THERE were a million stories in the naked city of London during the Blitz and of course Ludwig Meidner's was just one of them. But what a sad and peculiar story it was.
Before the war Meidner had been a noted painter and teacher of art in his native Germany. In Paris as a student he had been a close friend of Modi-gliani. In Germany Max Beckmann was his keenest supporter.
Successful, wealthy, Jewish, Meidner was 56 when war drove him into exile in London and he began his new career as a part-time caretaker in a morgue. During air raids he would sketch the corpses in his care. His portraits were then shown to relatives to help them identify the dead. On his return to Germany, Meidner lived out his life in various old people's homes, and died forgotten.
This is the same Ludwig Meidner whose contribution to the recent survey of German Art in the 20th Century, at the Royal Academy, was one of the show's great successes, a painter of dark, apocalyptic landscapes with huge ambitions. Meidner's smouldering wastelands were determined to stand for the spiritual state of the whole of Europe.
This same Meidner's sweaty, caretaker's face stares out at you with real fierceness near the start of Art in Exile in Great Britain, 1933-45, a sad collection of broken life-stories and crudely scrambled aesthetics.
War, like love, is a great and cruel leveller. That is the point made over and over again. Almost every artist in the show was an artist of note in Germany before Hitler's rise. Almost all of them came from a comfortable Jewish bourgeois home. Few avoided the aesthetic oblivion that greets and traps the artist in exile.
Some of their stories are now well-known enough to have taken on a spurious romantic glow. Kurt Schwitters' obscure life and death in the Lake District has been enshrined in artistic folklore. He is the only major 20th century artist to have died in Britain and nobody even knew he was here.
Schwitters is hardly noticeable in the main body of the exhibition, represented by some of the dull realistic portraits with which he scratched out a living. But then, right at the end, in a tiny modernist enclave he shares with Naum Gabo, a choice selection of his collages and merz-works force the story of Art in Exile to run parallel for a moment with the story of modern art.
While Ludwig Meidner sketched corpses the constructivist Naum Gabo continued his pre-war search for the perfect curved grid. Gabo's delicate snow-white abstraction sits uncomfortably on the edge of the show like a dove among crows.
Unlike most of his co-exhibitors Gabo was taken up and sheltered by the English avant garde which is otherwise conspicuous by its absence here, both as an influence and as a support. Dominated by the polite French aesthetics championed by Roger Fry. British modernism stuck its silly Bloomsbury nose in the air and ignored the tough German realism which dominates these proceedings.
Herman Fechenbach is still alive, still working in isolation, still in England. Why he was never allowed to become a great post-war political caricaturist only the willful gods of exile know. Fechenbach's line is as sharp as a bradawl. It attacks the image of Hitler like a guard-dog savaging a burglar.
The state of exile imposes aesthetic equality as drastically as it imposes the material variety. Interned on the Isle of Man in the ramshackle concentration camp of Hutchinson Square, surrounded by barbed wire fences and jerry-built huts, the modernist architect Bruno Ahrends dreamed up a scheme for a futuristic nigh-rise rebuilding of Douglas. He then proposed a series of tower-block seaside resorts for the bombed coastal towns. Ahrends' hopeless modernist dreams are among the most poignant exhibits in an extremely poignant show
Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, who also arrived in Britain with a set of lofty Bauhaus ideals held firmly in his grasp, had to resort in the end to taking photographs of Eton schoolboys and illustrating The Streetmarkets of London.
But if Art in Exile's main ambition was to underline just how mcch great artistic talent was forced intc Britain by the Nazis, it would, I think, have to be deemed unsuccessful. Schwitters is the only major artistic figure to play an important part in the show. Ko-koschka, Heartfield, Gropius. Bruer, Moholy-Nagy make little more than token appearances.
Instead the organisers have deliberately concentrated on the lesser known artists and it is they who give Art in Exile its dark, mongrel air. Bits and pieces of achievement, whittled out of its and pieces of career, have been raked out of the wartime rubble.
Moholy-Nagy, Gropius, Gabo, Breuer were so dismayed by the lack of encouragement they received in Britain that they all moved on to America quickly to revolution architecture and design.
