Refugees: The Lives of Others

German Refugee artists and their contribution to British Art


« BACK TO UPPER GALLERY – Selected Works by Eva Frankfurther (1930 – 1959)

This exhibition brings together art works and archival material by an array of both celebrated and lesser-known German-born refugee artists, principally from the Ben Uri Collection, supplemented by important external loans from both public and private lenders. Paintings, posters, prints, drawings, cartoons, book illustrations and sculptures explore issues of identity and migration via the German refugee experience in England, supported by oral testimonies from three generations of German migrants (available on ipads), and displayed alongside the work of contemporary German-Syrian artist, Manaf Halbouni.

Christ Taking Leave of His Mother c. 1507
Albert Einstein,. 1929
The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1636
Portrait of the Artist's Sister-in-Law, Elise Reifenberg (Gabriele Tergit)
Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt Van Rijn, John Philipp, Adèle Reifenberg, Julius Rosenbaum
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Portrait of Charlotte, 1945
Portrait of Dorothy Stone c. 1940
Maternity
Despair, 1941
Portrait of a Girl, 1922
Margarete Klopfleisch, Erich Wolfsfeld, Erna Nonnenmacher, Ludwig Meidner, Elsa Fraenkel
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Head of a Girl, 1924
Hands at Your Service (Ticket Collector), 1946
Head, c. 1920s
Verkündigung (Annunciation), 1933
Dodo (Dörte Clara Bürgner), Hans Schleger, Elisabeth Tomalin
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The exhibition opens with three works on paper by non-refugee artists to illustrate broader narratives of migration. Two biblical prints by old masters Dürer and Rembrandt were bequeathed by German refugee, Miss Stephanie Ellen Kohn, who made her new life in England, and donated a body of seven works (the majority by German artists) to the Ben Uri Collection in memory of her parents and brother, who perished in the Holocaust; their inclusion honours both these fates. While neither Dürer nor Rembrandt left their native countries, both were key influencing figures within German art. Appropriately, their biblical themes reference leave-taking, loss, reunion and forgiveness, subjects central to the refugee experience (also symbolically referenced in Alva’s Exodus). Similarly, John Philipp never left his native Germany, but his portrait of Albert Einstein, capturing probably one of the most famous German emigrants of all time, allows us to examine his brief refuge in this country.

Whilst the works on display range in date from the Weimar Republic in the 1920s to the present day, the majority of artists – all Jewish (except those already named), and mostly from liberal, assimilated families – were from the so-called ‘Hitler émigrés’ generation.

Following Hitler’s election to the Chancellorship in 1933, the introduction of anti-Semitic legislation and the foundation of the Nazi Reichskulturkammer to which all artist and designers had to belong, artists including Bloch, Feibusch and Meidner, were declared ‘degenerate’; all were forbidden from practising, and life in Germany became impossible. All the artists, and some of their subjects, owing either to their Jewish ethnicity or political opposition to National Socialism (Bilbo, Brecht, Heartfield, Klopfleisch), made ‘forced journeys’ (the subject of an earlier Ben Uri exhibition in 2009, and relevant to but not the central focus of the current show), with over 300 artists, designers and architects immigrating to Great Britain in the years 1933–39 (often via transit countries). Some, including Auerbach, Frankfurther, Freud and Weinberger* came as children, others like Cosman, Einzig* (*Kindertransportees rescued by World Jewish Relief) and Koppel, as teenagers. Many women – Klopfleisch and Dodo among them – came on visas as domestics. Their experiences contrast with those of established artists, such as Bloch, Marks, Meidner and Wolfsfeld, stripped of their livelihoods in Germany and attempting to re-establish their careers in a new host country.

