OBITUARY: Willi Soukop
Thursday 09 February 1995
"My life was never planned, it just happened," said Willi Soukop. A comment that many Europeans who endured the upheaval of two world wars would have in common.
Born in Vienna in 1907, of an Austrian mother and a Czech father, he displayed a natural artistic talent when he produced aged four a chalk drawing of a tree. As well as the normal state school education, he became a student of drawing by night and an apprentice engraver by day. In 1919 his father, who had been wounded in the war, committed suicide, leaving his wife to cope with Willi and two other children. To supplement the pittance he earned as an apprentice, he worked nights carving umbrella handlesand ivory boxes for a local trader. This provided a small income that enabled him in time to afford to study sculpture at the Academy of Fine Art in Vienna.
After six years Soukop met a sympathetic Englishwoman who lived in Devon and who invited him to England to escape, at least for a few weeks, the political and economic misery of Vienna. So it was in 1934 Soukop came to stay at Dartington near Totnes in south Devon. He was given the use of a studio and was able to carve, even sell, his work in a congenial atmosphere. Dartington Hall was owned by Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst, who created a virtual international centre for the arts. This had a tremendous effect on Soukop, and its influence on him lasted decades, with the friendships formed enduring to his death. European exiles came to Dartington, such as the entire Jooss Ballet from Germany, Michael Chekhov and his drama school, and Bernard Leach and hisson David, the celebrated potter, with whom Soukop formed a lasting friendship and who taught him the art of pottery. Another friendship in 1937 was with the artist and gallery-owner Eardley Knollys, whose Storran Gallery gave Soukop his first one-man show in 1938.
Other influences on Soukop came from friendships with the artists Cecil Collins and Heine Heckroth, the latter producing designs for many films of Michael Powell, including The Red Shoes. Leonard Elmhirst swore that at this time there were more beautifulwomen per square yard in Dartington than anywhere else in the world. So it was that, through an American artist Mark Tobey, Soukop met a beautiful French dancer, Simone Moser, whom he courted - with certain difficulties, since she didn't speak German orEnglish and he didn't speak French. However they married - a marriage that lasted for over 40 years.
For Soukop, Dartington became an idyllic haven where he was not only free to carve but was also offered a teaching post, at Dartington Art School. With war approaching, he had no wish to return to Vienna, but after the fall of France in 1940 he, like many others, was classified as an "alien" and first interned at Aintree racecourse, then shipped off to Canada, where he remained nine months until he was released to return to Dartington. Offered the job of Art Master at Blundell's School, he set up the sculpture department so well that the work was exhibited in London. He then set up other sculpture departments, first in Bryanston School, in Dorset, and then the Downs School in Worcestershire.
In 1945 Soukop came to London and taught at Bromley, Guildford and Chelsea Schools of Art - he remained in the last position until 1972. In 1969 he accepted the additional position of Master of Sculpture at the Royal Academy Schools and became a member of the faculty for the British School in Rome.
He first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1935 and attracted the attention and admiration of John Skeaping, Tom Monnington and Charles Wheeler. He was elected an Associate (ARA) in 1963 and a full member (RA) in 1969. He received many commissions, both for portrait busts and larger pieces for public buildings. Over the years he exhibited in numerous mixed shows including "Sculpture in the Open Air", Battersea Park (1949 and 1950), many Arts Council exhibitions, Biennales and an exhibition in the YehudiMenuhin School and University College Swansea. The Battersea Park show brought public awareness of modern sculpture; the Contemporary Art Society's gift to the Greater London Council of Henry Moore's stone Three Figures Standing (1947-48) remains as a permanent landmark in the park.
Willi Soukop excused himself when the public found it difficult to identify his pieces. "My work is rather catholic," he said, "and ranges over a wide variety of subject-matter as well as materials - my art education was traditional but my chief influence was the German sculptor Ernst Barlach (1870-1938) and travelling and meeting the other artists who widened my horizons, in particular through teaching in England." He never followed any particular style or direction; his aim was always to capture the harmony in the materials he used.
A modest and unassuming man, he enjoyed life and his art. He enjoyed experiment and surprising. "I haven't stopped playing," he said.
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