Helga Michie: ‘A little World in Art’ – An investigation into her creative practice 1963-89

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EXTRACT FROM Zwischen Abschied und Ankunft / Between Departure and Arrival: Ilse Aichinger / Helga Michie; Edited by Geoff Wilkes. DATE Due for publication late 2021. SOURCE Published by Würzburg: Kinigshausen & Neumann. For further information see collection, exhibitions and research on Benuri.org.

Helga Michie: “A little World in Art” 1 An Investigation into her creative practice 1963-89 Rachel Dickson I. Introduction to Helga’s early artwork This text stands slightly apart from a number of others in this volume, as it focusses, firstly, wholly on Helga; and secondly, because this focus rests primarily with a visual rather than literary context. When I was originally invited, in spring 2019, to present on Helga’s art at the conference (as curator at Ben Uri Gallery and Museum in London, which has its own focus on émigré artists in Britain from 1900), I knew virtually nothing about Helga, save that she was an Austrian émigré and that in 2018, months before her death, her graphic art had been elegantly and succinctly explored in a German/English publication, I am Beginning to Want What I am Helga Michie Works 1968-1985 (Ivanovic). Edited by Christine Ivanovic, the rich compendium comprises texts by distinguished literary and art historical contributors, including Christine Nagel, Rüdiger Görner, Jeremy Adler, and Antonia Hoerschelmann (from the Albertina, Vienna), divided by almost 300 colour and monochrome reproductions of Helga’s prolific oeuvre on paper. Arranged by technique rather than in chronological order, these represent an extraordinary visual archive, preserved by Helga’s artist daughter, Ruth Rix, and her husband, and the publication, as a whole, provides an invaluable introduction both to Helga’s biography and to her previously largely unknown mid-life artistic practice. Focussing primarily on drawing and printmaking, it highlights the iconography of trauma, loss, exile and identity, which courses through Helga’s artwork (and which I now understand is also the hallmark of her sister’s literary output), analysing recurring themes and motifs, such as the house/home; staircases; the figure in crowds, families or alone; forests, mountains and a veritable menagerie of animals and birds, alongside Helga’s fondness for repeated mark-making, reminiscent of automatic writing so beloved of the Surrealists. It also explores her art through the prism of twin-ship – Helga representing both the binary and the mirror image of Ilse – the one who stays versus the one who leaves; the one who represents England


Ivanovic, 7


and the English language versus the one who represents Austria and the German language; the one who writes versus the one who draws – yet, of course, these distinctions remain much more complex and fluid – like Helga’s images, which range across a spectrum from representation to almost, but not quite, total abstraction; from the blurred, organic and ambiguous to the simple, defined and geometric. Following the Anschluss and the imposition of antisemitic legislation, the twins, as daughters of a Catholic father and a Jewish mother, were both categorised as “mischling” (half -Jew) but only one was provided with the means to escape, thus Helga – the second born – was sent to her aunt Klara (“Auntie”) in London in July 1939 on a Kindertransport. The twins then remained physically separated until 1947 when Ilse was finally able to visit England. In the meantime Helga – aged only 20 – married fellow Austrian émigré Walter Singer in 1941, whom she had met at the refugee organisation, the Austrian Centre, in Paddington (forerunner of the Austrian Cultural Forum), with its youth section, Young Austria, located nearby in Maida Vale (Bearman et al) – both venues close to where Helga’s was living in west London. Through the Austrian Centre, Helga was introduced to various émigré artists and writers, including the sculptor Anna Mahler (1904-1988, to whom she sat for a portrait head), the poet Erich Fried (1921-1988, who took baths in the Singers’ flat), the painter Erich Deutsch (19232000; later, Eric Doitch, who became a close friend), and the writer Elias Canetti (1905-1994) who, with his wife Veza, would occasionally mind Ruth, Helga’s only child, born in 1942. As with many émigré women, Helga first earned money doing piece work, and as a waitress and a secretary – options that were less demeaning than domestic service, often the only way a refugee woman, regardless of her circumstance, could obtain a visa for the UK. Helga, Aunty and Ilse (when in London) all worked briefly for Bimini, the glass button and decorative glassware business re-established in exile by Austrian émigré Fritz Lampl in 1938. Renamed Orplid in 1943, it was initially located in Kensington Church Street, close to Helga’s first flat. As the ceramicist, Emmanuel Cooper notes in his biography of émigré potter Lucie Rie, who also worked for Bimini: “because the pressing was unskilled, it provided employment for many friends from Vienna”, including, perhaps surprisingly, Erich Fried. (Cooper, pp). From 1946 Helga, Walter and Ruth lived in a tiny flat in Westbourne Court, Paddington. Helga, with her striking good looks, had managed to obtain bit parts in a couple of films, including The Third 2

