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Brave New Visions: the émigrés that changed the British art world

‘Brave New Visions’ is part of the Insiders/Outsiders festival conceived by Monica Bohm-Duchen. The exhibition celebrates the contributions made to the art world by the émigré art dealers, the artists they supported and the émigré publishers who were instrumental in bringing art history into affordable print. Curated by Sue Grayson Ford and Chereth Summers, this exhibition brings their stories to life.

Sue Grayson Ford is no stranger to significant art ventures; she was the founding director of the Serpentine Gallery, and also founder of The Big Draw. When she initially took on the co-curation role of ‘Brave New Visions’, the scope included artists, collectors, publishers and dealers. She decided that the focus should be only on the publishers, dealers and the artists they championed to give the exhibition shape. The collectors’ stories had to wait for another day.

A member of Sotheby’s handles ‘Figure in Sea’ (1957) by Francis Bacon, Credit @ Sotheby’s

Grayson Ford acknowledges that there were restrictions in a challenging space: “The space is limited and there are columns, so I had to think ‘how am I going to tell the story?'” She was keen for the stories and groupings of works to have flow and not be broken up by the layout of the room, something that she has achieved in the respective clusters of the artworks, each pillar representing a dealer/gallery. There were also other challenges – “to tell the stories of the dealers through art was quite problematic” – as well as practical challenges such as the cost and logistics of copyright clearance. It was only through hiring a dedicated picture researcher that they were able to clear use of images for the online catalogue in time (remarkably the exhibition and the loans were achieved by the curators in a matter of a few months).

As the title suggests, the dealers, artists and art are on the brink of a new world; perhaps a counterbalance to the dystopia of Huxley’s “Brave New World” but also in contrast to what has come before. Looking forward, the vision is theirs. Through the curation, we are told the stories of the publishers, dealers and artists who fled mainland Europe to settle in UK as fascism swept across the continent. These were people who lost loved ones, homes, businesses, and artworks; much was forcibly taken from them. It would be wrong to assume that life was initially easy in the UK; many first were incarcerated in internment camps as ‘enemy aliens’ before rebuilding their lives.

Graham Sutherland’s ‘Thorn Head’, Credit @ Sotheby’s

These are dealers who went on to create and provide the platform for the art of the modern age to flourish. The art is fundamental to the 20th century.  As Grayson Ford explains, without the driving force of these particular art dealers who brought a European sensibility to the London art market, the contemporary art world would be very different. Many of the galleries remain in existence today, such as Marlborough Fine Art, Crane Kalman Gallery and Annely Juda Fine Art; the legacy of the galleries and those artists they supported continues. These galleries supported and developed artists who are household names today such as Francis Bacon, Barbara Hepworth, Graham Sutherland, Henry Moore, Frank Auerbach, Christo & Jeanne-Claude, George Grosz, Anthony Caro and Lynn Chadwick to name but a few.

In an age of political uncertainty, nationalism and rising intolerance for difference, the exhibition is timely. It is an important show, leaving many conversations yet to be had. It works on many levels: the history behind each of the dealer’s journeys, an insight into the workings of the gallery community in the early and mid-20th century, the ebb and flow of life and business between artists and their galleries, the restitution of looted artworks, and the role of women dealers and artists. It is also a rare opportunity to gain insight into the importance of the role of the art dealer in the creation of great art. The dealer’s relationship with the artist, commercial and personal, is often overlooked and rarely explored. Yet financially and intellectually this co-dependent relationship, when successful, was the catalyst for significant work.

George Grosz, ‘Interrogation’ (1938), © Estate of George Grosz, Princeton, N.J. / DACS 2019. With kind permission of Ben Uri Collection

Grayson Ford and Summers have selected works representative of those artists who worked with the dealer and are often of the time. There are some remarkable loans. There are works that address the violent extremism of the times: George Grosz’s raw direct depiction of torture and interrogation in ‘Interrogation’ (lent by the Ben Uri Collection) (1938); the acerbic political cartoons of Vicky (Victor Weiz), who on a gentler note depicted Jack Bilbo, both artist and dealer who supported him in the UK, gazing on Picasso’s ‘La Belle Hollandaise’; and there are representative works by artists labelled as degenerate by the Nazis such as Martin Bloch, who were offered support and representation in the relative safety of London.

