In 2014, Goldmark put on one of the largest exhibitions of paintings and drawings by Jankel Adler for over 50 years. As a major new show in Wuppertal, Germany, reappraises Adler’s legacy as a key member of the 20th century avant-garde alongside Picasso, Chagall, Klee and Dix, we look back on esteemed art historian Richard Cork’s examination of the profoundly moving work Adler produced during his final years in Britain.
By the time he reached Scotland in 1941, Jankel Adler had been exposed to the Second World War battlefields at their most gruelling. A year earlier, at the age of 45, his long abhorrence of Nazi aggression made him join the Polish Army of the West and train as a gunner. But Adler soon became embroiled in the disaster of the Dunkirk campaign, and he left France with a contingent of Polish soldiers. They came to Glasgow, where a troublesome heart condition saw him demobbed on health grounds. And so he settled for a brief period in this lively and relatively peaceful city, which had become a meeting-place for European immigrants escaping Fascist oppression.
Here, Adler renewed his friendship with Josef Herman, a fellow Polish artist who had moved to Glasgow in 1940. ‘It was with Jankel that I could share my more intimate fears’, Herman recalled later with gratitude. ‘These were years of fears. Both of us were Yiddish-speaking, we were both from Poland, hence we could look into each other’s faces with understanding. In the company of others we were a conspiracy of two.’ Herman’s presence in Glasgow undoubtedly helped Adler recover his strength and resume activity as an artist.
The paintings and drawings illustrated here testify to the eloquence of the work he produced in Britain before his early death, near London, in April 1949. Buoyed by exhibitions of his work, first at the Annans’ Gallery in Glasgow with a catalogue foreword by the eminent Scottish painter J.D. Fergusson in 1941, Adler arrived at a powerful and eloquent final phase in his career. The undertow of tragedy running through these images must have intensified in 1942 when Herman was told, by the Red Cross, that his entire family had been exterminated by the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto. Herman suffered a total breakdown and, according to his future wife Nini, ‘Jankel Adler stepped in and nursed Josef through those weeks with maternal tenderness. Was it perhaps to heal them both.’
Adler had himself suffered grievously from Nazi discrimination. After growing up in the textile town of Łódź, as the eighth of twelve children, he moved to Germany and studied art there during the First World War. The young Adler was regarded as ‘a suspicious alien, to say the least’, and ordered to report to the police once a week as a civil prisoner. But he was highly regarded by his teachers, and after the war returned to Germany where he met many avant-garde artists, including Otto Dix who painted Adler’s portrait in 1926. His own art flourished, especially in Düsseldorf where he won awards and received a commission for a wall painting in the city’s Planetarium.
The possibilities offered by abstraction fascinated him more and more, especially after Paul Klee became a Professor at the Düsseldorf Academy of Arts in 1931. Adler was given the studio next door to Klee, and the two men became friends. After Klee’s death Adler wrote a perceptive essay in 1942 called ‘Memories of Paul Klee’, where he declared that, ‘Klee, when beginning a picture, had the excitement of a Columbus moving to the discovery of a new continent. He had a frightened presentiment, just a vague sense of the right course. But when the picture was fixed and still he saw that he had come the true way, he was happy. Klee, too, set out to discover a new land.’
The same words could be applied to Adler’s work as well. But the rise of Fascism was terrifying, particularly after 1933 when he bravely signed an ‘Urgent Appeal’ by artists and intellectuals warning that ‘we will face the imminent danger of the destruction of all personal and political freedom in Germany.’
Hitler’s success prompted Adler, later the same year, to leave Germany for the last time. After travelling restlessly through Europe, he realised in 1937 that he had been branded a ‘degenerate artist’ by the Nazis, who removed his work from German museums and included him in the travelling Degenerate Art exhibition, alongside Beckmann, Dix, Grosz, Kandinsky, Klee, Kokoschka, and many others. Adler became depressed, exclaiming: ‘I am so fed up with everything! What kind of worth has a human being?’ Though he rallied for a while in the heat and light of Cagnes-sur-Mer, where he lived and worked from 1938 until 1940, the persecution worsened. Private collectors, fearful of the Gestapo, even began destroying the paintings and drawings by Adler in their possession.
Mercifully, most of the those he went on to produce during the 1940s have survived. These late works reveal just how much powerful emotion informs the art Adler made throughout his fruitful British period. One of the largest from this time, Interior, was executed in 1944. He had left Scotland a year earlier, after showing in Glasgow’s experimental New Art Club and then spending a few months in the artists’ colony at Kirkcudbright. London beckoned, despite the horrors of the Blitz. And in 1943 he found a Kensington studio at 77 Bedford Gardens, where two promising young Scottish artists were already working: the Roberts Colquhoun and MacBryde.
