ÉMIGRÉ ART IN BRITAIN


The book Insiders Outsiders tells the extraordinary story of the contribution made by refugee artists to British culture from the 1930s onwards, most of them fleeing from persecution in Germany and many of them Jewish. The BBC, publishing, music, cinema, art and architecture all benefited from their new perspectives.

Some names were obviously foreign – Freud, Kokoschka, Pevsner, Moholy-Nagy – some, like the BBC head of drama, Martin Esslin, sounded vaguely foreign and others, like Stephen Hearst, the controller of the BBC in the 1970s, didn’t, even though he was born in Budapest.

The central European contribution to the visual arts wasn’t widely appreciated and our slowness in taking to modernism is obscured by the prominence given to innovative work in art histories, which was often disliked at the time. The art schools were in thrall to the Arts and Crafts movement until the late 1940s. It it was only after Picasso’s retrospective at the Tate Gallery in 1960, when he was almost eighty, that he came to be widely regarded in England as anything other than a charlatan. The British took their modernism with a large dash of water. Michael Saler has written a revealing account of how the modernism of Frank Pick’s London Transport was shot though with Ruskinian ideas: Saler called it medieval modernism. And Insiders Outsiders describes the strong opposition to the German Expressionism that émigré artists brought with them and the British preference for a softer French modernism rooted in Post-Impressionism.

Bloomsbury exerted a baneful influence. Vanessa Bell adopted the Post-Impressionist style in the 1910s and painted the same way for forty years. Artistic taste in England was shaped by post-WWI anti-German sentiment, which may be one of the reasons reason why British design was stuck for so long in Arts-and-Crafts mode. There was also, of course, the shade cast by William Morris. His followers were paralysed by admiration for him and they repeated themselves for decades. The design initiative passed from England to Germany, where the state-sponsored Bauhaus and Deutscher Werkbund accommodated to mass production in a way that was anathema to British designers.

The story in architecture, music and the other arts is somewhat different. Lucie Rie, an Austrian Jew, gained considerable respect in the small world of studio pottery, but Greta Marks, who tried to adapt her modernist ceramics to Stoke-on-Trent, had an unhappy career in Britain. Several of the artists in this book fell into obscurity and the influence of continental émigrés was hard-won in Britian.

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