One of the unexpected pleasures of curating the Refugees from Nazi Europe section of the Migrations exhibition has been the chance to spend time in the Tate Archive discovering some of the personal stories of European artists’ move to Britain, and their reactions to their new home.

Piet Mondrian’s correspondence with Ben Nicholson is full of interesting details that shed light on the artist’s decision to come to Britain, the practicalities of the move and his life in London. Writing from France in September 1938 he discusses the worsening political situation in Europe but also asks Nicholson about the price of accommodation in London and what he should bring with him, concluding that, despite the danger, he is reluctant to interrupt his work at the moment as he has just found the solution to two paintings he is working on. After arriving in London he continued to write to Nicholson, who had by then moved to Cornwall, but could not be persuaded to leave the city for the country despite the danger from bombing. At first he found it difficult to paint, but gradually settled into his new studio and began to work on new compositions and to rework canvases that he had brought with him from Paris. In February 1940 he wrote to Nicholson ‘I began a new composition (small) and also an article in relation with the world situation: Art Shown the Evil of Totalitarian Tendencies. But mostly I am trying to get the old pictures better.’ His move to America in October 1940 was a reaction to a bombing raid that blew out the windows of his studio, but once there he wrote wistfully: ‘I do like New-York, but in London I was of course more at home.’

Oskar Kokoschka, 'The Crab' 1939-40

Oskar Kokoschka
The Crab 1939-40
Oil on canvas
support: 634 x 762 mm frame: 858 x 988 x 88 mm
Purchased 1984© The estate of Oscar Kokoschka

View the main page for this artwork

The Archive also holds material which sheds light on the ways that British artists helped refugee artists. The Artists Refugee Committee, founded by Roland Penrose, had many influential members and Augustus John, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Henry Moore and Paul Nash were among the signatories to a letter appealing for funds to help artists trapped in Czechoslovakia following the Munich Agreement in September 1938. They also wrote to the government in July 1940 protesting at the internship of German and Austrian refugee artists. Kenneth Clark, Director of the National Gallery was active in supporting organisations such as the ARC, and also vouched for many individual émigré artists who were being investigated by the authorities. His testimonials sometimes reveal a dry sense of humour. When the Chief Constable of Cornwall wrote to him in June 1940 asking him to vouch for Oskar Kokoschka, who was living in Polperro at the time, he replied:

Oskar Kokoschka is by common consent the most eminent living Czechoslovakian painter. He was turned out of Germany by the Nazis as part of their drive against the arts. He and his followers suffered considerable persecution. He is a somewhat eccentric and unpractical man, but I am confident that he falls in the category of aliens concerning whom no doubt need arise from the point of view of security. Quite apart from the fact that he has always been anti-Nazi, I should think that he is far too dreamy and undependable for the Nazis to use him as an agent.

Although the light-heartedness of this comment belies the very real problems that refugee artists could encounter making a home for themselves in Britain, there are also many positive aspects to the migration of European artists in this period. Their arrival in Britain fostered artistic interchange and new connections for many, which both enriched their own work and produced new dialogues with British art and British artists.

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