Émigré to Editor: Edith Hoffmann and the Burlington Magazine 1938–1951

The Vienna-born art historian Edith Hoffmann (born 1907) was the first woman editor of the Burlington Magazine. This paper uses Hoffmann’s early writings for the magazine to explore both how she attained this position and why her reputation has failed to endure.

The art historian Edith Hoffmann (born 1907, lives in Jerusalem) stands among the most prolific contributors to the London-based arts journal the Burlington Magazine, having written some 150 pieces for the magazine over the course of her sixty-year career. The daughter of a Czech-Jewish family living in Germany through the 1920s, Hoffmann arrived in London in 1934, weeks after completing her doctorate in Nazi-controlled Munich. Initially appointed secretary at the magazine in 1938, in less than a decade Hoffmann rose swiftly through the ranks, serving as acting editor from 1944 to 1945, and as assistant editor from 1946 to 1950. In 1951 Hoffmann left London to follow her husband to a posting abroad. During her seventeen years in Britain she had not only broken ground as the first woman editor of the Burlington but had also published a landmark study of the Austrian artist Oskar Kokoschka, containing the first attempt at a catalogue raisonné of his works.1 After she left London Hoffmann continued to write and publish but her reputation as an art historian has not endured, in spite of recent interest in the contributions made by émigré art historians in the middle decades of the twentieth century.2

The forty or so articles that Hoffmann published in the Burlington Magazine date from between 1938 and 1951 and allow us to piece together how Hoffmann effected the transition from émigré to editor. But these texts also suggest reasons for her subsequent neglect. Questions of gender and the form in which she chose to write played a role, as did her voice as a writer, and it is this latter point that provides the focus of this paper. The foundations that Hoffmann laid as an art historian in the pages of the Burlington Magazine proved inappropriate for the construction of a writerly and scholarly reputation in the middle decades of the twentieth century.

Edith Hoffmann (fig.1) was born in Vienna in 1907, daughter of Irma and Camill Hoffmann. Her father had made his name as an arts journalist in the Austrian capital before moving to an editorial position in Dresden in 1911. After the First World War he began work within the government Press Office of the newly created state of Czechoslovakia, and from 1920, he served as the Czechoslovak Cultural and Press Attaché in Berlin, a position which earned him diplomatic privileges.3

Edith Hoffmann c.1937

Edith Hoffmann c.1937
Edith Hoffmann family collection

After attending school in Dresden, Edith Hoffmann studied art history, archaeology and Slavonic Studies in Berlin, spending a semester in Vienna and later in Munich, where she ultimately completed her doctorate under Professor Wilhelm Pinder. The final years of her doctorate coincided with the rise of National Socialism in Germany, and although Pinder was broadly supportive of the Nazi regime, he allowed his Jewish students to continue with their studies in the early days of the regime. Hoffmann completed her doctorate on eighteenth-century German portraiture in 19344 before immediately moving to London on the advice of her father ‘[who] said that there was no future for Jews in Central Europe and it was thought that England presented more opportunities’.5

Following her arrival in London in 1934, and supported financially by her parents then living in Berlin, Hoffmann worked for four years as a volunteer in the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum. It was not long before Hoffmann began writing texts on art and art history which, during the period 1934–7, found publication both in Britain and internationally: for example, in the Manchester Guardian, the Listener, the Prager Press and the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.6

It was the exhibition of Twentieth Century German Art staged in London in the summer of 1938, which first brought Hoffmann into contact with the Burlington Magazine. The show was conceived in the winter of 1937 as a response to the Nazi-organised exhibition of Entartete Kunst (‘degenerate art’), which had been staged in Munich in the summer of 1937.7 The London show was planned by a team in Britain, Switzerland and France, and set out to show the British public exactly what was being derided in Germany: not only the works of Jewish or anti-fascist artists but also those working in a ‘degenerate’ style – whether expressionist, dada or Merz. With very few examples of such work available in Britain, a cast of émigré Germans – artists, dealers and collectors – stocked the London show, the works being collected by those who could travel from their various locations across Europe.8

As a German-speaking art historian in London, with both a diplomatic passport and a father with connections reaching across Europe’s art world, it was not long before Hoffmann was identified as a potential asset to the Londonexhibition.9 In the course of the show’s planning she came into contact with the writer Herbert Read, who was chairman of the show’s organising committee and since 1933 the editor of the Burlington Magazine.10 In spring 1938 Read invited Hoffmann to interview for the position of his editorial secretary at the Burlington. The interview went well and Hoffmann began work at the magazine’s St James’s Street offices shortly thereafter.11

