Fermin Rocker

Anarchist's artist son likened to Edward Hopper

Last night, at the Chambers Gallery in London, took place the private view of what was acknowledged by the painter himself to be his final exhibition.

Fermin Rocker, painter and graphic artist: born London 22 December 1907; married 1954 Ruth Robins (died 1989; one son); died London 18 October 2004.

Last night, at the Chambers Gallery in London, took place the private view of what was acknowledged by the painter himself to be his final exhibition.

For some time Fermin Rocker had been tired. His eyes were not as good as they were, and walking the few yards to the studio with its north light - at the back of his top-floor flat in Tufnell Park - was becoming difficult. It was even possible that the private view would be his last or penultimate excursion from the flat, for even with the help of his devoted son and amanuensis, Philip, going down all those mansion-block stairs presented formidable problems. But, after a 48-hour flu, the 96-year-old Rocker died in his bed on Monday. There had always been a good chance he would die brush in hand, but it was not to be.

The possibility that the private view - to which Mick Jagger has lent his classic Rocker painting of a refugee scene - might have been the artist's penultimate sortie refers to an event that will be taking place in December at Toynbee Hall: the publication of a new edition by Five Leaves Press of his father Rudolf Rocker's 1956 autobiography, The London Years. This event will surely want to celebrate the son as well as the father he adored.

Fermin Rocker was born in 1907 in the old East End, the son of Milly Witkop, immigrant Yiddish-speaking radical daughter of, for that generation, untypically tolerant orthodox Jews, and of Rudolf Rocker, the legendary anarchist theoretician and practitioner and a German Catholic. Rudolf taught himself Yiddish and English and became the recognised leader of the Jewish sweated workers in the East End, as well as editor of the Yiddish anarchist weekly, the Arbeiter Fraint. Fermin's father was a disciple of Prince Peter Kropotkin and it is possible that the boy, who sat on Kropotkin's lap, was the last living person who had met the great man.

Fermin himself wrote an enchanting account of his early childhood in Stepney at 33 Dunstan Houses, an anarchist commune. Appropriately published by the anarchist house Freedom Press, The East End Years (1998), which contains the author's characteristic illustrations and some rare photographs, picks up on the title of his dad's memoir and is far better written.

Rocker père wrote many books, some of which are still read by anarchists and the larger number of students of the movement, but he was a man of action, whose memorial is his life as a radical political activist - described in a famous and influential book, William J. Fishman's East End Jewish Radicals (1975).

Fermin, the only child of Rudolf's second marriage, would not become a man of action, in the father's sense at least. The shy and self-effacing boy was a precociously gifted draughtsman, and was taught drawing and watercolour by his half-brother. Rudolf took his young son to parks, museums and historical places, but it was the busy Port of London - the Heathrow of its day - that most enthralled the boy and it was there that he did his first drawings on visits with his father:

In an age which held that children should be seen and not heard, he treated me with exemplary kindness and tolerance . . . In later years my father would look back at it with nostalgia and regret. It was a time, he insisted, that still had aspirations and ideals, that still had visions of a better future, of a world more just and humane.

After the First World War - during which Rudolf was incarcerated in a detention camp at Alexandra Palace - the family went to Berlin, where the young Fermin went to art and print schools and associated with leading artists and politicians of the Weimar Republic. But he always said that the only artist who made a real impression on him was Kathe Kollwitz.

The family settled in New York in 1929. Fermin worked as a freelance commercial artist, illustrator and printmaker, and made animated films. From 1937 he began to concentrate on etchings and lithographs. As a painter he was drawn to the American realist school and the "ashcan" painters such as John Sloan, whose paintings (one or two are in the Metropolitan Museum) surely influenced the younger artist. He had solo exhibitions in New York in 1944 and 1961.

In 1972, retired from the commercial fray, Fermin Rocker with his editor wife, Ruth, and young son moved to London. He continued working as a book illustrator, but was eventually able to devote himself to painting. In the last 20 years of his life he had 13 solo exhibitions (mainly at the Stephen Bartley Gallery in London), which is surely some kind of record for a man of his age, but only of real significance if the work stands up. Well, serious critics such as William Packer, John Russell Taylor and Mel Gooding wrote in praise of him. "The compositional deliberation gives these pictures something of the rapt intensity of a Balthus, the dramatic presentiment of a Hopper," wrote Gooding in Arts Review.

