Marking the 80th anniversary of the Anschluss (annexation of Austria) on 12th March 1938
14th March – 29th April 2018
On Saturday 12th March 1938, German troops marched into Austria unopposed; Hitler was now in control. Although many Austrians welcomed the Wehrmacht with cheering, Nazi salutes and waving flags, this invasion made the country a dangerous place for thousands of people, particularly Jews. Between 1933 when Hitler began to gain power and 1945 when the era of National Socialism came to an end, approximately 130,000 Jews escaped from Austria, 30,000 of whom found refuge in Great Britain. Within this grand total, a number of artists crossed The Channel to safety and, in remembrance of the 80th anniversary of the Anschluss Österreichs, the Ben Uri Gallery produced an exhibition of over 40 works by a score of these refugees.
The Ben Uri Gallery, established in 1915 by the Russian émigré artist Lazar Berson, is dedicated to celebrating the work and lives of migrant minorities. Originally an art venue for Jewish immigrant craftsmen, the gallery’s mission is to be known as “The Art Museum for Everyone” with no ethnic, religious or other barriers.
The gallery was named after Bezalel Ben Uri or Bezalel son of Uri from the tribe of Judah who was an immigrant craftsman in the Bible. He was the master artisan in charge of creating the tabernacle for the spirit of the Lord to dwell as well as building the Ark of the Covenant, a gold-covered wooden chest in which to place the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments.
Then the Lord said to Moses, 2 “See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, 3 and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills— 4 to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, 5 to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts.
– Exodus 31:1-6
As a registered charity and the only specialist art museum in Europe that focuses on the issues of identity and migration through the visual arts, the Ben Uri Gallery takes every opportunity to not only showcase the artworks of migrant minorities but to tell the world their story. Although only a small building, the curators of the exhibition Out of Austria utilised the space to display a variety of different types of art, such as paintings, graphics, sculptures and ceramics. Very few of the Austrian artists are still alive, therefore, the exhibit also served as a museum of the annexation of Austria.
Anschluss was essentially an inevitable event for the idea of grouping all the German-speaking countries together had been a subject of discussion since the ending of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806. The Austrian people were split between wanting to merge with Germany and staying loyal to the Habsburg Monarchy despite its collapse in 1918. After the Nazis came to power in 1933, the government in Austria was targetted with propaganda advocating for an Anschluss to the German Reich, including the constant repetition of the phrase Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Führer (“One People, One Empire, One Leader”).
Gradually, the Austrian government withdrew, allowing Hitler to make his move to create a union between his birth country Austria and Germany, an “all-German Reich“. This had been his aim since 1925 when he wrote in his autobiography Mein Kampf, “German-Austria must be restored to the great German Motherland … People of the same blood should be in the same Reich.”
Some Austrian-born Jews began seeking refuge as early as 1933, five years before the Anschluss, as a result of Hitler’s anti-Semitic legislation. Others fled after the event in an attempt to find a place of safety, passing through various European countries, finally settling in Britain. With no homeland, livelihood or familiar culture, it was a challenge for all refugees to reestablish their lives and careers, including painters, sculptors and so forth. This exhibition not only showed the works of these artists but examined their struggles and experiences as they began to rebuild their lives.
Out of Austria was divided into sections, grouping artworks by theme rather than by artist. Some of the works express the reality of the internment many Jews faced on reaching British shores. Between 1940 and 1941, many refugees were held as “enemy aliens” in camps such as Huyton in Liverpool and the Hutchinson and Onchan camps on the Isle of Man. Despite the circumstances, the artists displayed in this gallery refused to let it stop them from doing what they do best – creating art. With limited resources, artists used whatever they could get their hands on.
One of the artists caught up in Churchill’s decree to “collar the lot” of Jewish refugees was Hugo Dachinger (1908-95), occasionally known as “Puck” who immigrated to Britain via Denmark in 1938. For the first two years, Dachinger was able to live in relative safety, however, after Churchill’s decision in June 1940 to detain “enemy aliens”, Dachinger was interred in Huyton Camp for five months, followed by a final two months in Mooragh Camp on the Isle of Man. Despite his incarceration, Dachinger continued to paint, eventually holding an exhibition of the works produced during these months entitled Art Behind Barbed Wire.
Dachinger was an Austrian Jew born in Gmunden, Upper Austria who had spent three years of study at the Leipzig School of Arts and Crafts before moving to Vienna to work as a graphic designer. He also patented a system of moveable type and co-founded the successful but short-lived Transposter Advertising Ltd firm.
Whilst in the British camps, Dachinger completed a bountiful portfolio of work, which included landscapes, scenes of the everyday life within the confines of the eight-metre high barbed wire, posters and coloured portraits. The example of Dachinger’s work owned by the Ben Uri gallery was painted during the third month of his internment. Titled Portrait of a Man, it is thought that the elderly sitter was one of the intellectuals, either a writer or an artist named Wilhelm Holitscher, who Dachinger socialised within the camp.