Although Hoffmann’s first impressions reveal her sense of detachment from the Burlington’s management – she recalled them later as ‘a number of elderly men’12 – she was certainly not the only foreigner in the office during the late 1930s. In Hoffmann’s article ‘The Magazine in Wartime’, published in the Burlington in 1986, the international atmosphere is vividly recreated.13 Hoffmann identifies Tancred Borenius as the magazine’s ‘éminence grise … Finnish by origin, he had spoken Swedish as a child [and] studied art history in Germany … to me he liked to speak German’. Regular contributors to the magazine during the war years included, as Hoffmann recalled in 1986, ‘German and Austrian refugees who had arrived in England … Gustav Glück, Ernst Gombrich, Otto Kurz, Otto Pächt, Hugo Buchthal [and] Nikolaus Pevsner’, as she continued, ‘during the war I sometimes thought we could put up a notice saying Hier spricht man deutsch’.

Although initially employed as an editorial secretary, within six months of her appointment Hoffmann was contributing her own writing to the Burlington Magazine, her earliest identifiable piece dating from September 1938.14 From these early publications, published from the time of her arrival up to her appointment as acting editor in 1944, certain characteristics of Hoffmann’s voice as a writer can be identified. From her very first piece, for example, the authority of her voice was clear, her wide knowledge and fearless criticism showcased. In her review of a new English translation of Louis Hourticq’s Encyclopaedia of Art, the list of works by each artist is described as ‘too arbitrary’, the volume’s illustrations ’curiously old-fashioned’, the bibliography characterised by ‘serious omissions’ – and numerous additions to the bibliography are then suggested.15 This thorough dissection is all the more confident, given that her effective superior at the magazine, Tancred Borenius, had assisted with the book’s translation.

It is also possible to identify an attempt at national neutrality in Hoffmann’s voice during this early period. While her literary and theoretical references do occasionally betray her German-language training, Hoffmann makes no reference to her background in Europe nor to her émigré status. In one 1939 piece considering Anglo-French relations, she goes as far as to refer to ‘English life as seen by our neighbours’ and ‘French mockeries at our costumes and habits’.16

But perhaps the most striking feature of these early articles is their broad and uncontroversial subject matters. There are pieces considering the art of the French Revolution, American portraiture, and the Spanish Royal Collection in the Prado, among others.17 During her first three years at the magazine Hoffmann considered German-speaking culture only once: a review of a volume published in Vienna that considered the discovery of Salzburg by German and Austrian artists during the nineteenth century.18

Why did Hoffmann not engage directly with contemporary German culture during these early years at the Burlington Magazine? After all, she had written on the topic of National Socialist cultural policy before 1938, for example, in a 1936 article for the Manchester Guardian, published anonymously and now contained within her family archive, considering the Nazi-instigated changes at Berlin’s Kronprinzenpalais and the German Folk Museum.19 Initially Britain’s official appeasement stance towards Germany no doubt played a role. But after the outbreak of war, it is unclear whether this was a result of a conscious attempt by Hoffmann to conceal her émigré background or of a wider policy of the Burlington Magazine not to address such controversial topics.

Despite the number of émigrés among their contributors, there was minimal consideration of German modernism within the magazine’s pages from January 1933 to April 1945. There was also no attempt to set out in detail the nature of National Socialist cultural policy and no coverage of the ‘degenerate art’ exhibition in Munich. An article on industrial art education in Germany published in March 1935 is perhaps indicative of the Burlington’s studied uncritical stance.20 Two years after the forced Nazi closure of the Bauhaus, the author writes, that in regard to Germany, ‘the date of the visit was unfortunate in that it was no longer possible to study the fundamental experiments in teaching of Professor Gropius at the Bauhaus … and that the many changes introduced by the National Socialist Government could not yet be judged by results’.

Whatever her motivation, Hoffmann followed this same path during her earliest years at the Burlington Magazine but slowly, beginning in 1941, a series of her reviews began dealing – albeit obliquely – with Europe’s current cultural and political situation.

In January 1941 Hoffmann reviewed Alexander Karolyi’s study Hungarian Pageant: Life, Customs and Art of the Hungarian Peasantry.21 By this point Czechoslovakia had been entirely subsumed within the Greater German Reich; this publication came less than three months after Hungary, too, had signed a tripartite alliance with Nazi Germany. In the opening lines Hoffmann, writing under the initials E.H., immediately characterised Karolyi’s book as ‘propaganda’ and took pains in her short review to point out that the traditions described in the volume belonged to much of Slavic Eastern Europe, including ‘what was Czechoslovakia’.

