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“They brought experience of a more cosmopolitan world in which the arts played a central role in everyday life and first-hand engagement with some of the most exciting developments of the European avant-garde. Their presence totally changed the intellectual climate in Britain . . . ”
This is Sir Nicholas Serota, talking of the émigrés from continental Europe who found sanctuary in Britain in the 1930s — refugees from the spread of Nazism who had an astonishing and lasting impact on Britain’s cultural life.
Writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, art dealers, publishers and more: in a range of fields, the immigrants brought not only talent but scholarship, expertise and a dedication to “high” culture that was rare in Britain at the time.
The artists who came to Britain, with their intellectual cargo of avant-garde thinking, included Kurt Schwitters, Oskar Kokoschka, Naum Gabo, as well as architects and designers from the Bauhaus, for several of whom (including Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and László Maholy-Nagy) London was the first point of refuge from Hitler.
Even more unusual, perhaps, was the immigrants’ admix of commercial acumen and aesthetic sensibility. Take for instance Walter and Eva Neurath, who founded Thames & Hudson in 1949, a decade after Walter had fled his native Vienna for London. Their mission was not just to run a successful company but to “create a ‘museum without walls’ and to make accessible to a large reading public the world of art and the research of top scholars”. Phaidon was founded by fellow émigrés, Ludwig Goldscheider and Bela Horovitz. Other giants of British publishing included André Deutsch, a Hungarian Jew who reached England in 1938, as did George Weidenfeld.
Art dealers, too, were among the incomers who lit up Britain’s cultural landscape. Annely Juda and Erica Brausen founded their eponymous galleries and nurtured some of the UK’s finest talent (Hockney at Juda; Bacon at Brausen); Austrian émigré Harry Fischer co-founded Marlborough gallery. Charles and Peter Gimpel, French Resistance fighters, called their gallery Gimpel Fils in memory of their father, who had died in a Nazi camp.
The list could go on and on. To celebrate this astonishing generation of refugees, the Insiders/Outsiders festival is running a nationwide, year-long series of events. As part of the festival, Sotheby’s exhibition, Brave New Visions: The Émigrés who transformed the British Art World, assembles painting, sculpture, photographs, documentary material, to tell the story of these pioneers.
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