Life & Culture

The art world’s refugee revolution

They fled from Nazi Germany to London - and changed the world of art


In bleak, post war England a group of émigrés who had fled Nazi Europe boldly resolved to embrace the future of the London art world. Although they were considered outsiders this did not deter them from introducing a new generation of highly successful artists that revolutionised the art market into an international industry that continues to thrive 80 years on.

The Brave New Visions exhibition, which is hosted by Sotheby’s auction house, tells the story — through painting, sculpture and literature, of these pioneering dealers, galleries and publishers. The emergence of galleries such as Crane Kalman, Marlborough Fine Art and Gimpel Fils not only created a vibrant London art scene but arguably turned many British and European artists and sculptors — such as Wassily Kandinsky, Oskar Kokoschka, Piet Mondrian, Naum Gabo, Graham Sutherland, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach, Laurence Stephen Lowry and Lynn Chadwick — into high value household names. If there was ambivalence towards the foreigner, or ‘outsider’ it was overshadowed by the rich and vibrant culture, talent and ability of the émigrés, who were predominantly Jewish.

The exhibition is part of the year-long Insiders/Outsiders festival organised by Monica Bohm-Duchen marking the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the World War Two. The festival pays tribute to the indelible contribution of refugees from the Nazis, who in spite of their own hardship in seeking refuge, still had the capacity to enrich British culture.

Out of the handful or so of immigrant gallerists on the scene three were women who were unusually ahead of their time, their colourful vision and dynamism trailblazing the market. There was German-born Annely Juda who had lived for three years in Palestine before arriving to London in 1937 with just one pound.

In 1968 she opened Annely Juda Fine Art, which over the years built a loyal roster of artists including Leon Kossoff, Anthony Caro and David Hockney. In 1998 her contribution was recognised when she was made a CBE in 1998 for her services to art.

Another was Erica Brausen, German-born, but not Jewish, she realised that as a lesbian her life was at risk in Germany and so fled to London in 1937. In 1948 she co-founded the Hanover Gallery, which represented Francis Bacon and sculptors Reg Butler and Alberto Giacometti, among others.

Lea Bondi Jaray was one of the foremost dealers in Austrian Expressionist before the War in Vienna. She ran a leading gallery of Modern Art, championing art by Oskar Kokoschka, Emil Nolde and Egon Schiele. But her career there was abruptly cut short when she was forced to give up her gallery to the Nazi art dealer Friedrich Welz following the 1938 Anschluss (Annexation) of Austria. The Nazi also forced her to hand over a valuable painting from her home that belonged to her personal collection. Acknowledging the danger of fighting back she reluctantly gave Welz the Portrait of Wally, 1912, by Egon Schiele.

Shortly after Bondi Jaray came to London, where she co-founded St George’s Gallery, which became one of the first galleries to stage an exhibition of Expressionist art. In spite of embarking on a new life, she never forgot about the injustice of losing her painting. After the war she tried to secure the return of the painting, without success. She died in 1969, still without her painting.

It took more than 40 years for justice to be done. When the painting was sent to New York as part of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Bondi Jaray’s family sought to get the US government involved. Eventually in 2010, after twelve years of litigation and in an era where governments were more receptive to restitution claims, her heirs were compensated for the picture. Today Portrait of Wally hangs on the wall of Vienna’s Belvedere Museum, accompanied by a full account of its provenance, acknowledging that it was stolen from its owner.
 The exhibition also highlights the story behind the creation of Marlborough Fine Art gallery, a beacon of the Contemporary Art industry until this day.

The formation of the gallery was as a result of the meeting of minds of two Austrian Jews, Harry Fischer and Frank Lloyd, who met as volunteers for the Pioneer Corps. In 1946 they opened the gallery, choosing the name Marlborough because of its perceived aristocratic connotations. The savvy businessmen became hugely successful, expanding their business to include galleries in London, New York, Rome, Zurich, Toronto and Montreal.

The duo parted company in the 1970s. The gallery, which remains a powerful player on the international scene today, is now managed by Lloyd’s descendants.

Beyond art galleries, the show also considers the indelible contribution of art publishers Thames & Hudson, and Phaidon. Phaidon was set up in 1923 by Viennese co-founders Bela Horovitz and Ludwig Goldschneider.

The name Phaidon is a combination of two names: it refers to the Platonic dialogue Phaedo, on the subject of the immortality of the soul, and also to a book by the German-Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, founder of the Jewish Enlightenment movement. Its aim was to eventually bring cultural history to a wider public at affordable prices.

Fortuitously Stanley Unwin of UK publishers George Allen & Unwin became the distributor for English language editions. When Hitler came to power in 1933 and his plans for annexing Austria were evident, Unwin, Horovitz and Goldschneider devised a plan to transfer the business to Unwin. By the time the Nazis marched into Vienna in 1938 the founders had left for London with their valuable photographs and stock, and Phaidon now belonged to an “Aryan” Englishman.

The publisher’s largest claim to fame is The Story of Art, by fellow Jewish immigrant EH Gombrich. First published in 1950, it became a worldwide bestseller. It is still in print today, having sold more than 8,000,000 copies in 30 languages.

The exhibition’s curator, Sue Grayson Ford, says that despite the traumas of the war and the discovery of the Holocaust, the immigrants were “determined to reassert the positive aspects of humanity — and to embrace the future.

“Retaining their sharpness of vision born of once being outsiders, they soon became significant insiders who transformed the London art world — introducing European modernists with scholarly catalogues and promoting a new generation of British artists both at home and abroad. Their impact and influence were profound —and remain so.” 

The Brave New Visions exhibition is free and on show at Sotheby’s until 9 August.

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