A year later, in January 1942, Hoffmann reviewed Ernst Kris’s and Ernst Gombrich’s research on caricature for the Burlington Magazine, again publishing under her initials rather than her full name.22 Gombrich had left Vienna for London in 1936, Kris following him after the Anschluss in March 1938. Their book was one produced in exile, their topic one deeply bound with National Socialist propaganda and cultural ideas. In her review, though again not referring directly to Nazism or indeed Kris’s and Gombrich’s émigré status, Hoffmann wrote, ‘this little volume is full of wise remarks on the topicality of art, on its social implications, on the part played by pictorial art in the propaganda of various periods, [and] on the closeness of horror and laughter’.23

It was not until 1943 that Hoffmann published for the first time on the topic of German modernism. In the January 1943 issue she reviewed, under her full name, the volume Kunsthistorische Studien, published in Basel by the German émigré art historian Fritz Schmalenbach.24 Although the book considered a range of styles – including Art Nouveau and Swiss Landscape painting – Hoffmann took Schmalenbach’s engagement with German expressionism as ‘the most interesting part’ of the volume, using it as a springboard for her own defence of a movement which had ‘long called for attention’.

In her review Hoffmann criticises Schmalenbach’s attempt to fit German expressionism within a developmental lineage following from the painters Gauguin, Seurat and Matisse. But she does not reject his methodology. Rather, she identifies Munch, van Gogh and ‘some masters of the Art Nouveau’ as expressionism’s precursors. For her, it was not Paris’s home-grown artists who influenced the expressionists but rather the city’s international ‘melting pot’. Hoffmann concluded her review with a call for readers to remember this link between German art and Paris, particularly ‘in view of the reserve with which Paris and, in consequence, London critics have always treated expressionism, as though it were a slightly barbaric, and therefore negligible art’. Although limited by the confines of the review, Hoffmann clearly wanted to ‘rehabilitate’ expressionism for her English-speaking audience. Admittedly, however, her target was not its treatment in Germany but rather the perceived indifference it had encountered in Paris and London.

This article was Hoffmann’s only direct engagement with German modernism during her first six years at the Burlington Magazine. Yet it seems that this uncontroversial approach, coupled with the knowledge, confidence and national neutrality of her voice, found favour with the magazine’s directors. After Herbert Read’s departure as editor in 1939, his replacement, A.C. Sewter, lasted little more than a year and in 1940 Tancred Borenius was appointed to the role. In the final years of the war, however, he suffered a nervous breakdown and withdrew entirely from the magazine.25 Hoffmann was appointed as his replacement in 1944, serving as acting editor during the final two years of the conflict.

As for millions of others, the war years brought both change and tragic upheaval for Hoffmann. In 1940 she married the Palestine-born journalist Eliezer Yapou, who worked during the war years for the American Overseas News Agency in London. Meanwhile, in Prague, Hoffmann’s retired parents had been arrested, deported to Theresienstadt in 1942, and murdered in the extermination camp at Auschwitz in 1944.

With the end of the war, the defeat of Nazism and her new-found professional seniority in London, there came an immediate and marked change in Hoffmann’s writing for the Burlington Magazine. The number of her articles dealing directly with German modernism and attempts to rehabilitate it exploded; during the period 1947 to 1951 it became her almost exclusive focus.

Her first project seems to have been to simply introduce as many as possible of the great names of German modernism to her readership. From 1945 she wrote articles considering Lyonel Feininger,26 Marc Chagall,27 Käthe Kollwitz,28 Franz Marc, Max Beckmann, Josef Scharl, and of course, Oskar Kokoschka.29 In each case, the artist was highly praised.30

Then, in 1949, prompted by an exhibition of expressionist art staged at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, Hoffmann is afforded no less than a five-page illustrated article to set out in summary, for the first time, her detailed defence of the movement. 31 Hoffmann’s review focuses on the genesis of expressionism and its key exponents: she begins by seeking its nineteenth-century precursors – Edvard Munch, James Ensor, Ferdinand Hodler and Henri Rousseau among others. She then moves on to detail expressionism’s players and their particular achievements – among others we see Kollwitz, Kirchner, Beckmann, Nolde, Modersohn Becker and Grosz named, and their works described.

