Claudia Kaak’s Quest for Inner Peace
Claudia Kaak is a German self-taught artist who paints the human figure. She puts emphasis on facial expressions and body language while leaving backgrounds purposely nondescript in order to avoid distracting the viewer, allowing more focus on the subliminal content. Inspired by Rembrandt’s chiaroscuros and Lucian Freud’s brush strokes, Kaak paints in loose flowing gestures, basing her paintings on photographs and movie stills.
Coming from a working-class broken home that looked down on “frivolous” creative and intellectual pursuits, Kaak found her passion for painting at age twenty-one. Her love for art and art history have allowed her to discover a vital form of self-expression that she converts into a proactive, creative method to work through her childhood experiences.
Instead of giving them titles, Kaak assigns each painting with a number to form part of a numbered series in order to avoid impressing the viewer with a preconceived idea — she prefers viewers to engage with the deeper meanings of her artwork through their own visceral reactions. Every series has an autobiographical and often society-critical narrative — some series are open ended and ongoing, which means new paintings will be added, while other series are closed. Thematically all her work is interconnected, yet every series and each painting can also be appreciated by itself.
Another reason Kaak prefers to leave work untitled and nameless is that its essence and subject matter are hard for her to put into words because they deal with existential feelings she hasn’t fully worked out yet. These paintings capture psychologically emotive fragments in time, describing a past of internal turmoil and profound suffering, and relate to previously lived violence and trauma not explicitly shown in her work.
Untitled — Series 1, Nr. 5 portrays a movie still from the 2011 film The Tree of Life in which Kaak seeks to examine the tortured facial expression of actress Jessica Chastain. Kaak feels this grief-stricken look truly captures desolation and sorrow — emotions that the artist identifies and deals with on an almost continuous basis.
All the paintings in Series 1 explore what Kaak describes as “passive sadness” in that there are no physical gestures, just facial expressions to show deep inner emotions. For Kaak, sorrow and sadness are intimately linked to love. She says, “When you love someone, you cry a lot.” She explains how being unloved by her parents as a young child made her mourn for the love of people who never truly existed in the form she needed.
At first glance, Series 2 seems lighter in content, a sequence of paintings based on movie stills from the 2006 historical drama film Marie Antoinette, featuring actress Kirsten Dunst. After the birth of her first child, Kaak wanted to capture a sense of weightlessness and happiness which she skillfully achieved by using light, unsaturated colors and leaving unfinished areas by allowing the charcoal underdrawings to remain exposed. The final scene in this closed series shows a hand going through the grass, which seems to symbolize a feeling of hope and expectation — of new life and boundless, malleable possibilities.
To most of us the whiteness and lack of bright colors in these paintings transmit a sense of joyful ease, yet for Kaak the milky white light she encounters in the ever-cloudy northern European climate triggers an almost daily recurring episode of post-traumatic stress disorder. Although she has no recollection of what happened or when, this type of light reminds her body of something powerfully momentous and makes her feel like she’s locked underneath a glass bell dome while she desperately tries to struggle free from her out-of-body experience. Knowing this allows us to realize that our experiences deeply influence our visual sensitivities and that beauty and meaning truly are in the eye of the beholder.
The narrative in Kaak’s Series 3 is about children’s reactions to abuse — verbal, mental, physical, and/or sexual. These paintings show different ways in which children cope with harsh situations and despite showing different figures, they all refer to autobiographical moments in Kaak’s childhood. The silence in these paintings is deafening and poignantly shows how children tend to suffer in silence not only due to fear but also their natural tendency to protect the perpetrator, especially when the abuser is a parent or authority figure.
Pretending to be alright and pretending to be asleep are the most frequent methods used to become invisible, disguise anguish, and avoid showing pain or weakness. Many abused children grow up thinking their plight is a normal part of life. This explains why child abuse can continue on mostly undetected until the child grows up and speaks out — often many years after the facts. It takes an incredibly perceptive person to notice these atrocities and enormous courage to actively put a halt to such immoral injustice.
