'You will never exhibit in public again'

Hans Feibusch witnessed the collision between art and power in Hitler's Germany. He relates the experience to Iain Gale
In December 1930 Hans Feibusch won the German Grand State Prize for painters at the Prussian Academy of Art in Berlin with his painting The Fishmonger. Less than three years later he was a fugitive - on the run from the Nazi regime - his art proscribed and confiscated. Feibusch was at the sharp end of the Nazis' purge of cultural ethnic cleansing. A Jew, with a liberal, humanist education and an honest realism to his art, he was a prime target for the Reichskulturkammer (the cultural arm of the Propaganda Ministry) founded by Goebbels in March 1933. He recalls the moment he realised that something was dreadfully wrong: "I belonged to an artists' society in my home town of Frankfurt - there were two societies, one similar to the Royal Academy, one to the London Group. Of course National Socialism was more acceptable to the more conservative society. I belonged to the other one, the Frankfurter Kunstlerbund. I had joined it in 1925. I remember that from about 1931 we had a new member, a man who had been brought in by an established member and accepted by the rest of us. For two years we held exhibitions to which he did not contribute - always excusing himself with having to finish a commission. Then at the time Hitler clamped down a meeting of the society was called. This new man appeared in Nazi uniform. He jumped on the table we were sitting around and harangued us. With his riding whip he pointed - 'You and you and you and you, Jewish painters, can all go home. You will never exhibit anything again. If you want to go on painting in your own four walls that's all right - but you will never, ever show anything in public again.' Then he jumped off the table. We were flabbergasted. We didn't know what it meant. We were just so outraged.

"You must understand, although I was Jewish, I had grown up in a Christian, humanist environment. I had friends on both 'sides' - Jewish and Christian. But while I looked upon them without seeing any difference, evidently they may not have looked at me in the same way."

Initially, Feibusch continued to work in his studio, refusing to compromise his style. Born in Frankfurt in 1898 he had studied in Berlin under Carl Hofer and in Paris with Andre l'Hote. Inspired initially by Max Beckmann and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff he had adopted a greater naturalism that suited his Romantic temperament. The art he now saw being officially promoted in Germany was anathema to everything he held dear. "It was a fake classicism - just the surface with no real understanding of the emotions that lay beneath. Such emptiness. Hitler wanted to base his image of himself on the German Romantic tradition that goes back to Friedrich. But look at this picture [Venus and Adonis by Arthur Kampf, painted in 1939 and included in the Hayward show]. It's totally superficial. Even at its face value, it is full of academic errors. It's typical of what annoyed and worried me at the time - the sheer impudence of Nazi art. Looked upon as a whole it was really fiendish - stamping on so many good people and pushing this sort of artistic horror."

Feibusch, although alarmed, did not panic, but continued with a major commission. "I was working on a commission that had been given to me by the Frankfurt town council. It was for a full-scale portrait of an opera singer. She was a lovely girl. I remember her as Carmen and the Queen of the Night. I painted her as Carmen. That was the last thing I ever painted in Germany."

By autumn 1933 it had become clear to Feibusch that the experience of his local art society was not an isolated incident. He made plans to leave Germany as soon as possible. "I had not been attacked specifically, of course. I was too small fry. But I realised that I should get out." France was too close for comfort, although Feibusch's fellow artist Herman Keil went there (and later went "missing"). Italy was "unsuitable". He didn't feel "Jewish enough" to go to Palestine, like the painter Jacob Nussbaum. With an English fiancee, Britain seemed the obvious choice. Once here, taken up by Sir Kenneth Clark and the great patron Bishop George Bell, Feibusch prospered and became a celebrated muralist, most notably for his work in Chichester Cathedral.

Letters from friends and fellow artists still in Germany told of an increasingly dire situation. In 1937 Feibusch's art was included in Hitler's infamous "Entartete Kunst" exhibition of Degenerate Art. While some artists - Schwitters, Kokoschka, Moholy-Nagy, were proscribed on stylistic grounds, others were singled out for their Jewishness. Work by Feibusch and his tutor Karl Hofer, which satisfied both criteria, was among that shown in a room devoted to "Revelation of the Jewish Racial Soul". A prominent piece was Feibusch's Zwei Schwebende Figuren, painted in 1932. "I remember it well," he says. "It showed an angel floating through the air above two figures. I'm sure it was destroyed. A lot of my work met the same fate, although some of it was found later. But I had to put it all behind me. I was thankful to have got out and I just got on with my new life."

n Hans Feibusch's exhibition "The Heat of Vision", at the Ben Uri Art Gallery, 21 Dean Street, London W1, 6 Nov- 10 Dec (0171-437 2852); then on tour to Eastbourne, Northampton and Newport