I’d not really thought about it, perhaps tried not to think about it, but sometimes it hit me, and sometimes I’d remember things.
Like sitting at a table. Was it round? The light was low. Tante Gustel was small and old, sat on my right, I couldn’t understand her, my dad was at my left, translating. We leafed through the book of stamps, tissue in between sheet upon sheet of stamps, all the frowning profile of Hitler. She was concerned I’d lose them, the two she gave me, kept in a plastic box, clear lid, foam below. After a few years she was proved right – I lost them. I’ve often felt guilty since.
There was a dark corner, the black stone of a Yorkshire school, a drain-pipe, two boys, one bigger. I lost a kind of innocence that day, I was four or five: not everyone was your friend. The spit from his mouth smelt – I don’t know – somehow… no, I don’t know – as it hit my face with his breath and his snarl. “Nazi!”
“Why do you talk like that?” asked Dad, exasperated. I didn’t reply. I had, I suppose, a fairly strong Yorkshire accent. The answer would have been survival.
I was sat on the sofa, books in front of me, writhing with inner embarrassment, Mum looking at me. How long had it been, how many times, before she gave up? I’m told that at three I could speak only German (Dad didn’t like that) but since that day I can hardly speak any.
“Bavarian peasant!” my ex would scream, wrongly as it turns out. But she didn’t object when I cooked Schnitzel for the kids – though Sauerkraut never went down at all well. Thank goodness for divorce.
I loved my Opa, and even though language was difficult I still have fond memories of him. But my last clear memory was towards the end of his life, family at the Christmas dinner table, when he started to cry. It took a while to find out why: he was remembering two Ukrainian friends he’d lost track of in 1945 and never found out what had happened to them.
I grew up in a kind of state of hiding, almost of denial – wanting, needing, to fit in, never quite achieving it, on the other hand secretly proud of the difference, but keeping schtumm
. As an Anglo-German kid I was always on the wrong side, always a member of the wrong tribe: a mongrel alienated by fact of birth, with doubly inherited racial guilt. I’d lost the language, but something had remained or filtered through. At art-school they talked of Warhol and Rauschenberg – a trans Atlantic art – but I wanted Schiele, Die Brücke, Blaue Reiter and the Europeans, I felt more European and wanted to study and make a European art. Later I found my own kids entirely too English
In more recent years I’ve talked to people. Like, only one person in our studio group could claim to be English, the rest a mish-mash of this and that. Friends and fellow artists are from Jamaican, Jewish, and what-have-you mixed up backgrounds. Immigration and heritage became big issues in the news again, TV programmes tracing celebrity family backgrounds, and banner headlines – Asylum Seekers! Ethnic Cleansing! Islamic Terrorists! Polish Plumbers eating swans!
– stories from Bosnia of mixed Islamic/Christian families. And I thought “but I’m sort of an immigrant – half of, once removed…” but I didn’t really know anything about where Mum came from.
“Why do you want to know?” She was suspicious at the start, and I wasn’t sure. But after a while I realised it was a kind of mid-life artistic-and-cultural therapy or exorcism – an effort to both understand an artistic and personal path carved over forty years – and
a belated attempt at reparation for the partial denial of half of my background in the face of childhood prejudice. After all, I was born less than fifteen years after the end of the war, and there are still elements of bitterness, even today.
Then in 2003 a mural I painted in the French Château de Coat an Noz was defaced with a large, dripping, bright red gloss swastika, and the words “Art Dégénéré”.
I also got my first computer, and began surfing the internet, discovering Mum’s homeland through virtual expeditions to this almost fairytale exotic eastern land, spending night after night in Virtual Silesia.
In 1945 my mother’s family owned a garden nursery near Schweidnitz (now Swidnica) a small town in the foothills of the Eulengebirge or Sowie Mountains of the Sudeten range close to the Silesian capital Breslau/Wroclaw (once German, now Polish) – before being evacuated to Bavaria (fortunately my Opa worked on the trains and managed to swing it) witnessing the Dresden Firestorms en route. The following year, pretty much the entire German population of Silesia and other eastern German states, up to fifteen million people, were forcibly expelled – ethnically cleansed
– as borders shifted westward.