Kaak’s Series 6 deals with “active” sadness occurring when one reaches for love, understanding, and acceptance captured through different facial expressions and body language. Kaak explains, “You almost never get what you want if you beg for it. When you’re depressed or sad, almost nobody wants to look at you. People turn away…”
This is indeed something many of us know through experience; when we most need a kind gesture, a warm hug, a few sympathetic words of encouragement, or simply a listening ear we find ourselves in what seems like a vacuum. By painting these silent scenes, Kaak invites the viewer to look at need in a different light. Natural feelings of empathy often seem to disappear when dealing with a person in need, possibly due to our tendency for self-protection and the frustrating thought one isn’t able to fix someone else’s problems. However, those in need are not looking for quick fixes, they just want some compassion and to know they’re not alone.
Series 7 examines emotions linked to body movement and gestures. Kaak continues to add new work to this open series in an effort to explore how profoundly body language influences what the viewer perceives. In contrast to the overall despondency of her other work, this series shows inner strength, decisiveness, courage, and even a sense of playfulness — all emerging and evolving aspects of Kaak’s personality, of which courage seems the most obvious one to me.
Series 10 is undoubtedly a complete departure of Kaak’s more solemn and somber work in that it captures a sense of warmth and security in stark contrast to the previously seen paintings narrating grief, suffering, loneliness, and loss. These paintings glow with positive emotions, sparked by Kaak’s utter lack of parental care during her own childhood and profoundly linked to her desire to be a loving mother to her children today. This series deals with her hopes and dreams — illuminating tenderness, thoughtfulness, and acceptance — illustrating how she wants life to be for her own children.
Kaak says, “I didn’t have parents who were nice to me or cared how I felt. You don’t have a good feeling about yourself or life…” Being a mother herself now, Kaak is highly conscious of the mistakes her parents made and handles her parental duties in a completely different manner. These beautiful paintings speak volumes about intimacy, of whispered secrets shared, of affectionate physical contact, and tender moments she so craved and is now giving unreservedly to her own children. As it should be. Because each and every child deserves to be wanted, respected, cared for, and loved.
The narrative of Series 11 symbolizes feelings of dissociation, alienation, and powerlessness. Kaak, who has a history of self-harm, explains the importance of connecting to the physical self when one feels utterly disconnected from the world and even from oneself. The hands feeling, fondling, stroking the earth are her way of showing how touching something real and tangible can help to alleviate excruciating feelings of isolation. Kaak says, “Feeling the soil when you’re full of pain that you don’t know what to do or how to react, the mud helps you feel you are real.” It’s a gripping visual representation of the grounding of oneself while the watch acts as a symbolic reassuring reminder that these dark moments are not endless — they too will pass.
Series 14 reflects on silent emotions about loss, about people leaving even when one knows they were never truly there to begin with. The child of two narcissistic parents, Kaak was physically, mentally, and sexually abused from a young age. After years of therapy she was diagnosed as having borderline personality disorder and complex post-traumatic stress disorder. Despite these monumental obstacles, today Kaak finds herself in a stable relationship and has two young children. After the birth of her first child, now five years ago, she has not felt inclined to engage in self-harm or attempt suicide any longer.
Kaak continues to get help from a kind and very supportive social worker who comes to talk and assists her in a proactive way. Expressing herself through painting, building up an autobiographical body of work, and openly speaking about her past and present experiences have helped her enormously. Here I show a small selection of Kaak’s paintings that most speak to me personally, but because we’re dealing with a number of series which have added impact when seen as a whole I invite the reader to view all of them here.
Kaak is eager to talk about her life and does so through her artwork, despite knowing most people shy away from confrontations with gravely serious real-life situations. Kaak says, “Most people keenly watch television or movie dramas but don’t react to these dramas in real life. It’s as if they can’t find the empathy when it’s too close by. They don’t want to see.” She continues, “Many people ask me why not paint something happy? I want to show there’s more to life than just happy-pretty. I want to show feelings, not hide them. To hide feelings is not good for people and not good for society…”
Kaak’s work and story impact me profoundly. It drives home how vitally important art can be as a lifeline and a way to hold on to sanity, and I truly hope the world will see numerous more Kaak-Series created in the future.
Written by Lorena Kloosterboer, realist artist & author © Antwerp, Belgium.
Originally published in PoetsArtists Magazine, August 2017.