Last century, there were a few film directors who rewrote cinema. Apart from London-born Alfred Hitchcock, geographically the closest to South East film buffs was Stanley Kubrick, New York born but happily settled in Childwickbury, just north of St Albans, for many years before his death.
Known as an obsessive who valued his own privacy and space above all else – his classic A Clockwork Orange was withdrawn from circulation for many years in the UK because he didn’t want to engage in discussion about its potential for social harm – it’s hardly surprising that this silent iceberg of a talent had the potential to overshadow his talented wife, German-born Christiane.
Life is always hard for the lesser-known partner in a well-known relationship. Whatever their achievement, they always face the danger of being just a footnote to a more famous life. However, Christiane Kubrick has always done her own thing and has gained an international reputation as an artist to boot.
Descended from a melange of theatre directors, actors, writers and musicians, Christiane’s parents were opera singers and encouraged her into a career in the theatre, although her impulse was always to paint. However, she found early success as a dancer and actress – this included leading roles in theatre, radio, TV and film productions, when she was seen by Stanley who cast her in the only female part in the film Paths of Glory.
But the desire to paint never left her. Despite family commitments, she continued painting, studying at UCLA, the Art Students League in New York and at St Martin’s School of Art in London.
Then, following a family move to the UK in the 1960s, she began to exhibit – the Cork Street Galleries the Grosvenor Gallery, the Drian Gallery and the Mercury Gallery. Later, Christiane was elected Chair of the Women’s International Art Club, founded with a legacy from suffragette and artist Sylvia Pankhurst to defy a law that prohibited women from exhibiting their paintings. And she was also chosen four times for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.
At the same time, her work appeared in her husband’s films – in a curious mirror image of wardrobe designer Shirley Russell’s contribution to her husband Ken – as well as in works by Steven Spielberg, on a CD cover design for cellist Alexander Baillie and the cover for a novel by Gabriel García Márquez. Her paintings have been widely collected in the USA and Europe, with both prints and posters published, first by Athena Fine Art Posters and latterly by the Bentley Publishing Group. Many are reproduced in a series of fine art books in Japan and in 1990 a selection was published by Warner Books in a book Christiane Kubrick Paintings* selected as Art Book of the Year on American television.
Enough? No, there’s more! In keeping with the theatrical tradition in her family, she designed the sets for the Palace Opera’s successful production of Hansel and Gretel which was chosen by the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London to be its Christmas Show for two consecutive years.
That experience of theatre design led her to use an Apple Macintosh computer and the computer program ‘Painter’. She now uses these as a complement to her painting and also as a tool in her multimedia projects. Her recent activities include exhibitions for Art in Action at Waterperry (Oxon) and Open Studios (Herts).
She teaches regularly at workshops in Hertfordshire and Shropshire, as well as exhibiting and selling her work over the web.
So, that’s Christiane Kubrick – artist, creator, woman, mother. Ask her about Stanley and you get the stock response: “As and when the time comes that I feel I must say more, I will.” But that’s no problem – she’s a fascinating force in her own right. And she demands, in the nicest possible way, her own identity as an artist. “I don’t know whether Stanley wrote anything about my painting,” she says. “He might have mentioned it when he used my work in his films, but I’m afraid that’d be too long a search!”
Let us then take Christiane Kubrick as her own person, an artist of substance – ironic, humorous, whimsical but full of substance.
Here she is in conversation with In Balance magazine in 2007
IB: Have you always painted?
CK: I have painted all my life, I have painted professionally, from the age of 25 – before that I needed to learn how to draw. I come from an extremely theatrical family, so that’s all I ever really knew, opera and stuff. And I had a puppet theatre from day one it seems to me and I repainted the puppets and I learnt how to sew, I really learned painting, sculpture and sewing and all that in my wish to build the theatre and I made sets – sadly I don’t have them any more because the early ones must have been very funny.
IB: That was important to you?
CK: I know I gave it everything I had and I started to play with electric lights and water – nearly killed myself!
When I think hard, because the children have asked me about these things, I think it was when I had all the childhood diseases. When I had scarlet fever I remember just doing the theatre for weeks – that’s why I think I was better in class at drawing than the other children, just simply by doing it all the time.
Later I studied at St Martin’s School of Art and wherever I could in between babies and stuff!
