Nov 2008 Journal

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Art notes (review)

Two contemporary artists who never met and whose careers were cut short by the Nazis are now honoured posthumously in a two-woman show at London’s Boundary Gallery. Two Berliners is the intriguing title of this selling exhibition of works by Margaret Marks and Pamina Liebert Mahrenholz.

Marks, a Bauhaus ceramicist, founded a successful commercial pottery with her husband, exporting to Europe and the USA, but was forced to sell up in 1934 under stringent Nazi laws forbidding Jews to run factories. Nonetheless, she escaped with a collection of previously unseen works on paper and after the war she exhibited in Britain and the USA. The potter in her is revealed in soft-textured, voguish portraits, particularly those in pencil and watercolour, which are notable for their volume. In these washy portraits, the flesh is etiolated to reveal the strength of eyes and mouth. I liked her tender watercolour Mare and Foal and the charcoal Head of a Woman, in which a squiggle suggests a veil.

While neither artist reveals her wartime experience, Marks’s Hastings I-IV are significant. I saw a hint of the concentration camp in two charcoal drawings of this English resort. The pier resembles barbed wire and the obelisk changing huts give the sense of a watchtower. The accident in art? Who knows whether Hastings, with its famed battle, evoked something closer to home.

Mahrenholz turned to sculpture by chance after a small wood carving of her nephew impressed a successful sculptor, who offered the use of his studio. Awarded the Prix de Rome for her work, she was prevented by Nazi opposition from receiving it and she reached Britain in 1939. Although she gave up sculpture for a time in favour of abstract painting, the oils and acrylics on show suggest three-dimensional cubist forms, with a strong sense of movement. Amadeus String Quartet No 1 and its accompanying Sketch for Amadeus are semi-abstract works in which you can sense the sawing motion of violins. Of the two artists, Mahrenholz appears the more vibrant and experimental. Her colours are luminous and viridescent: the yellows and reds ripple with sunlight, almost evoking Gauguin. But these contrast with the more sombre mood of the two self-portraits, which tell the story of survival in hard times.

Visitors to the Doric splendour of Tate Britain must dodge Martin Creed’s Olympic runners to reach the Francis Bacon exhibition - which perfectly illustrates art on the move. Bacon’s portraits convey the passing moments that illuminate every face with the bitter continuum of life. The artist once told an interviewer that he thought his paintings were horrible – ‘But then, you only have to think of the meat on your plate.’

It’s true that among 65 works in the first UK retrospective since 1985, only his singular portrait of William Blake – a comparable spirit of gloom – might find a place on your lounge wall. But in the homophobic 1950s, Bacon was vilified for his homosexuality and his male figures are chunky beings hiding their features and their terrible strength from the world, lurking, Quasimodo-like, in dark corners.

Man as meat, nature red in tooth and claw, power itself screaming in terror - this is the vocabulary of Bacon’s art. He expresses it in several portraits of Pope Innocent X, inspired by Velasquez. Clothed in purple or seated in a gilded chair, the See of Rome becomes in all his papal splendour a caged animal shrieking out his pain, his inability through want or magic, to cure man’s inhumanity to man. He and other subjects are often enclosed in boxes or glimpsed through vertical slashes as Bacon experiments with the tensions of space.

Bacon’s transcendental view of mankind is bleak, broken by the Second World War, stripped of the gloss of faith. Bacon the atheist sees little difference between man and animal and the view he presents is shocking and repugnant, but one that touches in its daring.

In the 1950s, the violence of his affair with Peter Lacy and the seeping menace of the Cold War are encapsulated in his Man in Blue series, in which a dark-suited male figure is isolated in a social or business setting, leaning forward on the point of utterance. In an erotic painting of two figures in the long grass, the couple are a blob but the long grass is alive and potent.

The Crucifixion series explores the nature of brutality and fear and later his paint becomes a thicker impasto. His famous triptych of the suicide of his lover, George Dyer, two days before Bacon’s major exhibition in the Grand Palais in Paris, is hideously compelling in its veracity. In its power and tragic energy, it stands on the brink of his centenary as Bacon’s own supreme epitaph.

R. O. Lenkiewicz (at the Ben Uri) is a figurative artist who paints out of his time and, though he is talented, his work is often garish, his colours vulgar. The son of a German baroness and a Polish horse-breeder who escaped the Nazis to run a Jewish hotel in Cricklewood, north-west London, Lenkiewicz painted the waifs and strays of society and became obsessed with the themes of love, sex and death. It is an excessively gestural art, much of it self-portraiture, in which he comes to resemble Rasputin, with a flowing mane of white hair.


Gloria Tessler

previous article:The Kindertransports 70 years on
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