It takes a while to concentrate on the walls covered with paintings. And concentrate one must because next to the paintings of highly accomplished émigré artists hang Matthew’s own paintings, often of mixed quality. This idiosyncratic display gives the first clue to Matthew’s passion for the art of Central European émigré artists. He explains that what initially inspired him to collect the paintings was the desire to imitate their style. He is still working at it and believes he’s getting better. He even started to exhibit his own works.
Matthew’s collecting adventure began more then 20 years ago when he was 21. He chanced upon an auction of art at Covent Garden where he spotted a drawing by French born Peter de Francia, one of the émigré artists that he had never heard of.
As it had the artist’s phone number on the back, Matthew contacted him, and the rest, as the cliché says, is history. De Francia generously shared with Matthew his knowledge of art and introduced him to other émigré artists living in London. Soon afterwards Matthew started to frequent auction houses, particularly Philips in Bayswater, called the “Abattoir” by the dealers, from the way the items for sale were piled up. That is where Matthew managed to salvage a lot of “unloved” paintings and drawings, often neglected, within broken frames.
What appealed to Matthew were the use of heightened colours and the expressionistic treatment of paint, so alien to the English psyche and aesthetics. Matthew is quick to admit that it is very ‘un-English’ of him to be attracted to this émigré art. Many of his English friends still find it problematic to relate to this style of painting.
Douglas Hall in his book Art in Exile suggested that the term ‘Expressionism’, as understood by Polish artists, had much broader character then that understood in the West, and it defined “any departure from naturalistic depiction” that was expressive and subjective. This highly subjective, “expressionistic” style was so contradictory to the English taste that it has been largely marginalized. An apt illustration of the prevailing attitude to émigré art amongst the English could be the advice of Kenneth Clark, then director of the National Gallery, to Joseph Herman in 1948 after his exhibition at London’s Lefevre Gallery. Clark famously told Herman: “Mr Herman, you are a very talented painter but my advice to you is to go back to Europe. We English have a great sense of nature but not of humanity” (James Hyman, The Battle for Realism).
It is therefore surprising that a British collector like Matthew Bateson, with no Polish roots, feels such an undying passion for this kind of art. Matthew describes his passion for collecting as an “obsession” and “sickness”, a neurosis and this uncontrollable compulsion to buy having an effect similar to a “drug”. It served him as a source of great pleasure and an antidote to his work in the insurance industry, “cheaper then drugs” as he described it, a form of antidepressant. By buying art he was rewarding himself for “suffering” in a boring City job. The buzz of a good find is similar to striking a good deal, when a feeling that one’s own judgement is well exercised.
The first purchase was followed by the works of Stanislaw Frenkiel, again encountered in one of the lowly auctions. After contacting the artist and visiting him, Matthew picked up another 20 works dating back from the 70s and 80s.
As Matthew got to know more artists personally, he had a chance to buy directly from them. As a consequence, he didn’t need a lot of money; the art he liked was cheap and so he felt blessed.
The majority of the Polish émigré artists never really established themselves in London, in spite of the efforts of a couple of Polish galleries in the 60’s and 70’s. The support of some critics and writers, notably JP Hodin who owned Frenkiel’s Horsmen of the Apocalipse, couldn’t persuade the English, famous for their repression of emotion and “stiff upper lip”, to be more responsive to the Expresssionist style of painting. The Polish émigré artists were not an exception. Matthew is quick to point out that Max Backmann’s Tate exhibition in 1965, was poorly received and Oscar Kokoschka, who lived in London for several years, was not highly regarded either.
To understand better the motivation of a collector like Matthew and his attraction to the art of the “outsider” émigré artists, it is important to have a look at his background. Born into a middle-class, conventional British family, his father was a banker, his mother a housewife who died when Matthew was very young. He was not exposed to art at home. His love for art was awakened at school where it was his favourite subject. From childhood he felt rebellious against authority. His feeling of being a misunderstood outsider was compounded by the fact that he was gay. Even now he still feels this rebellious feeling when buying yet another one of the old, ‘unloved’ émigré artist’s paintings.