IB: You’re German. What’s your background?
CK: I was born in 1932 in Braunschweig, a town in North Germany. I then lived in many different places as my parents were opera singers. Later, I was evacuated and I lived in my Nan’s relatives house in a brickworks, in the countryside. Then I lived with lots of other people after the war and went to boarding school.
I was 23 when I met Stanley and we got married a year or so later. I had been married before – criminally young – and had my eldest daughter, Katherine, in Germany before I went to the US. Stanley and I had Vivien who lives in California and Anya**.
IB: Moving to your paintings, the colours you use are very vivid, strong. Are they what you see or what you’d prefer them to be?
CK: I tend to see the world in bright colours, but now I’m longing to use more muted versions. I hope it comes not from growing older but from being more sensitive.
IB: So your style changes …
CK: Yes, it goes in phases. It’s a bit like handwriting – one day you write and it looks okay and another day you think how beautiful and neat it looks. Seems to be true of painting too.
IB: Do you sell most of your work?
CK: Well, it goes in waves, I sold very well at first on the Internet but that was because I was riding on Stanley’s coat tails and when he died lots more people looked me up, otherwise I think I wouldn’t be looked up that much. So that was good for sad reasons. It seems to have evened out. I sell at ‘Art in Action’, I sell to people who collect my work – overall I have sold a little over half my work. Of course, when I was young I sold them very cheap and I sold lots!
IB: Away from art, what makes you angry?
CK: The war in Iraq, but it’s not something I want to speak publicly about …
IB: What don’t you want to talk about when you’re asked for interviews?
CK: Some journalists are very clever and they surprise you. I hate that perplexed moment when you gush out the first thing that comes to your mind, or you are dumbfounded and you say nothing. Either way you look a fool.
IB: What sort of things?
CK: There were a lot questions about whether Stanley minded my being German – that kind of thing. People just assume that you’re a kiss and tell person – that’s insulting. I didn’t want to appear to be an idiot – it was that very thing that Stanley was afraid of with the press. He said that you do your very best, you work very hard and you only show the stuff you think is really good and then in an interview it’s undermined by nervous babble. He only wanted to talk about things he had considered carefully. He didn’t think he was quick witted enough to cope with intense interviews.
IB: Of course, you were married to Stanley and supported him. But what did you personally think of his films?
CK: I liked all his films, each one in its own way as they were very different from each other. As a painter I liked very much Barry Lyndon and 2001 – I liked the last one very much. Perhaps I felt the least connection with Full Metal Jacket where the topic was more alien, but I thought that was a good film as well.
So much time was spent on each one they represent whole periods of my life and I don’t have a favourite film. It depends on my mood at the time.
IB: He worked at home, though? So you were involved?
CK: He worked at home and prepared the film at home. It usually started when he read a story he really liked and he would talk about that particular story and how he could make it. Then, if it was really something he thought would work, he would make a budget and work out the casting. It took a long time to do it carefully and he enjoyed the preparation enormously. The driving force was a longing to see the story on screen.
IB: So you knew everything that was going on with his films while he was making them?
CK: Yes, because it happened at home.
IB: What did you learn from him?
CK: I learned from Stanley that you had to be thorough and patient, not self indulgent. He was good at putting different hats on. He was producer, business man, director. One instance I can remember was where he really liked a particularly long scene. He said “I think it’s particularly wonderful but it’s too long. It doesn’t help the whole enough for me to put it in.” And he whittled away at it. Often it was very painful to let go of something he thought was really good and he’d put it in, take it out, suffer in other words, but he also expected to do that. Paintings are slightly more protected because they will be there no matter what. The worst thing that could happen is I don’t sell but there are no other people pulled in, no one else suffers and the whole thing doesn’t collapse because I do a lousy painting. Film is different, it is so big and expensive. It needs ability and endurance to succeed, only a few people can do it, and Stanley did.
Val Reynolds Brown & Dave Reeder
1. Christiane Kubrick at her easel © Pintail Media
2. Remembering Stanley © Christiane Kubrick
** Died 1999
I met Christiane recently when she generously offered a copy of her book to give away to an In Balance reader
If you would like to enter the prize draw send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with Christiane Kubrick Paintings in the subject box and your full contact details in the text box.
Last day of entry 10 November 2011. One entry per household.