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Debt owed to Jewish refugee art

by
11 June 2021

Jonathan Evens looks at influential works by émigré Jewish artists, now under threat

Estate of George Mayer-Marton

Crucifixion by George Mayer-Marton, created in 1955, situated in the Roman Catholic Church of the Holy Rosary, Oldham

Crucifixion by George Mayer-Marton, created in 1955, situated in the Roman Catholic Church of the Holy Rosary, Oldham

AFTER the Second World War, there was an almost unprecedented expansion of the number of church buildings containing works of art, as churches were repaired or built with new work installed in them. This was a time of impassioned artistic activity, in which the catalyst for the Church was, to a significant extent, émigré artists, many of whom were Jewish.

This remarkable generation of refugees from Nazi-dominated Europe contributed artworks that greatly enriched British culture and churches. Yet their significance is only just beginning to be examined and recognised as their legacy comes under threat.

Jan Piotrowicz / MyLondonHomeCrucifixion or Adoration of the Shepherds at St John’s Waterloo, painted by Hans Feibusch in 1951  

St John’s, Waterloo, is home to two murals by the émigré artist Hans Feibusch. Its Vicar, Canon Giles Goddard, understands more than most the significance of this period, and the issues raised: “Our Feibusch murals have graced St John’s and focused our thoughts for almost 70 years.

“But it is only now that we, and other churches blessed with works of this period, are beginning to see the bigger picture. What did Feibusch and his fellow non-Christian artists bring to our faith and to our understanding of the post-war world? How can we save their legacy, so significant and yet so much at risk? And how can we respond to the art of refugees in Britain today?”

Royal Foundation of St KatherineGenesis by Naomi Blake, 1994

Nick Braithwaite, great-nephew of George Mayer-Marton, is campaigning to save his great-uncle’s vast 1955 Crucifixion mural — a rare combination of fresco and mosaic — at the Roman Catholic Church of the Holy Rosary, Oldham. He says that these artists brought an “infusion of Continental modernist energy into a conservative art scene in the UK”.

Many of these artists had lost everything before their arrival, and could only eke out a living at first. The sculptor Ernst Müller-Blensdorf, declared a degenerate artist by the Nazis, who ordered all his work to be destroyed, migrated first to Norway. There, his plan for a cultural centre promoting peace, including a sculpture of Fridtjof Nansen, the League of Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees, attracted widespread support; but as work on the project was about to begin, Norway was invaded, and Müller-Blensdorf fled to Britain.

Nazi persecution also ended the career of Mayer-Marton in Vienna. He, too, fled to Britain, and, as a Hungarian citizen, managed to ship all his Vienna work here. In September 1940, however, a German incendiary bomb destroyed the London studio where he was living, though he and his wife Grete had taken shelter before the air raid.

 

IN EUROPE and the United States, this was a time of a modernist preoccupation with religion and spirituality. The image of the crucified Christ became, for many artists, synonymous with the suffering endured through the war, most substantively in the Holocaust.

Monica Bohm-Duchen, the creative director and initiator of Insiders/Outsiders, an ongoing initiative to celebrate refugees from Nazi Europe and their contribution to British culture, says that, although Jewish artists had portrayed Jesus as a Jew from the late 1800s onwards, Marc Chagall became a seminal figure in this regard for many Jewish artists.

The Chapter, Canterbury CathedralPeace by Ervin Bossányi

Like many, Chagall, while not a practising Jew, nevertheless felt intensely Jewish, and was acutely aware of the rise of fascism in Europe. His White Crucifixion (1938) depicts the sufferings of the Jewish people in the image of a Jewish Jesus.

After 1945, however, his art tends towards universalism, as with his first commission for a Christian church, Crossing of the Red Sea: a ceramic mural for Notre-Dame de Toute Grâce du Plateau d’Assy, which was created “In the name of the liberty of all religions”.

As one of the best-known Jewish artists of the time, Chagall, by his example, “legitimated, validated, and prompted quite a lot of other younger artists of Jewish origin” to follow suit in working for the Church, Ms Bohm-Duchen suggests.

Mayor-Marton was also from an assimilated family, and, Mr Braithwaite says, may have identified more as Hungarian than Jewish originally. Jewish identity was forced on him by the Nazis, and the experience of working on a series of far-sighted commissions from the Roman Catholic Church for churches and schools in the north-west of England provided a means by which to process some of his wartime experience.

Mayer-Marton poured his suffering, including the loss of his parents and younger brother in the Holocaust, into the intensely Jewish image of the crucified Christ created for the Church of the Holy Rosary.

George Bell, Bishop of Chichester during and after the war, was a key figure in bringing refugees to Britain and in encouraging churches to commission émigré artists. Feibusch was befriended by Bell, whose influence caused him to receive the first of his church commissions for murals on religious themes.

