One hill, two painters

April 10, 2020 1 Comment

Peter Wakelin’s book Refuge and renewal: migration and British art, written to accompany his exhibition of the same name – its run in MOMA Machynlleth was sadly curtailed by coronavirus – is a rich source of information about artists who fled to Britain to escape the Nazis.  A name he mentions in passing on three occasions in the book is that of Georg (George) Mayer-Marton.  By accident I came across one of his oil paintings, Llanthony valley, in the collection of the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery (it was bought in 1951 by the Contemporary Art Society of Wales through David Bell).

Georg Mayer-Marton, Llanthony Valley (1949) (Glynn Vivian Art Gallery)

Mayer-Marton was born on Györ in Hungary in 1897.  He studied art in Vienna and Munich, and settled in Vienna, where he became Secretary and later Vice-President of the Hagenbund, an association of radical Austrian artists.  (As an anti-conservative group it was overshadowed by the Vienna Secession, but it did include Oskar Kokoschka among its members.)  After the Anschluss in 1938 and the forced closure of the Hagunbund, Mayer-Marton, as a Jew, fled in fear of his life to Britain with his wife Grete, a talented pianist.  In the London Blitz in 1940 he lost his studio and all his possessions, and his wife lost her mental health. 

Georg Mayer-Marton, Woman with boulders (1945)
(Imperial War Museum)

At the end of the War he discovered that his parents, who had stayed in Györ, had been murdered in Auschwitz.  In response he painted the bleak watercolour Women with boulders (in the Imperial War Museum).  He was unable to paint again until 1948.  In 1952 he won a lecturing job in Liverpool School of Art, and remained there till his death.  Here he taught painting and the art of making mosaics (he’d studied the Byzantine mosaics of Ravenna before the War).  He completed several mosaic commissions.  One them, of the Pentecost, can be seen in Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral. 

Georg Mayer-Marton, Pentecost (1957)
(Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral)

His students were full of respect for him.  One of them, Gordon Millar, recalled way Mayer-Marton’s teaching methods:

One feature that was rare in art schools in the 1950’s was George’s weekly seminar. Students would gather round in one corner of the studio usually in early afternoon, to discuss philosophy, art theory and history. He applied as he frequently reminded us, the ‘Socratic method’. He would challenge us with the rhetorical questions he fired at us. This was a stretching and exciting and above all novel experience.

I’ve not found any links between Mayer-Marton and Wales, and it’s not clear what drew him to the Vale of Ewyas (‘Llanthony Valley’) in the eastern Black Mountains in 1949 – only a mile or two from the English border, but a world away geologically and culturally.  Was he aware, I wonder, of the pictures made by David Jones during his stay at Capel-y-ffin between 1924 and 1926?  His subject was not the obvious one for earlier visiting artists like J.M.W. Turner and later painters like John Piper, the ruins of Llanthony Abbey, but the hills surrounding Capel-y-ffin towards the head of the valley.  In fact, the hill Mayer-Marton chose seems to be Y Twmpa, exactly the same hill, opposite his home in the monastery, that David Jones found so irresistible when he turned to the local landscape with his plein-air watercolours.

David Jones, Hill pastures (1926)

For David Jones Y Twmpa is a source of joy.  His pictures of the hill and its free-roaming ponies capture the natural world in all its god-given glory.  The curves of the hill flow like the waves of the sea, and his trees seem to dance in the breeze.  As always with Jones, there’s a deeper significance to the surface marks.  Jones saw rural Wales as a special place, one that preserved the older ‘matter of Britain’ that underlay all later accretions: the deep strata of geological and prehistoric time, the inheritance of the Romans, the era of the early Welsh kingdoms, myth and poetry.  And the Valley preserved too the long traditions of Christianity Jones valued – in its monastic houses and small churches, but also in its streams (the river Honddu and Nant Bwch), its hills and its animals.  The whole anthropomorphic landform lay before him, awaiting a reawakening or rebirth.  This was to be the great theme of Jones’s long poetic fragment, published forty years later, in 1959, ‘The sleeping lord’: ‘Is the tump by Honddu / his lifted bolster?’

In a later reminiscence, included in his essays Epoch and artist, Jones recalled how his stay in Capel-y-ffin opened a decisive new chapter in his artistic development:

Because at this propitious time the circumstances occasioned my living in Nant Honddu, there to feel the impact of the strong hill-rhythms and the strong counter-rhythms of the afonydd dyfroedd [river-deeps], which makes so much of Wales such a plurabelle [Anna Livia Plurabelle in James Joyce’s Finnegans wake].

Georg Mayer-Marton, Llanthony Valley (1949) (Glynn Vivian Art Gallery)

Whether or not he was aware of David Jones and his art, Mayer-Marton paints the same hill, Y Twmpa.  But not in the same way.  It would be hard to find much joy here.  For Jones the hill stood as a kind of tutelary deity, a kindly guardian of the land.  In Mayer-Marton’s picture it’s a dark, sinister presence.  It shows the same interfolded contours as in Jones’s works, and the same trees, but they’re done coldly; they don’t convey a delight in the natural world.  There are no quietly grazing ponies. 

It’s true that Mayer-Marton’s oils naturally lend his scene a darker tone than Jones’s watercolours and reserved white paper.  But his whole vision is bleaker, and his tones vary dramatically.  The sky is troubled and stormy – you feel a strong gale blows through the picture – with lighter clouds silhouetting Y Twmpa’s peak in a way that echoes some of El Greco’s more hallucinatory works (or some of Kokoschka’s landscapes: Kokoschka was also living in England at this time).  The season feels like winter, though we’re not close enough to the hill to be sure.

After 1949 Mayer-Martons’ palette seems to have lightened, and later landscapes are happier pictures.  Perhaps the move to Liverpool gave him much-needed stability.  The Glynn Vivian has a second painting by him, of the breakwater of Falmouth Harbour, made in 1955.  It has a French, almost playful feel.  Five years he was dead, aged 63.

Georg Mayer-Marton, Breakwater, Falmouth Harbour (1955) (Glynn Vivian Art Gallery)

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  1. Andrew Green says:

    Peter Wakelin writes:

    “He did have connections with Wales, but I haven’t managed to pin them down. During and after the war he was in Wales often lecturing for CEMA and then the Arts Council, I think perhaps particularly at Dowlais. He showed with the South Wales Group, and in 1950 he was a selector of the Caerphilly National Eisteddfod with Ceri Richards and Cedric Morris (organised by Esther Grainger, who got on well with him). I discovered a while ago that there’s a big collection of his work at the Glynn Vivian – works on paper so not showing up through ArtUK – which suggests some connection with Swansea.

    Charlie Burton knew him when they were both teaching at Liverpool and regarded him as a very kind man with an immense amount of knowledge who had a tendency to overcomplicate things. Charlie recalled that he seemed to know something about everything – on one occasion in the canteen he was talking about knife-swallowing and proceeded to demonstrate by swallowing a knife from the table. He had talked about swimming competitively for Hungary before the war, which no one really believed until he surprised the students during one of their regular outings to the swimming baths by arriving at the pool, diving in and doing a dozen lengths ‘like a motorboat’. Charlie was going to do a mosaic and asked Mayor-Marton what cement he should use, to which MM’s reply was, ‘Well, there are a hundred different recipes for mosaic cement.’ “

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