An unlikely artistic alliance: the wartime Britons who saved and celebrated German art

From Kandinsky to Klee, the Nazi party deemed entire swathes of artistic movements as worthless and degenerate. The English city Leicester provided a home to these Central European masterpieces. These exhibitions forged a peaceful bridge between communities and provided the city's inhabitants with much needed respite from their hardships.

The Square also Behind the Church, 1916, oil on canvas. Painting by Lyonel Feininger. One of the many paintings in Tekla Hess's collection.
The Square also Behind the Church, 1916, oil on canvas. Painting by Lyonel Feininger. One of the many paintings in Tekla Hess's collection. Credit: Roman Nerud / Alamy Stock Photo.

February 1944 was a period of cautious optimism about the outcome of the Second World War. The Allies were gradually progressing on the Eastern Front, as well as into the Italian mainland, beginning their assaults on German and Italian fortifications around western Italy. Plans to create a second front in western Europe later that year — the Normandy landings, or D-Day — were in place. A renewed German bombing campaign on London and southern England, known as the ‘Baby Blitz,’ caused only minor damage, with a high number of German aircraft lost in raids.

In Leicester, in the English Midlands, the city’s Museum and Art Gallery opened its doors to an exhibition, Mid-European Art, showcasing Expressionist artworks by primarily German artists, partly organised by the anti-Nazi Free German League of Culture. Despite the historic context, the exhibition proved an unlikely wartime success, and helped cement ties between British and German artistic circles — which have endured to the present day. Its story is one of cultural ‘Blitz spirit,’ growing British interests in art from the Continent, and a fortuitous friendship between a Welsh curator and a German-Jewish refugee.

Despite the exhibition’s success, in the years before the war, influences on British art came from elsewhere in Europe — most notably French post-impressionism and surrealism and Russian neo-Primitivism. The exhibition in Leicester in the spring of 1944 was not, however, the first occasion in which Central European art had been disseminated to British audiences. The Russian painter and theorist Wassily Kandinsky — who resided in Munich and was a central figure in German artistic groups — was particularly popular; his works had first been shown in Britain at a London salon organised by the Allied Artists Association in 1909, and were later embraced by English artists and critics, including Wyndham Lewis. Kandinsky’s works were also publicised in the plucky, transnationally-oriented English language literary journal transition, published in Paris between 1927 and 1938,  alongside literature from other Central European authors, including Franz Kafka and Hugo Ball. There were also showings of German Expressionism at the Twenty-One Gallery in London in 1914; Austrian artist Oskar Kokoschka exhibited in the city in the late 1920s; and a one-man show by the Swiss-born German artist Paul Klee took place in 1934.

The largest exhibition, though, came in 1938: the Twentieth Century German Art exhibition, held at the New Burlington Galleries. This event was organised in response to the Nazi Party’s Degenerate Art Exhibition, held in Munich the previous year, displaying some of the thousands of works seized by the party, and labelled incompatible with Nazi values. The New Burlington Galleries’ counter exhibition featured over 300 works of German art, from the collections of over ninety European art dealers, and aimed to raise awareness of German artists who were under persecution by the Nazis, with all profits donated to refugee artists. It was accompanied by the release of Modern German Art, as part of the iconic blue-covered Pelican Specials line, a non-fiction imprint of Penguin Books, which featured thirty-two photographs, and an introduction by the head of the exhibition’s organising committee, art historian and critic Herbert Read. Its cover suggested German art could serve as ‘as a mirror of its time in which one can learn to understand oneself and society.’ The exhibition was a great success — its duration had to be extended three times owing to visitor demand.

It might not have been announced with as much fanfare, but Leicester’s Museum and Art Gallery had in fact been pursuing a similar operation since the mid-1930s. Behind the building’s neoclassical façade (designed by York-born architect Joseph Hansom — more famously known for being the inventor of the Hansom cab), the museum’s arts assistant, Albert Charles Sewter, was embracing a progressive collecting policy, focusing on modern British and European art, including works by German artists. But it was the appointment of the industrious and visionary Welsh art historian Trevor Thomas as the museum’s curator in 1940 that truly established ties between the English city and Central European artists. Thomas was an extremely well-informed art critic. He was interested in European and American contemporary art, and had spent the late 1930s in the United States, organising exhibitions in Buffalo, and touring museums across the country. It was in New York that his fascination with Central European art deepened, after visiting an exhibition of German works at the Museum of Modern Art.

