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Bloch, Martinlocked

(1883–1954)
  • Jutta Vinzent

Bloch, Martin (1883–1954), painter and graphic artist, was born on 16 November 1883 in Neisse, Upper Silesia, the younger of two children of Maximilian Bloch (1852–1932), a textile factory owner, and his wife, Margarete, née Mosse (d. 1942), who died in a concentration camp in Theresienstadt. Both parents were Jewish.

Bloch's earliest known drawings were of the Sudeten mountains. His parents opposed his wish to become a painter, hoping his gift for drawing could be used to design patterns for lace. As a compromise he studied architecture in Berlin from 1902; he went on to study history of art, aesthetics, and psychology in Munich in 1905, and returned to Berlin in 1907 to study classicism and the baroque under the art historian Heinrich Wölfflin. In Berlin Bloch also took drawing lessons from the German impressionist Lovis Corinth and from the landscape and portrait painter George Mosson. Largely self-taught as a painter Bloch studied old master techniques intensively. He joined the Berlin Sezession and, in 1909, rented his first studio. The Paul Cassirer Gallery, which played a major role in promoting artists from the Berlin Sezession, mounted Bloch's first solo exhibition in 1911 and a second in 1913. Between these exhibitions Bloch worked in Paris, where he belonged to a circle of artists who admired Henri Matisse. Here he learned to apply colour in clean, unadulterated masses. He drew inspiration from southern France, where he spent the first half of 1914, and, throughout the First World War, from Spain. He then returned to Berlin, where, in 1920, the Paul Cassirer Gallery organized his third and highly successful exhibition, of fifty-four paintings, almost all produced in Spain. His large triptych Southern Light (1914–20; Harvard U., Fogg Art Museum) surprisingly has survived; many of his works were lost or destroyed during the Nazi régime.

In 1920 Bloch married a journalist, Charlotte Dorothea, née Ruhemann (1886–1979), whose first married name was Reiss and whose second married name was Zavrel, with whom he had a daughter, Barbara Grant (b. 1922). In 1923 he founded the Berlin Bloch–Kerschbaumer school of painting with Anton Kerschbaumer. After Kerschbaumer's death in 1926 Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, a former member of the expressionist group Die Brücke, helped Bloch to run the school. During the 1920s and early 1930s Bloch took his students to Malcesine, Lago di Garda, Italy, each summer, where he gave them intensive individual tuition. In his art he interpreted elements of fauvism and expressionism in softened form. Although he lived in Berlin he was less interested in the social and political interests of the German expressionists and their harsh forms than in the high-keyed colour transpositions of the Fauves. He himself employed a green sky in Casa Rigo: Lago di Garda (1925; Tate collection), a painting that captures the atmosphere of a Lombard lake scene.

In 1932 Bloch became secretary of the Reichsverband Bildender Künstler Deutschlands. While he was hanging the 1933 winter exhibition Sturm Abteilung guards forced entry and removed paintings disapproved of by the Nazis. Bloch convened a meeting of protest and, as a result, was expelled from the Reichskammer der Bildenden Künste. Deprived of his rights as a painter, he and his wife and daughter emigrated to Britain, via Denmark, taking up an invitation from Karin Michaelis, the Danish novelist, who assisted many émigrés, including Bertolt Brecht. Bloch arrived in London in 1934 and opened the School of Contemporary Painting in association with the Australian artist Roy de Maistre. Bloch remained true to his aim, established in Germany, of fostering each student's individual style: 'Treat everybody as a potential artist, be tolerant, do not force any rubber stamped theory on the pupil. Encourage, try to discover his personal approach' (Bloch). He ran the school until 1939, teaching, among others, May Hillhouse, Heinz Koppel, and Harry Weinberger. In that year Bloch had his first solo show in Britain, at the Alex Reid and Lefèvre Gallery, London. In 1940, having failed to be naturalized owing to the outbreak of war (he received British citizenship in 1947), he was interned at Huyton, Lancashire, and at Sefton, Isle of Man. After his release in 1941 he returned to London and was given Ministry of Information clearance to record war damage in the City of London. The resulting works combine a sense of drama with a documentary purpose.

In the 1940s Bloch became friends with Josef Herman, with whom he shared a studio from 1943. Herman recalled Bloch thus:

[He] was a methodical man, he got up in the morning, had a small breakfast, would light his pipe … He would choose a drawing and decide to translate it into painting, tense and excited, he would make an outline of the composition with charcoal … then start to underpaint the canvas.

Conversations with Josef Herman, Omnibus, BBC television, 1983

From 1943 Bloch regularly visited Wales, where he and Herman painted the miners and landscapes of north Wales; his Down from the Bethesda Quarries (1950–51) is in the National Gallery of Wales, Cardiff. After the war Bloch, aged sixty-five, travelled throughout North America, painting, for example, The Mississippi at Minneapolis (1948; Tate collection), teaching at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and exhibiting there, in Princeton, and in New Jersey. From 1949 until his death he taught painting at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts, London. Bloch exhibited widely in Britain, including at the Ben Uri Gallery, London, in 1945, 1949, and 1953. He contributed to the Festival of Britain exhibition 60 Paintings for '51 and to exhibitions abroad, including a Canadian touring exhibition in 1952. He died, of a heart attack, in Fulham Hospital, London, on 19 June 1954 and was cremated at Golders Green crematorium. His œuvre comprises over 200 paintings and innumerable drawings, shown in retrospectives such as the 1957 Arts Council and the 1984 South London Art Gallery exhibitions. Bloch's great achievement was to convey his understanding of colour through his painting and teaching. Locations for his works in permanent collections include the Tate collection; Leeds City Art Gallery; the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford; Leicestershire Museum and Art Gallery, Leicester; and the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

Sources

  • M. Bloch, ‘Thoughts on art education’, MS, Tate collection, 7817.11
  • Martin Bloch, 1883–1954: an exhibition of paintings and drawings (1984) [exhibition catalogue, South London Art Gallery, 1984]
  • J. P. Hodin, introduction, Martin Bloch: retrospective exhibition, 1883–1954 (1974) [exhibition catalogue, Crane Kalman Gallery, London, 8–26 Oct 1974]
  • R. Alley, ‘Martin Bloch: re-assessed’, Studio International, 179 (1970), 231–2
  • S. Andrews, ‘Martin Bloch’, The Studio, 155 (1958), 40–43
  • H. A. Strauss and W. Röder, eds., Biographisches Handbuch der deutschsprachigen Emigration nach 1933 / International biographical dictionary of central European émigrés, 1933–1945, 2 (1983), 121
  • Kunst im Exil in Groβbritannien, 1933–1945, Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst Berlin, ed. [H. Krug and M. Nungesser] (Berlin, 1986), 119 [exhibition catalogue, Orangerie des Schlosses Charlottenburg, Berlin, 10 Jan – 23 Feb 1986]
  • W. Schwab and J. Weiner, eds., Jewish artists: the Ben Uri collection, 2nd edn (1994), 25 [exhibition catalogue, Ben Uri Gallery, London]
  • G. Hassell, Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts: its students and teachers, 1943–1960 (1995)
  • private information (2004) [B. Grant]
  • ‘Conversations with Josef Herman’, Omnibus, BBC television, 1983

Archives

  • National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
  • Tate collection, MSS, catalogues, photographs

Likenesses

  • M. Bloch, self-portrait, oils, 1925, priv. coll.
  • M. Bloch, self-portrait, oils, 1942, priv. coll.
  • photograph, 1948, Hult. Arch.
Tate collection