Limited to resources that he could find in the camp, Dachinger used newspaper sheets as his canvas, preferring The Times over others on account of the better quality paper. Unable to purchase paints, Dachinger and other artists had to use whatever equipment they had brought with them or invent their own pigments by melting and combining various ingredients. For example, he made ersatz paint by grounding brick dust or food with the olive oil from sardine tins. On other occasions, Dachinger mixed toothpaste and watercolours, which can be seen in the hair of Portrait of a Man. To produce black charcoal, wood, such as twigs from trees, were burnt to ashes.
One of the themes that was explored in the exhibition Out of Austria was the prevailing mother and child trope that has appeared in artworks throughout history. It is usually associated with Catholicism and the representation of the Virgin Mary with the Christ child, an unusual choice for Jewish artists to depict, however, perhaps these artists who had fled their homeland were drawn to this subject on account of their separation from their families. Amongst the artworks exhibited in this section were sketches, photographs, ceramics and sculptures.
One of the sculptures, lent from a private collection, was fashioned from bronze by the Austrian-born Georg Ehrlich (1887-1966). A year before the Anschluss, Ehrlich and his wife fled from the Austrian capital to the British capital where he remained for the rest of his life, excluding a brief internment in one of the camps. Although he had trained as a graphic designer at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Vienna, Ehrlich had established himself as a sculptor by 1923.
Ehrlich mainly restricted his sculptures to animals and children, however, also produced several war memorials including one for the Garden of Rest at Coventry. It is likely that Ehrlich’s sculptures provided the money he and his wife needed in order to live comfortably in their adopted country. Standing Boy, displayed as part of the exhibition, sold for £200 in 1941, the most expensive of any of the works bought at that time.
Another sculptor who found safety on the British Isles was Wilhelm “Willi” Soukop (1907-95), the son of a Moravian shoemaker, who fled from Vienna as early as 1934. Although he was deported and interred in Canada in 1940, he returned to London nine months later establishing himself as a teacher at various art schools. His post-war sculpture Mother and Child (1947), lent to the gallery for this exhibition, was purchased by the University of Chichester in 1952 where it usually sits above the altar in the University Chapel.
Continuing with the theme of mother and child, Bettina (1903-85), the wife of the aforementioned Georg Ehrlich, launched a new career as a children’s author and illustrator as a result of fleeing to London in 1938. By 1940, Bettina had penned and illustrated her first book Poo-Tsee, the Water Tortoise, which was followed by a further 20 books during her lifetime. As well as writing her own stories, Bettina worked as an illustrator for other authors including the American writer Virginia Haviland (1911-88).
A copy of Haviland’s Favorite Fairy Tales Told in England had been lent to the Ben Uri Gallery specifically for the Out of Austria exhibition, which was displayed in a glass case, opened to a page containing two elegant pen and ink illustrations. Included nearby was an initial study for an illustration that was never got used for the story Molly Whuppie in which the small girl, Molly, steals a giant’s purse from under his pillow whilst he sleeps.
Although these books and illustrations were produced after the end of World War Two and have no direct connection to the events of the Anschluss, they go to show the success Bettina achieved as a result of fleeing her home country. Had she remained in Austria, chances are she would have ended up in a Nazi concentration camp and possibly never seen again. By abandoning everything she was familiar with, she and her husband not only survived but created a positive future.
The exhibition Out of Austria ended with a selection of post-war artworks produced by Austrian-Jewish refugees. Some of these had returned to Austria or other countries in Europe, whereas, others decided to make Britain their permanent home. Regardless of where they ended up, they continued painting, sculpting and so forth, adopting new methods that evolved as a result of the war. Abstract art emerged as artists began to come to terms with the horrors of war, needing a suitable method of expressing their emotions. Political anxieties were also at the forefront of people’s minds but experiences of Nazi Germany made many wary of speaking or visualising their opinions in clear, obvious manners.
The Ben Uri Gallery selected works that were not predominantly war focused, instead emphasising the determination of the Austrian immigrants to persevere with their artistic careers. From fleeing their homes, facing several months in British camps, scavenging for resources, the determination of these artists to carry on when they could so easily have given up is an inspiration to all craftsmen today.
Despite the exhibition being in honour of the memory of the annexation of Austria, it was interesting to view a range of themes and styles rather than visual representations of war. Out of Austria was a personal insight into individual artists – unique human beings – instead of a formal, grave account of the Anschluss, although accurate facts and figures were also given.
It was refreshing to note a large number of female artists amongst the 20 or so featured in the exhibition. Women have generally been written out of the history of art and are only just beginning to receive the recognition they deserve. Anschluss affected both men and women, everyone was equal in this respect.
Out of Austria finished on 29th April, however, the Ben Uri Gallery hosts a number of exhibitions throughout the year that celebrates the lives of various individuals and groups of refugees. Regardless of who the future exhibitions focus on, visitors can expect a well thought out display that truly expresses the personalities and lives of the artists despite events they have been through.
The next exhibition to take place at the Ben Uri Gallery will be Adi Nes: Bible Stories beginning on 22nd May until 10th June 2018.