Helga Michie, Ruth Rix, and Rebecca Swift

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HELGA MICHIE, RUTH RIX, AND REBECCA SWIFT: REFLECTIONS ON ART IN EXILE ACROSS THREE GENERATIONS THROUGH THE EXHIBITION STAIRCASE, 2000 RACHEL DICKSON EXTRACT FROM Presentation given at triennial conference of German and Austrian Research Centre. DATE 2021. SOURCE Published by IMLR, University of London. For further information see collection, exhibitions and research on Benuri.org.

Helga Michie, Ruth Rix and Rebecca Swift: Reflections on art in exile across three generations through the exhibition Staircase (2000) In this presentation, I will focus on an exhibition project entitled Staircase, created by three generations of Holocaust survivors, and first shown as part of the Brighton Jewish Film Festival in 2000. Comprising an installation and a separate text-based ‘play’, the work has at its core the motif of a communal staircase in a block of flats in Vienna, against which the narrative of the impending Holocaust unfolds in a non-linear way, through the eyes of a young girl and an older woman. Combining the creative input of three generations of artists from the same family Staircase revealed how the shadow of the Holocaust, experiences of exile, memory and loss, and complexities born out of conflicting identities, continue to reach and resonate across the decades. The three artists are: Helga Michie, born in Vienna in 1921, kindertransportee, whose graphic work developed in exile in postwar Britain; her daughter, expressionist painter, Ruth Rix, born in 1942 in Leamington Spa (as she says, in the very middle of England) to Austrian émigré parents; and Ruth’s English daughter, interdisciplinary artist, Rebecca Swift, born in 1963, who trained at Dartington College of Arts (Dartington itself has a particular émigré resonance – as a progressive educational establishment in Devon, it gave refuge to a number of émigré artists, dancers and architects, among others, who were fleeing the Nazi regime.) I will begin briefly with Helga’s biography, as it underpins and overarches every aspect of Staircase – not only was she mother and grandmother of two of the artists, her memories provided the inspiration for much of the written play text; she also physically voiced the recordings of the grandmother, within the play, photos of her formed part of the installation, and as a printmaker, her framed prints were shown in the gallery. Present in so many guises, Helga was the one for whom the tragedy of the Holocaust and the trauma of displacement was a reality, not just an anecdote. I was first made aware of Helga soon after her death in September 2018 via the bilingual monograph I am Beginning to Want What I am Helga Michie Works 1968-1985, which introduced both her life story and her largely hitherto unknown artwork, in a compendium, rich with literary contributions. This approach was particularly apt, given that Helga was the identical twin of Ilse Aichinger, one of Austria’s foremost postwar writers, known for her Holocaust novel Die Größere Hoffnung, published in 1948. The twins were born on 1 November 1921 to Berthe nee Kremer, a Jewish paediatrician and her Catholic teacher husband, Ludwig Aichinger (and baptised as Catholics). Following their parents’ divorce around 1926, the twins remained with Berta, 1

