Clip from Westminster Hour on BBC Radio 4 – ‘The Exile Who Sculpted Churchill’ (10 mins)
Oskar Neumann was born into a Jewish family in Osijek, now in Croatia, in 1906. He began to sculpt as a teenager. Despite being largely self-taught, he staged two exhibitions of portraits and figurative work while still at school. Both shows were enthusiastically reviewed by the local press. Nemon’s instinctive flair for portraiture additionally led to several private commissions.
After taking his bacalaureat, Nemon left Osijek for Vienna aged eighteen. Culturally vibrant, but traumatized by the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the first World War, the city was marked by rising anti-Semitism. Unable to gain access to formal tuition, Nemon apprenticed himself to Anton Hanak, a local sculptor, then set up his own studio where he experimented with Expressionism and made commissioned portraits.
In Vienna Nemon’s uncle owned a bronze factory, meaning he could cast his work. An admirer of Sigmund Freud, they were introduced by Paul Federn in 1931, when Nemon sculpted Freud for his seventy-fifty birthday. Nemon’s original wood carving of Freud’s bust is now on display in the Freud Museum in London, and a large seated bronze is sited outside the Tavistock Clinic in London.
After a year in Vienna, Nemon moved to Brussels in 1925 to study sculpture at the Académie des Beaux Arts where he won the Gold Medal. Continuing to develop his figurative work, Nemon also established his distinctive style of portraiture. This fuses abstract forms with accurate representation to create studies from life which also form autonomous works of art.
During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Nemon also experimented with Constructivism and Cubism, whose influences can be seen most clearly in his portrait of fellow sculptor Pierre de Soete, and his relief of the aviator Charles Lindberg in 1927.
Nemon changed his name from Neumann to Némon in 1931, following his first major exhibition in 1930. A subsequent show, staged at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Bruxelles in 1932, led to sitters including Albert I and Queen Astrid, the politician Van de Velde, and many less well known Belgians, including numerous children.
In 1933, as the political climate darkened, Nemon designed a dramatic modernist structure, the Temple of Universal Ethics, which he promoted as the headquarters for a movement for global peace and tolerance. Throughout his time in Belgium Nem
on also designed bronze reliefs and medals.
Facing increasing difficulties in Brussels, where some elements of society were becoming increasingly anti-Semitic, Nemon moved to England from 1936. He now shed the acute accent of his revised surname. He had
intended to go on to America but the war intervened.
In London he met Patricia Villiers Stuart. They settled on Boars Hill outside Oxford in 1941 when their first child Falcon was born. Two daughters – Aurelia and Electra – followed. The family lived at Pleasant Land from the late 1940s. For many years their home and Nemon’s studio was two ex-Army huts which had originally been used to house Italian prisoners of war. Nemon sculpted co-discoverer of penicillin Ernst Chain during these years, whose bust is now on display at Imperial College London.
World War II was a period of intense personal tragedy for Nemon. His mother, brother and grandmother, along with almost all his extended family, died in the Holocaust. His sketches from this period show numerous mourning and memorial compositions.
Themes of loss and continuation inform the composition Heredity, on display in the Nemon Studio, and Humanity, his memorial to the Jewish population of Osijek, which he donated to the town in 1967. Bronze and plaster maquettes of Humanity are also on display at the Nemon Studio, where fund-raising is underway to cast the full-size memorial in bronze.
Nemon’s own history led him to admire to Winston Churchill, whom he met in the La Mamounia hotel in 1951. Nemon made a clay sketch surreptitiously in the dining room which greatly impressed Lady Churchill. Nemon was asked to create a marble bust of Churchill for Elizabeth II in Windsor Palace, and subsequently a seated bronze in the Guildhall, which Churchill unveiled. Many other studies of Churchill followed, including the standing figure in the Members’ Lobby of the House of Commons.
Other distinguished post-war sitters included General Eisenhower, Lord Beaverbrook, Field Marshal Montgomery, Ernst Chain, Lord Alexander of Tunis, and Earl Mountbatten. Lord Shinwell, Harold MacMillan and Lady Thatcher. Elizabeth II, H.M. the Queen Mother, and Prince Phillip all modelled for Nemon, who was granted a studio in St James’s Palace His last sitter at the time of his death in 1985 was Diana, Princess of Wales.
Nemon modelled in clay, directly from life, subsequently casting his work first in plaster and then in bronze. Gifted with immense personal charm and delicacy, he would amuse and draw out his sitters with a series of stories and anecdotes which helped produce the animated impressions which characterize his portraiture.
