Art Behind Barbed Wire

‘Art Behind Barbed Wire’: Ben Uri acquires rare internment portrait painted in 1940 in Huyton transit camp, Liverpool by artist internee Hugo ‘Puck’ Dachinger


In June 1940, following Churchill’s directive to ‘Collar the lot!’, Austrian artist Hugo Dachinger was swept up in the mass internment of around 27,000 so-called ‘enemy aliens’, mostly Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution, who were interned in hastily adapted camps all over the country. Dachinger spent five months at Huyton Camp, Liverpool within the recently built Woolfall Heath Estate, divided from the non-internees by an eight-metre high barbed wire fence. Despite the overcrowding and poor conditions at Huyton, Dachinger’s artistic output was startlingly prolific and included landscapes, scenes of everyday life, posters and even nudes, as well as vivid, often highly coloured portraits.

This head-and-shoulders portrait of an unidentified older man with white hair and moustache and startlingly blue eyes, painted in the third month of his internment, is likely to be one of the middle-class refugee intellectuals, writers and artists with whom Dachinger mixed in camp. The blue and yellow palette can be found in other Huyton portraits (one dated only three days earlier). Although the sitter’s large-collared, tightly-buttoned overcoat has a military feel, perhaps further suggested by the visible headline ‘Air Fights in Many Spheres’, it carries no insignia, and Dachinger’s warm treatment of his subject contrasts with his sharply satirical, sometimes cartoonish works featuring camp officers. With traditional art materials in short supply, Dachinger and fellow artists (who included Martin Bloch and Walter Nessler) executed works in a variety of accessible media, often using discarded newspapers (The Times was considered the best) as supports. These could be primed with gelatine collected from boileddown bones mixed with flour, a method leaving stories of war tantalisingly visible beneath, and which Dachinger, a former designer, often included to great effect (there is a poignancy here in the visible righthand column of ‘Domestic Situations Wanted’, since this was the only hope of passage for many female refugees). Twigs were also burnt to create charcoal and paints made from brick dust or food ground with linseed oil or olive oil from sardine cans, though here Dachinger appears to have used watercolours perhaps mixed with toothpaste (particularly in the hair) to make the pigments less transparent.

Following Huyton, Dachinger was sent in October 1940 until his release in January 1941, to ooragh Camp, Ramsey on the Isle of Man, where he continued to paint. In November he held an exhibition of his internment drawings entitled Art Behind Barbed Wire, advertised with an arresting poster of his own design, and later exhibited at London’s Redfern Gallery in April 1941.
About the artist: Graphic artist, designer, painter and sculptor, Hugo ‘Puck’ Dachinger was born in Gmunden, Upper Austria in 1908 to Jewish middle-class parents. He studied at the School of Arts and Crafts in Leipzig, Germany (1929–32), paying for his tuition by selling portrait drawings and working as a salesman and window-dresser. Afterwards he worked as a graphic designer, moving in 1932 to Vienna, where he invented a system of moveable type (patented in 1933) and established workshops in Leipzig, Zagreb and Budapest. In 1938, travelling via Denmark, he immigrated to England, settling in North London and establishing the successful Transposter Advertising Ltd firm with Ernst Rosenfeld (which closed in 1945). From June 1940–January 1941 Dachinger was interned, first at Huyton, Liverpool and then in Mooragh Camp, Ramsey, on the Isle of Man. After release he married fellow artist and German émigré Meta Gutmann (who nicknamed him ‘Puck’). He exhibited at German-Jewish émigré Jack Bilbo’s Modern Art Gallery in London in 1942 and alongside fellow Austrian artists at the prestigious Redfern and Leger Galleries from 1941–45, also continuing to work as an inventor and designer for various publishing companies. Dachinger’s work has been included in survey exhibitions including Kunst im Exil in Grossbritannien 1933-45 (Berlin, Oberhuasen, Vienna and London, 1986), Art Behind Barbed Wire (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, 2004) and Ben Uri’s Forced Journeys: Artists in Exile in Britain, c. 1933-45 (London, Isle of Man and Birkenhead, 2009–10). In 2012 the Austrian Cultural Forum held the first UK Dachinger retrospective; his work is also held in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool and the Manx Museum, Isle of Man.