Europe's exodus of excellence

Exiles and emigrés
April 4, 1997

Reviewers should, on the whole, be dispassionate and not personal. In the case of this book however, I think I must be personal, since you cannot have exiles and emigres from Hitler without willing host nations. Without the hospitality of the United States, and in my case England, I would not be writing this review. In 1933, in Berlin, my father said to his fiancee, my mother, that he did not think it was tenable to stay in Germany after Hitler's accession. She agreed. The rest of the family said that this was an ill-advised step, in the light of what was surely only a passing phase, so I was born in London and half of my parents' two families got away between 1936 and 1939 and half of them did not. My father was one of the many scholars who made a new life in English academey but was not a creative artist.

Exiles and Emigres is the book/catalogue that accompanies an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum and, being an American event, though it has a fair amount of British content, but concentrates on the post-Hitler diaspora into the United States. This is not unreasonable, since America took in far more refugees and many of the more prudent artists in flight, often for the second time, assumed that America was a safer bet than Britain.

Perhaps more by ellipsis than design, this is an ecumenical work; it does not indicate, except by occasional allusion, whether the artist in question is Jew or Gentile. I think that is both important and correct. In the polarisation between the lunatics of Holocaust denial and the obsessive ram-it-home school of Jewish militants, there is, or should be, a middle ground. William Styron in Sophie's Choice and Martin Sherman in Bent have done much, not to minimise the six million Jews, but to remind us that several more million non-Jewish communists, Gypsies, cripples, homosexuals and plain ordinary citizens were also disposed of in the Final Solution.

Most of the great artists analysed and displayed here get an essay to themselves, by various hands, dealing specifically with their exile or emigration and its effects on their art. There are copious, well-printed illustrations of their work during the period 1933 to 1945. Only three, Kurt Schwitters, Oskar Kokoschka and John Heartfield, came to England; hence only three British chapters, but they are pure gold. Schwitters, having picked up Picasso's use of chair-caning, created his "Merz Bilder", his wonderfully inventive collages. In one, a photograph of his old friend and ally, and for a brief period, mine too, Herbert Read, leaps out at one. What a joy to see this catalytic master so subtly at work as against the later, bombastic and over-hyped imitators such as Robert Rauschenberg.

It is good to be reminded of Kokoschka's heroic political labours during the war, speaking at meetings, donating pictures and generally rallying the troops as president of the 100-strong visual arts section of the London-based Free German League of Culture. This great painter and adorably genial man had had no fewer than 417 of his works removed from German public collections by the Nazis. His gigantic badge of honour spurred him, in those years of exile, to do some of his finest paintings.

The chapter on Heartfield is particularly welcome. From 1938 to 1945 he lodged in Hampstead with the Uhlmanns and then with the Marxist art-historian, Francis Klingender, before marrying and moving to Highgate. Stefan Lorant got him work at Lilliput and Picture Post. Today, an unjustly neglected figure, Heartfield was a man of truly vicious genius. On a photomontage of Hitler as Kaiser, in the highest decoration the words Pour Le Merite are changed to Pour Le Profite. In one done for Reynolds News, Himmler has a huge dagger in his left hand and a whip in his right. So far so typical; but Himmler is driving masses of Jews like cattle and the whiplash is endless and spells out the word "Reservations". Gerald Scarfe in our time is brilliant but he merely scratches where Heartfield lacerates. Heartfield remained, despite the softening influence of wartime London, a convinced communist and left in 1950 for East Berlin.

That, alas, is all there is for England. It looks odd only when you read the excellent sections on the influence of Erwin Panofsky, Richard Krautheimer, Hanns Swarzenski and others on the teaching of art history in America and discover almost unbelievingly that Ernst Gombrich is not in the index

Having had one's little Englander bleat, it is only fair to say that the American bulk of the book is admirable. There is a heartbreaking quotation in the Hollywood section by the writer Stephan Lackner: "Perhaps I was destined to be an emigre? I was born in Paris in 1910. But in 1914, when world war one broke out, my German-Jewish father discovered his patriotism and returned with his whole family to Berlin to help the war effort. I went to schools and universities in Germany, hoping from an early age to become a writer. I was the last "half-Jewish" student to receive a PhD at Giessen University in 1933."

Lackner was not alone in Hollywood. The literary influx to southern California and other parts of the country was huge: Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Lion Feuchtwanger, Franz Werfel, Erik Erikson, Hannah Arendt, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno. What a gift Hitler made to American culture.

Still, Hollywood was always Hollywood. Lawrence Weschler writes: "Mrs Arnold Schoenberg used to entertain visitors on the front lawn I just off Sunset I Every half-hour or so, a huge tour bus would wheel round, all of its passengers craning their necks the other way, gazing out across the street. The metallic voice of the tour guide would squawk, 'And on the left you can see the house where Shirley Temple would live when she was filming I' and then they would be gone."

There is a good chapter on the exploits of Varian Fry, chosen by the Emergency Rescue Committee to be the Scarlet Pimpernel in occupied France. Among the grateful "clients" were Chagall, Heinrich Mann, Feuchtwanger, Werfel and Max Ernst. Those who declined his help and stayed on included Picasso, Matisse, Andre Gide, Andre Malraux and Pablo Casals. There is a wonderful photograph of Fry and many of those he safely removed from France; much more interesting and satisfying than Leslie Howard and assorted French aristos.

