Ghisha Koenig

Born 1921 London, England

Died 1993 London, England

Biography

Ghisha Koenig is primarily known for her bronze and terracotta bas reliefs that depict the visual, social, and psychological relationships that characterise human behaviour on the factory floor. She studied at Hornsey School of Art (1939–42), Chelsea School of Art (1946–8), and the Slade School of Art (1948–9). Growing up in London with prominent art critic Leo Koenig as her father, household visitors included artists, poets, left-wing intellectuals, and political figures. She moved to the industrial area of St Mary Cray in Kent in the early 1950s, where she began to sketch from the factory floor – a practice and subject matter that profoundly affected her career. Koenig was drawn to factories initially due to political interests, but this was broadly humane rather than narrowly political. She developed her own language of figurative art based on her conviction that ‘after Hitler, the dignity of man had to be re-established’. The discovery of this humanity was informed by her exploration of freedom and the tension between generalisation and individualisation, including the relationship between man and machine, and the unique rhythmic patterns and body language of personalities. Public commissions include for the Festival of Britain (1951) and American Industry (1976). She was also recipient of an Arts Council Major Award (1978).

Artwork Information

Study for Blind School: Class Room (1987) and Study for Blind School: Music Room (1987)

Between 1985–6, Ghisha Koenig was commissioned to produce a series of works by the London Society School for the Blind at Dalton House in Seal (Kent). Koenig spent nearly three months at the School making the sketches before she began work on the reliefs in her London studio.

The studies are records of her working process. They provide direct insight into her observational drawing method – a skill that she had honed on the factory floor and down the mines; for example, spending three days (including a full seven-hour shift) underground making sketches in the Chislet pits near Canterbury. The sketches at the blind school constitute another record of humans at work, based on Koenig’s belief that ‘An artist should try to say as directly as he possibly can what he sees. Art is visual.’ These on-the-ground sketches, as expressive marks of pose and movement, informed the resultant bronze reliefs. 

Blind School: Class Room (1987), Blind School: Cooking Class (1987), Blind School: Music Room (1987)

Armed with the preparatory sketches, Koenig began the bas relief sculptures in clay, adding to them section after section, until the composition was ready to be cast in bronze (unlike other sculptures by the artist, which were left in terracotta and stained with dark ink). 

The reliefs record anonymous students completing classroom tasks with conscientiousness and devotion. Many of the figures are depicted with their backs to the viewer, whilst others bear abstracted expressions. Koenig resists stereotypification by portraying body language as a mark of personality to constitute what she calls each person’s unique ‘rhythm’. Her ability to capture these distinct characters – through bent necks, tracing fingers, and tucked feet – reflect the extended observations she made at the school during her residency.

As in her factory works, the figures are integrated into their environment so that they form a single unit. She manipulates perspective in a technique almost peculiar to painterly form. Flattened dimensions suggest an inescapable relationship of individuals to matter and space. Students are bound to the guitars, books, and bowls, which consequently characterise and determine the nature of activity. The same series also featured the school’s swimming pool, not part of The WAC, but nevertheless significant because it marked a difference in style whereby the figures merge into an even flatter and more expressionistic composition with the background.

The physicality of the finished reliefs reinstate the importance of tactility to visually-impaired individuals as a mode of daily living. Through her characteristic sculptural technique, such scenes could be ‘seen’ by the students through touch.