Helga left school with no career plans – art was certainly not considered at this time. Following the Anschluss, the family were only able to arrange the escape of one michlinge (half Jew) twin, thus Helga left on one of the last kindertransport on 4 July 1939 to join her Aunt Klara in London (where she was working as a domestic), while Ilse remained in Austria, where both she and Berta survived - though many close family members, including the twins maternal grandmother, Gisela, and two of her children, Erna and Felix, were deported to Minsk in 1942 and murdered. The twins remained physically separated until 1947 when Ilse was finally able to visit England. Of her own arrival in England, Helga recalled: ‘It was a very foreign country, and it wasn’t as if I had come as an au pair or a student or for a job. I came as a refugee […] refugees are never received as guests […] always with a little bit of condescension’. Fortunately, she was supported by the Austrian community in exile, and was swiftly absorbed into the dynamic cultural milieu of the refugee organisation, the Austrian Centre, and its youth section, Young Austria. Here she met her future husband, fellow émigré Walter Singer, whom she married in 1941. Their daughter Ruth was born the following year and although the couple divorced in 1948, with Walter returning to Austria, they remained in contact. Through the Austrian Centre Helga was introduced to notable émigrés, including sculptor Anna Mahler (to whom she sat), and the writer, Elias Canetti (who, with his wife Veza, would occasionally babysit Ruth). As with many émigré women, Helga earned money doing piece work, and as a waitress and a secretary – but with her striking looks, she also secured bit parts in several films, including The Third Man (1949), itself set in Vienna; she also translated German into English, including some of Ilse’s texts. Encouraged by Ilse to write poetry, as a creative outlet, Helga gradually embraced the visual arts, her first painted experiments appearing in the early 1960s, soon after her short-lived second marriage to former Bletchley codebreaker, Donald Michie ended in 1959. These bright, naïve works were followed by a sudden and dynamic outpouring of drawing, initially conceived as entertaining sketches for her grandchildren, Becky and Datlen, in Yorkshire in the 1960s. Her art further developed through her friendship with German émigré writer H G Adler and his artist wife, Bettina, and during the 1970s and 80s Helga studied printmaking at the City Lit and Morley College in London. Although her art remained largely private, she had several shows in the UK and Germany, mostly in the late 1980s, and the publishing of her monograph has inevitably led to a rekindling of interest in her work. In early 2020, Ben Uri was gifted a copy of one of her etchings, which was her first work to enter a UK public collection. 2

Background to Staircase In 2000, Jenny Sharpstone of the 4th Brighton Jewish Film Festival (now the Jewish Film Festival) discussed with Becky the possibility of commissioning an artwork, inspired by the kindertransport, and which would go beyond film and bring the festival into other venues: in this instance Brighton Independent Printmaking Workshop. Jenny was herself a sculptor/printer from London’s Jewish east end, who knew of Ruth’s work (her studio is in Brighton) and her artistic family. Becky thus brought Helga and Ruth to the project and Staircase began to evolve organically and collaboratively into its two constituent parts – the multi-media, multi-sensory 3D installation in the gallery, which combined lighting, sound, 2D artworks, printed extracts from the ‘play’, and old family photographs, all seemingly casually located within a temporary 3D shed-like structure, created by Ruth, with Helga’s prints hung on the gallery walls. All these disparate elements coalesced to chronicle the recollections of Helga (then 79) in a dramatic presentation that deliberately blurred the distinction between reality and fiction. Staircase was brought to life again a year later as a one-off ‘play’ performed at the Undercroft at London’s Roundhouse in Chalk Farm, adapted and distilled specifically for the space; without the 3D structure, photographs, artworks and text fragments were projected onto the walls as a backdrop for the spoken word performance. Although creativity was the shared signifier between grandmother, mother and daughter, the flyer for the Brighton exhibition did not explicitly acknowledge that the three main artists were in fact three generations of one family. This was further obfuscated by three very different surnames: Michie, Rix, Swift – a factor that often complicates narratives of female emigres, who can easily ‘disappear’ from history with a name change, or conversely, can seem to be confusingly multiplied – there are 3 Helgas: Helga Aichinger, Helga Singer, Helga Michie. Becky became the ‘ringmaster’ for Staircase: its catalyst, facilitator, curator, director, writer for the initial pitch, funding bid, and the ‘play’ itself, creating the central concept which took the staircase as its leitmotiv, and who then discovered, to her surprise, that both her mother and grandmother had explored the same imagery in their respective works: stairs were a potent and recurring motif in Helga’s prints, while Ruth used the motif in an important painting from 2000, inspired by glimpsing an open stairwell in a ruined yeshiva, in an old Tel Aviv neighbourhood, combined with childhood memories of playing in the stairwell of a London boarding house, and visiting the family flat in a devasted Vienna in 1948. Becky has reflected on the strong bonds and experiences shared between three generations of women who all grew up ‘with often absent or part-present fathers’, and which generally made