A number of artists including Bloch, Feibusch, Marks and Meidner had been included in the infamous Entartete Kunst (‘Degenerate Art’) exhibition organized by the Nazis in 1937. Despite a handful of London exhibitions, including that of German-Jewish artists’ work at the Parsons Gallery, London in 1934 (exhibiting Bloch, Feibusch, Lomnitz, Meidner, Reifenberg and Rosenbaum, among others), and the 1938 Twentieth Century German Art (including Bloch and Marks), intended as a riposte to the ‘Degenerate Art’ show, the knowledge and appreciation of German art remained low. Ben Uri’s own exhibiting culture changed in this period in response to what Chairman Israel Sieff termed the ‘Nazi philosophy’, with German names dominating exhibitions from the 1930s onwards, and often entering the Collection (see facsimile display). Important émigré organisations aiding these creative refugees included the Artists’ International Association (AIA), the Artists’ Refugee Committee (ARC) and the Free German League of Culture (FGLC).

Many artists, men and women (Alva, Bilbo, Klopfleisch, Liebert-Mahrenholz, Lomnitz, Meidner, Nonnenmcher, Wolfsfeld, Meyer), were interned between 1940 and 1942, initially at transit camps including Huyton, near Liverpool, then primarily on the Isle of Man, following the hardening of attitudes to ‘enemy aliens’ and Churchill’s directive to ‘collar the lot’. The experience is captured in Klopfleisch’s Despair and Lom’s Girl Behind Barbed Wire (he also went on to pen his own account of the experience). Internees including Bilbo (Onchan) and Hamann (Hutchinson) were active in organizing camp exhibitions; Meidner famously petitioned to stay on. Due to personal circumstances, designers Dodo, Tomalin and Schleger were not interned, and went on to work for prestigious British firms including John Lewis (Dodo), Marks and Spencer (Tomalin), whilst, most famously, Schleger, designer of the iconic British bus-stop sign, was employed by Shell, London Transport, John Lewis and Penguin Books.

Dr Barnett Stross MP, Lithograph, 1936
Leff Pouishnoff, Pianist, c. 1939
Olive Stross, 1936-9
Olive Stross, .c 1939
Grete Marks (Margarete Heymann)
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Frau Trautz Schranz, 1951
Leff Pouishnoff, Pianist, c. 1939
Olive Stross, 1936-9
Olive Stross, .c 1939
Hilde Goldschmidt,
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Following release from internment, many resumed their careers: the irrepressible Bilbo turned gallerist, founded the Modern Art Gallery (1941–48), a haven for refugee artists including Kurt Schwitters, after his discharge from the Pioneers Corps; others, including Bloch, Cosman and Schleger, worked as fire-watchers. There were few commissions but artists painted, drew and sculpted members of their own émigré communities. Bloch (who taught Koppel and his cousin Weinberger), Hamann, Reifenberg and Rosenbaum were among those who started art schools whilst Einzig, Koppel, Kormis, Meyer and Weinberger became highly respected teachers.

Although the majority remained in England postwar and were naturalized, Heartfield, an exception, was refused British citizenship. Both Bilbo and Meidner returned to their native Germany in the 1950s; Brecht and Klopfleisch to East Germany; and Goldschmidt, to Austria.

Most of the featured artworks were created in England, illustrating the artists’ interaction with the new culture of their adopted homeland via portraiture, although Dodo’s self-portrait reflects the experience of Jungian psychoanalysis prior to migration. Émigré portraits include Reifenberg’s painting of her sister-in-law, the exiled writer Gabriele Tergit, who became secretary of the PEN Centre of German Language Authors Abroad. Although many found it difficult to recapture former reputations, exhibiting primarily within their own émigré circles, they also continued to exhibit with Ben Uri, whose exhibition programme and collection was greatly enriched by their contribution. Moreover, the wider contribution and influence of this group within British art, is incontrovertible and, particularly, through younger artists, such as Auerbach and Freud, who established major reputations and careers, continues to be felt to the present day.

« BACK TO UPPER GALLERY – Selected Works by Eva Frankfurther (1930 – 1959)