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The man behind the masks

    Face to face: Friedrich Nagler's art uses many types of material, including bread
    Face to face: Friedrich Nagler's art uses many types of material, including bread

    Friedrich Nagler was a man of many faces, all hidden behind an unassuming mask.

    To the outside world, he was a low-key, blue-collar worker, who toiled through a series of menial jobs throughout his life to provide for his wife and two children.

    But delve deeper, and you find a child publicly shamed as illegitimate, a bitter reminder to his father of his mother's extra-marital affair.

    A Jewish refugee, who fled Vienna aged 19 in 1939 as the Nazis took power, to settle in the UK before being interned in camps in the Isle of Wight and Canada.

    And a husband and father who was, by and large, inscrutable. Moody at times but quiet, meticulous, private. A salt-of-the-earth character who built the family bungalow in Petersfield, Hampshire himself, and even set up a forge in the garden to make his own tools.

    Seven years after his death, Nagler has revealed another face altogether - or faces, to be more precise. He was a prolific, exhaustive, obsessed artist, who spent every moment of his free time sculpting and carving faces into any material or object he could find.

    Laboriously hidden away - boxed and stashed in craters and tins, but regimentally ordered depending on their subject matter and material - once created, these works never saw the light of day again.

    Until now, that is; the first public exhibition of Nagler's artwork has opened at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester.

    "There was a sense of order amid the chaos," remembers Marc Steene, executive director of Pallant House Gallery, who curated the collection from the many boxes of carvings transferred after Nagler's death to his son Mervyn's garage.

    "Friedrich was meticulous about his work; he left each series in a specific box. But the amount and quantity was just immense. We have about 100 pieces here, and that is just skimming the surface."

    Mr Steene first heard of Friedrich Nagler a little over a year ago, having been introduced to his family by Steven Rothholz, son of the late graphic designer Hans Arnold Rothholz, who met Nagler when they were both interned together during the war.

    He only saw a few pieces at first, but was immediately intrigued by the artist who created them. So followed hours of exploration of the artwork, the majority of which still remains boxed up in Mervyn Nagler's garage.

    The sheer volume of material attests to the obsessive nature of a man who hardly ever rested or took a holiday; one who worked into the night, all alone, carving faces into whatever he could find.

    "He was a completely driven, obsessive creator," Mr Steene explains. "He spent his evenings in the kitchen, making art, sleeping on the kitchen floor, getting up, going to work, and then repeating that cycle.

    "He was completely self-taught and, according to his family, was very critical of what he produced. He threw away as much as he kept; and he never showed his work to anyone, nor spoke about why he made it."

    As it happens, the works themselves provide certain clues. Many faces evoke a strong Jewish influence, especially those that depict bearded men with peyot and shtreimels. One only has to learn of Nagler's history - he narrowly avoided Nazi capture and he lost many of his loved ones in concentration camps - to surmise that, on some level, he was obsessively replacing the millions killed during the Holocaust.

    Mr Steene agrees: "You can see there is a sense of lost ancestry in his work. There is a familial quality. He makes families and then boxes them up, replacing what is lost at a deeper level.

    "He had a difficult childhood. His father disowned him, so he was plagued by feelings of insecurity and not belonging. Then, he grew up during the rise of fascism. If you have lost a whole sense of history and place, and are then uprooted and decamped, with no connection to your past, you wind up lost at a deep level.

    "It seems like he was recreating everything he had lost."

    The works themselves vary from haunting and eerie to playful and quirky. As well as the faces depicting Chasidic men, Mr Nagler produced a wide range of styles, adopting and appropriating other cultures with nods to African, Pagan and South American artwork.

    He was just as voracious when it came to material: conventional matter like cast resin, stone, wood, bone and metal, most of which he produced himself in his forge, sit beside faces marked into door handles, plug sockets, old hairbrushes, and even baked bread. The latter pieces are a particular highlight for Mr Steene.

    "I am interested in the non-traditional, in the outside," he explains. "I really love the non-art aesthetic part of Friedrich's work, when he is moving beyond what is considered 'conventional art', because it liberates the audience and challenges process and art form.

    "Artists like him show there are idiosyncratic ways of creating. We are told from the age of six that art is a skill that needs to be taught; but Nagler side-stepped all this. We can all be an artist; we just need courage and conviction."

    The exhibition itself is called "Wunderkammer" - or "cabinet of curiosities" - and, displayed behind glass in a small, square room, gazing at you from all four sides, "curious" is exactly what Nagler's faces are.

    Indeed, the title is especially apt for a man who remained a mystery throughout his life, even to his sons. On the surface, he was irreligious, but there was a sense of spirituality deep within him; his sons believe he saw himself as a conduit, allowing a higher power to produce art through his hands.

    "They are still trying to decipher him themselves," Mr Steene explains. "Friedrich was a very closed book. If you think what creativity and art is, it is a form of communication."

    Although Nagler refused to show his work in his lifetime - a sign, perhaps, of his inner insecurities - his family and the gallery are confident that he hoped his pieces would be found and revealed after his death.

    "He obviously produced all this with the intention of it living beyond him," Mr Steene says. "He looked after it all so carefully. There is a sense that it was difficult for him to share his work while he was alive; but now that he is not here with us, we have a responsibility to make his voice heard."

    Responsibility is something that plays heavily on the art curator's mind. After all, not only is this the first time Nagler's work has ever been publicly shown, it is also the first time it has been catalogued or valued.

    His family have loaned it all to the gallery, and are "very moved and thrilled" to see their idiosyncratic, closed-off father recognised in such a prestigious setting.

    "I feel privileged and very lucky to be able to show this treasure trove," Mr Steene explains.

    "When I come across artists like Friedrich - and there are many more unknown creators in our community, living and dead - it really saddens me.

    "So much of my work is looking at how we might cast the net wide enough to include more artists in our conversations, so that we get to see people like Friedrich even more, and don't just default to looking at people who have been trained at art school."

    One cannot help but wonder how Nagler would feel today, to see his life's work - his purpose and sense of identity - finally face outwards and see the world, and have the world staring back at it. There is no doubt that, on face value, he would baulk at the attention.

    But then, look deeper, behind the mask, and take a good look at the man of many faces; it is safe to suggest that, on another level, Friedrich Nagler might just be smiling.

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