Although Churchill originally warned Nemon If you want to lose a friend, do his portrait, during the course of their many sittings, Churchill and Nemon established a close relationship. Churchill once decided to attempt Nemon’s head while the sculptor was at work. The resulting bust is on display at Chartwell. Nemon later remembered how:
His cigar began to come to pieces in his mouth and soon he was roaring like a lion over its prey. He shouted at me ‘How on earth can I work when you keep moving?’ In the interest of continuing peace between us, I kept still after that […] he was a restless and most unwilling sitter.
At the time of his death in 1985, Nemon was best known for his portraiture. His studio was found to contain a wealth of drawings and sketches, among them plans for unrealized works, and hitherto unknown painted reliefs. They are now being conserved and restored. These works suggest additional directions Nemon’s art might have taken had his life not been circumscribed by repeated migrations.
A Sculptor’s Recollections: Draft Autobiography by Oscar Nemon.
On visiting Paris and the World Fair, 1924, when Nemon travelled to Paris alone as a teenager.
Wandering through this vast and temporary township made up of pavilions displaying each nation’s particular outlook and characteristics, we found our attention drawn to the extraordinary Russian pavilion. It was neither stately nor pompous, but by its form, both outside and inside, it gave expression to one very clear idea.
Going inside, we found ourselves surrounded by abstract shapes which must have appeared disconcerting and incomprehensible to the casual visitor. Indeed, the average onlooker must have had the uncomfortable feeling that that his leg was being pulled. The poetic vision of the artist had been given expression in a new experience to which the exponents of all the artistic media had committed themselves unreservedly. The Russian Pavilion was both the symbol and interpreter of this new experience, the flowering of the desire of the Russian people to open the benefits of the revolution to all mankind…
I found that my conversation in the cafes of Montparnasse reflected strongly my own ideas about art and about man, ideas which had been greatly stimulated by the experiences in the Russian Pavilion that afternoon.
We were witnessing something of a miracle, the possession by men of a deep sympathy which developed into a passion for all that had hitherto been dismissed as secondary and relegated to the background. They were convinced that all artistic expression, even elements apparently in direct opposition came from one common source — man. So the primal Negro vision, despised until then, came into its own under the hands of Picasso, and Matisse bought in the influence of Moroccan folk-lore.
There was outward chaos, but it was a chaos of beginnings. The modernists and ultra-modernists and the ‘crazy ones’ created the most abstract and formless shapes, and this was a characteristic common to all people interested in the arts. I remember that even in my little backwater in the Balkans we numbered among us a convinced Dadaist: We were proud to be the harbingers of a new world.
In Vienna, as in Paris, there was at that time a revolution taking place in the arts, and all the former artistic ideas were in the process of revision. Just as the Paris of that period became famous for Cubism of Negro origin, so in Central Europe, and especially in Vienna, the School of Expressionism was developing. This reflected everything that this part of the world had endured in terms of degradation and misery and was chiefly reflected in a preoccupation with gloom, even in the tonality of colours.
[Nemon describes meeting the leading light of this movement, Oscar Kokoschka, attending concerts of Mahler’s music, and sculpting Richard Strauss. He details his growing interest in Freud and his works but concludes by finding both the atmosphere of the city, and the hostility of the townspeople to more experimental works of art, which led to Kokoschka’s show being covered in human excrement, overwhelming.]
At one point, not long before the end of my time in Vienna, I got a letter of introduction to a very wealthy Viennese art collector. I turned up without an appointment and rang his bell. I was admitted and shown into his study, where I found him sitting behind his desk in his dressing gown. He invited me to sit down, and at that moment his cook brought in his breakfast. He pointed to the tray and said to me, “You know, this breakfast that you see here? I’m having it on credit. I haven’t got a penny left. You’ve come too late. I’m bankrupt. You see this revolver here on the desk? I’m just deliberating what to do. I’ve nothing left except that revolver, and it could well be the solution to all my problems.”
This was the general situation in Vienna. There was an all-pervading attitude of despair. You could see children in their early teens being bought for dollars by tourists, and there was one rich American who went round the city by taxi, throwing dollars out of the window to the people, who scrambled and fought for them. In Vienna, the despair, misery, degradation and ill-feeling were intense and people had no pride left. This was one of my main reasons for my decision to leave the city after a year and go further west.