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Art & The Inner Journey

                                                                                                                              Text Box: By Cha Johnson

Monika von Moltke is one of those women who never age because their spirits fly freer than most of us. Her art has crossed many frontiers - from war-torn Germany to apartheid South Africa, from urban landscapes to the power of the wilderness and from outer journeys to inner ones. She is a painter, teacher and art therapist and is strongly connected to the psychology of Jung.

The psyche of an artist is always fascinating. They are, somehow, the mystics of the senses turning reality opaque and illusion diaphanous. They are image-mongers and foragers of ever-changing landscapes that enter our hearts and leave again through smouldering symbol. Not all artists talk in tongues but those that do invite one, if one cares to travel, into a deeper language that seeks understanding.

Monika von Moltke is one such artist whose artistic journey has been her geomancer. Her scribbles began as a young child in war-torn Germany on rationed paper in rattling passenger trains. They succumbed to her talent in music with piano-playing carrying much greater credence than art at the time. Fortuitously, Monika's lack of showmanship took her back into an art that blended more with an introverted creativity that sought to be shared, not in its act, but in its finale.

The stereotypical vernacular of the stay-at-home woman came into play when, at the age of 18, she married, had children and her art, although not entirely absent from her life, slithered into the shadows. No special themes or feelings had yet emerged in her paintings except for an interest in portraiture.

It was the call of the wilderness that unearthed Monika's deeper voice as a painter. "I went into the deep Namib desert" she recalls, "and that gripped me tremendously". The distance, the dryness, the catabolic desert reflected her parched inner life at the time and the turmoil in her marriage. "I remember the trees that became human and dry, with hands stretching out, and I became very drawn to the moon. There was a starkness and a darkness in my paintings with the colours being very much stone colours incorporating no red or brightness at all. On the one hand Africa is very light but on the other hand it appeared very sombre and dark to me." She loved to watch the darkness of the shapes filtering from the bright sun and the shadows forming sculpted shapes.

It was her dark 'desert period' that brought symbol into her vocabulary and was perhaps her first entrance into a paralleled inner journey. But the link between her paintings and her psyche was still not visible to her at the time. "I was just projecting onto the shapes. I read a story about birds dying of thirst in the desert and did a lot of stony bird desert compositions with death as a theme but I still did not connect it to myself."

Picking up little pieces of wood or stone, and studying and incorporating their organic parts, was very important to her. She always felt compelled to maintain a balance between the honouring of a form and its interpretation. "That moment of metamorphosis, that moment of change, had to be captured exactly - not too much the stone, and not too much my feelings. Then I was happy with it." In her early works the forms seemed to speak to her, whilst in her later works, she began speaking to the forms. She was growing both as an artist and as a woman.

What followed was Monika's 'stone and mask phase' encouraged by her sojourns into the Magaliesberg mountains. The huge stone formations beckoned her becoming masked shapes on her palette, and elephants fascinated her becoming stone shapes at her easel. Animals began to drink from her watering-hole and for the first time animals grew wings and birds began to fly. "That was for me a kind of a breakthough" reminisces Monika. "I felt that the birds wanted to fly".

There are stylistic references to Cubism and Surrealism in her work and she enjoys the work of artists like Max Ernst, Henry Moore and Georgia O'Keefe. Her war-time experiences triggered in her a deep sensitivity to the black people in this country and for about six years her own painting took a back seat as she devoted herself to teaching black students at the Fuba Art School in down-town Johannesburg.

Returning to the sanctum of her studio where her interior voice could work its magic, has always been essential to Monika. It is a way of balancing her inner and outer life, of entering her inner depths and understanding herself. She sees it not as a gift but more as a vehicle for self-expression.

Her role as art therapist has also become very important to her tapping into her need to teach and to heal. "Art helps people to express their feelings," she says. "It is amazing for me in abstract forms what a colour and a shape can express and once it comes up you can verbalize it so bringing up feelings from the unconscious. It is a very healing process for myself and others." Through drawing, painting and voice dialogue she takes you on a personal adventure into yourself Through image-making she provides an ear-piece through which thoughts and feelings can talk to each other. The process wakens, gently, sleeping parts of oneself.

