“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”.

Art and about in Liverpool – Part 1

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Last Saturday we drove over to Liverpool as we wanted to have a look at a couple of exhibitions. It was a fine day and quite pleasant for walking by the waterside to the Tate Gallery on the Albert Dock.

First stop was the exhibition at the Tate of works by the Fench artist
Fernand Léger (1881 – 1955) . There were over 40 works on display, including paintings, collage, book illustrations and film spanning his career. He’s an artist I was familiar with, but hadn’t seen many of his works, so the exhibition was an opportunity to learn more.

Some early works were influenced by his experiences in the First World War between 1914 to 1917 , when he fought on the front-line at Argonne and Verdun, including an abstract Cubist style painting of soldiers playing cards.

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La partie de Carte (1917)

His early works were Cubist and Futurist and he had his own approach dominated by cylindrical shapes earning the moniker “tubism”. But, as with many artists, his style changed over time

Léger’s work was heavily influenced by his surroundings and his experience of modern life. Included in the exhibition are his collaborations with architects Le Corbusier and Charlotte Perriand. Also on display is his experimental 1924 film, Ballet Mécanique.

He dabbled with Surrealism, often combining Surrealist and Cubist styles.


Leaves and Shell (1927)

He often used bright primary colours,particularly in his later works.

Two women holding flowers (1954)

Politically on the left, fleeing the Nazis he lived in the USA from 1940 to 1945 but returned to France after the war when he joined the Communist Party. Many of his later works were influenced by his politics.

He believed the primary purpose of making art is to enrich the lives of everybody in society. In order to bring art into people’s everyday lives he worked on posters and murals as well as on the easel. His paintings depict construction workers and people enjoying leisure activities. These everyday scenes are reflected back to us in a new light and the characters are given dignity in their normality. (Tate website)

In the next room to the Leger retrospective there was a free exhibition of works by two South Korean artists Moon Kyungwon and Jeon Joonho. It was centered on a new film commission Anomaly Strolls 2018, largely shot in deserted alleyways and pubs across Liverpool with some scenes shot in Korea. 

Extending their project News From Nowhere 2009, the artists use science fiction to question the role and importance of art to our present day society. As they have said: ‘Sci-fi is always the fable of the present. By employing a way to look at the future instead of the present, we wanted to address current issues, especially in relation to what art is and what art could be.’   (exhibition website)

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The exhibition also includes Moon and Jeon’s 2012 film El Fin del Mundo (The End of the World).

On separate screens, we see different points in time: a man remains committed to creating art as a global catastrophe unfolds, while a woman goes about a sanitised life in its aftermath. Documenting relics of the past, she comes across a strange object the man had incorporated in his artwork. The encounter triggers profound new emotions in the woman, and her strange discovery connects our two protagonists across time. (exhibition website)

Video installations are not my favourite type of art, but sometimes there’s a work that captures my interest. This was certainly the case with these two works. They weren’t too abstract, telling a story, and I’ve also been a fan of science fiction.

There was much more to see in the Tate, and there had been some changes to the free exhibitions since our last visit. But we moved on as we needed to grab a bite to eat and there was another exhibition we wanted to see at the Walker Gallery.

Käthe Kollwitz at the Ikon

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A few weeks ago while I was in Dublin, one of the exhibitions I saw during my visit to the recently reopened National Gallery celebrated the birth 150 years ago of the German artist Käthe Kollwitz. I’d heard that there was another exhibition devoted to her work at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham so while I was in the city on business last week I managed to find some time to visit.

I’d never been to the Ikon before. It’s in a converted Victorian neo-Gothic building which was originally a school and is Birmingham’s gallery for contemporary art. The equivalent of Manchester’s Home, I guess.

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The works on display are from the collection of the British Museum with a small number of loans from a private owner and The Barber Institute of Fine Arts at the University of Birmingham. It’s a relatively small exhibition, with some duplication of the prints I saw in Dublin, but a worthwhile visit.

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The vast majority of the prints displayed were early works from before WWI, and included three prints from Ein Weberaufstand (A Weavers’ Revolt) series completed in 1897 and  a full set of prints from the Bauernkrieg (Peasants’ War) series completed in 1908.

The first room was devoted to her self-portraits and covered a wider period from 1901 to 1937 when Kollwitz was in her fifties. This meant it was possible to see her using different print making methods and how her technique developed.

