Forced Journeys: Artists in Exile in Britain c. 1933-45 Shulamith Behr, Jonathan Black, Rachel Dickson, Sander L. Gilman, Fran Lloyd, Sarah MacDougall, Ulrike Smalley, Jutta Vincent (Lund Humphries, 2009)
War has always compelled artists to explore the depths of human misery. From Goya's dark series of etchings The Disasters of War (published in 1863, some thirty-five years after his death), to Otto Dix's series Der Krieg, which portrayed the horrors he had witnessed during World War I in an attempt to exorcise his psychological trauma, artists have consistently responded to the inhumanity of armed conflict with images that evoke in the spectator feelings of shock, bewilderment and sadness. What is unusual about the artistic responses to war in Forced Journeys is that they do not portray singular acts of violence (although violence is a constant background threat), but quietly record the effects of separation from one's family and friends, from one's home and familiar landscapes, and from one's past. It is perhaps inevitable that, even when several figures are shown in one picture, the overwhelming emotion is loneliness.
This important exhibition and its catalogue examine the work of artists who were displaced by the rise of the Nazis in Germany and the subsequent German acquisition of Austria and Poland. Of course, many people—not just artists—found life increasingly difficult after Hitler came to power, and the displacement of European Jews is well known. Their experiences once they had arrived in this country are less familiar to us now, and this exhibition sets out to redress the imbalance. The result is a fascinating record of a number of artists who suffered merely for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
After Hitler's rise to power in January 1933, removal of Jews from the established professions -universities, hospitals, and the civil service— was quickly followed in September 1935 by laws which deprived them of German citizenship. By the time of Kristallnacht in November 1938, those still remaining within the jurisdiction of Germany and Austria had little chance of escape. Estimates vary as to the numbers, but it seems probable that between 1933 and 1938 more than 50,000 European Jews, among them hundreds of artists, arrived in this country and tried to rebuild their lives here. Once the war began, many of them were arrested and then interned along with other German and Austrian nationals. As this exhibition and catalogue graphically demonstrate, these experiences were a catalyst for raw, emotive art.
The works reflect the circumstances surrounding their production. The influence of the Expressionist movement is clear in many pictures, and it is a style eminently suited to conveying the powerful feelings of the exiled and displaced. Most of the artists remained here after the war and contributed significantly to post-war art, bearing witness to the difficult years of reconstruction while also maintaining a certain distance. In many of the post-war works -those by Eisenmayer especially—there is an immediate engagement with the present which resonates, but which also places the artist outside the subject, a spectator rather than a participant.
Many of these artists escaped from situations in which their lives, and those of their families, were at risk. Some were politically active against the Nazi regime, like the Berlin-born artist Jack Bilbo (originally Hugo Baruch). He had been a founder member of an anti-fascist group in Berlin in 1930, and was arrested in 1933. Escaping to England in 1936, he was interned early in the war. Later, he recalled this experience: "I, who had suffered so much from the nazis, whose father was forced by them to commit suicide, whose mother was most probably in their hands and for all I knew murdered….. I, who had sacrificed everything in my fight against them, was now a nazi suspect myself."
The bitterness of being interned was compounded by the fact that several of the artists had already experienced German concentration camps. Their future was uncertain; as the catalogue points out, they must have been concerned that in the even t of a German victory they would be handed over to the very people they had escaped. Hellmuth Weissenborn wrote: "The fact of being interned would have been bearable if one could have known the length of such imprisonment. For myself at this moment it meant for life, or in the last resort, delivery to those dark forces from which I believed I had escaped."
A chapter of the catalogue is devoted to Ernst Eisenmayer. His autobiographical A Strange Haircut is a detailed account of his efforts to escape from Vienna as an eighteen-year-old: he crossed the Swiss border, was forcibly returned to Vienna, attempted another escape, and was recaptured and finally sent to Dachau, where he was imprisoned with approximately 10, 000 other men. One recalled image from that time, The Drummer (1944), is a desperately powerful work. The drawing shows a single drummer in a shaft of light, followed by uniformed guards who appear to be talking to one another. To one side is a receding line of shabbily dressed men, looking intently at the drummer. Eisenmayer explains that the picture portrays the forcible parading of a recaptured escapee—the drummer: "No one had ever escaped from Dachau and it was made into a fitting occasion to display the triumphant powers of the command....He was never seen again. The roll call figures tallied."
After their escape to this country, Eisenmayer and his younger brother were both interned in the Onchan camp on the Isle of Man. Its atmosphere has been described as "quasi-university" because of the educational groups organised by the large number of artistic and intellectual inmates for the benefit of themselves and others. The section Lecture on the Lawn II: Four Internment Artists examines the work of four artists interned at the Hutchinson Camp at Douglas on the Isle of Man: Manfred Ulman, Hellmuth Weissenborn, Erich Kahn and Martin Bloch. Like Onchan, this camp interned refugees in prison-like conditions, but the prisoners saw to it that it offered intellectual stimulation.
The works shown here by these artists are both sombre and noble. Ulman's drawings are reminiscent of Goya`s: they have the same simplicity and economy, and they communicate the same familiar story of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events. However, where Goya portrays savagery and death, Ulman gives us a candlelit room filled with earnest figures engaged in debate: men with an uncertain future imprisoned in an unfriendly state, innocents subjected to a fate over which they have no control.
In 2007 the Imperial War Museum published its own selection of paintings and drawings from the Second World War. Drawn mostly from art commissioned by the WAAC (War Artists Advisory Committee), these are some of the most familiar artworks of the period. Official war artists saw planes making patterns in the sky, burning walls collapsing onto firemen, bomb stores waiting to explode, and people sheltering from the Blitz in the London underground. These were images of a war fought by people who understood why they were fighting, and who generally agreed with it. It is in this sense of engagement that they differ from the works in this collection. Excluded from active participation, these refugee artists are left to present their haunting, deeply personal images of the lonely and dispossessed, conveying a completely different experience of the war.
A woodcut by Weissenborn, Reflections on the War (1946), is the concluding image of the collection. It shows a skeleton lying at the water`s edge beneath a cloud-filled sky, hovering sea-birds picking at the bones. The symbolism is fairly transparent, but it is a fitting way to end the book, resonating with the tone of the other works. Yet again Ben Uri has put together a thought-provoking exhibition, and a book which, it is to be hoped, will attract a wider audience for these artists.--Paul Flux