Friday, February 19, 2021

The Painter's Hidden Masterpiece - Simon Lake

I got my first Covid Vaccine dose on wednesday afternoon. It was a well organized and painless process, very much like getting a flue jab, and I'm really pleased to have been done so promptly and am very much looking forward to the point that myself, my partner, our parents, and rather more of our friends will all have been done  - which I hope will mean we can see each other face to face again.

Meanwhile some of the underlaying health conditions that got me that jab, combined with it being such a cold, grey, damp, day are making me wish I could go to a charity shop, buy a stack of the trashiest romances I could find, and retire to bed with them, a cup of tea, and plenty of chocolate. As it stands I'm going to try and start doing justice to this particular book - though I think it might take a couple of posts.

'The Painter's Hidden Masterpiece' focuses on the work of Johannes Matthaeus Koelz, an artist who made a swift exit from Germany with his wife and children in 1937, but before I get to that I think this post needs to mostly look at Leicester Museums, and why it has such a good collection of German Expressionist art, and why provincial art galleries are so important - and criminally underfunded.

The Leicester collection of German Expressionism is as good as you will find anywhere. It's internationally acclaimed, and when I spent a summer doing volunteer work in the gallery in 1995 it was still a source of surprise to German visitors that such a trove of things should be here (it was still more or less a pre internet age), not in Germany, not in London. 

The reason it's here is because of a few chance friendships that lead to some early war time donations and purchases from refugees, a curator who had the vision to stage a significant exhibition in 1944. Both the buying and donations have continued since, so that the collection now is considerably more significant than when I first got to know it. 


Leicester is an amazingly diverse and multicultural city, and not just for the Asian populations that are maybe the most noticable; my earlier memories of it include going to the polish stall in the market to buy things for my German grandmother (mostly stock cubes), it did not really surprise me last year to learn that an Estonian sailor who jumped ship in Shetland in 1958 ended up as part of a reasonably significant Estonian population in Leicester, and it makes perfect sense that this is a place that would have a significant collection of 'degenerate' German art. 

It would be lost in London, but here it tells a part of our story, one that we share with all the generations of migrants who have found a home here, as well as the that of those who created, and collected this art.  Current funding is not generous to museums and galleries like ours - really good regional galleries are closing for lack of funding whilst the National Gallery has just been awarded £30 million for a Makeover which I'm actually seething about.

I love the National Gallery, but even if travel were possible I can seldom afford to get to it. It seems much more important, and infinitely more 'healing' to see some of that money spent outside of London and perhaps helping tell stories like Johannes Matthaeus Koelz's. This book was originally developed to accompany an exhibition of Koelz's masterpeice - or what's left of it - 6 surviving pieces of what was once intended to be a monumental altarpiece. Koelz left instructions for it to be cut up and hidden as he fled Germany.

Unfortunately when the surviving bits of the alter piece were finally exhibited (in, I think, Leicester cathedral, the internet is not properly helping my memory on this) there wasn't enough money to fund a catalogue, so this book is an extended version of what we might have got then, independently published by it's author. 

In some ways this is a bonus for the reader. I doubt very much that had it been an exhibition catalogue it would have been quite as lavish as it currently stands, or covered so much of Koelz's life. The downside is that it's difficult to find if the author doesn't contact you (as he did me). I can only find it for sale via his website https://simonlake.co.uk/. The £18 price tag is excellent value though, and the story goes far beyond the art. 

It really will have to be another post to actually look at Koelz's work now, but meanwhile do look at Leicester Museums site to read more about the history of their Expressionist collection, it's well worth the time Here  

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