Painter who had work included by the Nazis in their 1937 exhibition of Degenerate Art and whose mural in St Ethelburga's was blown
up by the IRA.
HANS FEIBUSCH, the German-born artist who has died aged 99, could claim the distinction of having had a painting shown in the Nazis' exhibition of Decadent Art in 1937; by that time, however, he was already living in England, where he would establish a new reputation as a muralist in Anglican churches.
Though Feibusch had never attempted a mural before coming to Britain in 1933, he had been fascinated during his travels in Italy during the 1920s by the work of Mantegna and Piero della Francesca. From the start, therefore, he was able to bring a new flair and boldness to what had become a rather timid and tired English tradition.
Indeed, the uncompromising nature of his work sometimes aroused criticism. In 1956, for example, there were complaints that Feibusch's figure of Christ, designed for the parish church of Goring, West Sussex, was un-Christian and "almost brutal". Feibusch loftily returned: "There is nothing specifically Christian in The Last Judgement of Michelangelo. It has always been my aim to follow the advice of Leonardo da Vinci, and bring out the essential Christ-like qualities in the figure itself." Dr George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, upheld him.
Feibusch was able to complete some 40 murals before his eyesight failed in the 1970s. Particularly notable are his Pilgrim's Progress at St Elizabeth, Eastbourne, a church now under threat of demolition; his Crucifixion at St John's, Waterloo Road, London; his Baptism of Christ at Chichester Cathedral; his Christ Surrounded by Angels at St Mark's, Coventry; and his Trinity in Glory and Stations of the Cross at St Alban, Holborn. But his Crucifixion at St Ethelburga, Bishopsgate, perished after the IRA blew up that church in 1993.
Feibusch executed a number of secular murals, the most striking of which is his gigantic History of Newport (Monmouthshire), completed in 1964 for the civic centre. The work comprises six paintings, each 18 ft high, on the two
50 ftft walls of the landing; altogether they contain 120 figures, slightly bigger than life size, in illustration of life in Newport since Roman times. Feibusch deliberately reduced obvious perspective to a minimum, achieving an impression of distance largely through colour. In this way he obtained something of the effect of a tapestry.
Feibusch took intense delight in his murals, as a man who had discovered what he was born to do. "To stand before an empty wall as in a trance," he rhapsodised, "to let shapes cloudily emerge, to draw scenes and figures, to let light and dark rush out of the surface, to make them move outward or recede into the depths, this was bliss." Yet it was fulfilment he might never have discovered but for the advent of Hitler.
The son of a dentist, Hans Feibusch was born in Frankfurt on August 15 1898 - when Cezanne and Gauguin were still painting. After fighting on the Russian front in the First World War, he studied art in Munich, Berlin, Rome and Paris.
Back in Frankfurt in the late 1920s, Feibusch came under the influence of the German Expressionists, and in particular of Max Beckmann. "I painted natural objects, or perhaps fantastic ones," he remembered, "but reduced to simple forms and bright colours holding a balance between what seemed to me the spiritually significant and the fussy detail." One of his paintings, The Fishnmonger, won the German Grand State Prize for Painters, awarded by the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin.
Shortly after Hitler achieved power in January 1933, a new member joined Feibusch's art group in Frankfurt. At first he appeared anonymous, though always ready with excuses for failing to produce any work. But as the new regime began to tighten its grip, the newcomer appeared in Nazi uniform. "You, you, you," he shouted, pointing his riding whip at the Jewish members of the group, "you can just go home and forget about art. You will never show anything again."
Though Feibusch stayed to finish a commission for the portrait of an opera singer, he saw that the game was up in Germany. France was too close for comfort, Italy seemed "unsuitable"; and having been brought up as a liberal Jew, he felt no overwhelming attraction to Palestine. On the other hand, he was engaged to an Englishwoman. He therefore became one of the 200 or so German artists who fled to Britain during the 1930s.
The Nazis' exhibition of Degenerate Art took place in 1937. "From now on," Hitler explained at the opening, "we are going to wage a merciless war of destruction against the last remaining elements of cultural disintegraton. From now on - you can be certain - all those mutually supporting cliques of chatterers, dilettantes and art forgers will be picked up and liquidated."
The exhibition was divided into various sections, including "Vilification of German Heroes of the World War", "Mockery of German Womanhood" and "Complete Madness". Feibusch qualified under "Revelation of the Jewish Racial Soul", with a canvas entitled Two Floating Figures. He was in good company: Chagall and Kokoschka also featured in the exhibition.
Afterwards, the Nazis sent some of the paintings to auction in Switzerland; the rest, including Feibusch's work, were ceremonially burned in the yard of the Berlin Fire Brigade. Other paintings of his were removed from the Stadelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt and never seen again.
In Britain Feibusch at first kept body and soul together by designing bookjackets, and posters for Shell and the London Underground. He also undertook work for the Modernist architects Maxwell Fry and Charles Reilly. Another architect, Frankland Dark, initiated his new career by commissioning a mural for a chapel at Colliers Wood.
This painting was admired by Kenneth Clark and by Bishop Bell, who wrote to Feibusch in 1939 asking him to undertake another mural at St Wilfrid's, Brighton. "Does he know that I am a Jew?," Feibusch inquired. Bell did. Under his influence, Feibusch adopted Anglicanism. He had already become a British subject in 1938.
Feibusch's sight failed in 1973, though it was partially restored by the ministrations of the ophthalmic surgeon Patrick Trevor-Roper, brother of the historian. Though Feibusch did no more murals, he took up sculpture; one of his statues, of Christ, is in Ely Cathedral.
In old age, after seeing a film about the Holocaust he executed a series of paintings which sought to recapture that nightmare - "the hunting, the running away, the fall into terror," as he described them - in burning Expressionist colours. In 1992 he reconverted to Judaism.
After the Second World War Feibusch had gradually regained something of the status which he had enjoyed as a young man in Germany. He was accorded a restrospective exhibition in Frankfurt in 1986 and three years later awarded the German Grand Cross of Merit in 1967. In Britain in 1995, Paul Werth organised a touring show of his paintings, sketches and other work entitled The Heat of Vision. A collection of his work is kept at Pallant House, Chichester.
Hans Feibusch married, in 1935,
Sidonie Gestetner, daughter of David Gestetner, inventor of the duplicator. She died in 1963; they had no children.