My search engine explorations in this “lost” landscape revealed a horrific legacy. Tunnelled into the idyllic beauty of the deeply forested mountain overlooking my mothers’ birthplace, Albert Speer – Hitler’s architect and armaments minister – created a monstrous project Der Riese
– The Giant: massive secret complexes of underground laboratories, weapons factories and an HQ to accommodate the entire Nazi elite. It claimed ten percent of the Third Reich’s entire concrete production and the lives of thousands of slave labourers from the concentration camps of Groß-Rosen. This ne’er completed hidden monolith seemed a fitting metaphor – close to home indeed – to my own cultural and internal conflicts.
In response, and for the first time ever, I began to paint these picture perfect landscapes – not landscapes in the purist sense, but remote or “e-landscapes” based on the found jpegs. I became fascinated with this “digital way of seeing”, where pixels suggested brush-marks, the jpegs low resolution often forming abstract images (it says it’s that mountain, but how can you tell? It looks like a seascape!) questioning our perception of web sourced information, our evolving relationship with this “thing” the internet, and by this process – the eye, the brain, the hand, brush and paint – taking the digital back to the analogue.
The weird thing was that I gradually felt that I somehow “knew” this place – as if these scenes were familiar to me, as if something about these electronic visions were instilling ideas of “a knowing without having been there”, an “inherited memory” subliminally telling me I belonged there – that this was where I was from, was somehow my home, my Heimat
From distant views of the mountain I looked closer, into the forest, and at Speers camouflaged bunkers and barracks, earthen roofs caved in and trees growing through – using photos posted on websites by hikers and amateur archaeologists with metal detectors – the few tunnels found after the SS blew the entrances in their escape from the Russian advance, the sixty scientists then shot to maintain secrecy.
The internet is delightfully abounding with fantastic stories and conspiracy theories – and Speer’s mountain offered a zillion – especially about what the Nazis were up to in their weapons labs. Admittedly some of the stuff I’ve seen has been extremely scary, but the most common amongst the blogs and websites seems to be that of anti-gravity research – the secret weapon that would save the Third Reich in its final hours – the so called “foo-fighters” or flying saucers!
At this time I also began wondering about the people who now live in Silesia. Just as the Yalta Agreement forced the expulsion of Germans from eastern Lände
, Poles were thrown out of what became part of Russia’s land-grab, and traversed the width of Poland to settle in the towns and villages, farms and coalmines of Silesia.
Googling “Silesian man” “Silesian woman” I eventually found a rich source of portraits – internet dating agencies: half of Poland seems to use them. Once again low-resolution jpegs featured strongly: scanned passport photos, or men displaying muscles in a mirror with their camera-phones, women often posting professional portraits. In painting versions of each face, trying this and that variation, scale and media, it gradually dawned on me that, cumulatively, a kind of anthropology was being created – an ethnographic survey documenting images posted by Silesians of themselves on the internet – broadcasting how they wish to be seen, and – collectively – their cultural identity.
“Considering Silesia” has radically shifted both my perspective as a painter and my sense of identity – perhaps something that couldn’t be done before now – generating small understandings of how ordinary people lived under the Nazi regime, the War’s cascading relevance to today, and the fear of new repressions we see creeping towards us.
Where will all this take me? I’ve haven’t a clue, but I’ve lots of ideas, and I’m still exploring Virtual Silesia. Perhaps after that I’ll visit Actual Silesia – maybe by Ryan Air.
See this magazine text and image project on ArtReview.com: -
NB. Click on images, and then again to enlarge and read text
This is my first print magazine project, so all feedback would be gratefully received – I hope you like it!
Thanks to Graham Lester George for collaborating on design