Man (1949), before working as a translator from German to English, which also involved translating some of Ilse’s texts. Encouraged by her twin, who was now receiving critical success as a writer in Austria, to achieve something creative of her own, Helga gradually turned to a visual outlet. Her first painted experiments appeared in the early 1960s, soon after the ending of her short-lived second marriage in 1959 (after less than a year) to former Bletchley code breaker, Donald Michie. In his preface (entitled “Helga’s Kingdom”) to I am Beginning to Want What I am, Jeremy Adler, academic and poet (and son of émigrés, H. G Adler, German-language poet, scholar and Holocaust survivor, and his artist wife, Bettina), describes Helga’s graphic images as “grown-up stories”; each “a little world in art”, which has felt “the tremors of the century”. (Ivanovic, 7). Helga was encouraged with her art through her friendship with the Adlers, which developed after she and Ruth moved to Queensborough Terrace. Their émigré circle included artists such as Marie-Louise von Motescizky and Yehuda Bacon, both known to Helga, while Bettina specifically supported her creativity over many years. Of 37 drawings in a sketchbook dated 1982-85, 25 are inscribed with the location “Adlers”2; some are identified as having been created while Helga listened to music - specifically Schönberg - on occasion. Bettina herself had returned to sculpting in the early 1960s, after a period as a commercial artist. She had made woodcuts when first in exile in Wales and remained a committed printmaker for more than fifty years. Adler’s reference to storytelling evokes powerful associations with fairy tales, folklore and childhood, and Helga’s earliest experiments embrace the unsophisticated, cheapest and most throwaway tools of both the young and the untutored – the fibre tip, ballpoint pen (which she used until the early 1970s) and poster paint. Later in her artistic journey, within an art school context and with the guidance of a tutor, Helga tackled various sophisticated printmaking methods which required a press, such as lithography, collography and etching; all of which demand discipline, patience and an understanding of complex techniques.


Email from Hugh Rix dated 4 December 2019.


Correspondence with Ruth and Hugh Rix in 2019 also revealed a tranche of hitherto unpublished paintings on paper, perhaps the earliest examples of Helga’s visual art, dating from the early 1960s – predating images in Ivanovic by some five years.3 Characterised by areas of bold, flat poster colour, and a simplicity of composition, these works remain rooted in the real world. Autobiographical, relatively ambitious in scale, they provide a striking contrast to the generally smallscale, later prints which were often barely larger than a hand-span. These visual memories are infused with a warmth and humour. These paintings were followed by a sudden and dynamic outpouring of drawing – doodling elevated to a higher level – initially conceived as entertaining sketches for her grandchildren (Ruth’s children) in Yorkshire in the late 1960s. Recurring motifs in this energetic visual world include a plethora of figures wearing hats. Hugh Rix suggests that Helga seems to have found hats particularly amusing.4 When Ruth was a child, she drew stick men with tall top hats which made Helga laugh. Perhaps this is an example of the daughter’s art influencing the mother, of creativity reaching backwards across a generation. Another possible influence (and potent visual memory) was Helga’s aunt Erna Kremer (1896 -1942) who liked to dress up and do comic turns. A family photograph from 1935 shows her in a Maharajah’s costume, which had the twins in fits of laughter. Hats certainly feature in many of Helga’s drawings, while her poem “Redeemer”, published in Concord in English and German, comically describes how: “A straw-hat sat on him/though at an angle that could not have helped.” (Michie, 23).