collaboration an easier prospect: ‘The intergenerational aspect is an interesting question. Maybe it does exist in other families but takes other, sometimes less tangible, forms. What is interesting in our family is that everyone's an artist, across all the generations. (Too many artists in one family! […] we all tuned into the same field, in the way that artists are often sensitive to things just below the surface.’ Granddaughter and grandmother had a further degree of empathy and communication, perhaps helped by the fact that they were separated by a generation – the mother and daughter relationship, in contrast was perhaps too close, marked by a period of estrangement. Becky and Helga ‘corresponded throughout, bouncing off each other all the time’. Helga was a natural drama queen (as befits someone who was in The Third Man); an amazing storyteller who ‘loved the intimacy of sharing stories together over tea’ and who ‘would create on the hoof […] through conversation, very spontaneously […] Like any actress, she was a natural when it came to being the focus of attention.’ And she would have performed, but she was in a wheelchair by then. Becky’s recordings of her voice filled the gallery instead, her distinct, rich continental tones were commanding, but also at times hesitant – not through ignorance but because of a sophisticated tuning into subtleties of language (Helga was, after all, a translator) – although English was her second language, she had an exact command of its nuanced vocabulary. Finally, twelve of her prints, selected by Ruth were displayed in the gallery. Although rooted in lived experiences across three generations, Staircase not only hid the familial links of its creators, but also obscured the reality of its narrative. The cast of characters in the play were presented as fictional architypes – despite being carefully drawn from life and presenting real aspects of Helga, Ruth and Becky. Helga WAS the grandmother voicing her own stories – an actual visit to the family’s flat by Josef Mengele (whom we know from later terrible events, had a research interest in twins), the arrival of a red cross letter with awful news, the deportation of an aunt – without any indication that she was presenting her personal history – indeed, the hallmark of the play is its fragmented and obscure nature, breaking down barriers between what is real and what is not. Ruth’s role in Staircase was as artist/constructor – creating the hessian covered structure at the heart of the installation which contained her oil, Staircase, a collage of the same name, which combined images of the Tel Avi stairwell and a young Becky, and a sketch. Oils are Ruth’s preferred medium, though she often draws, and her work is broadly influenced by Central European culture. She was aware from early on that she was the child of a Holocaust survivor, but this does not often manifest itself explicitly in her work. However, Ruth’s 4

creativity and independence were very much bound up with her formative experiences – her early unsettled homelife and her position in the world, oscillating between England and Austria. As a young child in kindergarten, she attended Anna Freud’s nursery and a kindergarten in Oxford, where she recalls being given coloured pencils to occupy herself after an accident. She was then sent briefly to a very English boarding school for eighteen months, on the proceeds of Helga’s part in the Third Man. Ruth also recalls her mother only speaking to her in English: thus Helga, with her Austrian history and her link to Ilse, provided a ‘doorway’ into Austria, and Ruth, conversely, for her mother, one to Englishness, though ‘we both strayed constantly into each other’s worlds’. Was she Austrian or British (or both)? As she says with a smile, she ‘had a foot in both camps, and a twin in both countries!’ Ruth carries this English/Austrian duality with her and in her work, while the notion of fracture often characterises her art Ruth studied art in London from 1956-63, variously at Byam Shaw; St Martins; Chelsea; Central School, where she was influenced by émigré theatre designer, Ralph Koltai; and at Leeds Polytechnic from ’68-’71, where Willy Tirr, a refugee from Berlin was an important tutor, leading her to think more about her Jewishness. ‘When I was a child, it felt dangerous to let people know I was Jewish, and my mother also tended to hide it, depending on who she was with. My father was totally Jewish, and I became more aware during my time in Vienna.’ Ruth moved to Vienna in the early 1970s for two years to study with sculptor Fritz Wotruba, - a painter sent to sculpture school – once again, straying into two worlds. Helga knew Wotruba through Canetti and Anna Mahler. Ruth recalls: ‘the twins talked a lot about their childhood Vienna seemed the natural place to go and study. My father and his second family lived there, and I’d only rediscovered them a few years before.’ Becky was at school in Vienna while Ruth was working with Wotruba, kindling her own Austrian connection, and the third generation remain strongly drawn to the city. Vienna thus became the powerful locus which linked all three artists (and is at the core of Staircase) - by dint of family history and the continuing lure of its culture – a city of sensual art, and the birthplace of psychoanalysis (Helga had met Jungian psychoanalyst, Alfred Adler, through Berta; she had also seen Freud in his Hampstead back garden from her Red Cross bedsit on Fitzjohns Avenue). The stairways of Vienna form the central images of Staircase, both written and visual, sometimes sharply focussed, sometimes obscured. They are winding trajectories which bind together memories held by each of the three women, functioning as a stage in which characters enact brief scenes in public, before disappearing behind closed doors. Becky vividly recalls 5