This is a detailed Lithograph from 1904 showing a strong, determined woman

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This is an etching from 1906 – a less detailed, more impressionistic portrait

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In her later years Kollwitz turned to producing woodcuts  and this self portrait from 1924 is typical of this style

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There were a number of other portraits of  working class women who Kollwitz came across in Berlin, in some cases her Doctor husband’s patients perhaps, or just neighbours from Prenzlauer Berg, the poor area where she lived. Not so remarkable today, perhaps, but that was certainly the case at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. The Bust of a Working Woman With Blue Shawl was a particularly attractive image –  I think the Guardian review’s description of it as

a Madonna for the industrial age

is certainly appropriate

There were four copies of a single print, a harrowing work, Woman with a dead child (1903). Each finished in a different way – with various washes, graphite and charcoal with a kind of restlessness.  The models for the etching were Kollwitz herself and her younger son Peter, who was to die eleven years later at the beginning of WWI so a rather prescient image f- or Kollwitz herself but also many, many other mothers from Germany, France, the British Empire, Russia and the other countries involved in the war that was to begin 11 years after the image was created.

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The two print series portraying workers’ struggles – A Weavers’ Revolt (1897) and  the Peasants’ War series (1908) end in tragedy and can be viewed as pessimistic with respect to the potential for workers to overcome their oppressors. The Carmagnole, a print from 1901 based on Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (1859), shows a group of mostly women dancing around a guillotine and is, perhaps, more optimistic.  In the story the scene depicted took place in Paris, but in the print Kollwitz  has transposed to Germany street scene.

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Die Carmagnole, (1901) Etching and drypoint

So, another excellent small exhibition of prints by Käthe Kollwitz. I really must get back to Berlin to visit the museum devoted to her work.

The Garden of Good and Evil at the YSP

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The latest main exhibition in the Underground Gallery at the YSP had opened on 14 October, the day before our visit last weekend. It’s devoted to the work of a Chilean artist, Alfredo Jaar – “a pioneering practitioner of socially critical art” (Claire Lilley in the Exhibition Guide).

It’s a very different type of exhibition to those normally shown at the YSP as the works on display are not sculpture in the usual meaning of the word, but “installations”, film and photography.

Describing himself as “an architect making art”, Jaar constructs spaces and intricate light systems to navigate the ambiguities of what is represented and misrepresented in photographic and other media. (Exhibition Guide)

Unlike most of the major YSP exhibitions, there is only one of his installations outside the Underground Gallery (Tony Cragg’s sculptures sited outdoors from the previous exhibition are still there and will remain in place until March). This is a new work which will become a permanent exhibit in the grounds once the exhibition is over – relocated elsewhere as they won’t leave it in it’s present location immediately in front of the gallery. This work – The Garden of Good and Evil  (the exhibition is named after it) – takes the form of a grove of  101 trees sited in tubs along the length of the Underground Gallery open-air concourse. Inside this mini forest there’s a number of steel cells, of different sizes,  which are meant to reference ‘black sites’, the secret detention facilities around the world operated by the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Visitors could wander through the trees discovering the individual cells – all different but all with a one-metre square base.

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The work was inspired by a poem, One Square Metre of Prison,  by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Without being aware of this the work is perhaps an interesting curiosity, but knowing the inspiration it certainly made me consider and think about how people are imprisoned for their beliefs and hidden away from public view by governments, terrorist organisations etc. And with clandestine prisons, in practice illegal or only of borderline legality, themselves hidden from view by governments so that they can be ignored by the citizens – out of sight, out of mind.

Inside the gallery there are three major installations and a small number of other works. No photographs allowed, but the nature of most of the works meant that this was not that appropriate.

The first of the major works is The Sound of Silence (2005). Visitors enter a steel cube and sitting in the dark watch a video work telling the story of a South African photographer, Kevin Carter, leading to his image of a young victim of the 1993 Sudanese famine. The photographer stood and observed a young starving child being watched by a vulture, waiting for the appropriate moment to snap his photograph. A shocking image resulted which drew global attention to the famine, leading to aid being sent to help the victim. But the image raised serious questions about the role of the photographer and raises serious ethical questions. He did nothing to help the individual but, on the other hand, the picture may have contributed to aid saving the lives of others. The suffering of one saving the lives of many others?  This clearly troubled Carter himself and he later committed suicide.