II. Helga’s Library of Artists Much of the focus in Ivanovic’s volume is the interpretation of Helga’s images, through an understanding of key life events and familial relationships. However, there is little discussion of those artists who may have influenced or interested her. Helga’s own archive of ephemera and her library – what remained at her death – therefore, provide a fascinating posthumous coda and an insight into

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Emails from Ruth Rix dated 5 December 2019. Email from Hugh Rix dated 4 December 2019.


those whom she admired and who may have inspired her – including several women -– an admiration often strengthened by personal connections. She seems to have had an affinity with those who themselves flourished in creative spaces shared between – and at the confluence of – text and image – many themselves émigrés. One of the earliest art-related items in Helga’s library was Points of View, a slim, yellow-covered catalogue from a 1971 exhibition of paintings and drawings by Eric Doitch, his wife Mary Fitzpayne, and Michael Markham, held at the South London Art Gallery. Fifty years after its publication, it was still accompanied by an affectionate note in German from Doitch, suggesting it may be of interest to mother and daughter, endorsing the fact that both women could be considered as proper artists.5 Helga had known Doitch since her early years at the Austrian Centre. Helga also retained an elegant catalogue and illustrated invitation to the opening of an exhibition of prints and drawings by Gisele CelanLestrange at the Viennese Galerie Auf der Stubenbastei in May 1976, which also announced a separate reading of Paul Celan’s poems in the gallery. The technique, simplicity and strength of the organic forms in Gisele’s etchings find a particular resonance in Helga’s own printed oeuvre. In a case of interconnectedness, so common within exile narratives, one of Helga’s close friends in London was the émigré poet Michael Hamburger (1924-2007) known for his translations of Paul Celan’s poems from German to English from 1970s onwards. Thirty-Two Poems, newly translated by Michael Hamburger, published in a limited edition by Embers Handpress, Norwich in 1985, was accompanied by an etching by Giselle (Hamburger), her delicate, monochrome imagery hovering somewhere between land/seascape, pattern making and abstraction. Trained at the Julian Academy in Paris from 1945-49, Giselle (1927-1991) worked at noted printmaking ateliers in the city. Marrying Celan (1920-70) in 1952, she became known for her engravings and illustrations to poetry, particularly that of her husband. Celan né Antschel was born in Romania to a German-speaking Jewish family; his surname was later spelled Ancel and he adopted the anagram Celan as a nom de plume. Although he moved to France and was much influenced by French surrealism, Celan continued to write in German, and as a German-


Estate of Helga Michie.


speaking Jewish survivor in France, had a complex relationship with his identity and first language – which of course resonates deeply with Helga’s own experiences. Helga’s library also contained an exhibition catalogue for the Swiss artist Petra Petitpierre (1905-59, born Freda Kessinger) from Galerie Alvensleben, Munich, c. 1978. Semi-abstract painter and printmaker, former Bauhaus pupil and master student under Paul Klee, it highlights her sensitive, largely monochrome printmaking and drawing from the 1920s-30s – often with a surreal bent; despite the distance of a half century there is an evident affinity, particularly with the palette and forms within Helga’s later works. Helga also retained a poster for Natalie d’Arbeloff’s exhibition of book art, held at Museum Meermanno – Huis van het Boek in The Hague in 1992. d’Arbeloff (born 1929) held a significant position in Helga’s later artistic life. Ruth recalls her mother taking printmaking classes almost daily, both at Morley College and at the City Lit, where d’Arbeloff was her printmaking tutor in late 1980s. D’arbeloff is herself of émigré heritage, born in France, brought up in south America, with Russian Jewish grandparents. Her statement that “since the age of about six, I was on the move […] I have never felt that I had a fixed home, even though I have lived in England since 1963” (d’Arbeloff) resonates powerfully with Helga’s own experiences. An experimental and inspirational printmaker, she was, like many tutors at the City Lit (and still is) a practicing artist with a creative life beyond its confines, as a painter, sculptor, cartoonist, graphic novel and book artist, for whom text is often integral to the work. Her classes attracted students “from council houses to professors”6 across generations and across every strata of society. She recalled Helga “as so fully alive”, flourishing in an environment which promoted creative freedom – there was no prescriptive syllabus – and they became close friends until the end of Helga’s life. Helga enjoyed the wonderful “unexpectedness” of printmaking – the moment of surprise before the print exists on paper; the range of possibilities explored with and without a press – through stencils, collage, cut out shapes and accidental marks. Helga also enjoyed the potential of the viscosity print, a technique developed by Stanley Hayter at


Interview with Natalie d’Arbeloff, December 2019.