The book is quite objective about success and failure in this great exodus. Dali, for example, did not really benefit from the experience. No doubt because he had to cater to the extravagant tastes of his deplorable wife, Gala, he did all sorts of work for fashion houses, perfumers, etc. As a result, his paintings visibly coarsened in both content and execution.

The painter Lyonel Feininger, who was born in New York in 1871 and always retained his US citizenship, went to Germany aged 16 and became a leading German artist, with a 60th birthday retrospective at the Berlin National Gallery in 1931. By 1937, with a Jewish wife, false accusations of being a Jew himself and the removal of nearly 400 of his works from the nation's museums, he saw the light and reluctantly returned to New York. While his son, the photographer Andreas Feininger, developed and prospered in America, Lyonel's work suffered from the second uprooting. True, he was 66 when he returned, but his Manhattan paintings lack the slightly unearthly and metaphysical beauty of his Gelmeroda pictures. Reading this sad tale, I cannot help recalling Hans Hess, a distinguished German-Jewish refugee museum curator in England after the war. He wrote in 1961 the definitive book on Feininger. He told me that when he arrived penniless in England, all he had with him were some typical and excellent Feininger paintings which, to put food on the table, he tried to sell. He went up one side of Bond Street and then down the other and did not receive a single offer.

The much-travelled Mondrian, on the other hand, fared much better. Having left Holland to paint in France, he fled to London. After two years there, he went to New York in 1940, where he thrived. There was a considerable loosening of the earlier rigidity and a masterpiece like his "Broadway Boogie-Woogie" of 1942 was an archetypal and vibrant example of his geometric, ludic quality. It was one of the many cultural ironies of those wartime years that "Victory Boogie-Woogie" of 1933-34 was unfinished in his studio when he died on February 1 1944. For Chagall the transatlantic experience seemed to have been merely one of release from personal danger. His intellectual baggage never left him and he stayed true to the spirit of the heavily Judaicised "White Crucifixion" of 1938. His imagery from then until 1948, when he returned to France, was heavy with martyrdom, ghettos and liberation. His politicisation was personal and powerful but, I believe, quite untouched by his American sojourn. The "White Crucifixion" is a vigorous polemic against the persecution of the Jews. When it was shown in Paris, Alexandre Benois called it "a document on the soul of our times" and there is, perhaps, no better painted example, with a clearly Jewish Jesus wrapped in a Jewish prayer shawl, of why Chagall and so many other artists had to escape from the Nazis.

The Russian Jewish artists, no doubt because they, or at least their parents, remembered the pogroms of their native land, seemed to grasp the nature of the threat of that time earlier, and more vividly, than the Germans or the French. Significantly, perhaps because the Italian Jews had an easier time of it, there are no Italian refugees in this book. The sculptor Jacques Lipchitz did a bronze of David and Goliath as early as 1933 in which the giant has a swastika incised into his chest.

The book is good on the inevitable ambivalences endemic in the lives of many of the artists who were forced, against their wills, to uproot themselves. Max Beckmann, for example, continued to sell his pictures in Germany during the war; his son, a doctor in the Luftwaffe, being the conduit. The ambivalences were particularly noticeable in the Bauhaus, where, once the Nazi flag flew over the studio building in Dessau, the position of the members was untenable. At a stroke, America acquired some of the world's leading architects. Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer went to Harvard, Mies van der Rohe and Ludwig Hilberseimer to Chicago. Yet Gropius, when in England, took pains to avoid contact with Kokoschka and, when appointed to Harvard (with the approval of the German government), in 1937. made no public comment on the Degenerate Art Exhibition, in which the Nazis traduced many of his Bauhaus colleagues and friends, Yet, as always, one has to remember that many of the exiles had family or friends left behind and thus terribly vulnerable in Germany and the rest of Europe.

This book is, happily, not without its lighter side. There is a magnificent painting of Hitler, done in New York in 1942 by George Grosz (currently being shown in great style at the Royal Academy). Called "The Mighty One on a Little Outing Surprised by Two Poets", it shows the Fuhrer marching through the snow to Moscow, hand in greatcoat in best Napoleonic style, confronted by two diminutive poets, clutching lyre and swastika-emblazoned, worthless banknotes, their naked buttocks protruding from their ragged garments.

Furthermore, not everyone enjoyed all of the exile experience. The surrealist Yves Tanguy found immediate financial security when he married the rich American painter Kay Sage. She tried, unsuccessfully, to turn him into a Connecticut country gentleman, getting him outfitted at Abercrombie & Fitch and buying him a rifle and a shotgun for Christmas. Several of the artists, like Fernand Leger, shot back to Europe the minute war was over and some, like Matta, were clearly born restless. (Matta went from Chile to Paris to New York to Italy.)

Yet the spirit that pervades this scholarly and completely absorbing work is one of victory. The Nazis, who, alone among totalitarian regimes, did not merely persecute and kill their best artists, but actually selected their finest works and staged a huge travelling exhibition of them, called Entartete Kunst, (degenerate art), ended up crushed. The military defeat was echoed by a cultural defeat of equal proportion and those emigres and exiles they sought to destroy, revenged themselves by living well and filling theatres, cinemas, libraries and museums in what will surely be a beneficent Thousand Year Reich of their own.

Tom Rosenthal is a publisher, critic and author of The Art of Jack B. Yeats.


Exiles and emigrés: The Flight of European Artists from Hitler

Author - Stephanie Barron
ISBN - 0 8109 31 7
Publisher - Abrams
Price - £55.00
Pages - 432

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments