OU blog

Personal Blogs

New photo

Fred Uhlman: A reunion with the Hatton Gallery (and reflecting on anti-Semitism)

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Steve Bamlett, Wednesday, 1 Aug 2018, 21:43

Fred Uhlman: A reunion with the Hatton Gallery

Little Yid – never come back
Or we’ll break your bloody neck

(Uhlman 1971 from Reunion)[1]

The point about Uhlman’s Reunion is that there is no ‘coming back’, thus no reunion – not really!

In Reunion a German Jewish middle-class boy like Fred Uhlman, Hans, confronts his ideal in a form that was to be consecrated and made ‘classical’ by the Nazis. Konradin von Hohenfel's qualities, ‘proud bearing, his manners, his elegance, his good looks – and who could be altogether insensitive to them’ (14), constitute an ideal of German identity with which Hans feels he can identify, and, in doing so, leave behind his self-awareness of being Jewish, as he and Konradin, ‘walked up and down for an hour, like two young lovers, still nervous, still afraid of each other … full of hope and richness for us both’(19).

Separated by an anti-Semitism that turned into a state policy and a re-reading of history and ethnicities, Hans and Konradin part despite themselves, each feeling they are acting for the best. The only reunion allowed, given that we learn Konradin later becomes a follower of National Socialism is that we learn he died executed for his role in a failed plan to assassinate Hitler. That is the only reunion is cognitive and emotional – internal – and experienced only in art like the poem by Hölderlin that the ’boy’ lovers learn to recite to each other.

Ah me, where can I seek

In winter the flowers

And where sunshine

And shadow of the earth?

The wall stand

Speechless and cold, in the wind

Icy flags tinkle.

It is a song of fundamental alienation and it hurts. It hurt Uhlman, as it hurt the more masked Kurt Schwitters whom he met while interned in the Isle of Man,  in particular to become labelled an ‘enemy alien’ and be interned on his escape from certain death under the Nazis to the UK. It is also a wonderful description of the expressive mood of Uhlman’s late Welsh landscapes, which are to me, one of the stars of the show now at the Hatton Gallery.

It describes too the genre he almost invented earlier in his career of graveyard scenes, in which life stands in an alien deserted imaginary landscape where houses, churches and love are abstractions formed into unpopulated and unvisited tombs. Both of these types can be seen in the lovely exhibition catalogue curated by the Burgh and Hampstead Museum[2].

Perhaps though another true high-spot, is Schwitters’ portrait of Uhlman in the internment camp which the latter bought from Schwitters for £5 so that the Schwitters could develop his surreal and dada work such as fantastic sculptures built out of waste porridge. This portrait has to be seen – it is almost the typical Romantic scene of the young but imprisoned artist and poet, a man whose charisma is painted as a radiation of the deep romantic reds in the young face into splashes of re-pink in the walls of his confinement. A man relaxed and accepting but also yearning – asking for something from his viewer. You can see the image by clicking on the item on the page linked here. The beauty of seeing it in the present exhibition is that you may slip just yards from its locus to the room in Hatton holding the Merz Barn Wall – that ultimate symbol of exile and the lost.

I think the reason we need this exhibition, apart from the fact that it is a joy, is that it reminds us of the fickle and constructed nature of the discipline we call ‘art history’ – not only in the variability of the value judgements it makes And Uhlman is still low in that scale but in the groupings and comparisons it makes – including those descriptive of schools, movements, groups and styles. Looking at Uhlman and reading about him see constant revisions of such labels such that the labels become contradictory and confused – primitive (used sometimes to ally him to Lowry, sometimes to the African art of which he was a key collector, expressionist (he hated the German expressionists especially Kirschner but helped to save Kokoschka from the Nazis and it seems he used colour in a ‘distorted’ expressionist – or at least Nabi - manner), landscape, Romantic (Caspar David Friedrich invoked by him and others) etc.  I think the hopeful young man in Schwitters' portrait already conceals the disordered and wasted man of the later. He was after all, like the character Elsas in his fiction ‘Resurrection’, a painter and poet never destined for home but a continuing  condition of being ‘Speechless and cold, in the wind’.

What we need to see too are the drawings that marked the bravery of his politics (to the left of centre but anti-Communist), geared to the plight of the exile or refugee. We need more like him. Hatton was a special place for Uhlman we learn in the catalogue. Perhaps here there is a sort of reunion if not really. You can see the Harold Pinter Film of that novella at the Hatton next Wednesday, 8th August 1.30pm.


[1] Page references from Uhlman, F. (1997) Reunion London, Vintage, Penguin

[2] Baird, N. (Ed.) (2018) The Making Of An English Gentleman: Fred Uhlman, A Retrospective London, Burgh House and Hampstead Museum

Permalink Add your comment
Share post