Lena Nemes: On why?

Lena Nemes on her father, the artist Endre Nemes.

Endre Nemes

So many works by my father. What to do? Quite a few of them never shown to the public before. Some rescued from Prague. Oeuvres that were hidden during WW II.
Those who hid these pictures risked their lives for them.
As I know about it I feel an obligation to honour their courage.

I was born on the 26th of June. Midsummer Eve was on the 25th that year. There is a painting with my birth date as the title, materializing that moment in time. I recognise myself in many of my father's works. The way I see it, it is my blood in picture. Yet, I am looking at it. I am analysing it, contemplating it.
And that state of the mind is essential within the artistic process. My father spoke about artistic intelligence. It is a concept which I have never encountered within post-structuralist theory. What artistic intelligence means is that one has the ability and the trained skill to use one's mind and experience during the process of creation. My father had the artistic ability to tap into a greater consciousness while maintaining his own essence and questioning mind. He was capable of determining himself whether a picture worked or not, and was not dependent on other's viewpoints during work. I remember him saying that one has to be able to judge the work by oneself as it might be that one stands alone.

These images that will unfold in this catalogue befell me, please read: the responsibility for them befell me. They were not made for me, they were made for the world, I have known this since I was a child.
I grew up in a relatively calm Stockholm with many empty streets, few cars and children playing outdoors.
Yes, of course I heard through an open window a boy I knew being hit again, but the overall picture compared with today was calmer. One could see the King going for a walk. The house's front doors were open.
Each Sunday my parents and I went to as many galleries as possible. Endre, as I called him, used to look minutely at all the works. From a distance and at close range. He said: "One has to see."
After a long while my mother would go buy a newspaper and a chocolate bar, that I was hoping she would share with me. I got a piece or two, waiting in the car with her. And then I was sent to go in and try to get Endre out of the gallery. I would stand there pulling the hem of his coat for ages, trying to get his attention. There was so much to talk about and he knew everybody. Children did not interrupt adults.

We never went on holidays, but we did go abroad together as a family. The trips were practically always due to Endre's exhibitions in various countries. There was a purpose with the trips.
On one occasion we went to London. I was around five years old at the time. Endre wanted to meet with Jacob Bornfriend, his best friend.
One of the days when Jacob had to see his doctor, Endre, my mother Britten and I went to the National Gallery. We all wanted to see different things. I wanted to see the costumes from the 17th and 18th centuries. My father, Uccello and Turner in particular. So we took one floor each. When I was approaching the end of my tour I saw a guard with a lot of buttons on his coat. To me he looked like a salamander. And he had spotted me. I knew he would see me as nothing but a child and I did not speak English. I tried to evade him by making a round towards the walls, but he came closer and closer, until finally he of course caught me, – and carried me straight down to the reception. I was extremely upset. Someone found my parents. They rushed towards the reception and explained that I was quite used to it. The guard did not believe that something like that could be, – a child looking at art on her own.
Sometimes, I would sit in Endre's studio, in an arm chair with my crochet. He worked, so did I, we had lunch. White bread, with Philadelphia or Boursin cheese, crisp green peppers. He had coffee, I some black currant lemonade, that had shifted colour to after best before date from a porcelain cup with small roses on it. A few comments on what he was doing. He asked me what I thought. At one point I said, I did not think it ready. He said he understood why I asked that but continued that some areas should be, not so detailed.

I asked: "But, how do you know when it is ready?" His reply was that one has to know within when to stop.

There was a focused stillness in the atelier. After Endre had passed away, I could feel his presence there, – strongly.

In many of my father's works also, I have felt a vibrant liveliness. Observed a breathing of the canvas even. His pictures have their own lives. Sometimes they disappear, sometimes they pop up in an unexpected place.
It is peculiar how the titles of his works have functioned as comments in my own life.

Due to my father's long illness I had to begin representing the family publicly at eighteen. On many occasions I would have liked to ask him something. However, strangely, in those things that I do remember, I already have the answer to my questions.

From what I understand, there is a dream, that is not that uncommon among those who have lost someone close like a parent or a spouse. All of a sudden, the disaster has set in; how to save it all, – that, which remains?

I dreamt that dream some time after my father had passed away.
My mother dreamt it too, – that same night.
And I dreamt it again, after my mother's passing away.

My father was born Endre Imre Nágel in 1909 in Austria-Hungary. It was during the reign of Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria and apostolic King of Hungary. So much has changed since then, – the way we live and interact.
A cette epoque là (which was one of my Uncle's favourite initial phrases) to break loose from rigid social patterns of behaviour could embarrass the parents. In order to protect his parents' honour, my father took an artist name, a nom de plume. He chose Nemes, a name already in the family. It can be translated to Noble. Personally, I would say it means daily strife, but I do not expect anyone to take my word for it.
Endre himself thought he was born late as Les Demoiselles d'Avignon by Picasso had already been painted in 1907, – so what could one contribute with? Did anything remain to be done? (Only later did he find Cambiaso.)

