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Paper, scissors and glue to turn a writer into an artist

It was only towards the end of his life, with his health failing, that Wolf Mankowitz decided to ditch the pen, and take up scissors à la Matisse

    Playwright, novelist, producer, the man writer Anthony Burgess called “a sort of East End Joyce”, Wolf Mankowitz is back as never seen before.

    From today, Lorfords Antiques in Chelsea is exhibiting 45 Dada-inspired collage works made by this late stalwart of post-war British culture. A Cambridge graduate who studied English under F R Leavis, Mankowitz was everything from chat show host to (unbeknown to him) a suspected Soviet spy. Novels, short stories, biographies, film scripts including the draft for the first James Bond film, Dr No — words just poured out of this East End Jew, who (as the Daily Telegraph put it in his obituary) “helped to lighten the gloomy post-war years”.

    It was only towards the end of his life, with his health failing, that Mankowitz decided to ditch the pen, and take up scissors à la Matisse.

    As one of the writer’s sons Daniel, an antiques dealer, tells me from his flat on a smart West London street, where every spare inch of space is currently taken up by Mankowitz père’s artworks in the run-up to the auction, collage was his father’s “way of expressing his cultural intellect through art, without being an artist”.

    The collages were rediscovered last year, after Daniel set out to organise his father’s vast archive, which had languished in storage for years. It was here that he stumbled across these forgotten works. “I thought, ‘Christ, they’re powerful images,’” says Daniel.

    As for the archive, which contained every press cutting about his father’s work from the late 1940s onwards, as well as hundreds of manuscripts, letters and diaries, it joined the Gutenberg Bibles, Ezra Pound manuscripts et al at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library last year.

    Mankowitz once joked that, “Making collages is so much easier than writing. The only physical suffering is the battle with glue. With writing, the idea comes first, followed by long, hard work. I can give a collage its meaning after it’s done, with an insane caption”.

    Those “insane” captions (Homage to Thatcher anyone?) are all part of the fun of these colourful, playful artworks. Construction attacked by aubergines (1994), is as brilliantly bizarre as its name: a kind of constructivist montage of black geometric shapes “attacked” by phallic vegetables.

    In Homage to Salman (Rushdie, presumably), images of a woman in a niqab and a headline reading “THERE IS NO GOD BUT ALLAH” clash with a pair of bare legs, guerrilla fighters and… a building site.

    Shocking Case presents a landscape of mountains, the odd bit of lingerie floating about, and a golf ball disguised as the moon.

    These are pure attacks on logic and expectation, in true Surrealist and Dadaist spirit.

    The work is particularly indebted to Hannah Höch, a key member of the Dada Berlin group during the Weimar years, and one of the original proponents of using disparate, unrelated photographic elements, in order to make collages that might yield unexpected, insightful observations.

    For Mankowitz, Dadaism was a force “for all who are tired of the expected and weary with the established”, a movement that is “undatable and ongoing”.

    Salut André Breton pays homage to the author of the Surrealist Manifesto himself: a December 1926 newspaper screams “La REVOLUTION SURREALISTE” and there’s Sigmund Freud’s letter to the Frenchman about his work Communicating Vessels, in which Breton lays down the theories of Surrealism.

    Add in a map of Russia, coloured in pink crayon (in 1938, Breton and Trotsky co-wrote a Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art).

    Mankowitz’s last book, Exquisite Cadaver (1990), was even named after a 1920s Surrealist art game, played by Breton, Jacques Prévert and others.

    Other collages are more sobering, like Train to Dachau, with elements like spare musical notes, and Jewish names on a memorial plaque. Its blue-and-white stripes inevitably recall Israel’s flag.

    Although not religious, Mankowitz was fiercely proud of his heritage, and a staunch supporter of the Jewish state. One of Daniel’s childhood memories, in fact, is of Israeli war hero Moshe Dayan’s daughter Yael climbing a “huge tree” in the family home in Sussex.

    Daniel hopes that his father’s prodigious body of work, which has largely been ignored since his death in 1998, will one day resurface in the public eye.

    As for his artworks: “We know that it would be so funny, he would be so tickled, wherever he is, that somebody would buy his work. He would love it.

    “He had a great sense of humour, [about] the irony of life”, says Daniel, before adding mischievously: “If his children can make a little money out of the art he did for fun, then ‘Happy day!’”

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