Albert Reuss in Mousehole: The Artist as Refugee
A new book by
Publication coincides with an exhibition at Newlyn Art Gallery, Cornwall, from 23 September to 7 October,
with a book launch on Friday 6 october from 5.30 to 7.30.
There will also be a lunchtime talk at Waterstones Gower Street, London on Wednesday 15 November from 1.00-2.00 pm.
This is the compelling account of the life and work of Albert Reuss (1889-1975), a Jewish painter and sculptor who developed a uniquely individual style. Born in Vienna, he emigrated to England in 1938 following Hitler’s annexation of Austria. In the process, Reuss lost many members of his family, and the reputation he had built up as an artist in Vienna. He continued to work as an artist in England, but his style changed dramatically, reflecting the trauma he had suffered.
In researching the life of this intriguing man, Susan Soyinka interviewed many people who knew him, and also retrieved from Vienna a huge archive, which included much of Reuss’s lifetime correspondence. A most fascinating story emerged, full of human drama and tragedy, and of the lonely and isolated artist's struggle to develop his art and to survive, all set against the background of world historic events. The book includes first-hand accounts of Reuss’s escape from Vienna with his wife, Rosa, and of their experience as refugees in war-time Britain.
Reuss was the son of Ignaz and Sidonia Reisz originally from former Hungary, now Slovakia, where their first three sons were born. Ignaz was a Fleischhauermeister, a master butcher. During the late 1880s, the family moved to Vienna, where Albert was born, followed by a further six children, sadly three of whom died in infancy. From a young age, Albert became estranged from his family. A frail, sickly and vulnerable child, he seemed neither to fit into nor to belong to the family into which he was born.
A story Reuss told repeatedly was that of his rich uncle who introduced him to the world of art, but who seems to have instilled in the young boy a life-long inferiority complex. Indeed Reuss asserted that this uncle had ruined his life. Reuss's artistic abilities emerged at an early age, but unable to pursue his dream of becoming an artist, he was obliged, on leaving school, to assist his father as a butcher. Given his delicate disposition and artistic sensibilities, butchery was hardly an appropriate choice of profession. There followed a series of equally unsuitable jobs, including salesman, childminder and actor, all of which ended in dismissal.
In 1915 he was fortunate to meet his future wife, Rosa Feinstein, who offered him the acceptance he so desperately needed. In that year, she wrote to him:
This is the right day for me to assure you, again, of my deepest love. Come what may - your Röslein will always be with you.
There can be few expressions of undying love and devotion made at the beginning of a relationship, which can be shown to have been fulfilled 55 years later. She was his life-long companion, the person who encouraged him in the face of all difficulties, and perhaps most importantly of all, the buffer between him and the world he found so perplexing.
During the 1920s, Reuss gradually established himself as an artist, working initially in portraiture, then developing an individual style of line drawing. In 1930, a newspaper proprietor sponsored him to spend a year in Cannes, where he worked on portraits and landscapes in oil. He subsequently became a member of the prestigious artists' association, the Hagenbund, with whom he exhibited on a number of occasions. The couple developed a middle-class lifestyle, and now filled their flat in Vienna with numerous books, artefacts and artworks. But this was the time of the rise of Hitler and the Nazi regime, and by 1938 it became clear that Albert and Rosa would have to flee their home country. They hastily packed up all their possessions, including Reuss’s artworks, and left these in storage, but these were confiscated by the Nazis. They were helped to escape from Vienna by Cornishman and Quaker, John Sturge Stephens, and arrived in England penniless and empty-handed. Stephens invited them to his cottage in St Mawes, the springboard of their future life in Cornwall. Now in their late forties, they were obliged to build a new life and career from scratch. This proved to be an horrendous struggle.
Nevertheless, Reuss held numerous solo exhibitions in municipal galleries throughout England, particularly in Cornwall, Cheltenham and the North. In 1948 he moved to Mousehole, Cornwall, where he and Rosa established the ARRA Gallery. This was at the invitation of their friend, Ruth Adams, who built the house for them, but sadly died shortly after their arrival, a most inauspicious beginning to their new life in the village. From 1953, Reuss held regular one-man shows at the renowned O’Hana Gallery in London. Jacques O'Hana was a colourful, larger-than-life character, who became Reuss’s friend and mentor for the next 20 years. Indeed the whole story is populated with equally fascinating individuals.
Following his exile, there was an immediate change in Reuss's work. Whereas his oil paintings in Vienna were colourful and detailed (see Woman Reading with Mother-In-Law's Tongue, a portrait of Rosa painted in 1935), these now became simplified and muted. During the 1940s, much of his work was figurative, but the figures often had their backs turned, or looked sad and listless, like The Poet (1948), which features on the cover of the book. From the late 1940s, bleak landscapes started to appear, which became ever more desolate over the years. These frequently displayed broken fences or walls, and trees stripped of foliage. Where figures were present, these looked equally abandoned, like flotsam on the beach. This is particularly evident in the 1967 painting Figure and Tree Stump, originally titled Self-Portrait in the Open. Often random objects such as corrugated iron appeared in the landscape, and sometimes even penetrated into rooms, as if to remind the occupant that nowhere is safe.
Reuss was a complex individual. A tall, slim, handsome man, he could often appear aloof, even arrogant. Despite his Viennese elegance, he sometimes behaved irrationally, for example he wrote a number of highly inappropriate letters to the very people who were trying to help him. Yet despite his eccentricities, and at times his unacceptable behaviour, Albert could also be most charming and had a remarkable capacity to draw people to him, even those he offended. He and Rosa were genuinely loved by a large number of people who were prepared to go to great lengths to help and support them.
Several provincial galleries hold his work, most notably Newlyn Art Gallery in Cornwall, which has about 70 of his paintings. His works can also be found in the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Belvedere Gallery and the Albertina in Vienna, and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in Israel.
Albert Reuss in Mousehole: The Artist as Refugee by Susan Soyinka is published by Sansom & Co.
Susan Soyinka has worked as a teacher, lecturer and researcher, spending ten years of her early career in West Africa. On her return to England, she retrained as an educational psychologist, and after discovering her Jewish roots, worked for nine years in the Jewish community in London. Retirement has given her the time and energy to develop a new career as a writer.
Her first book, From East End to Land’s End, The Evacuation of Jews’ Free School, London, to Mousehole in Cornwall during World War Two, was described by Aumie Shapiro, author of the Jewish East End photographic series, as an ‘extraordinary, significant story of inter-faith and community harmony. A magnificent achievement.’ Her second book, A Silence That Speaks, A Family Story Through and Beyond the Holocaust, about her Viennese Jewish family history, received an award in 2014 from the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain (JGSGB) for an outstanding publication.
Susan is an active member of the Penwith Local History Group.