to let go of her human swallow mother. That’s when my heart jumped in my body. But here again: Small birds, when they lie there naked, are not cute, they are more reminiscent of small dinosaurs. And yet there was always this feeling of wanting to take care of myself, to want to save a life, no matter how small.

And preserving has then become part of your art.

Yes, it seems like it’s not just a gift, it’s also a necessity.

To what extent a necessity?

In retrospect, it sometimes seemed to me that through this closeness to animals, which I experienced as a child, I had also found closeness to the beauty of nature. Even if the squirrel is a predator – it made me receptive to the fascination of nature. And through the swallows I learned to let go.

Both of which are part of working as an artist: immersing yourself in the work over weeks and months – and letting go when it’s finished.

Although that’s not as easy as it sounds. I was also fortunate that I never really had to worry about money. I couldn’t have made a living from my art, at least not until a few years ago, but I was able to devote myself completely to it. I am very grateful for that. On the one hand I am grateful for this gift of being able to make art in my own way, on the other hand I was and am grateful for the circumstances under which I was able to work.

The ethnologist Claude Levi Strauss, whom you also knew personally, once said that in your pictures “we see things in a way that we had unlearned or forgotten”. What did he mean by that?

He probably meant the intensity of the look, this deepening completely in something. Which above all means taking the time and looking. To look at the details.

Are we in danger of forgetting this intense gaze? In this smart digital world in which images rush past us every second?

I’m afraid so. And that’s not just horrible because everything gets so hectic. I also feel a certain concern because we are not only unlearning the eye for detail, but also for the big picture, which is made up of many small parts. Unfortunately, we also forget to see the beauty of what surrounds us. Which is all the more important because we are constantly destroying the beauty of nature.

To person

Anita Albus was born on October 9, 1942 in Munich. While her father and previous generations were chemists, she studied graphics at the Folkwang School of Design in Essen from 1960 to 1964. Since 1964 she has lived as a painter and writer in Munich and Burgundy.

Her first pictures appear in 1973 in the children’s book “The sky is my hat, the earth is my shoe”. Since then, Anita Albus has written and illustrated numerous books, including Das Botanische Schauspiel (1987) and Sonnenfalter und Mondmotten (2019), but she has also written about Tania Blixen (Das Los der Lust, 2007) and Marcel Proust (Im Light of Darkness, 2011).

She is a member of the German Academy for Language and Poetry and has received several awards. The Kunsthalle Kiel bought more than 60 works by the artist in 2016. boh

Have you felt the obligation to preserve the beautiful in your pictures and books?

That was what it was always about for me, yes. Not always with success, some species have nevertheless disappeared.

Today, shortly before your 80th birthday, do you still look at your work with pride and a certain satisfaction?

With pride, yes. But as an artist you are never satisfied with your work.

Is that coquetry now?

No, if anything, then pedantry.

What would you have wanted or could have done better?

It’s hard to put into words… It seems to me that it’s a basic feeling that people with a certain artistic gift have and that drives them. Most of all, I’m grateful for this gift, so we don’t have to keep circling around contentment now.

Have you ever felt like you failed?

Why should I have failed? Or what?

That you failed to capture the beauty of nature as you saw it. Or that you couldn’t implement what you had in mind?

I never had anything in mind. I always knew exactly what I wanted to paint, also because there was usually a template. Even when writing, I always knew what I wanted to say. And since I’ve finished everything, I can definitely say: I didn’t fail.

Eher rüpelhaft: der Brüllaffe. anita albus(2)
Rather rowdy: the howler monkey. © Anita Albus

You were a respected artist all your life, but you were never “in”. Her art has always been appreciated by few and overlooked by many. It was always said that you fell out of time because you painted naturalistic. You yourself have always emphasized that you do not want to create any art that comments on art, media or politics. On the other hand, you also said that your art should be understood as an answer to today. So a comment?

Of course, that’s why it says on the back of the monkey business that, while I never really felt like I belonged to my time, I always found it contemporary to point out the beauty of things we are about to destroy.

Never really feeling a part of your time, was that a shelter? Maybe even a comfort zone?

Definitely even. That was part of the freedom that made my life and work possible.

Being overlooked or smiled at also means being underestimated. Did that hit you? Or was it an incentive?

My main motivation was to recreate the beauty of nature layer by layer in order to come as close as possible to what we commonly call the miracle of creation. But of course it also struck me that my art was always admired but rarely shown or bought. When the Kunsthalle Kiel bought my works a few years ago, it was a great sense of achievement and also a source of satisfaction. But at the same time it’s sad.

What’s sad about that?

That Kiel is so far away. You can hardly get any further away from Munich. I went there once and saw the exhibition. But can I do it again? Who knows? But it also makes me sad that the city I’ve lived in for ages just bought two of my paintings, and that was only a few years ago.

In an article on the occasion of a major show for her 70th birthday it said: “The narrow-mindedness of the art world today consists in despising a plant still life.” Balm for the soul of the nature painter?


What are you painting on right now?

I am currently not painting.

You write?

Neither. I’ve been hard at work lately on my book on the monkeys, but since it’s finished I’ve been idle, if you will. The work is becoming increasingly tiring for me. The eyes, the head. Which, by the way, is not a nice discovery either.

What do you mean?

I’ve been very consistently productive over the decades. Always only a few hours a day, but during this time I first painted and then wrote, which always complemented each other well. And one thing led to another. But at some point my eyes couldn’t take it anymore. And for some time now I’ve been asking myself: where is it, the inspiration? But I also know that I can’t force them.

Otherwise it would not be inspiration.

Exactly, and sometimes that makes me sad. This is probably what some call the darker side of getting older: that at some point you realize that something that accompanied you so intimately the whole time and also carried and identified is no longer there. It seems like I’m really falling out of my time now.

Are you afraid of not being able to be as creative as you were for decades?

I’m really worried about how things are changing. Not only in terms of writing and painting. Even the little things of everyday life are gradually disappearing. I was a very good cook, a celebrated cook, I would even say! But it’s no longer possible. Shopping alone may no longer be a success. And sometimes I look in the mirror and think: What has become of you?

But you smile most of the time while we talk.

Yes? I’m almost tempted to believe it can’t be that bad…

Interview: Boris Halva

Anita Albus: „Affentheater“,
Anita Albus: “Monkey Theater”, © Fischer Verlag

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