Others like Fechenbach and F. H. K. Henrion whose belligerent, attention grabbing posters are among the show's major re-discoveries, were either ignored totally or diverted into academia where they spluttered away pleasantly but impotently.
Thus the final observation made by this dark and fertile show is not that much talent was saved but that a great opportunity was wasted. • Art in Exile at the Camden Arts Centre, Arkwright Road, London NW3, until October 5.
The cultural and intellectual diaspora of the 1930s, that was effected throughout what so soon became occupied Europe by Nazi persecution of all that was radical, creatively advanced and, most especially, all that was Jewish, is a well-attested phenomenon of our recent history. But it remains one more usually honoured in terms of general piety, an appendix as it were to the infinitely greater and enveloping horror of the Final Solution, of which it was but one expression among many, than as a particular study.
In terms of our own national life its effects are with us still and, leaving aside the private tragedy and personal cost of such absolute upheaval, have proved to be of an incalculable and wonderfully various benefit. Thus good may indeed come from great evil, to console at least if hardly to justify. In every art, it seems, and in every field of scholarship over a period now of some 50 years, we now may claim as our own the distinguished practice of that extraordinary emigre community.
The exhibition that now fills the Camden Arts Centre (Arkwright Road NW3): (Until October 5), Art in Exile in Great Britain 1933-45, makes the point in the particular case of the visual arts and architecture not merely by paying easy homage to a handful of great or more familiar names, but rather by doing something at once more modest and more useful.
Some of those greater figures are of course quite rightly included but the list is hardly exhaustive. John Heartfield, Naum Gabo, Kurt Schwitters, Laszlo Maholy-Nagy, the architects Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, the photographers Hans Casparius and Felix Man are all well represented, but whether by policy or availability there are one or two surprises. Mondrian, for example, too much a bird of passage perhaps, is altogether absent, and Kokoschka gets only a nominal showing. But this is in no sense to carp or quibble over the selection: here it is for once the famous who supply the context, the mass of minor, unsung, half-forgotten artists of real quality, many of whom have made their homes in Britain ever since, who supply the substance of this admirable and fascinating show.
The project was initiated by the New Society of Fine Arts of West Berlin and, after a showing in Oberhausen, comes to London in a modified form, with major contributions, the fruits of Camden Art Centre's own researches, by some artists not included before. It is set out thematically, section by section, beginning with an impressive group of self-portraits and portraits of other exiles, among which the works of Marie-Louise von Motesiczky, who was given a memorable retrospective by the Goethe Institute last autumn, are outstanding. The small Martin Bloch self portrait, a strangely decorative painting of a woman in a yellow skirt, and an exquisite tiny linocut self portrait by Susan Einzig are all remarkable.
We are then taken on by a somewhat circuitous route through the themes of emigration and actual escape. Indeed one of the most delicate and evocative of all these things is a water-colour by Eugen Hoffman of a family escaping in the night. The ideas and emotions of persecution and exile, the ironical documentation of actual internment in Britain itself, the practice of anti-Nazi propaganda, the topographical observation of the Blitz and, beyond everything, the sense of life continuing with some semblance of normality and the infinite resilience of art itself, are all treated in their turn.
So it is that the most touching and poignant things of all, perhaps, are the most ordinary, in the sense that by them we discover artists who here transcend explicit anger, desperation and — dare one say it in this connection? — self-pity.
Hans Feibusch for example, a fine painter who quite as much as von Motesiczky surely deserves full and wide recognition, shows two religious compositions, Elijah and The Prodigal, both of them fraught with symbolism, and yet it is his painting of a woman simply at rest, Sidonie in Bed, that is the greater work. It might be John Gay with his camera at the fair on Hampstead Heath, or Tim Gidal at a wartime concert at the National Gallery, or catching Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in a London pub, Walter Nessler painting the moonlit streets of Camden Town, Arthur Segal most exquisitely conjuring up the London fog, Kurt Schwitters the portrait painter or Milein Cosman making a rapid note of ATS girls relaxing in the canteen, but in each case it is the ordinary essential humanity of the experience with which the image is invested that pulls us up short.
It is indeed the resilience and strength of the human spirit that is always most moving, that still gives us hope.