Thomas’s appointment as curator of Leicester’s museum and art gallery in 1940 coincided with a concerted effort among British museums to continue cultural activity in wartime. Initially, with the threat of bombing raids, museums were closed and valuable works removed and hidden for safekeeping. But one English pianist, Myra Hess, had an alternative idea. Following the closure of the National Gallery, she approached the museum’s young director, Kenneth Clark, with an idea to launch public concerts in the building, to provide comfort and escapism for Londoners. During the six years of conflict, almost 2,000 lunchtime recitals were held in the domed hall — later relocating to the basement, or alternative venues, to avoid coming under attack. Along with the concerts, Clark organised the exhibition of one picture from storage each month, counteracting what he termed a ‘cultural black-out’ in Britain following the outbreak of war.

The National Gallery’s model was adopted by museums across the country, and efforts were strengthened by the establishment of the wartime Committee for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA), with which Clark was involved, and which was a precursor to the Arts Council of Great Britain. CEMA aimed to promote British artistic traditions and arranged touring exhibitions during the war. As Catherine Pearson writes in her Museums in the Second World War, Thomas organised a visitor evaluation survey between 1941 and 1942 to record opinions of existing exhibitions and hopes for future events. Half of those surveyed, notes Pearson, expressed an interest in seeing contemporary art; in particular, one refugee hoped that modern expressionistic and impressionistic works, including by foreign artists, could be exhibited.

This request was, in part, answered by a CEMA-organised exhibition, The Art of Five Polish Soldiers, which toured provincial galleries, including Southport, Bradford and Lincoln, in the mid-1940s. When it came to Leicester, as Pearson notes, it featured art classes by the soldiers themselves, aimed at the local public and children.

Around the same time, Thomas met a German-Jewish refugee, Tekla Hess,  the wife of a shoe manufacturer based in Erfurt, Alfred Hess, who, in pre-war Germany, had amassed a collection of over 4,000 works by contemporary German artists. Alfred died in 1931; two years later, as the Nazis rose to power, Tekla attempted to protect much of the collection by sending artworks abroad,  although many were later returned to Germany, and subsequently sold or lost. In 1939, she fled to Britain with the remaining collection. Some items were only smuggled out of Germany by being hidden in family furniture.

Tekla joined tens of thousands of other German Jewish refugees in Britain at the start of the war; her son, Hans, was also in Britain, though he was initially incarcerated in a British internment camp, labelled as an ‘enemy alien.’ Ultimately, the pair ended up in Leicester, where Hans was employed as a farm labourer. Thomas became aware of the family through his associations with German refugee agencies, and the trio began to plan an exhibition at the museum, using the salvaged works.

To assuage any concerns about its German focus, Thomas enlisted the help of the Free German League of Culture. The association was founded in London in early 1939 to ‘preserve and advance Free German Culture’ and ‘to further the mutual understanding between the refugees and the British people;’ it counted as its members or supporters Tekla and Hans Hess, KokoschkaJulian Huxley (brother of Aldous) and J.B. Priestley. The exhibition was also backed by other local figures, including the principal of University College, Leicester (now the University of Leicester), Frederick Attenborough (father of actor Richard Attenborough). Meanwhile, Hans Hess played an invaluable role organising the exhibition alongside Thomas and was later promoted to a curatorial position in York.

Of the works exhibited, fifty came from the Hess collection, although other refugee families also lent artworks for show. Most were Expressionist pieces from before the war, including two works by Kandinsky; two by Käthe Kollwitz, an artist famed for her depictions of human distress; one by Kokoschka; and several by artists associated with the Expressionist Brücke and Blaue Reiter groups, established in the early 1900s — the former based in Dresden, with interests in authentic human emotion, and the latter from Munich, comprising artists determined to reveal spiritual truths, often using animal motifs. One of the most notable works was Franz Marc’s sensual 1912 painting ‘Red Woman,’ depicting a tattooed woman, her back to the viewer, meandering among plants and multi-coloured shapes — purchased for £350 by the Museum Committee. The brochure for the exhibition notably emphasised the range of nationalities of the artists on show, rather than focusing on their links to Germany. It stressed that ‘of all the trends in modern painting, the least known to the English public are those of mid-European countries,’ adding the exhibited works would showcase ‘what was attempted before […] catastrophe overtook the creative spirit of a continent.’

