The Vis­i­ble Col­lec­tion

The Le­ices­ter Ger­man Ex­pres­sion­ist Col­lec­tion, New Walk Mu­seum and Art Gallery.

The London Magazine - - NEWS - Will Stone

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.

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