Hans Feibusch's 1939 is an elegiac work about human suffering and the devastating effects of war. In an interview with the Tate in October 1996, Feibusch explained that the painting concentrated some of his most profound emotions of the time and was provoked not by the actual outbreak of the Second World War (1939-45) but by his premonition of the consequences war would have for humanity. Born in Frankfurt am Main in 1898, Feibusch studied in Munich, Berlin, Italy and Paris before becoming an active member of several prominent artists' exhibiting societies in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1930 he was awarded the German Grand State Prize for Painters by the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin, but with the rise to power of the Nazis in 1933 his status as a Jewish artist ensured that his work was outlawed. Later that year he emigrated to England, becoming a British citizen in 1938, just a year after his work had been publicly decried at the infamous Entartete Kunst ('Degenerate Art') exhibition in Munich.
1939 shows three classically-draped figures in an anonymous tract of landscape, eluding a sense of any specific time or place. The stiff contorted body at the left is dead, held up by the central figure who, with his striken companion, is transfixed with grief. The painting drew on Feibusch's own experiences of war as a German soldier on the Russian front in 1916-18, but the dead figure relates also to his memory of identifying the body of his only brother, following his death in an avalanche while skiing at Klosters in Switzerland in January 1929. The winter was bitterly cold and when called upon to identify his brother's body in a railway carriage in Frankfurt, Feibusch was struck by its exceptional stiffness, ever afterwards associating death with this pronounced rigidity.
Feibusch became known most widely in England as a church muralist and figure sculptor and in 1939 was working on his second church commission, a mural of the nativity for one of the churches in the Brighton diocese of Dr George Bell, Bishop of Chichester (1883-1958). It is perhaps unsurprising that 1939, produced in the same year, bears some of the techniques of mural painting, such as a sculptural sense of form, breadth of handling and dramatic immediacy. The work's formal clarity marked a shift from Feibusch's German years, when he had employed an unusually large and bright palette in a bold and exuberant manner. In conceiving 1939 he deliberately stripped away this vivacity, feeling that the solemnity of the painting's theme and the emotional drama it articulated called for a more controlled technique. In subject-matter, though, the painting did look back to Feibusch's earlier work, most notably the series of figure studies he had executed in the early 1930s (see, for example, Power 1933, reproduced in David Coke (ed.) no.2, p.51). In their tight composition and obscure iconography these works, like 1939, reflect the influence of Max Beckmann (1884-1950), a fellow artist of the Frankfurt avant-garde. In many of these works too, as in 1939, characters are illuminated in an intense and eerie light. The starkness of the light was significant for Feibusch not only for its apocalyptic aspect but as a means of defining and simplifying form. Keen to accentuate static gestures he employed bold contrasts between light and dark, avoiding any graduated tonal transition. 'The gestures my figures make are never casual movements, but solid, almost like statuary,' he commented. 'I wished to express the dramatic quality through the formal character of the image - to carry the originating impetus through, right to the end' (Tate interview with Richard Morphet, October 1996).
With its statuesque and classical forms, 1939 also points to the influence of Italian art. Since the early 1920s when Feibusch had travelled to Italy on a Rome Scholarship, visiting among other places Pisa and Perugia, he had been especially drawn to the painting of the early Renaissance, including that of Masaccio (1401-28) and Piero della Francesca (1416-92). Standing apart from contemporary British abstraction, realism and Neo-Romanticism, 1939 seems more akin to works of the Italian classical revival by such artists as Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978), embodying a similarly 'strange world of simple and heroic forms' (Paintings by Hans Feibusch with a Foreword by James Laver, exhibition catalogue, Alex Reid & Lefevre, London 1934, p.2).
In a letter to the Tate Gallery of 15 January 1997 concerning this work, Feibusch mentioned 'several large gouaches of the same subject, held now in a portfolio at Pallant House in Chichester', though it is not known whether these exist.
David Coke (ed.), Hans Feibusch: The Heat of Vision, exhibition catalogue, Pallant House, Chichester, London and Chichester 1995, reproduced cat.14, p.55
Hans Feibusch, Mural Painting, London 1946
Rita Rücker, Hans Feibusch: ein Frankfurter Maler, exhibition catalogue, Historisches Museum, Frankfurt am Main 1986