The result was that Feibusch became responsible for more murals in Church of England churches than any other artist in its history. Dr Andrew Chandler writes in the Insiders/Outsiders book that Feibusch found “something of a father in God” in Bell, for whom refugee artists were a “powerful meeting point” between two of his most profound commitments: “that it was the responsibility of the Christian Church both to plead for the refugee, and also to welcome the artist within its doors, not simply for entertainment but for actual work”.

Despite these commitments, Bell could not assist all with whom he corresponded. Blensdorf and the Hungarian-born stained-glass artist Ervin Bossányi were among those to whom he offered sympathy and encouragement, but who had to wait for their later opportunities at Salisbury and Canterbury cathedrals respectively.

Ms Bohm-Duchen refers to the insight in which, in an unpublished essay on the nature of Jewish art, Feibusch “made it quite clear that he almost envied the richness of possibilities within the Christian Bible and the Christian Church, which wasn’t available to him as a Jewish artist working for the synagogue”. She thinks that Chagall “almost certainly felt exactly the same”.

 

IN THE work of the Jewish artists, Ms Bohm-Duchen detects a sense of going back to a period in the 19th century, when use of Christian iconography “was seen as a way of building bridges, of forging links, of creating dialogue between Jews and Christians”. This seemed more necessary than ever in the wake of the war.

St Mary the BoltonsMother and Child by Naomi Blake, 2001

The sculptor Naomi Blake, for example — with work at Friends’ House, St Mary the Boltons, and the Royal Foundation of St Katharine — “made it very, very clear in her whole attitude to life and to religion and spirituality, that she wished to improve relations, to build better bridges, between different faiths”.

Deeply moved by the human suffering he had witnessed, Blensdorf conceived the idea of an “International Nansen Monument” to promote peace and encourage human rights.

The war prevented his realisation of this vision through a series of soul-destroying setbacks. Twice, Blensdorf lost everything that he owned and had made, and yet he wrote that he was not discouraged in the least, because of the opportunity in exile to “come back to real creative art”. His experience of sacrifice and resurrection informed his sculptures Abraham’s Sacrifice and Resurrection Christ.

His focus on peace promotion was characteristic of other Jewish artists in this period who worked with biblical or Christian iconography.

The work of Bossányi is similar to that of Chagall. His stained-glass commissions often required the use of specifically Christian imagery, yet he recognised the “profound inspiration” of all the great religions, possessed a “reverence for life”, and longed for a “new cosmopolitan world order, in which ideological, racist, and cultural differences no longer mattered”.

In the first of his windows for Canterbury Cathedral, dedicated to unity and peace and conceived throughout in radiant colours, the ascended Christ welcomes children of all races. In the second, four prisoners are raised up from leaden hues into a glittering freedom where butterflies and birds take flight.

 

THE work of these artists is historically significant, and an aesthetically rich contribution to Jewish-Christian relations and dialogue. It is work that deserves to be better known, better understood, and better preserved.

Ash MillsSpirit and Endeavour in Salisbury Cathedral

Mayer-Marton’s work illustrates the extremes of preservation issues faced by work from this period, however, as two churches containing his work have been closed. One was demolished, resulting in an urgent campaign to save his Pentecost mosaic mural, which is now in Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral.

The other, at Oldham, is still under threat, but in the 1980s, a parish priest, not appreciating its significance, overpainted the fresco element of his mosaic mural. Other works by artists from this period, although not so actively vandalised, are nevertheless in need of significant restoration.

The story of these artists — from Germany, Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, as well as Holocaust survivors who came to England after 1945 — is a story of effective interfaith dialogue and appreciation for others’ creativity.

It is a story in which the Church is at the heart of welcome and hospitality, combined with awareness of the immense contribution that refugees make to the culture and economy of their host countries.

Our current lack of appreciation for that story, these artists, and their works, is, perhaps, symptomatic of the place in which our nation’s conversation about immigration is currently stuck. “Respair” — the return of hope after a period of despair — is a word that fell out of use many centuries ago, but which describes this story very well. If we were to reinhabit this story as Church and nation, then we might truly know respair.

 

“A Jewish Jesus: Art and Faith in the Shadow of World War II” takes place on Wednesday 16 June at St John’s, Waterloo.

Forthcoming Events

20 September 2021
Online book launch: Black, Gay, British, Christian, Queer
Author Jarel Robinson-Brown in conversation with Rev. Winnie Varghese.

25 September 2021
Festival of Faith and Literature: Food for the Journey
With Stephen Cottrell, Peter Stanford, Lucy Winkett, and Rowan Williams.

More events

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