Austrian artist Margareta Berger-Hamerschlag

Margareta Berger-Hamerslag in 1955

From British daily The Morning Star:

Drama, fights, sex and jiving

(Tuesday 23 September 2008)

EXHIBITION: Beyond the Jiving

Honor Oak Gallery, London SE23

JUDITH AMANTHIS discovers an Austrian artist who was inspired by working-class youth in 1950s Britain.

GANG culture, knife crime, antisocial dead-end rebellion, zero proper nourishment and problems at home. Britain’s working-class youth never had it so bad. It’s 1955, the year exiled Austrian artist Margareta Berger-Hamerschlag published her bestseller Journey Into A Fog.

In it, she recounts her frustrations and aspirations teaching art to youth club members in the notorious slums of west London’s Paddington and Kilburn, areas where youths are still killing each other today and where immigrants are still being met with hostility by locals and local authorities alike.

Youth workers are still taking on, some by way of art projects, the effects of the poverty and social exclusion that are none of the children’s making.

But we have history to jog our memories – in an exhibition at the Honor Oak Gallery in south-east London and an accompanying book by Mel Wright called Beyond The Jiving.

Hamerschlag was born in 1902 in Vienna, learning her sense of social responsibility from her father, a doctor and socialist who practised in poor parts of Vienna.

She was a prodigious artist, working in the company of the new objectivists who were circulating around Vienna’s art schools in the 1920s.

New objectivist artists included Otto Dix and Georges Grosz, who painted skewed city perspectives and respectable shirt fronts straining at buttons, which were, in part, a furious critique of the post-World War I German establishment.

Similarly, Hamerschlag’s 1920s woodcut series Die Stadt (The City) is populated in deeply scored and gothic black and white by various foreground characters, such as the long-nailed and certainly malicious lady pianist in Das Klavierkonzert, while background factories, tenement blocks, a fashionista’s grimace and the desperate leg-splits executed by a night club dancer all waltz crazily away from a fixed point on the horizon.

By now a writer and artist with several exhibitions under her belt, the bohemian Hamerschlag lived with her architect husband in a Viennese artists’ community before taking off for Greece, Lebanon and Palestine, where the couple lived and worked until 1936.

They couldn’t return to Austria because of the political situation, so they chose London. Joining other exiled German and Austrian artists, they lived in Paddington in relative poverty until Hamerschlag’s 1955 bestseller.

Her youth club work had started off as a financial necessity, but rapidly became a source inspiration for her art and writing.

Her diary entries turned into her book and some of her drawings and paintings – she worked compulsively – became the book’s illustrations. Surviving the violent Teds scene with her German accent and middle-aged grey hair must have required a lot of inspiration.

She’s at her best in her brush and ink wash drawings, some watercolours, in which the boys’ and girls’ dramas of sex, fights and jiving are so securely composed that you immediately begin to make up the story of what’s just happened to provoke this clash of flailing arms and legs or that hand round another’s throat.

What happened to the Boy With Pingpong Ball to make him so angry that the flimsy ball is about to crumple in his fist? Is a squaddy’s hand grenade or a cowboy’s pistol in his imagination?

Hamerschlag’s later work picks up on the storytelling suggestiveness of her early work and her capacity to imaginatively heighten her subjects’ lives, to compact the most fraught or moving of incidents into a single frame.

An objectivist to the end, at no point does her work turn in on herself.

And she was a progressive educationalist – that beleaguered bunch now taking the flack for Britain’s failing school system – who was concerned about these girls’ and boys’ capacity to observe their world with an open mind and to plunge into life’s intricacies with their brains on fire.

After all, once they left the all-white youth club, they may well have been on their way to harass – or worse – their newly arrived Caribbean neighbours.

Hamerschlag’s superb draughtsmanship shows best in her watercolour still lifes and landscapes. But she was a humanist and the still lifes just don’t move, lacking the fag-in-the corner-of-the-mouth emphasis of her human subjects, the imagination pinging off those shirt front buttons.

Beyond The Jiving – an exhibition of Margareta Berger-Hamerschlag’s paintings and drawings, is on now at Honor Oak Gallery, London SE23. Runs until October 18. Phone (020) 8291-6094 for more details.

Beyond the Jiving by Mel Wright is published by Deptford Forum Publishing, priced £7.50.

See also here.

4 thoughts on “Austrian artist Margareta Berger-Hamerschlag

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