lady painting

 

May 2005 Journal

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Art notes

They were refugees from the Nazis, but Winston Churchill's call to 'collar the lot' resulted in some 27,000 enemy aliens being interned in Britain during World War 11.They included a disproportionately high number of artists labelled 'degenerates' in a Nazi exhibition in 1937. Named after Hugo Dachinger's 1941 exhibition at London's Redfern Gallery, Art Behind Barbed Wire at the London Jewish Cultural Centre offers, for the first time in Britain, an insight through drawings and watercolours into the conditions of internees in British transit camps. For some, it was a brief and unpleasant episode during a shameful period in Britain; for others, it was pure trauma.

Internees were ordinary men and women, like the Soho tailor presser who could not afford the naturalisation fees and was interned despite having spent 30 years in Britain before the war. They experienced despair, malnutrition, cramped conditions and separation from loved ones. But their anguish mutated into a desire for expression. The artists set up classes, performed plays and concerts, and even established the Amadeus Quartet.

Parallels with Terezin's artists spring to mind, although Britain's internees did not, of course, face the prospect of Auschwitz. Instead, they coped with misfortune by creating a vibrant culture - even a university - in the Hutchinson Camp on the Isle of Man, for instance, or at Huyton in Liverpool. Much of the art is swift, impressionistic, or ironic, such as Richard Franz Bayer's tea-time cartoons in the camps. Bayer's satirical poems and postcards evoke the irony of escape - followed by internment as a suspect Nazi. The work depicts the simple life of prisoners and the materials were as basic as the subject matter, the food consisting of soup, rice, cheese and biscuits. Hermann Fechenbach, who went on a protest hunger strike, began an ingenious series of linocuts of refugee impressions, using pieces of lino torn up from the Hutchinson camp floor. Hellmuth Wussenborn also used these for his darkly ironic dustbin containing bones. Erich Kahn resourcefully found odd bits of wood to create a very effective primitive art. Sometimes the food on the plate is skilfully transformed into images of distant loved ones.

Established artists had to reinvent themselves in Britain. Martin Bloch had worked in Paris, opened a school in Berlin, and in summer taught on the shores of Lake Garda before his internment at Huyton, where he portrayed black and red chalk views of the camp. Later he opened a school of contemporary painting in Britain with Roy de Maistre.

Kurt Schwitter's portrait of Klaus Hinrichson with its deep, sad eyes projects an internal vision of the man who helped establish the Hutchinson University. Schwitter himself had exhibited at Berlin's Sturm Gallery in 1918 and had become attracted to the Berlin Dadaists, whose attempts to create a new art at the expense of traditional values labelled him a degenerate in Nazi eyes. There is little escape from reality. A road on a cloudy day shows a train and a looming tower, evoking Holocaust images, while Walter Nessler depicts the camp at Huyton as a flimsy affair likely to be blown over by the wind.
Gloria Tessler

previous article:My country
next article:Uncomfortable reading (review)