Strange figures can be discerned in the darkness of Interior. But Adler leaves them lurking mysteriously in the shadows, behind a table thrusting out towards us over a warm red floor. The figures are so abstract and angular that they have an almost robotic air, a reflection of Adler’s memories of the soldiers he had witnessed at war, armed and rigidly encased in their defensive uniforms. His experience of the beleaguered battlefields in France never left him: two of his finest 1940s paintings, now owned by Tate, are called The Mutilated and No Man’s Land.
Even so, most of the work he produced in Britain does not specifically confront us with identifiable images of men at war. Instead, Adler concentrates time and again on an unknown room. Fascinated by still life, he fills the lower section of one large painting with clusters of fruit, vessels and a cloth laid out on a table-top. The whole assembly looks tempting, and proves that he was not averse to celebrating the pleasures of everyday life. All the same, the view through a window above seems to tell us that the sun is about to set. Everything here may well be shrouded in darkness very soon.
Another still-life painting appears more festive at first. Dominated by a single fish lying on a plate, it is elsewhere alive with abstracted segments of form and colour which suggest the possible presence of figures. We cannot be sure, and Adler must want us to accept his invitation to ‘discover a new land’, as he had written of Klee. In a smaller painting, the various objects assembled on a surface seem secure enough, but the bizarre creature suspended above them appears to be opening its ravenous mouth and preparing to gobble them all up.
Adler was clearly haunted by the omnipresence of danger and extinction. Nevertheless, he refused to give in to despair. Bent on defying the enemy and ensuring his own survival, he devoted one of his paintings to defining an all-important moment of release. A cage sits on the table, harshly summarised by a series of bleak lines. Yet the bird who once lay trapped inside has been liberated by a standing figure on the left, who allows the pale, emaciated creature to fly towards a window where sky is visible beyond.
The longer we scrutinise Adler’s work of the 1940s, the more we find ourselves caught up in a dramatic struggle between extremes of the human condition. One picture is devoted to a reclining nude woman, whose well-nourished limbs stretch across a shallow space while warm colour flares behind her. Leaning on her left elbow, this handsomely proportioned female is reminiscent of Picasso at his most neo-classical. Adler here asserts the reassuring solidity of flesh, and gives it an almost sculptural presence.
At another extreme, he presents us in a different picture with an upright, half-length female nude as insubstantial as a ghost. With breasts bared, hair blowing in the wind, she looks vulnerable and exposed. Her facial features are divided, like a Cubist painting, into full-face and profile. But this adds to the sense of chronic uncertainty, and the woman’s entire figure seems on the point of dissolving into the ominous, nocturnal darkness surrounding her.
By no means all Adler’s human figures are naked. Two drawings, one restricted to contours and the other more fully modelled, focus on a clothed woman seated in an armchair. She looks melancholy, and so does the haggard elderly man in a line drawing which might be a homage to Otto Dix. With legs crossed, this dishevelled man leans on a table and gazes downwards. Wrapped in a voluminous coat, he appears to be enduring the cold. But his facial expression is disconsolate, and an air of profound weariness pervades the scene.
During his productive time in London, Adler was nourished by stimulating contact with artists and writers like Samuel Beckett, Dylan Thomas and Oskar Kokoschka – as well as Kurt Schwitters, who had sought refuge in Britain from Nazi oppressors and lived in the capital city after brief internment as an enemy alien in 1940. Adler also joined the ‘Ohel’ Club for Jewish intellectuals, whose other artist-members included Martin Bloch, David Bomberg and Ludwig Meidner. Exhibitions of Adler’s work were held in galleries as prominent as the Redfern, Reid & Lefevre, and Gimpel Fils in London, Waddington in Dublin, Galerie de France in Paris, and Knoedler in New York. Even so, nothing could protect him from the wholly devastating impact of hearing, in 1945, that all eleven of his brothers and sisters had been killed by the Fascists.
No wonder that most of the figures in his drawings from this period seem so fundamentally alone. One woman does at least have a cat as a companion, and she clutches the animal while encouraging it to nuzzle her face, but most of these late pictures feature distraught, spectral people in isolation. Some of them seem more like children than adults, and they stare out at us as if bewildered by the pitiless world they find themselves inhabiting.
One sketch shows a woman standing erect in profile, clearly displaying the advanced stage of her pregnancy. She looks determined to remain firm and resolute, yet Adler stresses her intense vulnerability. He was, above all, committed to telling the visual truth about a human race wracked by incessant warfare, deportation and the horrors of the concentration camps. His achievements during these traumatic final years, before his sudden death at the age of 53, deserve full recognition.
Richard Cork, 2014