A Czech refugee artist in Mumbles

December 20, 2019 3 Comments
Ernst Neuschul, Self-Portrait (detail)

In the big show of Swansea-themed art currently on in the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery are three paintings from the permanent collection I’d not seen before.  They’re by a Czech artist called Ernst (later Ernest) Neuschul.  What intrigued me was a note in the caption for one of them to say that he’d found refuge in Mumbles during the Second World War.  Who was Ernst Neutschul, and what brought him to Swansea?  It turns out to be a remarkable story.

Ernst Neuschul, Messiah (Leicester Arts and Museums Service)

Like Franz Kafka, Neuschul was a German-speaking Czech of Jewish descent.  He was born in 1895 in a town on the river Elbe, then called Aussig and now called Ústí nad Labem.  Though his parents disapproved, he was passionate about art and moved from city to city in search of it: Prague, Vienna (where we met the work of Klimt and Schiele), Krakov (to avoid the First World War) and Prague again.  In Prague he met a Dutch-Javanese dancer called Takka-Takka (her real name was Lucie Lindenmannovou) and had his first solo show of paintings, in 1919.  A painting now in Leicester, Messiah, belongs to this year: it’s a startling expressionist self-portrait.  Another Leicester work, a linocut called Nude female with two men (1920), is strongly related to the expressionism of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.  The couple moved to Berlin the next year and married there.  He immersed himself in south Asian culture, studying Indian dance, designing dance costumes for his wife and writing screenplays for films on Asian myths.  Neuschul and Takka-Takka spent the years 1922 to 1926 touring the world as dance performance artists, before returning to Berlin.

Ernst Neuschul, Black mother (New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, Leicester)

Berlin was where Neuschul made his name as a painter, in the avant-garde ‘New Objectivity’ movement in the Weimar Republic that reacted against prevailing expressionist styles.  He was a convinced socialist, and his subjects reflected his commitment to recording the lives of working people.  He had eight exhibitions of his work, six of them in the city.  In 1931 he was appointed to the chair of drawing and painting at the Charlottenburg School of Art, in 1932 he became Professor of Fine Art at the Berlin Academy of Fine Art, and in 1933 became the last chairman of the November Group, a group of radical artists founded in 1918 and suppressed when the Nazis came to power.  The works in his final exhibition in Berlin, in February 1933, were confiscated, and many were destroyed.  A painting from this period now in Leicester, Black mother (1931), seems almost a calculated act of defiance against the racism of the Nazis.

Ernst Neuschul, Nude female with two men (New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, Leicester)

Neuschel fled to Czechoslovakia, back to his home town, Aussig, with Christl Bell, who soon became his second wife.  In 1935 the two of them went to live in Moscow at the invitation of the Moscow Artists Association.  At first he was welcomed, and resumed painting, including commissions.  He even painted a double portrait of Josef Stalin and Georgi Dimitrov (later cut in two when Dimitrov fell from favour).  As Stalin’s purges intensified he was warned that it was unsafe to stay, and in 1936 he returned to Aussig.  But antisemitism was gathering strength there, and pictures at his final exhibition were daubed with swastikas.  In November 1937 the family moved again, to Prague.  He continued painting, completing three portraits of President Edvard Beneš, and giving lectures.  But the net was closing.  As both a Jew and a ‘degenerate artist’, he found himself on the Nazis’ wanted list, and he lost his teaching post.  At the last moment, thanks to help from a senior member of the German Social Democratic Party, he managed to escape with his wife and son, on the last train out of Czechoslovakia on 24 March 1939, and to flee via Germany and Holland to Britain.  Neuschul’s mother and other members of his family who stayed in Prague were later murdered by the Nazis.

Ernst Neuschul, D.R. Grenfell (Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea)

Neutschul came to Swansea because of the intervention of one of the city’s outstanding political figures, David Rhys Grenfell, known to most as ‘D.R.’.  He was the Labour MP for Gower between 1922 and 1959.  Kathy Talbot has told the story of how the connection was made, and the heroic part played by Grenfell in saving Neuschul’s life.  Born in Penyrheol, Gorseinon in 1881, he began work as a coal miner.  Like many south Wales miners he held a passionate belief in the value of education and internationalism, and during a spell in Nova Scotia he developed an interest in learning languages, including French, Spanish and German.  As war approached he travelled to Prague in 1939 on behalf of the Labour Party to help evacuate those most at risk from the Nazis, including politicians like Beneš – and Ernst Neuschul.  (Grenfell had already arranged similar evacuations from Spain during the Civil War.)

When Neuschul arrived with his family in Britain they lived temporarily in several places, London, Devon and Oxford, before settling, with Grenfell’s encouragement, in Mumbles.  They lodged with Grenfell’s brother, Mansel, in a large house in Langland.  When this house was requisitioned by the army the family moved to Brooklyn Terrace; Neuschul’s son Peter attended Oystermouth school nearby.  Christl Neuschul, in a radio interview in 1940, said that the family had received nothing but kindness and help from local people, as well as fine introduction to Wales, a country that they valued highly.

