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Home from home is where the art is

Gallery showcases work by 'Hitler émigrés' as it celebrates the contribution of refugees and immigrants to British art

07 April, 2017 — By Sarah MacDougall

Frank Auerbach’s Mornington Crescent, Summer Morning II

UNDER the umbrella title, Refugees: The Lives of Others, a new exhibition at Ben Uri Gallery brings together paintings, drawings, posters, prints, cartoons and sculptures by the so-called “Hitler émigrés”, exploring issues of identity and migration via the German refugee experience in England from the 1930s onwards.

In this era of intense political debate around migration, this is the first of a series of exhibitions marking the wider contribution of refugees and immigrants to British art.

Eva Frankfurther, one of the artists who fled to the UK as a child, has a solo show in the upper gallery, marking the launch of a website dedicated to her. Sixteen oils on paper and a selection of lively drawings from her sketchbooks cover all the major motifs of her brief career in the 1950s.

Putting the lives of others at the centre of her work, she celebrated people on the margins from the vulnerable Stateless Person, symbolising the thousands displaced by the war, to shabby, dignified mothers and their lively offspring in the crowded East End markets.

Elisabeth Tomalin’s Head, c1920s, Ben Uri Collection. © The Estate of Elisabeth Tomalin

The hustle and bustle of Lyons Corner House, Piccadilly, is seen not through its customers but its workers – playing cards, reading newspapers or simply resting from exhaustion. Her notable portraits of the “Windrush generation” include porters, waitresses and a tender family group set in a bedsit garret, while her studies of dockers record their marginalisation within a pitiless, declining industry.

By contrast, her studies of both Arab and Jewish sitters, made during eight months in Israel in 1958, are filled with light and colour.

Eva Frankfurther’s Card Players, c1951-56 Private Collection. © The Estate of Eva Frankfurther

In the lower galleries, strong graphics by a trio of designers include Hans Schleger (Zero), designer of the iconic British bus-stop, whose Hands at Your Service pays tribute to the London Transport workers, also signalling that uniforms in the UK imply service not oppression and Elisabeth Tomalin’s colourful Head, inspired by tribal masks. Adèle Reifenberg’s modest portrait of her writer sister-in-law Gabriele Tergit, is shown alongside her painter husband Julius Rosenbaum’s boldly coloured portrait of Charlotte Melnikov.

Graphic artists Alfred Lomnitz (Lom) and Klaus Meyer show contrasting images of incarceration and freedom. Women sculptors make a strong showing including Margarete Klopfleisch’s agonised Woman in Despair (1941), carved during internment of the Isle of Man, and Erna Nonnenmacher’s calm maternity, made postwar; an exquisite ceramic head of émigré pianist Leff Pouishnoff by Bauhaus ceramicist Grete Marks and illustrator Milein Cosman’s sensitive head of her musicologist husband Hans Keller.

Hans Schleger’s Hands at Your Service, 1946, lithographic poster in colour, published by London Transport, printed by Baynard Press, Ben Uri Collection. © The Estate of Hans Schlegel

The latter together with Paul Hamann’s remarkable lifemask of German playwright Bertolt Brecht, flanks Frank Auerbach’s portrait of Helen Gillespie, with its thickly-encrusted surface also reminiscent of a sculptural relief. Lucian Freud’s Before the Fourth depicts his pregnant sitter Annabel Mullin in Gaugineque pose.

In the final room a landscape by Martin Bloch is shown alongside those of his pupils Heinz Koppel and his cousin, Kindertransportee, Harry Weinberger, their bold colouring a legacy of German expressionism.

Finally, a film by German-Syrian artist Manaf Halbouni entitled Nowhere is Home, produced by the V&A and Counterpoints Arts, reinforces the cyclical nature of the refugee experience.

Refugees – The Lives of Others: two exhibitions exploring the contribution of German refugee artists to 20th Century British Art. Ben Uri Gallery, 108A Boundary Road, NW8 0RH. Open Monday-Friday 10am-5.30pm, Saturday-Sunday 11am-5pm. Free entry. 020 7604 3991, http://benuri.org.uk/

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