Earlier this year I wrote an article about the extent to which artworks in the UK by émigré artists are- under threat, with some requiring urgent restoration and others in buildings that have been closed. Ilona Bossanyi, granddaughter of the Hungarian stained glass artist Ervin Bossanyi, contacted me after reading that article, in which her grandfather was mentioned, as she was concerned about the fate of the stained-glass window that her grandfather had created for the Tate Gallery.
Ervin Bossanyi’s An Angel Blessing the Washerwomen of Chartres was removed from Tate Britain in 2011
Ervin Bossanyi’s An Angel Blessing the Washerwomen of Chartres was removed from Tate Britain in 2011 due to redevelopment work and has been in storage ever since. The Bossanyi family and other admirers of the window had become increasingly frustrated that there were minimal responses to their requests for information, also discovering that the work was no longer listed online as being part of the Tate’s collection.
Émigré artists in the twentieth century had a particularly rough deal as much of their early work was lost or destroyed through the two World Wars with a consequent impact on their reputations, while their later works increasingly face restoration challenges or the prospect of further destruction as buildings in which they are located are closed.
The sculptor Ernst Müller-Blensdorf lost everything he owned and had made twice, as he first emigrated to Norway after being declared a degenerate artist by the Nazis, and then was forced to flee to Britain after Norway was invaded. Georg Mayer-Marton also fled to Britain and, as a Hungarian citizen, managed to ship all his Vienna work here. However, in September 1940, a German incendiary bomb destroyed the London studio where he was living with all his work. Fortunately, he and his wife survived. Both Mayer-Marton and Müller-Blensdorf subsequently made careers for themselves but the opportunity for them to be of influence as artists and show their true worth was severely constrained by their wartime experiences.
Ervin Bossanyi was another such émigré. Studying in France on a scholarship, he was sent to an internment camp in 1915 as an enemy alien, together with his friend Imre Szobotka. Then in 1941 this Hungarian-Jewish artist was again classified as an enemy alien in England, having fled there from the Nazi regime in 1934, which had stripped him and his family of their German citizenship and introduced a law preventing Jews from working for the state.
Having lived with her grandparents for some years, Ilona is familiar with her grandfather’s position and emotions at that time: “the anguish of having to leave everything: one’s job, one’s home, everything that spelled security for his wife and child, for something completely unknown, and meeting extreme difficulty in finding a ‘safe haven’. My grandparents were rejected several times in their applications for asylum, until they were finally accepted in England on a temporary visa, which banned them from taking any form of employment. My grandfather’s prescience in leaving Nazi Germany in 1934 meant that he was still able to bring out quite a lot of his artworks and glass, so that he could start working again, except that his visa prevented him from doing so. In the last resort, friends and family were the only people that my grandparents, like many others, were able to count on for help. It’s hard to imagine living with such uncertainty: you don’t know what nationality you are; you don’t know how you’re going to live; you don’t know where your money is going to come from to feed and shelter your family…”
The stories of artists like Bossanyi, Blensdorf and Mayer-Marton are being kept alive in the UK by initiatives such as Insiders/Outsiders, an ongoing programme celebrating refugees from Nazi Europe and their contribution to British culture set up by art historian Monica Bohm-Duchen, and books such as ‘Their Safe Haven: Hungarian artists in Britain from the 1930s’ by Robert Waterhouse. Waterhouse notes that “the talented generation of Hungarian artists who came to Britain before the Second World War received very little recognition” but “by and large, they made out in Britain, found or created work, raised families, were accepted and constructive members of their communities.”
In Hungary itself, art historian Gergely Barki is searching for lost works by Hungarian cubists of this period, including Bossanyi, in preparation for an exhibition organized by the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest, which is scheduled to open in 2023. Forty-four original works already found (sculptures, paintings, or drawings) and 50 black and white reproductions of lost and still sought after works, produced by eleven artists of the Hungarian avant-garde, were recently shown by Barki at the Hungarian Cultural Institute in Paris. Twenty-seven of the works shown in Wanted / Lost & Found. In search of lost Hungarian cubism have resurfaced in recent years thanks to his research. Famously, one such work was identified by Barki after it featured in the film Stuart Little.
