Milein Cosman, drawing (all images courtesy Prestel Publishing)

I first came across Milein Cosman’s drawings while working at New Hall Art Collection — a collection of work by women artists housed in one of the University of Cambridge’s two all-female colleges. The collection was established by a group of academics in the 1980s as a way of combating the underrepresentation of women artists in museums and galleries.

Milein Cosman’s story is typical of many of the 20th-century female artists — such as Isabel Rawsthorne and Maeve Gilmore — who are represented in the collection. These artists had significant critical and commercial success, but were eclipsed by the male artists with whom they were associated. Isabel Rawsthorne, for example, is better known as Jacob Epstein’s muse or by her association to Francis Bacon than as a remarkable artist in her own right. Works by these artists sit in the art stores of major museums but are rarely put on display.

Milein Cosman: Capturing Time cover

It is therefore up to others — friends, family members or devoted fans — to secure these women’s places in art history. Fortunately, Cosman, who died in 2017 at 96, found a posthumous advocate in her close friend Ines Schlenker. Schlenker’s illustrated biography, Milein Cosman: Capturing Time (2019), proves Cosman’s importance both as an artist and as a chronicler of her time. Her prints and drawings, reproduced in the book, demonstrate an innate artistic skill, as well as constituting, in the words of Schlenker, a “pictorial who’s who of the cultural elite of her time”.

Emilie Cosmann (she adopted her brother’s mispronunciation of her first name “Milein” and dropped the second “n” from her last name) was born into a prosperous Jewish family in the small German town of Gotha in 1921. She moved to Switzerland aged 16 to escape the Nazis and then settled in England, where she enrolled at the prestigious Slade art school, which had decamped to Oxford for the duration of the war.

Milein Cosman, “Francis Bacon” (1984), drypoint and monotype, 22.7 x 17.4cm

Milein Cosman, “Hans Keller” (1970s), felt tip pen on paper, 40.3 x 27.0 cm, detail

After the war she moved to London and tried to start a career. It was there that she met her future husband, the Viennese musician and broadcaster Hans Keller. He became the subject of many of her portraits, including one, titled simply “Hans Keller” (1970s), which she drew with a pencil between her toes. To her own and Hans’ surprise, it turned out to be one of her most expressive.

Cosman also drew portraits of the most prominent musicians and artists of her time: Igor Stravinsky, Benjamin Britten, Leonard Bernstein, Joseph Beuys, Barbara Hepworth, Francis Bacon. The portrait of Bacon, with its bold composition and blood-red background, mimics his own style. Capturing people from behind became something of a trademark for Cosman: conductors aiming their batons at their orchestras, Balinese dancers shimmying away from the viewer, and her elderly mother hobbling off into the distance supported by a nursemaid.

Milein Cosman, “Japanese Dancer” (1955), pencil on paper, 34.9 x 25.4

Milein Cosman, “Market Women, Mondsee” (1952), pen and ink with wash on paper, 21.1 x 29.6 cm

Although Cosman primarily focused on the human face and figure, in later life she took formative trips to Europe and the Middle East and was inspired to create scenes of urban life. Particularly striking are her drawings of markets places, whether a bustling souk in Jerusalem’s Old City or a makeshift market stall in a sleepy Austrian town. Immune to trends and fashions, Cosman always remained true to figuration at a time when most prominent artists were experimenting with abstraction.

Cosman’s best drawings tend to be her most concise or her most frenetic. Her pithy drawings of dancers and conductors, which look as if they’re made up of one single line, capture all the energy and intensity of her subjects’ movement. On the other end of the spectrum are her sumptuous drawings of Central European cathedrals — explosions of thick Rococo curls and swirls.

Milein Cosman, “St Michael, Mondsee” (1951), pen and ink with watercolour on paper, 39.8 x 29.8cm

Milein Cosman, “Souk, Old City” (1979), pen and ink with wash on paper, 30.4 x 22.5cm

Schlenker’s prose sometimes suffers from unnecessary clichés and awkward turns-of-phrase. At one point we’re told that “when love finally struck, it was again John Heath-Stubbs, who was responsible for the introduction.” At another point Cosman is described as being in a “situation akin to a fish out of water”.

Footnoting is also sparse. In the first chapter, Schlenker recounts an anecdote about Cosman’s first meeting with the headmaster of her Swiss boarding school, Paul Geheeb. Schlenker describes how, “with his sensitive dreaminess, sandalled hairy legs and breeches he appeared to be a fairy-tale creature, perhaps a “sacred spirit of the wood,” but we are never given an indication of where this extraordinarily precise description has come from.

However, with its gorgeous reproductions of Cosman’s drawings from throughout her life, this monograph is an important contribution to the history of 20th-century women’s art and a fitting homage to an artist who refused to be told what to do. At one point early on in her career a newspaper editor said that she would starve unless she started producing a different style of drawing. Starve she did not. Instead, she produced a singular body of work that continues to sparkle and delight.

Milein Cosman: Capturing Time is available for purchase from Amazon and other retailers.

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Naomi Polonsky

Naomi Polonsky is a London-based curator, art critic, and translator. She studied at the University of Oxford and the Courtauld Institute of Art and has experience working at the Hermitage Museum and Tate...