The cover featured a woodcut by Lyonel Feininger, ‘Street Under a Bridge’. With its crooked geography, isolated figures, empty space and gaping windows, it was eerily evocative of bombed London — images of the destroyed city had been exhibited in Leicester earlier in the war — or, perhaps, of destruction further afield. The month the exhibition took place also marked a debate in the House of Lords about the morality of bombing German cities.

In an article for the Leicester Museum and Art Gallery Bulletin, published the month before the exhibition opened, Thomas described the differing definitions and uses of the museum — expressing his hope that the well-organised and appealing institution would become ‘no longer a remote temple harbouring its collections on a hill but a living museum purveying its goods in the market place.’ The exhibition proved a perfect example. After the end of the war, new donations bulked up the collection, with further exhibitions of material organised. In the early 1950s, art historian Peter Tomory — who worked under Hans Hess — helped to organise an exhibition of prints by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, from the collection of Austro-Hungarian-born art historian Rosa Schapire. Many of these prints were later included in a 1955 Schapire bequest to the museum. The collection’s prestige also developed in the 1970s and 1980s, following the publication of a catalogue on German Expressionism, as well as the loan of artworks and the Hess visitors’ book. Donations have continued to arrive into the present day: over sixty pieces were gifted to the museum in 2009 by Michael Brooks, and a collection was also donated in 2014 — coincidentally owned by Stefan Pauson, the brother-in-law of Alfred Hess. Nearly 100 are currently on show, free to the public, in the museum’s permanent exhibition, which explains the history of the artworks, and their arrival in Leicester.

The Mid-European Art exhibition was not the only attempt to promote Central European culture to the British public during the war. As Anna Müller-Härlin writes in the volume Arts in Exile in Britain 1933-1945, such events included a 1941 exhibition, Refugee Artists and their British Friends, created by the Free German League of Culture, and the 1942 Artists Aid Jewry Exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, jointly organised by the same organisation, along with the Jewish Cultural Club, and the Free Austrian Movement. Other examples include the Exhibition of Works by Allied Artists, which took place in London in 1942. Beyond the visual arts, Central European developments in literature and theatre featured in English critic John Lehmann’s acclaimed wartime literary journals, New Writing and Daylight.

For Thomas, however, the story took another tragic turn. In July 1946, he was accused of a public indecency offence — homosexuality was illegal in England until 1967. Thomas, who always maintained innocence, was dismissed from his role at the Leicester museum, though he was able to stay within the arts profession (including at the Arts Council) and later abroad. Incidentally, Thomas was the last person to see the writer Sylvia Plath before her suicide in 1963, because he lived in the flat below hers.

After the war ended, the Daily Mail ran an article by Swiss architect Pierre Jeannerat under the headline ‘Hitler couldn’t kill this art’,  describing how the Expressionist works once deemed degenerate by the Nazi Party were now enjoying a renaissance among British audiences; following an exhibition which took place at the Arts Council Gallery in St. James’s Square in London in November 1949. Jeannerat’s review read:

Londoners who want to know whither Germany will go — and surely there can be few more important questions for Western Europe — can find useful indications at this exhibition. Hitler hated the Expressionists, whose often tortured works spoke of the heartburns of individuals refusing to be regimented. He kicked them out of his doors; they have returned through broken windows.

The London exhibition demonstrated the ‘regenerating influence,’ as Jeannerat described, of Expressionism on the post-war consciousness — but this was not a new approach. Leicester’s Mid-European Art exhibition similarly served as a boost to public hope and morale, as well as forging a peaceful bridge between different communities at the time. The broken windows were being scaled a long time before.


Juliette Bretan