The works of John Heartfield, described by Bertolt Brecht as “…one of Europe’s most important artists”, is considered the forefather of photomontage. His anti-Fascist, anti-Nazi political works were so compelling that he was number five on the Gestapo’s most wanted list. Escaping capture in Berlin by jumping from his balcony and hiding in a bin, he fled first to Czechoslovakia and then London. (An exhibition of his works will be shown at Four Corners Gallery, Globe Town, Bethnal Green from 1 November 2019 to 1 February 2020.)

Graham Sutherland’s ‘Thorn Head’

Looking forward, modernity was embraced by these galleries. Annely Juda was at the forefront of introducing Central European abstraction and Russian Constructivism to the UK; Erica Brausen of the Hanover Gallery exhibited ground-breaking shows from the offset, showing works by Eileen Agar, Hans Hartung in the first year of the gallery’s existence, and the first solo exhibition of Francis Bacon’s paintings in November 1949.

One of the most affecting strands is around the depictions of the human – figures who are there but not there. Graham Sutherland’s ‘Thorn Head’ (1947), a half-open vessel/head packed with thorns; Frank Auerbach’s ‘Head of Helen Gillespie’ (circa 1962-64), thick worked and reworked paint, a woman’s head visible only from afar, a distant recalled memory, a ghost; ‘Shattered Head’ (1956) by Eduardo Paolozzi, a bronze head, layered, patched, shredded, reformed from pieces – no positive features but gaps, a bandaged negative space. This is one of Grayson Ford’s favourite pieces in the exhibition.

Frank Auerbach, ‘Head of Helen Gillespie’ (c 1962-64), Copyright Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough, New York and London. With kind permission of Ben Uri Collection.

As part of the Insiders/Outsiders Festival, sister exhibitions are running alongside Brave New Visions: ‘Walter Nessler: Postwar Optimist’ at Pallant House, Chichester, Sussex (8 June to 6 October 2019) and ‘Grete Marks: An Intimate Portrait’ (26 June to 27 October 2019) consider different aspects. Walter Nessler, described as a “German Colourist” in his first exhibition at the Leger Gallery in London, 1940, fills his cityscapes of London with portent. However the work ‘Weeds out of Ruins’ (1944) can be seen as an expression of optimism and resilience – life growing out of nothing as the title suggests. Grete Marks’ works are, in contrast, intimate and tender. A Bauhaus student and a ceramist, who like many was considered a degenerate by the Nazis, created and designed in the face of adversity; this exhibition provides an opportunity to rediscover an artist who has been overlooked.

We hope that these exhibitions will be the beginning of the conversation, and a re-examination of the significance of this generation of émigré dealers, as well as of the artists and their work to modern art.

Eduardo Paolozzi, ‘Shattered Head’

Exhibition curated by: Sue Grayson Ford MBE and Cherith Summers
Insiders/outsiders festival originator: Monica Bohm-Duchen

The exhibition would not have possible without the generosity and support of the heirs, lenders and companies who gave time, advice, documentation and artworks to the exhibition, including: Richard Aronowitz, Nicholas Hemming-Brown, Simon Hucker, Anna Nyburg, Shauna Isaac, Marina Palmer, Andrew Snell, Eileen Hughes, René Gimpel, David Juda, Sally Kalman, Ivor Braka Ltd, John & Susan Burns, Jeffrey Gruder QC, Simon and Rebecca Silver, Ben Uri Museum,  Sotheby’s, Connoiseur International Fine Art, Hallett Independent and  Mishcon de Reya LLP.

Dates: 17 July 2019- 9 August 2019. Monday-Friday 9-4.30

Venue: Sotheby’s, St. George Street Gallery, 1-2 St George Street, London W1S 2FE

For more information please go to the Sotheby’s website

Filmed interviews with the immediate descendants of three of the art dealers: www.insidersoutsidersfestival.org/brave-new-visions-films

Panoramic view: GalleriesNow https://www.galleriesnow.net/shows/brave-new-visions/

Walter Nessler: Postwar Optimist (8 June-6 October 2019)
Grete Marks: An Intimate Portrait (26 June-27 October 2019)
Pallant House, Chichester, Sussex
https://pallant.org.uk/