Insiders/Outsiders : In Conversation with Monica Bohm-Duchen

Insiders/Outsiders: Refugees from Nazi Europe and their Contribution to British Visual Culture is a groundbreaking anthology of essays, published in March 2019 to mark the start of a yearlong nationwide arts festival of the same name (visit the festival page here).
Monica Bohm-Duchen, the initiator and creative director of the festival, and contributing editor of the anthology, reflects upon their significance and legacy. 
Josef Herman

Josef Herman, Refugees, c.1941 
gouache on paper, 47 × 39.5 cm, Ben Uri Gallery Collection, London


The Insiders/Outsiders Festival and companion volume deal necessarily with questions of memory and history. 

How can, or should, we preserve the memory and experience of refugees without allowing this to become a more distanced, detached part of ‘history’?

It seems to me that what we’re engaging with here is not so much a question of memory as of living history, of exploring the legacy of the past in the present in a way that ensures its continuing relevance.

A good place to start, I think, is to consider how many iconic markers of British life (from the London bus stop sign through the Tiger who Came to Tea to the Festival Hall or Glyndebourne Opera) were wholly or in large part the creation of refugees from Nazi-dominated Europe. By doing so, we not only acknowledge the pervasive influence of so many of these refugees but are forced to interrogate the very notion of Britishness – a topical issue, to be sure.

It is also significant, it seems to me, that two of the most celebrated members of the so-called ‘School of London’ – namely, painters Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach – came as a child refugees to this country. Both of them are perfect examples of outsiders who in due course became insiders yet remained intensely aware of the fruitful tensions inherent in never quite belonging.


Your own essay, ‘Accents in Art: Émigré Painters and Sculptors in Britain after 1933’, tackles lots of contemporary ideas about ‘Britishness’ or ‘non-Britishness’ and identity more broadly. ‘Taste’ in art also seems to play a major part in artistic and personal acceptance and integration. What light does the terrain covered by the Insiders/Outsiders volume throw on these important issues?

A recurrent refrain in the book is how few members of the 1930s British art world, let alone the general public, knew or cared much about modern German art, favouring instead (if they looked abroad at all) the more decorative, less emotive French tradition. Many of the émigré artists themselves commented on how ‘alien’ their art initially seemed to British tastes. Yet many of them also conceded that the predominantly expressionist tendencies they brought with them were in due course muted by their encounter with British art and life. Nor should we forget that the prevalent image of mid-century Britain as a culturally backward desert is a gross over-simplification. Indeed, one of the primary aims of the book is to challenge the over-simplistic notion of one-way influences and to demonstrate the importance of cultural interaction and cross-fertilization, as well as of the support systems created by British-born individuals such as Herbert Read, Roland Penrose, Diana Uhlman, and Bishop George Bell.


How much is the artistic output of refugees necessarily about dislocation?

Perhaps surprisingly, only a relatively small number of artworks deal explicitly with their creators’ experience of trauma and uprooting. Polish-born Josef Herman is an interesting test case here, I think (see Monica Bohm-Duchen's book on Josef Herman, published by Lund Humphries in 2009, now out of print but available secondhand here). In early 1940s Glasgow, he produced a vivid and deeply poignant series of images evoking the lost world of his childhood called Memory of Memories; but is now best known for those he produced just a few years later of the South Wales mining community of Ystradgynlais, which clearly became a surrogate home for him. In other words, dislocation can express itself in an artist’s work in diverse and sometimes unexpected ways.

And in more general terms, one could argue that the experience of dislocation led to a determination to contribute as meaningfully as possible to the culture of the country that took them in, which entailed bringing to the table, as it were, not only a passionate anti-fascism but a cosmopolitanism and professionalism in all the areas covered by the book – not just fine art, but also design, architecture, photography, picture restoration, art publishing, dealing, collecting and teaching. It’s no accident that the volume concludes with an essay on the 1951 Festival of Britain, in which the erstwhile refugees played so disproportionate a part.

Margarete Klopfleisch, Despair, 1941, wood, 34 × 14 cm,
on loan to New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, Leicester

‘Looking back, looking forward’ is a major theme that presents itself in both the anthology and the festival more broadly - what lessons could we learn today, from the experiences of early/mid-20th-century refugees?

While the initial impulse was to celebrate the very real achievements of this wave of refugees, so often commented on in passing, but until now rarely scrutinised in much detail, another motive was to demonstrate the rich contribution that all refugees can and do make to their adopted country. But it is also important to realise that such contributions are made against a backdrop of multiple obstacles - indeed may well be, in part at least, fuelled by those very obstacles. More specifically, we’re talking not just about the experience of trauma, persecution and profound loss brought with them to this country, but also the experience of suspicion, lack of understanding and professional antagonism, even hostility they confronted on arrival on these shores. Especially worthy of mention here, as we approach the 80th anniversary of this morally murky wartime episode, is the British government’s decision in 1940 to intern all so-called ‘enemy aliens’, and the rich creative life of these internment camps. which forms the subject of one of the essays in the book.


With the end of the Insiders/Outsiders Festival last month, how do you hope that the contributions of the many important figures mentioned in the book and throughout the festival will continue to be remembered?

The amount of sympathetic interest in the theme of the festival has been hugely gratifying, and – given the number of new and ongoing projects in the pipeline which have dovetailed with or been prompted by it - I have a strong feeling that a ball has now been set in motion that will have its own momentum. Much new information has been uncovered, but there is clearly a great deal more, no doubt rewarding, research waiting to be undertaken. One example of this is the work currently being done by Valeria Carullo on the RIBA Refugee Committee, and whose book Moholy-Nagy in Britain 1935-37 was recently published by Lund Humphries (see the book here).

The Insiders/Outsiders website will continue to function both as a record of the well over 150 events in different media that took place across the country under the umbrella of the festival, but also as a means of publicising relevant events in the future and as a repository of material related to the theme of the festival. To this end, we recently set up a Resources section, comprising film clips, podcasts, links to other websites and new publications, which we plan to build on further.

Eva Frankfurther
Eva Frankfurther, West Indian Waitresses, c.1955,
oil on paper, 76 × 55 cm, Ben Uri Gallery Collection, London

Is there a painter or sculptor from the refugee community that you wish people were more aware of? Who is this and why?

That’s an invidious question to have to answer! But if pressed, I’d single out Eva Frankfurther, born in Berlin to a cultured, assimilated Jewish family in 1930 and who came to England in 1939. She trained as an artist at St.Martin’s (where Auerbach was a fellow student) and later chose to live in London’s East End, where she portrayed the increasingly diverse immigrant population with immense empathy and humanity. Tragically, she took her own life at the age of 28. It seems to me that her life and work embody many of the themes embraced by the book and the festival: the importance of bringing women émigré artists to public attention, of making links between different immigrant groups and of remembering the darker, indeed tragic aspects of these artists’ life stories and their intimate links with the horrors of the Holocaust.


INSIDERS/OUTSIDERS edited by Monica Bohm-Duchen is available NOW from the Lund Humphries website


Hardback • 256 Pages • Size: 270 × 228 mm
144 colour illustrations
ISBN: 9781848223462 • Publication: March 01, 2019






READ EXTRACTS from the book here: