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A focus: Hans Feibusch #2

"To stand before an empty wall as in a trance… to let shapes cloudily emerge, to draw scenes and figures, to let light and dark rush out of the surface, to make them move outward or recede into the depths, this was bliss."

Hans Feibusch on mural painting

Europe Day is celebrated every year on 9th May. In advance of tomorrow's celebrations, we asked Beth McHattie, one of the Festival team, to tell us more about Hans Feibusch, a European refugee who fled from the horrors of Nazism and whose artwork is featured in St John's Church. The first article in this series can be found here.

In 1965, Feibusch became a Christian, worshipping at St Alban’s Holborn where a year later he covered the entire east wall with The Trinity in Glory, the largest single work of his entire career, and the chancel aisles with 14 Stations of the Cross.

Despite their bright colours, inspired by Masaccio, Piero della Francesca and other Quattrocento artists encountered on his visit to Italy in the 1920s, Feibusch’s religious paintings often reveal his keenly felt sorrow for European conflict. One of his most important works, entitled 1939 and painted in that year (owned by the Tate) shows the terrible consequences of war, drawing on his own experience as a young German soldier fighting on the Russian Front in the First World War and his foreboding at the rise of Nazism.

Overlooked by the fashionable art establishment, Feibusch’s devoted work for churches was recognised in 1985 when Dr Robert Runcie, then Archbishop of Canterbury, conferred on him Lambeth D.Litt. "in recognition of his services in promoting the Association of Artist and the Church through his work as painter, sculptor and writer".

Christus (Hans Feibusch) (Photo: Patricia Kreyer)

When failing eyesight caused Feibusch to turn from painting to sculpture, he proved the Church’s continued faith in him entirely justified with works such as the figure of Christ (Christus) in Ely Cathedral, and St John the Baptist outside St John's Wood Church, north London where Feibusch also lived and worshipped.

A portrait of Andrew Walker (Hans Feibusch)

Herefordshire Landscape given to Fr Andrew Walker (Hans Feibusch)

(Photos: Fr Andrew Walker)

Fr Andrew Walker of St Mary’s Bourne Street was an assistant priest at St John’s Wood from 1987-93. He recalls Feibusch worshipping there. “Hans Feibusch drew each of the curates in turn. He was a kind, gentle and wise man who reverted to Judaism towards the end of his life.”

Add to his church murals, his several commissions for secular buildings including murals in the Civic Centre at Newport, Monmouthshire, that have been described as one of the most ambitious 20th century decorative cycles in Britain – and have their own Facebook page - and his inclusion in the School Prints series of the 1940s and Hans Feibusch has probably enjoyed a larger audience than many more famous names of his generation. But it was not until 1988 that he was given his first major retrospective in Britain, at Brighton Polytechnic.

In 1995, another retrospective was held at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester and in 1997 Feibusch gifted to the Gallery the entire contents of his North London studio. The studio, which had formerly been Landseer’s, was used by Feibusch from the 1930s until 1997.

The Hans Feibusch collection at Pallant House Gallery includes around 80 paintings, 50 sculptures, several hundred drawings and studies, copies of all Feibusch’s lithographs (around 50 prints including proof stages), as well as the artist’s sketch books, easels, brushes, props, furniture and books – over 1,700 items in total. The Gallery also houses the Hans Feibusch Archive of photographs and ephemera.

In old age, after seeing a film about the Holocaust, Feibusch produced a series of paintings which sought to recapture that nightmare - "the hunting, the running away, the fall into terror". He formally left the Church of England in 1992, unable to accept the doctrine of the Trinity and shortly before his death, just four weeks before his 100th birthday in 1998, said: 'I am just a very tired old Jew.' He was buried with full Jewish rites at Golders Green Cemetery.

Prof. Vaughan Grylls interviewing Hans Feibusch (1995)

At the time of this death, Feibusch was the last survivor of the artists represented in the Degenerate Art exhibition. He had made a significant contribution to mural painting, sculpture and religious art in 20th century Britain and he lived just long enough to witness the start of a critical reappraisal of his work that continues today.

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