Review: Forced Journeys

The fine art of being a refugee

By Julia Weiner, March 26, 2009

Ben Uri Gallery, London NW8

Self-Portrait by von Motesiczky

Self-Portrait by von Motesiczky

If you have not already taken in the latest Ben Uri exhibition, it is well worth making the trip to St John’s Wood to see works by 24 of the 300-odd painters, sculptors and graphic artists who settled in the UK between 1933-45 as refugees from the Nazis and who went on to make a significant contribution to British culture.

Most of the 24 were Jewish — the ones who were not had to flee Germany because of their political beliefs or their “degenerate” artistic practice.

Notable works on show include Marie-Louise von Motesiczky’s fine self-portrait painted in 1938. She depicts herself in an elegant red dress with matching hat. Painted shortly before she escaped Vienna, she salutes her native Austria in a gesture of farewell. Despite the sophistication of her outfit, she looks very young and rather anxious as she looks towards her new life.

Many of these artists found themselves interned in Hutchinson camp on the Isle of Man where they had to go to great lengths to continue working. The renowned avant-garde artist Kurt Schwitters, for example, made constructions from left-over porridge. Sadly none of these survived, so instead he is represented here by two fine portraits of his fellow internees.

Perhaps the finest paintings on show are by Martin Bloch. Known for his lyrical use of colour, he depicted dream-like events in a heightened palette dominated by reds and greens.

In his Miracle in an Internment Camp the herrings that made up a large part of the prisoners’ daily diet turn into objects of desire in the form of nubile mermaids.

The exhibition also traces how these painters went on to influence the British art scene in the post-war period, Bloch in particular by introducing his students at Camberwell School of Art to the possibilities of colour.

Forced Journeys: Artists in Exile in Britain continues until April 19

Last updated: 1:41pm, March 26 2009