Works by Bossanyi featured in this exhibition which will then go to Brussels and Berlin. Watercolours from this period are also in the Bossanyi archive held by the V&A and will feature in the Budapest exhibition, but Barki is also seeking 30 lost works that were in Bossanyi’s Paris studio when he was interned.
The difficulties émigré artists such as Bossanyi have faced over the years, including the difficulty of receiving appropriate recognition posthumously, is demonstrated by the many strains seen in the story of how An Angel Blessing the Washerwomen of Chartres first came to the Tate and of its subsequent reception.
The inspiration for this window came from a visit to Chartres Cathedral together with a patron, Cuthbert Hatch. The two men were returning from the Cathedral along the Seine discussing the panels donated by local guilds, which show the full range of medieval professions from barrel-makers to butchers. As they passed a group of washerwomen on the riverbank, Bossanyi remarked that there was no celebration of the work of women at the Cathedral and determined there and then to create a window providing just such a celebration.
His childhood friend and subsequent supporter Roszika Wertheimstein, who had married the scientist Charles Rothschild in England, secured interest in Bossanyi’s work from several prominent sources, including Sir Evan Charteris, chair of the Tate Trustees, and J. B. Manson, the Tate’s director, who championed a project to create a window for the Tate Gallery. This was discussed by the Trustees in 1937 and Lord Duveen approached for funding. Those funds, however, were not forthcoming, and it was decided instead to raise the amount required by subscription. By 1939 Bossanyi was able to write to John Rothenstein, the new director of the Tate, with news that there were sufficient funds to begin and proposed to present the window as a loan if the balance of funds had not been secured at that point. In 1940 the Trustees authorised a grant to give further support to the project, but nevertheless Bossanyi was at this stage bearing considerable costs himself at a time when he himself had minimal income.
The war years and the need to make good following extensive bomb damage to the Gallery slowed the project considerably and it was not until 1948 that the window was installed. However, it was installed without the additional lighting originally intended, a tree was also planted outside that further darkened the window and, for reasons yet to be elucidated, no interpretation or label to identify the work, the artist or the date was provided. Despite regular representations from the family and admirers of the work, this remained the case until the mid-1980’s, when a plaque identifying the artist was finally added and, in 2003, a webpage about the window included on the Tate’s website.
Then, in 2011, at the time of the Tate redevelopment, the window was removed. The original listed building consent for the redevelopment included re-siting the window elsewhere in the building but the Tate then obtained an alteration enabling the window to remain in storage as condition that it could still be viewed on request. It then transpired that the webpage about the window had been removed and Bossanyi no longer appeared in the online listing of artists and artworks in the Tate’s collection. The family were not consulted regarding these changes, and it was not until 2018 that admirers of the window established that it was in storage at the Tate’s South London store. When they applied in 2019 to view the window, they were told that staff shortages prevented that from happening.
Ilona was frustrated: “All my enquiries in the last two years have been met with a wall of silence, as have requests to view the work from specialist stained-glass researchers since its disappearance. It’s odd, to say the least, that, even if the Tate doesn’t want to reinstall it, there’s no response to my offer, as a member of the artist’s family, to help find a new home for it. I’m very concerned about the treatment of artworks like these and what they represent (I know of other similar cases also involving refugee artists). I’m also concerned for family reasons: my father Jo, Ervin Bossanyi’s only son, died in January still in distress from not knowing what has happened to his father’s legacy at the Tate and its significance.”
Paul San Casciani, a specialist glass painter who worked with Bossanyi, said: “I think Tate Britain’s behaviour over this masterpiece is disgraceful. That there is not an appropriate place for it now they have redesigned the entrance/atrium/staircase is understandable, but to make it so difficult for researchers and members of the artist’s family to discover its storage and what is to become of it must be strongly challenged.”
