In the 1930s, the paintings of Hans Feibusch were labelled 'degenerate' by Hitler and destroyed. At 96 he is exhibiting again. Geraldine Norman looks at his life and achievement
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
HANS Feibusch is a gentle, bearded artist of 96. Leaning back a little because of the arthritis in his spine and neck, he uses his powerful pebble glasses to train his tunnel vision on visitors, or the latest pastel mounted on his easel. A small man, he has devoted his working life to Christian imagery, myth, landscape, portraits of his relations and friends, and the occasional still life. But back in 1937 he was selected by Hitler's henchmen as a "degenerate" whose art was sapping the vitality of healthy German youth.

Feibusch is the last survivor of the artists who were included in the famous exhibition of "Degenerate Art" which Goebbels opened in Munich on 19 July 1937, aimed at showing the German public the dangerous sickness of modernism. He has lived in England since 1933 and on 6 November the first London retrospective exhibition of his work opens at the Ben Uri Art Gallery in Dean Street, Soho, a gallery founded in 1905 to promote the work of Jewish artists.

Feibusch's paintings have been admired by connoisseurs as varied as Lord Clark of Saltwood, former director of the National Gallery and art pundit extraordinary, and Eric Newton, the leading modernist art critic of the post-war generation. But he has never hit the artistic headlines and the show is more in the nature of a "rediscovery" than the celebration of a well-known artist. It has been organised by Feibusch's step-grandson, Paul Werth, who has taken on the role of agent over the last few years; roughly two-thirds of the paintings, drawings and pastels in the show are for sale. There is also an ex-catalogue portfolio of works on paper, available for immediate purchase.

The lack of attention to Feibusch's work is largely the result of his interest in mural painting. Beginning in 1938, he has painted 40 murals for British churches and many more for lay buildings. The rebuilding of churches after the Second World War offered great opportunities to an artist fascinated by mural paintings, but the decline of the Church of England has left such work way outside the glare of fashion. The Ben Uri exhibition contains many cartoons and sketches for these wall paintings.

More immediately appealing, however, are his modernist sketches of the 1930s. In these, form is abstracted so as to convey essence rather than fact, with colour added as decoration. The pastels on which he has been working over the last couple of years are also astonishingly powerful - nightmare scenes of "the hunting, the running away, the fall into terror," as he explains them, executed with burning expressionist colour. He began them after watching a five-hour film on the Holocaust on television. "It moved me frightfully," he says, "and somehow gave me a new wish to express things."

Feibusch has his own memories of the Nazi nightmare. In the early 1930s he belonged to an avant-garde group of young artists in Frankfurt, the Frankfurter Kunstlerbund. "We were the young, the challengers. Then Hitler's edict came forbidding all Jews from practising art. The group called a meeting to discuss it, and one member who had joined a year or two before - nobody had seen any of his work - appeared in Nazi uniform. He jumped on a table and, pointing at the Jews with his riding whip, said 'You'll never show again'. That was the thing that really made me decide to leave."

Feibusch was already 35. The son of a well-to-do Frankfurt dentist, he had fought in the First World War, emerged alive from the Russian front and gone to study art in Munich, Berlin, Rome and Paris. His paintings were already beginning to make waves; he had a Berlin dealer, exhibited widely and in 1930 had been awarded the German Grand State Prize for painting by the Prussian Academy of Arts. Hitler's rise to power changed all that.

Hitler himself had started life as an artist but won no recognition - and now he was going to get his own back. When he layed the foundation stone of the Haus der Deutschen Kunst in Munich in 1933, he described it as a "new temple in honour of the goddess art". In 1937 the temple was ready for its first exhibition, and Hitler and Goebbels themselves presided over the selection committee - to be certain that the correct blend of muscle-bound health and optimism was represented. With three weeks to go to the opening, they had the brilliant idea of organising a second exhibition on the other side of the river - in the former Institute of Archaeology - of the "degenerate art" they hoped to banish from Germany for good.

A committee toured Germany's museums and institutes and selected 700 examples of what they considered degenerate art. The hastily assembled show was crammed on the walls of a series of rooms, together with slogans and quotations from Hitler and Goebbels. It opened one day after the Haus der Kunst exhibition. Hitler explained: "From now on we are going to wage a merciless war of destruction against the last remaining elements of cultural disintegration ... From now on - of that you can be certain - all those mutually supporting and thereby sustaining cliques of chatterers, dilettantes, and art forgers will be picked up and liquidated. For all we care, those prehistoric Stone-Age culture-barbarians and art-stutterers can return to the caves of their ancestors and there can apply their primitive international scratchings."

The "degenerate" exhibition included the work of Chagall, Kandinksy, Nodle, Max Beckmann, Karl Schmidt-Rotluff, and Kirchner - all the top names of the 1930s. It proved the most successful contemporary art exhibition of the 20th century, attracting two million visitors in Munich and another million at other venues. Those paintings which were considered to have a market value outside Germany were subsequently shipped to Swiss auction rooms; the rest were ceremonially burned in the yard of the Berlin Fire Brigade.

Feibusch was included in a room titled "Revelation of the Jewish Racial Soul", along with Chagall. He was represented by an innocuous canvas depicting Two Floating Figures, which the committee had found at the Stadelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt. Encouraged by the enthusiastic reception of the exhibition - most of the public came to gape in horror, rather than to admire - the Nazis went on to revisit the nation's museums and weed out all objectionable works; 16,000 were removed, and either sold or destroyed. A Feibusch still life of flowers - geraniums, peonies and lilies - and a pensive Pierrot were also removed from the Stadelsches museum and have never been seen again.

The Ben Uri exhibition has been jointly selected by Paul Werth and David Coke, curator of the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, where the show started its tour. The cheapest work, at pounds 45, is a lithograph of apes, Mandrill and Mangabeys, which Freibusch made in 1938 as part of a large- edition series for schools. Then there are some good pencil drawings in the low hundreds. The most moving is a sheet from a sketchbook depicting St Paul's Cathedral after the Blitz, the noble dome rising from the rubble, which is priced at pounds 500.

There are many gouache landscape studies, the brightly coloured products of holidays and weekend sketching trips. These are finished works for framing, not sketchbook leaves, mainly priced at pounds 2,000-pounds 4,000. Major compositions in gouache or oil run up to pounds 14,000 or so. The catalogue cover, an oil study of Narcissus, has been withdrawn from sale while Paul Werth decides between two offers - one buyer is prepared to pay as much as pounds 30,000 for it.

The prices are much in line with those charged by artists in their twenties at their first dealer shows in the West End. At 96, Feibusch has a proven career of artistry behind him, and a historic involvement with Hitler's attempt to suppress the avant-garde. At these prices his work looks a very good buy.

! 'Hans Feibusch: The Heat of Vision' is at the Ben Uri Gallery, Dean Street, London W1, from 6 November-10 December 1995; Northampton Museum and Art Gallery from 20 January-25 February 1996; Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne from 16 March-28 April; and Newport Museum and Art Gallery from 18 May-29 June.