Martin Bloch exhibition
Hailed by a new Norwich exibition as a painter’s painter’, Martin Bloch drew on his wartime experiences of internment to create vivid and powerful works of art. Keiron Pim reports.
One of the appalling ironies of the second world war was the treatment of the UK's Jewish population at home while British forces fought the Nazis abroad.
By the outbreak of war, fears about foreigners living within Britain had been whipped to boiling point. Certain newspapers campaigned for non-British nationals residing in the UK to be interned, and ultimately they succeeded: Winston Churchill gave order to “collar the lot” and around 27,000 people, many of them Jewish refugees who had fled Nazi persecution in Germany in the 1930s, were rounded up and put in camps in case they were enemy spies.
Among them was the artist Martin Bloch, whose work is the subject of a major exhibition starting at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts on Tuesday.
Bloch was born in 1883 in Neisse (then part of Germany, now in Poland) and studied music and architecture in Berlin before taking up painting. He was largely self-taught, which is perhaps evident in the intuitive, almost naïve, use of vivid colour that typifies his Expressionist landscapes.
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By 1912 he was working in Paris at the height of the first modernist movement. He spent the entire first world war in Spain developing his artistic approach, and then travelled Europe in the following decade, subtly recording the upheaval that was creeping across the continent.
Thunderstorm Approaching and The Italian Butcher's Shop “demonstrate the apprehension Bloch felt as he witnessed the rise of Fascism in Germany and Italy”, according to the Sainsbury Centre. The latter painting depicts a medallion on the wall outside the shop, featuring Mussolini, of whom adulation had become obligatory. This was as close as Bloch came to making an overt anti-Fascist statement.
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In Berlin, his adopted city, he founded a school of painting and taught there until 1934, when he saw the writing on the wall for Jews in Germany and moved to England. London became his sanctuary, the BBC his voice of reason; seemingly safe in the capital, he listened in anguish to developments in his homeland, and paid homage to the broadcaster in his painting of All Souls and the BBC.
He applied for British citizenship but his application was delayed by the onset of war and in 1940 Bloch was sent to an internment camp at Huyton, on Merseyside. Later he was moved to another camp on the Isle of Man, from which he was released in 1941.
He died in 1954 and slipped into relative obscurity in the subsequent half-century, becoming, as the exhibition's title suggests, a private enthusiasm for artists and art-lovers rather than a household name. In his lifetime his status ranked alongside Francis Bacon and Henry Moore.
Of those who did champion his work, many were students taught by him in his spell at Camberwell School of Art in the early 1950s.
Here Bloch was a radical and inspiring teacher, challenging established practice and focusing on colour, stating that “building up one's palette for a picture is almost conceiving it”.
Barry Hirst, a former Camberwell student, remembers his methods: “Bloch suggested that one might look at the landscape and decide which colour predominates. In Greenwich Park one day, he suggested that we should decide which colour day it was - was it a cobalt blue day, a yellow ochre day, a cobalt green day, etc?
“Before doing anything one should decide how one was going to mix these colours… Later, he caught me adding paint to the canvas in order to mix it with the colour already there, thereby modifying the original colour. I was soundly scolded, and told that colours should be put on canvas and then left alone.”
Bloch himself said in 1947: “I have the firm belief that the conception of a picture is an emotional one. Emotions help me to bring sensations received from nature into a truly abstract design. Once the construction of my picture is established, I may observe and observe again until my imagination is rich enough to give life to my canvas.”
This conceptual, colour-led approach had been well honed by the time Bloch was sent to the Huyton camp. Works from his time interned as an “enemy alien” form a focal point to the 100 or so paintings and drawings in the exhibition.
The Jewish émigrés in Britain represented a cross-section of Germany's artistic and cultural intelligentsia, and Bloch was accompanied in the camps by artists including Hugo Dachinger, Ludwig Meidner, Walter Nessler and Kurt Schwitters. A further irony was that many had been branded as degenerates at a Nazi exhibition in 1937.
It is no surprise, then, that there was a very creative reaction to internment. Art classes, plays and concerts flourished; artists' patron Klaus Hinrichsen established the 'Hutchinson University' at Hutchinson Camp on the Isle of Man. Bloch's response was to paint his Miracle in the Internment Camp and to create a series of drawings showing both his sense of humour and the horror of the situation.
Alongside them were a few genuine Nazi sympathisers, but many of his fellow internees were just regular people: for example, a London Jewish tailor who could not afford the naturalisation fees and was interned despite having spent 30 years in Britain before the war. All suffered upheaval, enforced separation from loved ones, malnutrition, cramped and dismal conditions, despair.
On his release Bloch recorded the Blitz's devastating impact on London in emotive works such as his masterpiece, Scorched Trees, City of London 1943, which is being shown in the UK for the first time in more than 50 years.
Of course it could all have been far worse. Bloch and the other Jewish internees were safe from the Nazis, thousands of miles from Auschwitz. But it could surely have been far better too, had Churchill's government not pandered to xenophobia and realised that these people had more reason than most to hate the Hitler regime.
The move attracted criticism even at the time. Peter Cazalet MP told the House of Commons: “Frankly, I shall not feel happy, either as an Englishman or as a supporter of this Government, until this bespattered page of our history has been cleaned up and rewritten.”
This month's exhibition in Norwich may just help to divert people's attention towards that often-overlooked page in the history books - although Bloch's work is of artistic interest in its own right, not merely as a pointer towards a shameful period in British history.
Curated by Bloch's grandson Peter Rossiter, this is the first major exhibition of his work since 1984 and represents a chance to rediscover an important and exciting artist.
“You have to see Martin Bloch's work to truly appreciate it,” says Rossiter. “He was a brilliant technician. He was a subtle colourist with a stunning knowledge of pigment and colour that gives his paintings a beauty and level of technical success that any painter would admire.”
t Martin Bloch: A Painter's Painter is at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts from January 30 to April 15. The exhibition is open Tuesday to Sunday, 10am to 5pm and is also open until 8pm on Wednesdays. Admission is free. Call 01603 593199 for more information. See also www.scva.ac.uk
t A fully illustrated catalogue by Peter Rossiter, which includes the only complete list of Bloch's works ever compiled, will be published by the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts to accompany the exhibition. Price £15.