Obituary: Elizabeth Shaw
Friday 03 July 1992
THE IRISH-BORN artist Elizabeth Shaw, who has died in Berlin, first established her reputation working as an illustrator and cartoonist during the Second World War. Her work was carried by the left-wing monthly Our Time, and in the Hulton magazine Lilliput.
Trained at Chelsea Art School before the war with Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland among her teachers - and enjoying her studies more than her contemporary student Dirk Bogarde seems to have done - she was regarded as one of the rising generation of cartoonists like Ronald Searle and her friend Paul Hogarth.
In 1946 she moved to Germany with her husband, the Swiss-born sculptor and painter Rene Graetz (who, although stateless, had been interned as German in Britain). Determined to make a new socialist Germany, they endured the hardships of post-war Berlin and put their efforts into building a new Communist society, while learning both the German language and German ways. They suffered, with other Berliners, the cold and desperate shortages of the post-war winters. Rene was told by the German authorities that he was (contrary to the British view) not a German citizen and they were to be treated as aliens; but they were able to travel, and thus to attend the founding meetings of Unesco in Paris.
Modern art had been banned by the Nazis and now their Communist friends were going through the Stalinist crises over 'formalism'. The world of art they had been brought up in was unknown to many and suspect to the authorities. Elizabeth Shaw herself was, so far as Germany was concerned, almost deaf and dumb. Thus she observed people carefully, and her caricatures of the East Berlin intellectual world made her reputation. For 20 years she and Bertha Waterstradt produced monthly articles on places and people for Das Magazin, a rare artist-writer combination of women in journalism.
Like other Communists, Shaw had accepted Stalin's leadership in the Forties. The demonstrations against the Communist state in Berlin of 17 June 1953 came as a shock: idealism gave way to realism. Shaw's alienation from the regime allowed her to expand artistically. She produced illustrations of Brecht's poems for children; and then wrote and illustrated a number of children's books which sold widely in East Germany and brought her international acclaim.
The many dissidents driven to Berlin in the McCarthy era included both American and British artists and writers. Many of these gravitated to the intellectual circle of Rene and Elizabeth Graetz. When East Berlin became respectable in the 1970s and the British opened an embassy, Elizabeth recalled a party there to which several of these were invited. 'But don't you know that I am a traitor?' said one over his gin and tonic. 'Yes, yes,' replied the calm lady second secretary. 'But need you go on about it?'
Free of politics, she moved from her successful children's books to books on the places she had visited and loved, particularly Ireland. Her work became more widely known. There were Arts Council exhibitions of her work in Coventry and Belfast. Her autobiography, Irish Berlin, was published (in German) in 1990 as East and West Berlin rejoined, with the end of the Cold War and the breaching of the Wall.
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