One of Matthew’s favourite finds are paintings of Marian Bohusz-Szyszko, an important figure amongst Polish artists in the UK, as he was a great teacher, having run a long established art school in London. Although a great master of paint, Bohusz-Szyszko’s choice of a narrative, religious subjects, combined with his “expressionistic”, highly subjective style ostracised him from the local artistic community. Those choices spelt a death knell to any artist in the post-war era. To Matthew though it is not the subject matter that is important (not being an overtly religious person), but the amazing virtuosity of the artist in his handling of the paint.
The artist’s religious fervour precipitated in pigment with an intensity that matches the emotional impulse to be found in a Van Gogh. It is hard not to be impressed by the skill of the painter when confronted with one of Bohusz-Szyszko’s works.
The passion and joy of paint seems to speak volumes, something that is rare to encounter amongst British painters.
One painting of Bohusz-Szyszko’s, Forest Clearin 1965, seems to be particularly close to Matthew’s heart. A depiction of woodland scattered with logged trees, a big red bird, like an otherworldly apparition, hovering above. When Matthew bought it, it was so dirty that having spent weeks cleaning it, it appeared to be a completely different painting, full of colour and light. It is hard to escape the feeling of religious connotations in any of Bohusz-Szyszko’s paintings, including landscapes, knowing the artist’s religious devotion. However, once this subject matter is put aside it is difficult not to immerse oneself in the seductive surface of paint.
The solid, ‘old school’ training (mostly Cracow or Warsaw Art Academy) comes through when one encounters most of the Polish émigré artists in Matthew’s collection, like Henryk Gotlib, Zdzislaw Ruszkowski, Josef Herman or Stanislaw Frenkiel. Amongst around 600 pieces of, what Matthew believes, best quality paintings and drawings, the majority are Polish artists.
One of Matthew’s Gotlib paintings, Torso completed in 1963, created using mostly the edge of a palette knife, suggesting a reclining female nude, has a certain frisson, as if almost falling apart, not quite controlled. It edges between success and failure, is somewhat off kilter and without any sense of formula. A “painters’ painting”, as described by Matthew, it is difficult and very strong. Matthew is convinced it would not sell at auction for those reasons.
Matthew is very proud to present, what he believes, one of the best oil paintings by Felix Topolski, created in 1945. Using typical quick, light brush strokes and agitated lines, the artist depicts the English military ritual disturbed by the turbulance of war. It symbolizes the defiance of the British in the face of adversity and their unwavering resolve to display the pageantry as the sign of the nation’s resistance, strength and identity. Often dismissed as a caricaturist and facile illustrator for doing a lot of commercial work, one forgets what an accomplished painter and draughtsman Topolski was. Testifying to the artist’s skills is a masterful portrait of Aldous Huxley drawn by Topolski during one of the writer’s TV interviews, hanging in Matthew’s hallway. To Matthew’s astonishment Tate dismissed Topolski’s portrait drawings as caricatures. Famous in the 40s, 50s, 60s and once the toast of British high society and an official war artist, he is now dismissed as irrelevant.
Matthew confesses that finding a home for his collection is a huge problem. He promised Douglas Hall, when still the director of the Museum of Modern Art in Edinburgh, that he would leave it to the museum. Matthew, however, is concerned that the danger of leaving his collection to a large institution like this is that they would either sell it off or bury it in storage and never show it. It is after all a collection of good examples of the best quality work by overlooked émigré artists. Giving it to a Polish museum, where many donations have already been made, would be a shame as Matthew feels it is important to acknowledge those artists as being part of British history of art. It could be that a smaller British institution would be a better choice.
Matthew feels that this difficulty exists largely because the profile of the artists remains low without a major exhibition at a prestigious space and a commercial impetus. However, he hopes that with the progress in Poland’s economy the taste for collecting will grow and may be one day will reach those forgotten few artists as well. The émigrés’ problem is that they belong nowhere, they “missed the boat” totally. Communist Poland disowned them and Britain marginalized them.
Thanks to “outsider” collectors like Matthew, however, not only has Polish art heritage been preserved but also a piece of British art history which one day might be recognized and accepted.