Atelier 17 in Paris, and taught by d’Arbeloff, in which one plate can be used to print several colours at once. d’Arbeloff further recalled that “she loved experimenting but hated cleaning up!”7 Helga’s classmate at City Lit in the 1980s, Gloria Pilkington became a close and lasting friend. Printmaker and photographer, she took a beautiful set of contact print portraits of Helga which remain in her possession. Her joining the printing class was unplanned – she was recruited by d’Arbeloff when she only meant to accompany her daughter to enrol. She recalled that conversations with Helga never dwelt on the past and that they occasionally visited exhibitions together – including one at the Austrian Cultural Forum. At this point Helga had pretty much rejected overtly representational work.

III. Helga’s public exhibitions Though the hidden-ness of Helga’s art is sometimes somewhat mythologised, between the first private experiments of the 1960s and the public accomplishment of Concord forty years later, she did, in fact exhibit her artwork in England and abroad, on several occasions. In 1971, when Ruth was studying at Leeds Polytechnic, Helga showed drawings and associated dyeline prints at the Leeds Playhouse, which garnered a review in the Yorkshire Post. More than a decade later, when her printmaking was particularly prolific, she then participated in several exhibitions – a solo show at Galerie Denk in Munich in 1986, to which Ilse contributed a short text; in 1988, in a group show at the Ingrid Barron Gallery in Hampstead, and a two person show with English printmaker Derek Southall (1930-2011) at Galerie Artica, Cuxhaven, in northern Germany. Founded in 1967 by the German artist and gallerist, Werner Möller, Galerie Artica became a venue for interchange between international artists – painters, printmakers, ceramists, glass artists, poets and musicians, and its lively programme included concerts and readings. The exhibition poster from 1988, illustrated with one of Helga’s etchings, announces a reading by Michael Hamburger. Helga sold several prints from the show. At this time, she also gave works to friends such as Austrian émigré, Rabbi Albert Friedlander and his German wife, of the Westminster synagogue, who had moved to London in the 1960s and hosted gatherings at home for




intellectuals, politicians, writers and artists. Their daughter, Michal, suggests that Helga was introduced to her parents via Wolfgang and Jutta Fischer of the renowned Viennese gallery, Fischer Fine Art and that two small etchings were brought as gifts when Helga came to dinner on different occasions.8 With apt circularity, in early 2020, Michal offered an etching by Helga from her late parents collection, to Ben Uri’s permanent collection; the gift represents the first accession of Helga’s work into a public collection. Helga exhibited this image widely, at Galerie Denk, Ingrid Barron and Galerie Artica.9 Soon after these moments of public exposure, however, external factors had a major impact on Helga’s printmaking, which largely ceased after 1989. d’Arbeloff described a destabilising incident when her handbag was stolen in college – an act of violation which tipped Helga off balance. Her anxiety was further compounded by changes in art school teaching under the Thatcher government, which led to d’Arbeloff unexpectedly giving up her classes. Helga continued briefly under Frank Connelly, with whom she had studied at Morley College, another renowned centre for adult education (Connelly taught printmaking there from 1980 ‐2004). A respected master-printer, he was described in 2015 by a colleague as “technical genius”. After a significant hiatus, however, Helga’s 85th birthday in 2006 saw the culmination – and a perfect fusion – of her creative impulses, with the publication of Concord by Korrespondenzen, in which her prints were partnered with text – her own nine poems (in English and German) bookended by Ilse’s prose in German – symbolising both the twins’ interconnectedness, and the interconnectedness of text and image within Helga’s creative world.


Some observations on related artists in the Ben Uri Permanent Collection.

Having briefly examined some of Helga’s themes, techniques and influences, this chapter ends with a post-script reflecting my own immediate thoughts on first seeing her representational work in 2018, before I was aware of any specific theoretical or biographical context. I was instantly reminded of the oeuvre of several naïve / self-taught Jewish artists whose work is represented in the Ben Uri Collection

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Email from Michal Friedlander, 13 January 2019. Galerie Artica lists Headland as catalogue #26, edition 6/20.


