Another Eye: Women Refugee Photographers in Britain in 1933 – 1969 unfolds the life of a group of successful female photographers: exploring both the collective influence of these artists while presenting their lives and works, we also travel back in time and get a slice of life during the second half of the 20th century. The exhibition had been launched in March to celebrate Women History Month, but the silver lining of the lockdown means latecomers can always join the virtual world and nosey around the online version – which is golden.
Refugee artists have long been a force for renewal in British art, influencing, teaching and contributing to innovative and experimental movements. Artists became refugees having been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or oppression. Between 1933 and the Second World Was around 400 artists came to Britain – amongst this group, there were also a group of 17 women that simply kicked ass.
The show is a great opportunity to indulge into the work of artists like Dorothy Bohm, Edith Tudor-Hart, Elsbeth Juda and Gerti Deutsch, and to discover new work by lesser-known practitioners like Elisabeth Chat, Laelia Goehr and Erika Koch. Women that were coming from a different perspective before moving from Europe to London, with a middle class background and during a very receptive time for women to be encouraged in cultural participation. Working as professional photographers in Germany or Austria they then reinvented themselves in England. Often put in charge of art studios while attending progressive art schools, influenced by movements like Bauhaus, these women were eager to change that conventional British society that still portrayed with the influence of the pre-raphaelites and the social status signalling as a mark of their photography.
With an eye keen on representing a post-war Britain through their perspective, they used portraiture, social documentary, reportage, fashion and advertising to depict a different type of ‘ordinary’ life. Art influenced their careers and lives: from setting up their own studios to produce portraits of the British cultural elite (like Dorothy Bohm and her Studio Alexander, or Latte Meitner Graf and her portaits of Jean Seberg and Marian Anderson) to being recruited as a low-level Soviet agent in London (as for the Edith Tudor-Hart), or to becoming fashion photographers for historical issues like Vogue, Tatler and Harper’s Bazaar (like Gerti Deutsch, Betti Mautner and Bertl Saschslel), each woman has a particular story that was the key in understanding how her style and subject was shaped during the years.
Exemplary, the work of Edith Tudor Hart and her exclusive strongly political point of view (which represented the left political side of many women refugees, escaping from a Red Vienna and Weimar Berlin) always focusing on lower classes, strongly influenced by the worker-photography movement of the early 20s.
From depicting those made homeless after the First World War to the post-war poverty of East London and its soldiers begging at London street markets, to finally use her photography to campaign for better housing; each of her subjects is a fight against inequality, war brutality and a cry for help for minorities, in strong contrast with the British press of the time and their inter-war photographers. On a different note, Dorothy Bohm’s work shows a more relaxed Britain, documenting everyday life and leisure with humour.
During the exhibition we get to know about the Wanburg Insitute and its importance as a desire for social redemption for the many refugee women; in particular, for Heidi Heimann and Erna Mandowsky, who worked in the photographic department as historians, and the Picture Post Magazine where Gerti Deutsch, Elisabeth Chat and Edith Tudor-Hart, contributed with ground-breaking reportage on social issues through topics like child-rearing and progressive education.
It would have been a pleasure to be at Four Corners Gallery to see the prints, but even if online it is a super inspiring exhibition that makes you want to dig deeper into the subject of migration and the contribution and impact refugees had in the past and we can still learn from nowadays.