Already at the age of twenty my father had established himself as a caricaturist for a few daily papers in Prague.
He worked as a journalist as well. With left-wing sympathies a quite typical intellectual persona non grata to be.
He struggled with an innate question on whether to choose the image or the word. He wanted further. Should he become a writer or a painter?
With a few canvases, encouraged by his friend Jacob Bornfriend, student at the Academy of Fine Arts, Endre went to see Professor Wilém Nowak at the Academy.
Professor Nowak said: "Take your things, go to Berlin and make an exhibition. You don't need an Academy."
My father insisted that he needed a technique for how to work. He suffered from bouts of melancholia which made him incapable of working. He wanted to know what he was doing as a painter.
Professor Nowak signed Endre in for the fourth year. The discipline was strict. The full education was seven years long.

From 1936 until 1938 Endre exhibited in the Czech Republic with Jacob Bornfriend and they became established artists. They never considered themselves Surrealists.

During the years as a student my father would not have survived had it not been for a few benefactors who organised weekly luncheons and dinners at their homes. Also, the waiters at the cafés elegantly and quite often placed a basket of untouched bread from another customer's table on their's. The waiters addressed the students with their future titles. Even financial loans from the waiters' own pockets occurred. The loans were always refunded. Social life took place mainly in the cafés as the studios were unheated. The discussions around these tables were intense and fruitful.

Many of the intellectuals who fled from Germany around 1933 found temporary shelter in Prague, which upheld through its history and intellectual heritage an important position. Thomas Mann, Erika Mann and Bertold Brecht did so, only to mention a few. Jacob Bornfriend socialized with Erika Mann. The Heartfield /Herzfelde brothers had significant impact on visual and verbal resistance against fascism. My father knew John Heartfield quite well. George Grosz and John Heartfield invented photo montage. However, the more one studies art, the more one sees connections over time. These artists were all linked to art history directly, as well as they were linked with other artists and geographical places. Connections with Paris, Moscow, Berlin, Vienna or London were frequent. These intellectuals knew since the 20s what was coming through what had by then already happened.

The intellectual habitat in Prague, had a certain effect on the art market also. The artists had their own galleries. Mánes was one of them. And these artist's unions with their own exhibition sites also arranged exhibitions from abroad. Only a few privately owned galleries existed.

The picture I mentioned earlier with my birth date as the title, is quite abstract. Art follows the times in its modes and preferences usually. Sometimes art predates the future.
My father points out in his memoirs Att lyfta upp tiden och vika den åt sidan, that Kandinsky states in his memoirs that in 1936 it was extremely difficult to make an exhibition with abstract art in Paris. Especially for foreign artists.

I recently read a document in MoMa's archive, New York. It is dated November 6, 1939 and regards the largest Picasso exhibition uptil that point in time. One of the paintings is on loan from Mme Elsa Schiaparelli. As I read the document, I recognise the style of writing as written by Elsa Schiaparelli herself. Many of these paintings were shipped over the Atlantic Ocean during war.
Elsa Schiaparelli was intensely working for the refugee artists in the US during WW II. I think her passionate work to spread avant-garde art in particular made wonders for its later recognition.

After 1945, or year 0, which Rossellini called it in his film from the ruins of Berlin, followed a need for new images. I think the many examples of abstract paintings from the late 1940s until the 1960s served as solace, – to the painters and to the public. Soothing to not look at faces or human beings for a while.
But what strikes me, is that the extraordinary artistic accomplishments from the exact time frame of between the two world wars did not get direct linked continuity after the war. The humour went missing. The spirituality, the élan and esprit turned extremely scarce. Void followed. WW II somehow froze the perception of the past and altered it to a split view of Europe following the lines of the map, drawn up by three leaders: Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt.
The commodities though, such as kitchen ware, furniture etc. of the 1950s and 60s and the 70s to the 80s until now, mostly reflect, in bleaker and fragmented versions those artistic accomplishments made by the modernists from the 20s/30s and the artists from closely before the first world war.

The second world war in many ways ended the intellectual discourse.

The way the artists lived back then before WW II also came to set the standards for this free life one might enjoy today. Conversations over class-barriers on first name basis, often many partners in a life-time, open solutions in apartments or flats, the need for light and large windows, the usage of industrial materials or found objects in an unexpected place are all examples considered normal today.
Slowly it has even become accepted to pursue a dream of becoming an artist.
My father had horrific nightmares. To sleep at night meant to expose himself to horror. Perhaps one of the reasons why his production rate was enormous. His element was art and in this element he was free.

