History can seem abstract, until people you know, or think you know, become part of it. Serena Katt learnt only so much about her Polish-born grandfather Günter’s life growing up in Nazi Germany from conversations and his brief writings.
Since his death, however, Katt tells Paul Gravett, she has used drawing to delve deeper into his conflicted past. Her tender yet incisive graphic memoir ‘Sunday’s Child’ considers what we choose to remember and to forget.
How did ‘Sunday’s Child’ begin?
While my Opa Günter was alive, I knew about his achievements in later life, but very little about his youth. He had a habit of painting a golden picture of himself and repeating the same success stories of his adult life over and over.
Günter grew up in Germany during the 1930s – like most German boys, he joined the Hitler Youth. Later he attended various military training programmes, spending the entirety of his boyhood in Nazi education facilities. After he died, a closer inspection of his short written recollections helped me learn more, and inspired me to dig behind his facade.
Your working process consists of redrawing an image multiple times, each time responding to and improving on the previous one. What are you seeking through this process of distancing and distilling?
Each image in the book has been drawn at least three times, and always in response to the previous drawing. Drawing and redrawing a person allows me to get ‘closer’ to them – to empathise with them – but in doing so, I am aware that I am filtering them through my own experiences, and so I add a layer of distortion to their story. This is on top of all the filters and biases that have already been applied to my sources – the accounts I hear and read and the archive images I use. I am working with a paradox – I am looking for ‘truth’, whilst knowing full well that there isn’t one, universal truth, particularly when talking about history or memory. The act of drawing helps me to contemplate these mechanisms of bias and distortion.
‘Sunday’s Child’ is completely rendered in pencil. Does the graphite suggest something fragile, tentative, unfinished, erasable – like a memory – and unlike say the definiteness of pen and ink?
I had never thought about it like that, but I think that’s an interesting way of reading it. Pencil allows me to work with an intensity that I haven’t found for myself in other mediums. Also, I can achieve a wide tonal range that is reflective of the black and white photographs I am working with, that I couldn’t achieve with pen, for example.
Read the full article in Varooom 39