The Visible Collection
The Leicester German Expressionist Collection, New Walk Museum and Art Gallery.
When it comes to rare collections of modernist art, most people do not immediately think of the city of Leicester. This busy university city in the East Midlands, still vital despite its industrial gloaming and apparent dearth of aesthetic qualities, seems an unlikely place to find a treasure trove of German Expressionist art. Most people visiting the city are entirely unware of its existence. They head for the modestly proportioned cathedral, which hit the headlines in 2012 for being the place of interment of King Richard III, whose osseous remains were located beneath a nearby municipal car park. New Walk Museum and Art Gallery which dates from 1849, is found a half mile walk from the cathedral and the old centre, at the end of a leafy avenue flanked by a scattering of venerable old buildings. On the day I visited the well-maintained and recently renovated museum is doing a brisk trade, buzzing with families there to peruse the star attraction, reassembled dinosaur bones and rooms of assorted artefacts, both regional and beyond, the expected educative contents of an enlightened provincial museum.
But upstairs on the second floor is a generous space containing an altogether different exhibit, a trespasser in England, an implausibly rich hoard of works of German Expressionism, a presence both incongruous and miraculous. The families thronging the museum rise from floor to floor, pushing their buggies and hauling their fractious or sullen broods behind them, only to arrive inevitably at this room, where their holiday mood is set to darken and a new seriousness descends on them like a cold mist. An infant screams piercingly and another howls from a pushchair, a fitting reaction indeed. An older boy grimaces and points to a portrait, crying out, ‘Look mummy there’s Frankenstein!’ The families do not linger long in this strange unsettling room; they pass by the paintings at a rate which does not allow them to take any single one in, they pass as if in a supermarket scanning for
goods on stacked shelves, or beholding dumb invertebrates trapped behind an aquarium window. They only delay at the centre of the room where a projection shows ranked Nazi Stormtroopers sweeping across the floor to loom up over the walls. It changes to scenes of decadent Berlin and then to footage of the infamous ‘Degenerate Art’ Exhibition which toured cities across Germany in 1937 on Dr Goebbels’s orders. This installation is designed to attract the visitor’s attention and to contextualise and present a background to the fate of the surrounding artworks. It is a novel and intriguing device, ingenious in its way and acts as a bridge for the uninitiated to cross and get closer to the paintings and prints. This display is explained to me in depth by the curator of fine arts at the museum Simon Lake, who is the dedicated guardian of the German collection and its most enthusiastic promoter. My first question is why Leicester?
Nineteenth and twentieth-century German art is rare in British museums; modern art even more so. Yet the Leicester collection has been here all along, comfortably ensconced at the heart of England. Its presence in Leicester is partially a result of a progressive arts policy upheld by one Arthur C. Sewter, an art assistant who organised an exhibition in 1936 which added the likes of Kandinsky, Ernst, Klee to the more predictable roster of home-grown artists. This policy was then consolidated in the war years by legendary curator Trevor Thomas (1907-1993). The core of the collection is fifty German Expressionist works which originated from the so-called Hess collection. Alfred Hess was a wealthy Jewish shoe manufacturer from Erfurt who through the 1920s owned a vast private collection of some 4,000 contemporary works, acknowledged as one of the most impressive in Germany. But in 1931 Hess died suddenly aged only 52. Hess left behind a wife, a daughter Tekla and a son Hans. As Germany allowed the shackles of Nazism to be fitted, Hans fled Nazi persecution, first to America then England, while Tekla remained in Germany doing her best to safeguard the collection as the outlook for Jews rapidly deteriorated.
In the ensuing years, much was lost or sold. Although Tekla had tried to save precious works by placing them with Swiss galleries, many of these were returned to Germany by Nazi decree. Tekla finally fled Germany in 1939 and during the war moved to Leicester. The art works amassed by
her shoe-manufacturing father had found an English city traditionally wedded to that very industry. Trevor Thomas probably met Tekla in 1941 and was quick to see the import of the collection, which had been concealed in furniture items smuggled out of Germany. Tekla and her brother soon put their trust in Thomas who took their remaining collection under his wing. During the war, Thomas had been emboldened by Sir Kenneth Clark’s renowned cultural programme instituted at the National Gallery in London and sought to do likewise in Leicester. His programme was eclectic, daring and his crucial acquirement of the first four works from Tekla Hess paved the way for the continued growth of the collection through subsequent loans and purchases. The crowning moment came with Thomas’s inspired ‘Mid-European Art Exhibition’ held in February 1944 which became the springboard for the permanent collection. Over the last sixty years, the collection has steadily been enriched, by acquiring works which specifically complement its existing core.
But there was a black fly in the ointment: the fate of Trevor Thomas. A few years later, the curator fell foul of society for being a homosexual and his brilliant career was obliterated overnight when he was prosecuted for a drummed up public offence. In 1940s England homosexuality was deemed a serious criminal act, and Thomas was treated with unpardonable severity. It took decades for his name to be rehabilitated and by the time the irons had rusted and loosened, his earlier exploits with regard to the Hess collection lay in the distant past. This extraordinary multi-talented individual who was so vital to the genesis of Leicester’s art heritage is now better known for being the last person who saw the poet Sylvia Plath alive. Thomas happened to live in the flat below Plath and was himself poisoned by the gas from her oven. It is heartening then to see New Walk Museum place this ‘Mr Thomas’, witness to a famous suicide, so visibly at the heart of the collection he initiated.