and whose lives were also disrupted by the Nazi regime or who perished in the Holocaust. These artists did not necessarily know each other or their work – but there are striking commonalities of style, content and mode of enquiry – though the levels of sophistication are not at all the same. Jack Bilbo (German born, né Hugo Baruch, 1907-1967) was a self-taught artist and impresario of Onchan internment camp on the Isle of Man, where he organised exhibitions in late 1940 before opening his progressive Modern Art Gallery in central London after his release in 1941, which supported unconventional émigré artists, including Kurt Schwitters. Bilbo’s own art was characterised by use of the ballpoint; by rapid, repeated mark making; dark humour, fantastical landscapes and imaginary figures and beasts, where motifs of peaks, paths, and dark forests are a constant. Selected works can be seen in Bilbo’s own extraordinary outsize autobiography Jack Bilbo on Jack Bilbo (Bilbo), self-published in 1948; and via the galleries, England and Co, and David Zwirner in London. Most recently, Bilbo’s reputation has had an unexpected resurgence, with im Atelier Liebermann: Daniel Richter/Jack Bilbo, an exhibition and catalogue from 2017 in which the German contemporary painter, Daniel Richter (b. 1962), pays tribute to Bilbo and his synthesis of art and life. Furthermore, the humble ballpoint pen has been endorsed as a tool for making “high art”, with the publication of Trent Morse’s Ballpoint Art. (Morse, 2016.) Dora Holzhandler (1928-2015, Parisian born, of Polish Jewish heritage, who took classes at L’Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris and at the short-lived Anglo-French Art Centre in St John’s Wood, was inspired by the same west London park-scapes that form the backdrop to much of Helga’s London life (and which were enjoyed during the walking tour accompanying the conference). Holzhandler lived in Notting Hill, moments away from Helga. Although her work is altogether sweeter – her entire oeuvre, almost without exception, rejects images of suffering and darkness – we nevertheless see similar motifs of parks, lawns, children, perambulators, stick-figures and small dogs. Chana Kowalska (1899-1942), a Polish-born artist and resistance fighter, perished in Auschwitz. Her images of the shtetls of her childhood explore the moment when modernity encroaches upon a traditional way of life, while a brilliant palette suggests a vivid imagination and a spirit of optimism. All three artists – as with Helga – play with perspective, dissecting the picture plane with diagonals or 9

sinuous curves, or tip up the picture plane towards the viewer. All three deal with shared ideas of identity, loss, family and home.

Helga’s library also held a copy of the important 1985 Royal Academy publication: 20th Century German Art (Joachimides) along with a typescript version of one of the essays, “The post-war period”, by Siegfried Gohr, then director of the Kunsthalle, Cologne, which Helga translated into English for the book – she is listed in the Acknowledgments. In the text Gohr asserts that despite the prevalence of official sanctioned art by the Nazi regime, there continued “a certain lyricism in both abstraction and figuration” – and perhaps this is where we can locate Helga’s work, as an individual voice, ultimately rising above the shadow cast by persecution, separation and loss.


Works cited: Bearman, Marietta/Charmian Brinson/Richard Dove/Anthony Grenville/Jennifer Taylor. Out of Austria: The Austrian Centre in London in World War II. London/New York: Tauris Academic Studies, 2008. Bilbo, Jack. Jack Bilbo on Jack Bilbo. London: The Modern Art Gallery. 1948. Cooper, Emmanuel. Lucie Rie Modernist Potter. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012. d’Arbeloff, Natalie. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/jan/03/there-are-no-rules-inage-confessions-of-an-almost-90-year-old. 9 April 2020. Hamburger, Michael (Translator); Celan-Lestrange, Gisele (Illustrator). Thirty-Two Poems by Paul Celan; Newly Translated by Michael Hamburger. Norwich: Embers Handpress, 1985. Ivanovic, Christine (ed.). “I am Beginning to Want What I am” Helga Michie Werke/Works 1968-85. Vienna: Schlebrügge.Editor, 2018. Decker, Pascal/Wulf Herzogenrath/Peter-Klaus Schuster. im Atelier Liebermann: Daniel Richter/Jack Bilbo: Berlin: Walther König, 2017. Joachimides, Christos (ed.). German Art in the Twentieth Century. London: Prestel, 1985. Michie, Helga. Concord. Vienna: Edition Korrespondenzen, 2006. Morse, Trent. Ballpoint Art 2016 Petra Petitpierre, 1905-59 Arbeiten auf Papier. Munich: Galerie Alvensleben, 1978. Points of View: Drawings by Eric Doitch, Mary Fitzpayne, Michael Markham, South London Art Gallery, 1971.