New approaches to the Tate made while this article was in preparation have, however, resulted in a changed attitude and new opportunities. The Tate have offered the family an opportunity to view the window in their store and are looking to remedy the removal from their website of information about Bossanyi and the window. Ilona welcomes this development and is looking forward to discussing options to secure recognition and public enjoyment of this artwork. However, she remains concerned that issues raised by the family may not be fully addressed.
With windows at Canterbury Cathedral and Washington National Cathedral, in addition to his early masterpiece at Ohlsdorf Crematorium which survived the Second World War intact, there is no doubt about the significance of Bossanyi’s work. Jenns Howoldt, who curated a Bossanyi retrospective and has assisted the family in finding locations in Germany for works from the estate, summarised Bossanyi’s significance:
“Bossanyi was a very versatile artist who expressed himself in numerous art forms. He not only drew and painted in various techniques, but also created designs for murals, glass paintings, textiles, jewellery, work in metal or furniture. Sculpture played a major role in his work. He created sculptures for gardens, figures for fountains or reliefs for portals. It is not easy to briefly summarize his extensive work in various fields. Everyone he worked with was amazed at the productivity of this artist.
For free artists, the economic conditions in Germany after the First World War were extremely difficult. Bossanyi reacted to the situation by shifting his artistic focus to the field of applied arts. From 1919 to 1929 Bossanyi lived and worked in Lübeck. In addition to executing designs in various techniques, Bossanyi also created a remarkable painterly work with motifs from his Hungarian origins and using his own spiritual themes. In the long run, however, he was not satisfied with painting pictures; sales brought in too little. Applied works such as murals and sculptures made of clinker became his artistic focus. Monumental wall paintings in the reading room of the Lübeck City Library (1926) revealed Bossanyi’s mastery in creating an ideal humanistic imagery.
In collaboration with a stained-glass workshop, Bossanyi created a series of stained-glass lamps. From 1925 onwards, large-format windows with rich figurative representations were created Stained-glass windows were mainly created for public buildings such as schools and hospitals in Lübeck and the surrounding area. The largest order in this technology was the stained-glass windows for the crematorium at the Ohlsdorf cemetery in Hamburg, where Bossanyi lived and worked with his family from 1929-1934. The crematorium was the last building of the Hamburg chief architect Fritz Schumacher (1869-1947) and was built in 1928-33 on the eve of the Nazi takeover. The architect and the artist became the target of attacks by the new regime. The stained glass in Ohlsdorf made Bossanyi known as a stained-glass artist in Germany and may also have reinforced his artistic reputation in England.”
On the back of major commissions for Canterbury and Washington Cathedrals, retrospectives at the Ashmolean and in Budapest and Lübeck, a monograph published in 2008, and now Barki’s research and plans for an exhibition of Hungarian Cubists in 2023 have all helped sustain awareness of Bossanyi’s work. The V&A and the Stained Glass Museum at Ely Cathedral have been particularly effective in conserving the legacy of this refugee artist. Yet, as with work by many other émigré artists, a lack of recognition, both of their work and stories, continues into the present even, at times, on the part of institutions that hold such works in trust for future generations.
The work of émigré artists such as Bossanyi deserves to be better known, better understood, and better preserved. Generating such awareness is a key part of Barki’s project with the Hungarian cubists, which, in Bossanyi’s case, includes introducing his work to the Hungarian public as his career was wholly conducted in Germany and England. As the publicity for the Insiders/Outsiders project has stressed, at a time when the issue of immigration is much debated, embracing the remarkable contributions to British culture made by those who came from Germany, Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary serves as a reminder of the importance of cultural cross-fertilization and of the deep, long-lasting and wide-ranging contribution that refugees can – and do – make to British life.
Words Revd Jonathan Evens Top Photo: Ervin Bossanyi in Lübeck 1921 with a lost painting Bossanyi family archive