He did chose the image. But his writings are acutely precise and poetic. Most difficult to translate as they make use of all of the nuances within the words so carefully chosen in Swedish, German, Hungarian or Czech. In addition he spoke French, some Italian, a little Russian, some Finnish but would make himself understood with anyone as he was a communicator.

There are never any explanations though in his images. In my opinion, what he did was to paint as directly as he could what he saw, how he saw it. He even painted some -isms.
I would say it was his way of communicating in giving a responza using the syllables in question.

The photographer Hans Gedda took over my father's studio, he too felt the ambiance there. I remember cleaning it before with my half-sister, which she always keenly pointed out. We had a few glimpses of good moments but the weather shifted rapidly over her inner stream of consciousness. It was difficult to tidy up. Endre had, among other things, turned the hoover into an air-brush. He was quite proud over it. Why my mother did not call a cleaning company I do not know. No one thought of it.

There is a saying that one should not compare lives. To compare art though can be most helpful in studying it, since to make a comparison makes the mind work; how do they differ etc. And it is also a way of creating perspective.

My father always pointed out that there was no secular art in Europe before the Renaissance. So, before that all art was made in honour of God. One of the groundbreakingly new inventions of Renaissance art is what we call perspective. And there is only one correct mode of perspective following the axes of x, y and z.

Imagine a landscape with high mountains in it. The mountains disappear in clouds. A river snakes through the landscape. On a cliff in the corner, two small human beings. As your imagination is in motion through this description, you see it. But this image might be painted in contradiction to Western perspective.
The use of clouds, the diagonal, the large landscape versus little man are all ways of making perspective.
So, being in this realm of making images, the viewer's perception might be: being seen by Nature/higher power as little as one is. I gave you a brief example of a Chinese image.

Now ponder for a moment what inverted perspective might be.

In Japan, in the artistic zone of Ukiyo-e or the floating world, the one that sways between life and death, often depicting the daring Kabuki-players, prostitutes and other underworld motives, one way of creating perspective is to give a bird's view, which is also similar to near death experiences. Yet another variation of perspective making is to seemingly cut out a piece of the image and insert another in that place. This last mode is called mise en abyme in French. Placed in the abyss. However, the Western use of this technique is often understood as meta. Say for instance a film about filmmaking, – a meta-film.
This concept is often also linked with mirrors repeating the centre person's image, visible self/persona and a notion of eternal repetition. Quite spooky, – think Orson Welles in The Third Man. The Japanese mode is not, from what I can see, so oriented around the ego.

The eye perceives of mise en abyme immediately. It is danger. It is a reminder of mortality, Vanitas vanitatum, Memento mori. All of them concepts linked with still-life. A still-life in itself is a Vanitas vanitatum image. So it does not necessarily need a skull in it. Why do I say it? Life is change, motion, movement. Life is not still. Only through changing do we live.

My father used the mise en abyme technique frequently. He never told me so though. It is in collages per definition as well. A perspective that cuts through time and space. A perspective, more mental than worldly. In depicting it as a possible option it can be either destructive or constructive.
So, with this in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that my father made so few portraits. An old expression for making a portrait is to take someone's likeness.

As I am looking at my father's works I see a consistency throughout his body of works. For instance he sketched during his entire life. And there is presence throughout. The ways of expression shift enormously over the years. I think that his inner doubts regarding whether to become a writer or a painter was also a question of durability. Words and all the possible or impossible interpretations, their acute implications on life and how life should be lived is a constant source of arguments and even hostile actions. Images though can communicate a boundless knowledge over and through barriers of differences in time and moeurs.
Today when too little attention is paid to the concept of mimêsis, which a bit roughly would mean to make a picture without robbing the person portrayed or landscape or idea of it's soul, but to be with that person, or landscape or idea when making the image, I can see in my father's pictures factual statement expressed with compassion. Endre had a specific ability to visualize inner states of mind. There is neither irony or exaggeration, nor any fixed angle for the viewer to take the picture in. I consider my father's images to be witness reports of what it is to be a human being.

Never did I think that I would come to this point in life to do something as drastic as this: selling so much at an auction. Especially not as I have done what I could to preserve his works, selling as little as possible etc.

However, as I find myself in a position where I have singular responsibility for these works, it costs one large painting each year only to keep the storage area, it is another good few to move the lot, the landlord simply cannot mend the sewer pipe that runs through that place, I have worked full-time, often more, with my parent's works since 2003 and now have a major gap in my CV, I think time for me and time for the world to embrace my father's works. In this frame of mind Stockholms Auktionsverk suggested this auction. The way it comes about is so strangely natural and logical. I also think unique in Auction history because it transcends what an auction is. This is an outstanding art exhibition only on for a few days with the option of acquiring something.

I wish you happiness with my father's works for many years to come.
– Lena Nemes

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