“Refuge:The Art of Belonging” at Abbot Hall

“No one leaves home unless/home is the mouth of a shark.”  (From Home by Warsan Shire)

The world’s a pretty depressing place at the moment. War and poverty has led to waves of migration – people fleeing to the more prosperous parts of the world, seeking safety, a better life, or both. Sadly, the response of many people has been xenophobia, fear and a lack of compassion. A mood whipped up by the right wing press and populist politicians.

We’ve been here before, many times. Over the centuries migrants who have settled here and contributed to our culture and prosperity, but who were initially greeted with the same reaction. The 1930’s are an example when Jews and other “undesirables” had to flee Nazi repression and death camps. The reaction then, from the usual suspects, was the same as we see today.

Despite the hysteria of the likes of the Mail, some German Jewish refugees and radicals were able to settle in Britain, although the authorities didn’t make it easy. Amongst them were intellectuals and artists, some of whom made a lasting contribution to British business, science and art.

The current exhibition at Abbot Hall in Kendal, Refuge: The Art of Belonging tells the story of artists who entered Britain as a result of Nazi occupation, which is part of Insiders/Outsiders – a nationwide arts festival taking place throughout 2019 to celebrate refugees from Nazi Europe and their contribution to British culture. We visited on the last day on our short break in Cartmel as Kendal was only a short diversion on our journey home.

The exhibition features paintings and ceramics from Lakeland Arts’ own collection with some loans from public and private collections . Artists include Kurt Schwitters, Hilde Goldschmidt, Hans Coper, Lucie Rie, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and Martin Bloch.

I was familiar with some of the works. This little collage, made chiefly of wooden scraps upon a wooden base, by Kurt Schwitters, the master of “Merz”, is often on display in the Gallery

Schwitters was a key figure of Dadaism but as a “degenerate artist” he fled Germany, initially to Norway before moving to Britain. At the outbreak of WWII, together with many other “enemy alien” refugees he was interned on the Isle of Man where he would create abstract sculptures out of leftover porridge! (They soon went mouldy). After his release in 1941 he moved to London where he formed a relationship with a younger woman, Edith Thomas, who he nicknamed Wantee (she was always asking him if he wanted tea – a woman after my own heart, I think!). After the war they ended up moving to the Lake District, where he would paint portraits and landscapes to earn a little money, and he spent his last years at Elterwater. The Lakeland Arts Trust have a small collection of his works.

Another refugee artist who lived in the Lakes, and who was a friend of Schwitters, was
the Austrian Expressionist painter Hilde Goldschmidt. When she arrived London in 1939 with her mother, she had little money so set up a small business, the Golly Studio, making and selling gloves and mittens to give themselves an income. Like Schwitters, she moved to the Lake District settling on the Langdale Estate near Ambleside.

Again, the Lakeland Arts Trust have a small collection of her paintings.

Martin Bloch was a German-Jewish artist who came to Britain as a refugee in 1934 via Denmark.  At the beginning of the war he was interned in Huyton, near Liverpool. On his release he painted blitzed London cityscapes. During the post-war years he painted the English countryside, and stayed in the countryside staying with his friend and fellow émigré artist Joseph Herman. In 1947 he became a British citizen, and from 1949 until his death in 1954 he taught at Camberwell school of Art,

Martin Bloch, Scorched Trees, (1943 )

Another artist who figured prominently in the exhibition, and who I’d not come across before (at least, as far as I can recall) was Fred Uhlman.   He had qualified as a lawyer in Stuttgart, with a doctorate in both civil and church law, but, being Jewish had to flee Germany in 1933.  He initially went to Paris, but as he was unable to work there legally he moved to Spain, leaving due to the start of the Civil War, moved back to France and then on to London. He married Diana Croft, the daughter of the right wing MP (and, like many of his kind today, an opponent of allowing in refugees) who wasn’t too pleased, to put it mildly. They were together for almost 50 years. Another one interned on the Isle of Man, where he had his portrait painted by Kurt Schwitters

Fred Uhlman (1901–1985)

he was released six months later and reunited with his wife and with his daughter, who had been born while he was away. Several of his pictures are included in the exhibition.

There were a number of beautiful ceramics displayed by Hans Coper and Lucie Rie . Coper was born in Chemnitz, Germany, and fled to Britain in 1939. He was interned as in Canada for two years returning to Britain in 1942. In 1946, he began working as an assistant in the studio of Lucie Rie, an Austrian Jewish refugee, even though he had no previous experience in ceramics. I particularly liked Coper’s pieces, especially the hourglass shaped vases.

There were plenty of other artists included in the exhibition, some well known such as Lucien Freud and Frank Auerbach . Both are probably considered to be British artists but they were child refugees born in Germany. Of course, for some people, it’s convenient to forget that. After all “we want to claim our country back”.

11 thoughts on ““Refuge:The Art of Belonging” at Abbot Hall

  1. I’m kicking myself I missed this. They had a small display of some of these in January as a precursor to the main exhibition. It included the Schwitters Mier Bitte collage. I love that—gets people guessing as to it’s meaning. Mier Bitte is German for “to me please” or “mine please”, but in the right light you can just about make out the letters he covered up: cut from an advert for Yorkshire Premier Bitter.

    • It’s still on fora while yet if you’re over in Kendal.
      Schwitters was certainly a clever bloke. Abbot Hallusually have some of his works on display. They’ve just included themin this exhibition

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