As in her 1943 review of Schmalenbach, here too Hoffmann is keen to deal with the reasons for what she perceives as expressionism’s neglect in England, implicitly countering the idea that the works simply lack quality. She writes, that ‘the neglect of an artistic movement which refuses to accept Western aesthetic standards is, of course, due to the cool welcome it has always received in Paris and, consequently, in London’.32 It is for this reason, Hoffmann argues, that when, quote, ‘the whole school was…completely suppressed in the country of its origin’, this suppression was met by a degree of international ‘indifference’.33 But as she writes in 1949, Hoffmann seems optimistic about expressionism’s appreciation, within Germany at least. She refers to, ‘a wave of enthusiastic rediscovery … [a] general urge to fill the historical gap, to get to know the long-forbidden past, to catch up with the present’. And indeed Hoffmann goes on to review the publications constituting this rediscovery, for example her December 1950 review of Fritz Nemitz’s Munich-published Deutsche Malerei der Gegenwart.34

Having thoroughly introduced the key names of expressionism to her readership within her publications of the mid- to late-1940s, Hoffmann examined two other aspects of German artistic culture to her readership in her last two years in London. First, Germany’s pre-Nazism art historical tradition was considered via an August 1950 review of the letters of Jacob Burckhardt and Heinrich Wölfflin.35 Praising the volume, Hoffmann identified the two art historians as being of ‘unsurpassed eminence in our field’. She went on to link their ideas and the latest approaches to art history then finding increasing acceptance in the United States, identifying the great writers as the founders of ‘a “history of objects” … this, of course … the first step to a history of styles’.

In an article that must have been written around the time of her departure from London in 1951, Hoffmann attempted for the first time to set out in some detail the practicalities of National Socialist cultural policy in relation to the artists it targeted. In August 1951 Hoffmann reviewed Paul Ortwin Rave’s book Kunstdiktatur im Dritten Reich.36 Rave had worked in the Berlin National Gallery throughout the years of National Socialism in Germany and, from 1937, had served as its director; his book was among the first published accounts of art policy in Nazi Germany.37 Although characterising Rave’s book as ‘not precise enough to be of real value’ to historians, she praises it as an introduction to the Entartete Kunst campaign in Germany, an survey that she clearly feels her English-language readership still needed. The review began with a paragraph-long transposition of German events onto the British scene, albeit a somewhat censored version, but nonetheless quite unlike anything to have been seen on the pages of the Burlington Magazine before 1951:

To understand such conditions as those described in Dr Rave’s book one must have experienced them, or one must try to imagine them transferred to this country. Perhaps we may be allowed, in order to facilitate this task, to conjure up a picture, following on the heels of a revolution, in which Professor Munnings 38 becomes the all-powerful dictator in art matters; the directors of the National Museums are removed from their posts and sent to work, say, as librarians in provincial towns; the Institute of Contemporary Arts is closed, and such papers as The New Statesman and The Listener cease publication; Mr Herbert Read finds it impossible to get any of his articles published; a purge of the Tate Gallery is hastily prepared, all modern pictures disappear from Bond Street, and private collectors send their paintings abroad.

Following her departure from London in 1951 Hoffmann and her husband travelled widely. She sent contributions to the Burlington from New York in the 1950s, and from Paris in the 1970s. No doubt her physical absence from Britain played a role in her neglect as the narratives of émigré art historians were being constructed, as did the nature of her writings – mainly articles and reviews rather than books or catalogues, with the notable exception of her 1947 monograph on Kokoschka. And of course, the question of gender cannot be overlooked, though it did not prevent her from being chosen as acting editor of the Burlington Magazine. Could it be the case that the change in Hoffmann’s voice – and the topics she wanted to address – played a role in her lack of recognition after she left Britain?

Much writing on émigré art historians in Britain points to the fact that many turned to wide-ranging empirical studies as a means of avoiding accusations of ideological or personal bias in their writing (examples include Ernst Gombrich’s The Story of Art, and Nikolaus Pevsner’s Pelican History of Art and his various surveys of British and European architecture). Even looking to the other émigrés writing for the Burlington at this time – Gombrich again, but also Kurz, Pächt, Glück and Buchthal – a marked distance from the contemporary German situation is maintained even after 1945.

Hoffmann’s writings for the Burlington Magazine during her final seven years in London represent the absolute opposite of this approach. She offered impassioned writing on a single topic, the very topic which one would expect her, as a German-trained émigré from Nazism to be concerned with. Perhaps this was part of the reason why Hoffmann’s writing was not accepted into the art historical mainstream following her departure from London. By establishing herself as a vocal supporter of German modernism, it seems Hoffmann marginalised herself from the British establishment that she had worked so hard to infiltrate upon her arrival in London. Her writing reinforced her position as an outsider, a misfit in an art scene where the idea of the neutral ‘connoisseur’ remained, during the mid-twentieth century at least, the ideal.


This paper is adapted from a presentation given at the Tate research workshop on ‘Émigré Voices’ in the series ‘Art Writers in Britain’,1 November 2013. It owes thanks to Mrs Yonna Yapou-Kromholz.

Lucy Watling is a PhD candidate at the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London.


See also