their distinctive sound and smell, the feel of the bannisters and the look of the decorative ironwork, even in the most ordinary flats. For both, the motif has very real resonance: childhood memories of sitting on stairs, witnesses to coming and goings in a shared space – refugees in London often occupied single rooms in tall, shared houses. Ruth specifically remembers Klara’s bedsit at 128 Goldhurst Terrace, West Hampstead, which she herself shared for a period while at school – she recalls playing on the stairs. (Becky now, with perfect circularity, lives round the corner). More recently, these memories were stirred in Ruth by the image of the open staircase in Tel Aviv. For Becky, staircases are ‘betwixt and between spaces, where you glimpse the lives of other people. […] without them knowing […] You are a witness and observer. […] a marginal space, a liminal space, as well as the nexus where everything interconnects – flat doors open or remain shut and withhold secrets and people. Staircases are on the threshold between public and private and you are not sure which is which sometimes – but there is a freedom in this.’ As a child Becky also sensed that stairs were ‘full of something unspoken […] that something was supressed, both in the history of the city and within myself and my family’. Klara is also represented in Staircase in photographic fragments – particularly an image of her sitting with young Becky in a London park (evoking memories of occasions many years before, when Berta and Ilse sat on a bench at the Vienna Jewish cemetery, at the grave of Grandfather Jacob, when Nazi legislation prevented Jews from visiting the Vienna woods). Becky describes Klara as another strong woman, a gifted linguist and musician, who was the adored family photographer – and who provided yet another link between England and Austria. ‘a big inspiration and so you could say four generations informed the work […] If I were to re-write it, she would feature more - and it's in keeping with the fact I now live near where she used to live. Always there, steady, giving sensible advice.’ Becky further recalls that Klara’s tiny bedsit was a repository for the last family things; bits of crochet and china were displayed and a few new clothes for Gisela hung in the wardrobe. In expectation that the family would eventually be together again, Klara made a warm, continental heim, with just a few objects which became powerful repositories of memories and family stories. Ruth, as the family archivist, now retains these objects and has the responsibility that goes hand in hand with guardianship. Becky recognises how hard it is for her mother to throw away family photos and yet, how she must, ‘as it’s clogging up the house!’ That somehow, she is 'holding onto people through the photos.' ‘The family left with little or didn't have much […] and so it’s even harder to let go’. Becky acknowledges that Ruth looks after things 6

carefully – she is a literal caretaker, while Helga was the opposite – ‘she didn’t take care of things – she had the energy of distraction,’ which led to a role reversal – the daughter became the mother. Klara also fulfilled a maternal role, perhaps in a way that Helga could not. Small rituals, such as afternoon tea assumed an importance and a source of stability for the family, in contrast to the feeling of rootlessness which Helga projected, as she said: p314 ‘my entire life has stayed makeshift. I never wanted to do anything for the longterm […] because your longterm is going to end up destroyed’. There is a powerful resonance between Helga’s observation and the shifting transitory nature of Staircase, so I would like to close with a comment on its future: although two decades old, it still retains the power to be relevant today, located somewhere between a deeply ingrained personal history and a half-remembered dark continental fable. Envisaged not as a static, fixed piece, Becky clearly sees its potential for reinvention: ‘if we were to do it again, I would want to re-write and evolve […] The piece emerged at a particular time in 2000 […] Since then, much has changed in the world, and as a family we have all grown - a new generation has been born and my grandmother and her sister have died, whilst the work of their Auntie Erna (my great Great Aunt (a pianist)) has become known and celebrated in Vienna. So, if we were to resurrect aspects of Staircase […], it would probably need to be re-configured to speak to who we are today in today’s world’. Thus Staircase, the unique creation of three generations of survivors, was and can still be a potent and distinctive vehicle to convey the narrative of the Holocaust now and into the future.


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