A turning point in Monika's attitude to her work came from without in the form of a Wits University psychology professor who recognized the power of symbols in her work. He had for many years been searching for someone who could visually express all his feelings about archetypal psychology. Whilst the book he wrote about her entitled "Transpersonal Art" ultimately led her into a deeper understanding of her own work, it was initially very confusing for her. A stranger was imposing meaning to images that belonged to themselves.

She had not consciously been the quintessential soul-searcher or a woman suffering her art or an artist spirited by any concealed wounds. On the contrary, she was proud for men to acknowledge her work and even accepted the fact that people thought the artist to be a man. "Not any more," she insists. "I would like now to be acknowledged as a woman painter."

So Monika von Moltke began to look within. "The flower emerged out of the stone as something started flowering in me. The forms started to be shaped and there was always an image in the middle placed very symmetrically which I've read recently is very typical of women's art." A woman expresses her art very differently to a man and it is only becoming evident now as women no longer try to emulate or please men in their art.

Her 'Moonflower' painting at this time, a cactus flower that flowers a magical one day a year, symbolized that ever-yearning struggle to reach the light. A looming divorce was shadowing her path. She painted crosses and crucifixions. Sometime later love was to tap on her door. She painted moons, spheres, pupae and butterflies that captured her transforming womanhood. A mass of paintings stolen before they were to be exhibited devastated her, pushing her inwards. She stopped exhibiting. Trusting in the rich canals of dreams and their language, working with them and bringing them to life, brought her back again.

Jung and his work with symbols had entered her life through various strange knockings on her mixed-media door. Did it make a difference, however, being able to understand her paintings? Is there not a loss of purity of the art in the act of its interpretation? And does her artistic journey now have to parallel a journey of self-discovery where her art can no longer be mere art for arts sake?

"It is a good feeling deepening one's knowledge of self," she muses. "The unconscious and dreams are very important to me and the way of individuation is through understanding symbols and to build on them slowly, to make them more visible. There is definitely for me a psychological shift, and a shift into the feminine. My patriarchal background made me feel that I did not need to go to University and that marriage was all that mattered. Until I was about 50 1 felt myself mirrored in the male and could only discover my femininity through the man. Women have accepted a male version of themselves and I, for years, was acting out their image of me."

As she found herself delving more and more into Jungian psychology she began to encounter the rich mythology and stories surrounding the Greek Goddesses. By linking the symbolism of the re-emergence of the 'goddess' with her own re-emergence as a woman, she came to realize for the first time that femininity was something to be discovered in oneself, and she is still on that path. Her art temporarily back-slid into illustration rather than symbolism. "I was sometimes worried about what I was doing, but I just had to do it. Only slowly could I leave those very exact woman shapes and start to go more into the symbol again."

This is where Monika finds herself right now. Themes of transformation continue to permeate her work, the goddesses Persephone and Demeter dance in the over and underworld and the figures that were of stone are now of life. "Going into the underworld, the darkness, into depression is part of a woman's cycle. I have learnt to feel comfortable with it and not to get lost in it, to be there, and to know that Persephone comes up in the spring after three months in the underworld. I have learnt to trust in the coming to life again."

She waits, pauses as her new characters, Madonna and Child, find themselves. Eventually the Mother will give birth and the Child will find a face. "It's a long birth, you desire to hold the golden ball, to have a glimpse of the light, but then it is thrown back and who knows when it will end and when I will be able to paint that child," she says.

After she has 'given birth' what will she be painting? "I imagine myself painting flowers, purity, wholeness," she reflects in her strong, earthy accent. One day she would like to paint 'her animals' with no sacrificing up to earning her daily bread. She can't take the mountain with her, so she takes away a stone. She can't sit down for tea with God, so she paints flowers. She can look back on her life and know that each canvas has been a stepping-stone on her own woman's journey and each new canvas will be a cairn showing her the way.