Rocker was duly flattered, as he should have been, by these comparisons, but he always resisted my own references to Edward Hopper, in conversation and in print. Some fellow painters, including Paula Rego - whom I recall listening enthralled to his stories and who shares his particular admiration for Goya, Daumier and Degas and who also resists exaggerated associations with Balthus - found aspects of his work, graphic or oil and later acrylic, to their taste.

Why do I love his work? It is because it is self-evidently rooted deep in his psyche, like a dream or an obsession, and reiterated in a late flowering because his very life depended on it. He continually reworked his themes because the visual problems raised by thinking his feelings remained ongoing but had to appear to be solved before he could progress, progress towards a deeper interrogation of the past, a deeper interrogation of Matthew Arnold's "land of dreams" which lies "north of the future", in Paul Celan's phrase.

His sights of memory, occasionally recognisable through their idealised visionary topography transfiguring a prosy flatness, are in fact sites of remembrance, which can be defined as memory laden with psychic significance, like a ghostly treasure ship. Their space is a metaphor of time, of heroic days recalled without nostalgia, when information technology was young, and politics, for us or against us, was personal. His figures, his figurations, are objective correlatives for images seen with the inner eye, their tonalities subtly muted, without strong contrasts - the later re-workings of his hand mirroring the workings of his mind.

One of the great pleasures of life, for me at any rate, is to visit old-timers, usually at teatime, men and women of my parents' generation with stories to tell and lessons to teach. In the nature of things - and as my generation itself approaches old-timer status - their number is diminishing. Only the other day, I visited Fermin Rocker with Bill Fishman, the writer Peter Gilbert and the medical anthropologist and doctor Cecil Helman, who observed that Fermin was looking very well, often the sign of a last-minute rally and push for life.

He had painted my portrait and Helman's and he was going to paint Gilbert's. His method was, as Paula Rego pointed out, time-honoured but now very unusual: he would make sketches from the model, and then watercolours from the sketches and the model, finishing with oils.

Fermin Rocker has joined his ancestors and I mourn his passing but I rejoice that, with the support of his son and some friends, he survived so long, fit enough in mind and body to continue making art almost to his dying day.

Anthony Rudolf

Suggested Topics
News
David Beckham
peopleFootballer joins No campaign
Sport
Angel Di Maria
Football
News
Piers Morgan tells Scots they might not have to suffer living on the same island as him if they vote ‘No’ to Scottish Independence
news
News
i100Exclusive interview with the British analyst who helped expose Bashar al-Assad's use of Sarin gas
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game
film
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script
tv'Thomas comes right up to the abyss', says the actor
News
newsIn short, yes
Sport
Angel Di Maria celebrates his first goal for Manchester United against QPR
Football4-0 victory is team's first win under new manager Louis van Gaal
News
Denny Miller in 1959 remake of Tarzan, the Ape Man
people
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl despairs during the arena auditions
tvX Factor review: Drama as Cheryl and Simon spar over girl band

Arts and Entertainment
art
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris claimed the top spot in this week's single charts
music
Sport
BoxingVideo: The incident happened in the very same ring as Tyson-Holyfield II 17 years ago
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

QA Manual Tester - Agile

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Cent...

Bursar/Business Manager

£70 - £100 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Experienced bursar or business...

Secondary School Teachers in Ipswich

Competitive & Flexible: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education are l...

Teaching Assistant

£45 - £60 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Qualified and/or experienced te...

Day In a Page

These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week
The fall of Rome? Cash-strapped Italy accused of selling its soul to the highest bidder

The fall of Rome?

Italy's fears that corporate-sponsored restoration projects will lead to the Disneyfication of its cultural heritage
Glasgow girl made good

Glasgow girl made good

Kelly Macdonald was a waitress when she made Trainspotting. Now she’s taking Manhattan
Sequins ahoy as Strictly Come Dancing takes to the floor once more

Sequins ahoy as Strictly takes to the floor once more

Judy Murray, Frankie Bridge and co paired with dance partners
Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

Alexander Wang pumps it up at New York Fashion Week
The landscape of my imagination

The landscape of my imagination

Author Kate Mosse on the place that taught her to tell stories