Life & Culture

The exiles who cut it


By providing a home for Polish painters fleeing the Nazis, Britain’s art scene was significantly enriched

Art in Exile

Boundary Gallery, London NW8

Hitler’s distaste for the avant-garde is well-documented. He regarded all modern-art movements as “degenerate” on the grounds that they were un-German and “Jewish Bolshevist”.  

Those identified as degenerate artists were subjected to sanctions that included being dismissed from teaching positions, being forbidden to exhibit or to sell their art, and in some cases being forbidden to produce art entirely. 

Unsurprisingly, a large number fled, with many coming to the UK and introducing new artistic styles. Sadly, few of the artists found the same acclaim here that they had garnered in their home countries and remained marginal figures in the British art world.

Douglas Hall, formerly keeper of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, struck up friendships with several Polish artist refugees and has written a book about 10 of them. To coincide with its publication, the Boundary Gallery has an exhibition of works by the artists, several of whom were Jewish. 

On show are paintings by Jankel Adler and Josef Herman. Adler was born into an Orthodox family near Lodz but trained as an artist in Germany and then in 1933 went to live in Paris. When war broke out, he, like many of his compatriots, joined the Polish forces and was evacuated to Scotland. He became an important influence on other refugees as well as on Scottish artists. One of his better-known works is the moving painting Two Orphans, which he made for his friend Josef Herman who heard in 1942 that his entire family had perished. It shows two wide-faced figures gazing down at the letter that revealed the fate of the Herman family. 

Herman found solace in a close-knit Welsh mining village which started off his fascination with images of working people. This theme is well-represented with his paintings of miners, farmers and peasants. The palette in these works is dominated by earthy colours that bring to mind life on the land. However, the paintings are illuminated by a deep red sunset, by moonlight or by small touches of colour.

Another Jewish artist in the exhibition is Stanislaw Frenkiel, whose brightly coloured and energetically painted works all have a frisson of horror to them. The Butcher’s Wife, for instance, appears to be chopping up a human body. Aleksander Zyw, meanwhile, responded to the war with Hungry, painted in 1946, in which a group of skull-like faces rendered in thick white paint with gashes of red for mouths look towards heaven as they plead for food. 

Art in Exile: Polish Artists in Post-War Britain is at the Boundary Gallery until July 19. (020 7624 1126)

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