The flagship work of the collection and one of the highlights of the 1944 exhibition is Rote Frau (Red Woman) 1912, by Franz Marc. It is sobering to think that Trevor Thomas paid only £350 for it as one of the four first works acquired. The painting is a beauty and bears all the hallmarks of Marc’s unique technique, the interlocking colours, supine contours of the figure
and collage like blocks of alternating shades. This painting tantalises with its echoes of Gauguin morphing into Chagall, yet also reveals the overlaps with his fellow Blaue Reiter artists. Marc’s ability to edge the painting gradually from the subjective to the abstract seems effortless. Eschewing the coldness of cubist theatrics, Marc’s Red Woman like all his work shows his humanity, his vocal awareness of the sacred in nature.
Other well-known names are here, such as Ludwig Kirchner, with a rapidly-executed crayon sketch Three Nudes, from 1920. The sketch fairly ripples with movement and vitality, the speed of the crayon strokes suggesting deceptive recklessness fused with uncompromising honesty and precision. Fellow Die Brücke member, Erich Heckel, is also present through a rich crop of woodcuts and prints. Man on a Plain is a notable woodcut from 1917 which recalls Munch’s lithograph of The Scream. Like many of Heckel’s most compelling works, it’s a self-portrait, and in this case the artist has effectively communicated the inner tension of the war years through a series of jagged taut lines and alternating black and white shapes travelling horizontally behind the vertical solid black mass of the pained figure. Woodcut as a medium is especially effective in transmitting a sense of dislocation, estrangement, loneliness and fear: its minimalism and stark contrasts strip away anything superfluous to the core feeling.
Six works by the Berlin-based artist and printmaker Georg Grosz are also included. His penchant for withering social critique is well known, as are his moving portraits of the lost souls of post-war German society. Like Otto Dix, also here, Grosz moved on during the 1920s from the Expressionist style of his first works to the more formal and stylistic traits of the ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’ or ‘New Objectivity’ movement. And like Dix, Kirchner, Nolde et al his works were confiscated by the Nazis and deemed a mortal danger to the spiritual health of the Volk. The Toads of Property from 1922, and others like it, recall the biting societal denouncements and lacerating tomfoolery of Ostend legend James Ensor, yet with Grosz the world has moved on to a more apocalyptic state and any indulgence of black humour is carefully calibrated. Dix’s war etching Stormtroopers Advancing under Gas from 1924 is a chilling vision from the trenches during a gas attack, but points forward to a dystopian nightmare world of dehuman-
ised clone-like beings, gas masks replacing the advancing soldiers’ human faces, rendering them obedient slaves to industrialised war, cogs in an unstoppable aggressive machine. Blind Man from 1923 shows a disabled exsoldier, marooned on the unforgiving city street, proffering a few miserable items to passers-by. The sense of despair and hopelessness is withering, the draughtsmanship of the highest order. Dix once again shows that he outstrips his contemporaries in terms of the force of emotion and level of ruthless honesty he brings to bear.
As if these were not enough, the Leicester collection offers a wealth of works by other familiars; Kokoschka, Beckmann, Kollwitz, Feininger, Ernst, Jawlensky, Kandinsky, Klee, Meidner, Münter, Pechstein and Schmidt-Rottluff. Virtually all key figures in the broad church of German Expressionism are represented. But it is the lesser known names, the overlooked and forgotten, that are particularly fascinating to behold, those who are so singular as to be anchored on the fringes of any movement. I think of mavericks such as the visionary Austrian author and illustrator, Alfred Kubin whose macabre and fantastical drawings though well-known on the continent are inexplicably almost never shown in the UK. Or the curiously overlooked Max Slevogt, whose portfolio of twenty-one lithographs, entitled Visions 1916-17, captures the absurdity and horror of the soldier’s experience. The Suicide Machine pictures a line of vending machines ranked innocuously in a park, where civilians can step up, place a coin and be summarily shot dead by a revolver positioned on the machine, thereby experiencing the soldier’s fate. Slevogt’s eccentric, surreal, hallucinatory and ultimately devastating ‘visions’ deserve recognition. The same might be said of the scandously overlooked artist Walter Gramatté (1897-1929), affailiated to the Die Brücke group in Berlin and married to the Russian composer and pianist Sonia Fridman-Gramatté. Though Water Gramatté favoured a brand of magic realism, his dream-like paintings replete with existential anxiety and the mystery of being are unclassifiable. Having died prematurely Gramatté should, like his Austrian contemporary Schiele, been awarded posthumous fame, but unfathomably he remains barely a blip on the radar of renown.
In my view, the story of Leicester’s German Expressionist collection is
nothing less than a triumph of Europeanism and its presence is a statement, a bulwark against the current forces which seem intent on taking this country backwards in this regard. At this dark hour, when the values of international cultural integration are being questioned, those who seek to belittle our pan-European heritage should take a long hard look at the history of how this extraordinary collection came to be here and learn from it. It is surely pertinent that as the direct result of a regime which took radical evil, blood and soil nationalism, state-sponsored terror and genocidal persecution to unprecedented levels, these works arrived on our shores, the island-haven whose cultural and humanistic strength lies in its bridges to the mainland remaining ever open. Though we may be inwardly unable to assimilate the traumatic events of the previous century that directly fed many of these artworks, we have these ‘witness statements’, which the artistic imagination has made legible to anyone who cares to travel to Leicester, a city in Europe, and read them.