The second of the major works, A Hundred Times Nguyen (1994), has 100 images of a little girl the artist met while visiting ‘refugee detention centres’ for Vietnamese boat people in Hong Kong in 1991. Jaar who photographed her five times at five-second intervals. He took four of the images altering the order in which they are shown using all possible combinations to make 100 pictures which are displayed on the walls of the gallery.  In this work the artist addresses “compassion fatigue” and

articulates the importance of the individual through many of his installations, rather than focusing on the mass of victims of the devastation and oppression he has witnessed. (Exhibition website)

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The third major work Shadows (2014) uses images taken by photographer Koen Wessing over a single day, early in the 1978 Nicaraguan Civil War, following a farmer’s murder. Entering a darkened room six of the images are displayed on the wall. Visitors then move through to a second darkened space where the seventh image is projected onto the entire back wall of the room, which shows two women grieving after the death of their father, shot by Somosa’s National Guardsman and left by the side of the road. The image alters as it is observed, the two grieving daughters being isolated from the picture and then altered and turned into a bright white silhouette.  The room then goes completely dark and the image is retained on the retina, gradually fading away after several seconds.

I’m not sure what the artist’s intention was, but I felt that it is easy to put aside the shocking images of suffering but here it wasn’t quite so easy to forget and perhaps that’s what we all need to do.

Although I’m sure many visitors will grumble about the “unorthodox” nature of the exhibition – not “proper art” will no doubt be heard – this is the second video based exhibition we’ve seen in the underground Gallery. The other being the Bill Viola exhibition we saw at the beginning of last year. That was intended to be “a sensory experience with space to pause and make time to reflect and enable an emotional or even transformational experience”. However the current exhibition is quite a different experience. Unsettling and thought provoking in a different way and making political points about cruelty and suffering and the role of the artist.

 

The Workers’ Maypole

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I spotted this work by the Radical (as in politically radical) American artist Andrea Bowers during my recent visit to Tate Modern. The image is drawn on sheets of cardboard that have been joined together with a maker pen.

The full title of the work is The Workers’ Maypole. An Offering for Mayday 1894. It’s a very detailed drawing which reproduces an image by the British Socialist artist Walter Crane. For several years at the end of the 19th Century, he produced annual cartoons to commemorate May Day for the socialist magazine The Clarion.

In Andrea Bower’s version, she has used materials that are typically used to create banners and plaquards for political demonstrations by the Occupy Movement. Walter Crane produced illustrations for political purposes – for political propaganda and banners for the Labour Movement. As a modern radical activist artist Andrea Bowers is very much following in his footsteps.

International Brigade Monument

This monument to the British Battalion of the International Brigade that fought for the Republican Government against Franco’s Fascist uprising, stands in Jubilee Gardens on the Southbank in London, near the old City Hall and the London Eye. 4.5 metres high, it portrays four figures supporting a fifth wounded and kneeling figure. It was sculpted by Ian Walters, a Socialist who also created other memorial sculptures, including the statue of Nelson Mandela, not far away across the Thames in Parliament Square.

The International Brigades were a group of idealistic young adults who left their homes and families and risk death to fight for a cause they believed in. Some may see parallels with those travelling to Syria to join the so called “Islamic State”. But the International Brigade volunteers were going to fight to defend a legitimate government threatened by fascists, while those travelling to Syria today are supporting an organisation commiting atrocities, which has much in common with the most viscious Fascist regimes.

I have a personal connection with the International Brigade as a relative, Will Paynter, my Granmother’s cousin, an activist in the National Union of Mineworkers and the Communist Party, was involved in the recruitment of men to fight for the Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. In March 1937 he was sent to Spain to look after the interests of the British Battalion.

This is an extract from a speech he made to the TUC in 1938 seconding a resolution of support for the Republicans

It must be clear to every delegate in this Congress that the issue in Spain is one of which the outcome will not only determine the destinies of the people of Spain; it must be clear to everyone that the outcome of the conflict in Spain will involve the destinies of the people of all countries…. The conquest of Spain can well mean the commencement of further attacks upon other European democracies, and therefore I am pleading with this Congress that we should regard this matter not merely as one of solidarity, but as an issue of self-preservation for our trade unions in this country.

Cable Street Mural

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Walking from Shadwell Overground Station to visit St George in the East, we turned off Cable Street and saw this amazing mural painted on the west wall of St George’s Town Hall. It celebrates the “Battle of Cable Street”  on 4 October 1936 when  local residents supported by Communists, Labour Party Members and Trade Unionists turned out to prevent the British Union of Fascists marching through an area with a large Jewish population.

The mural was completed in March 1983 and was restored during the summer of 2011.

There’s some detailed information on the creation of the mural here and about the restoration here.