Ernst Neuschul, Untitled (Cockle picker) (Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea)

In Swansea Neuschul continued painting: scenes of local working people, including steelworkers, miners and cockle workers, and portraits of several worthies, such as the Mayor of Swansea J.R. Martin, and Lewis Jones MP.  In gratitude he painted two portraits of D.R. Grenfell.  William Grant Murray, curator of the Glynn Vivian, arranged an exhibition of thirty-seven of his paintings; a reviewer noted the subject of one of them: ‘a group of refugees huddled together in pathetic resignation’.  Neuschul also gave talks about art, including at least one radio talk, during his period in Mumbles.

Once the War was over Neuschul decided to leave Swansea – he wrote to say goodbye to Grant Murray with the words ‘Swansea is not a place to provide an artist with a livelihood’ – and travelled to London in 1946.  He settled in Hampstead (changing his surname to Norland).  But artistic success eluded him, and he died in 1968  – the same year as his benefactor D.R. Grenfell.

Ernst Neuschul, Cocklewoman (Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea)

Two of the oil paintings by Neuschul in the Glynn Vivian show cockle workers.  One, dated 1940, is entitled ‘Cocklewoman’.  Neuschul donated it to the Gallery ‘in deep gratitude to the people of Swansea for offering home and shelter to the refugee from Nazi oppression.’  The woman’s figure stands tall against the Gower coast – she carries a basket and, balanced on her head, a sieve – a bold statement of the dignity of manual labour, in the ‘social realist’ style Neuschul had long embraced.  The other painting, labelled ‘Untitled (Cockle Picker)’, is its counterpart: this time the face is hidden, as the woman bends down in front of us and selects cockles from the shoreline, rake in her free hand.

The third picture, painted in 1939, is one of the two portraits of D.R. Grenfell (the other’s in the Gorseinon Institute).  It’s a sober, respectful work, notable for the prominence of its sitter’s folded hands – a mark perhaps of Neuschul’s deep feeling for the crucial, generous aid Grenfell gave him only months before.

Ernst Neuschul, Untitled (Two mothers and babies) (Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea)

There’s another wartime painting by Neuschul in the Glynn Vivian collection: ‘Untitled (Two Mothers and Babies)’, not alas in the current show.  This warm, intimate picture, perfectly conventional in its way, speaks eloquently of the human values Neuschel held dear, in an era of destruction, murder and hated.  In our own age, when xenophobia and hate are again on the loose (and deliberately whipped up by our worst politicians), it’s good to be reminded that the people of Swansea welcomed a refugee family and made it feel at home.  The tradition of sanctuary and protection is still strong here today, despite every effort by governments to create and maintain ‘hostile environments’ for those who happen to be not like us.

Comments (3)

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  1. Alun Burge says:

    A detail on the location of the second portrait in Gorseinon. During the election campaign I twice went to Tonia’s office, which i( think) is in West Street, Gorseinon. The portrait was in the office. I was taken by the quality of the work and the plaque about the artist. On my first visit they were upstaIrs; by the second visit both had been moved downstairs and i spent a couple of hours stuffing envelopes under Grenfell’s gaze. So presumably it must have been transferred from the Institute at some point…

  2. gillian lewis says:

    When I was a young Pre Dip student at Swansea College of Art I was deeply moved by the mood and strength of the Cocklepicker, I remember buying a postcard of the painting in the Glynn Vivian shop, that would be in the late 60’s…I still have that postcard now, evidence of the passion I felt for that work of art then…

  3. R. Mykura says:

    Tremendous blog, thank-you. After the re-opening of the beautifully restored Glyn Vivian Art Gallery, I visited to find out more about Ernst Neuschul’s art and life (following a trail from the Leicester New Walk gallery.) In Swansea the Glyn Vivian Gallery librarian was helpful and I found out more. I too have a post-card of the Cocklepicker. Neuschul’s work, including everyday women and children, is great to see. In 2020 I shall certainly be visiting this new exhibition at Glyn Vivian. My friend has already flagged it up by sending me a post-card. As the daughter of another Czech refugee of the period, whose family benefited (in Birmingham) from being “allowed to be refugees” (in other words, it was not a crime to arrive with nothing, and to be refugee!) it is a heart -warming story to see how DR Grenfell in particular, and Swansea people in general, helped a refugee family to make a life. I must go to Gorseinen to see DR Grenfell’s portrait. My family story tells of a Labour MP being on the refugee ship from Poland to Harwich. I wonder who that was MP was. Still today, Swansea proudly calls itself a’City of Sanctuary,’ and continues to build a culture of hospitality, particularly for refugees. Andrew Green’s reference to the Kathy Talbot article is great, as it was new to me. I went to Neuschul’s home town of Aussig, which today is called Usti Nad Labem. This is a place where the trauma of WW2 runs deep(so bad that the old German place names were changed.) Neuschul the artist is known in Usti, where as in Swansea, the cultural contribution of museums and galleries can be used to tell the story of the city. Well done Swansea – on your Art Gallery and its new exhibition ‘Swansea Stories.’

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