Blond Fine Art has at last found a suitably spacious new gallery in Princes Street, the lease at Sackville Street having ended. His first print show is a one man exhibition, a discovery of long hidden talent. Herman Fechenbach is now eighty eight years old, and has had a long frustrating career as a wood engraver and linocutter. The abundant work forms in a way a diary of his sadly disrupted life, where success and fulfillment have evaded his grasp by force of circumstances. His early work in his home town of Bad Mergentheim shows great promise; fairy stories and Jewish life are portrayed. But the loss of a leg in the 1914-18 war was a cruel setback, with years of convalescence. His illustrations for the Hagadah and the plague won him recognition in Germany, only to be snatched away by the advent of the Nazis. Caricatures of Himmler, Goebbels etc., are redolent of hatred. The Children's Train is an emotional record of the long line of trucks on its way to Belsen, crammed with French children who spill out on to the tracks.
He was forced to flee to Israel, and some constructive work was done, notably Call to Lunch showing a Kibbutz girl beating a large iron ring. But Israel did not suit him and he emigrated to England in 1939. Hardly settled here, he was summarily interned in 1940, eventually arriving in the Isle of Man. His delicate wood engravings were no longer feasible and from then on lino was the only medium obtainable. Arrested, Police Station, and Interned are disturbing records of unhappiness in hostile surroundings. The Isle of Man series involving intricate interweaving patterns of barbed wire with the sun shining hopefully through, record a happier time. He starts to use colour blocks: there are blue birds flying in a blue sky, Release found him looking for subjects rather than being dominated by them. His lyrical nudes and peaceful subjects like children in the playground, are brave attempts to grasp normality.
In London it is pleasant to be able to welcome back two enterprising galleries which 'have had to up stakes in the last few months owing to threatened redevelopment. Blond Fine Art is now in handsome downstairs premises at 22 Princes Street just off Hanover Square, and has a striking selection of wood engravings and lino cuts by Hermann Fechenbach, a German-Jewish artist still happily with us at the age of 88 whose powerful graphic style comes from the same roots as that of Kathe Kollwitz and is often fired by the same anger. Whether in his savage satirical views of Nazi leaders or his documents of internment camp life in the Isle of Man during the Second World War, he is clearly an artist to be reckoned with.
Bad Mergentheim is a picturesque backwater in Wiirttemberg. Like many places in south-west Germany it had a Jewish community for hundreds of years. There is documentary evidence of Jewish settlement going back as far as 1298. That characteristically was the year of the Rindfleisch massacre—named after a murderous local nobleman—and other nobles persecuted or exploited many subsequent generations of Jews.
Things greatly improved in the nineteenth century, during which the Mergentheim community trebled in size. Alongside a great deal of change there was remarkable continuity of religious observance and professional structure: in 1900 most members of the community were cattle-dealers or shopkeepers and on the Sabbath Jewish business activity ceased.
At about this time Mergentheim also produced its one revolutionary, Felix Feehenbach, a key figure in the Munich revolution of 1918-19, whom the Nazis murdered as soon as they came to power. A few years later they murdered what remained of the community and Mergentheim became juden-rein.
Scattered survivors live in different parts of the world. One of them, the painter, Hermann Feehenbach, who is domiciled in the UK, has written this account ol the Mergentheim kehilla and illustrated it with most moving woodcuts. It is a fitting memorial to forgotten generations who served God and also tried to be good Germans. The former was hard—the latter impossible.
Mr. Fechenbach's original woodcuts for the book were on view at the reception, I was looking at the very striking one of Moses when Mr. Arthur Bryant of Mowbray's observed: " Yes, that's Moses—the author."
As for the artist, Hermann Feehenbach has always been fascinated by the great themes of Genesis. He was born in 1897 in Wiuntembuirg, lost a leg in the First World War and gained many artistic successes in several countries before he was forced to abandon his home in Germany in 1939. He subsequently settled in England and has worked in London since 1944:
Black-and-white illustrations are by no means the limits of his work. On the walls also was a selection of his paintings—a brightly coloured, extremely varied output. He seems as much at home with a flower-piece as with a passage of Old Testament symbolism.