Obituary: God's painter: Hans Feibusch
By TERENCE MULLALY
HANS Feibusch , who has died aged 99, was a German Jew responsible for more murals in churches in England than any other 20th century artist.
He displayed a subtle, profound understanding of the decorative role art can continue to play, and of the Christian message.
He eventually converted to Christianity, but in 1992 he formally left the Church of England and shortly before his death said: 'I am just a very tired old Jew.' An artist whose subject matter had been mythology, the Bible and the natural world focused at the end on the Holocaust.
His life was beset by ironies. In 1930, he received the German Grand State Prize for painting. In 1937, his work was banned and destroyed by the Nazis. In 1986, he had a major retrospective exhibition in Frankfurt as early as 1967 he had been awarded the German Order of Merit (first class), and in 1989 received the Grand Cross of Merit. He was in his last years the sole survivor of those whose work had been banned in the notorious Nazi exhibition of 'degenerate art'.
England, where he lived from 1933, was at first parsimonious with honours and critical recognition. Despite the enthusiasm for his work shown by men as perceptive as Maxwell Fry and Walter Hussey, it was not until 1997 that the Tate Gallery acquired a canvas. His first major retrospective in Britain was at Brighton Polytechnic in 1988. In 1995, another was held at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, which later toured.
Fortunately, the fact that the art establishment here had little time for Feibusch was compensated for by the understanding displayed by architects and churchmen. Even when failing eyesight induced him to turn to sculpture, patronage was forthcoming. That recognition was justified is proved by his figure of Christ, in Ely Cathedral, and his St John the Baptist, in St John's Wood Church.
Feibusch's impressive technical abilities as a mural and easel painter, sculptor, and lithographer, above all with his The Revelation of St John series, published in 1946, were not surprising. Few 20th century artists were better trained, or had a wider curiosity.
He was educated at the Universities of Frankfurt and Munich, and in 1916-18 served in the German army on the Russian front before going on to the Berlin Academy. Then followed studies in Paris, and in Florence and Rome. Feibusch loved music and poetry, while in his studio in St John's Wood many books upon art jostled for space with canvases, drawings and sculptures.
All Feibusch's work was based on drawing. Even in his nineties, he was a prolific draughtsman. Yet a crucial point in his career came in 1938, not long after his arrival in England, when he was asked to do a mural (which no longer exists) in a Methodist chapel in Collier's Wood, in London. Feibusch was paid only pounds 50 and when he mounted the scaffolding he felt sick. He had vertigo. He was saved by a workman who noticed his plight and told him of a medicine his wife used before going to the dentist. Feibusch acquired the pills but became confident and did not need them again.
A man who was to have a profound impact on Feibusch's career was the great George Bell, Bishop of Chichester. When the artist was working in the chapel of the Bishop's Palace in Chichester, he knocked a tin of paint off the scaffolding just as Bell was opening the door, Bell, seeing what had happened, silently withdrew.
SOON after the second world war, the commissions came flooding in. He was successful not only in ancient buildings, such as St Ethelburga's, in the City of London, where his murals were damaged in the 1993 IRA bombing, but also in modern churches where he worked closely with the architects.
Feibusch's best murals such as his Baptism in Chichester Cathedral, his early Pilgrim's Progress in St Elizabeth's in Eastbourne, or later works such as those in St Wilfred's in Brighton and the Festival of Britain Church of St John's, Waterloo Road, London, show both his training and his love of the art of the past. Feibusch's style was, however, idiosyncratic. In 1954 Bishop Bell intervened in Goring when he granted a faculty for Feibusch's Christ In Glory, after the local advisory committee had objected to the preliminary drawings.
Feibusch painted secular subjects in the Town Hall at Dudley, and he was assured both in a very large space and on a modest scale. His murals in the Civic Centre at Newport, Monmouthshire, are one of the most ambitious 20th century decorative cycles in Britain. Yet his decoration in Canon C B Mortlock's home, in the City, was just as successful.
When it appeared in 1946, Feibusch's book Mural Painting was influential. And towards the end of his life young artists and critics again became interested in Feibusch's achievement. At the very end, this was assured. Ten days before his death, a party to celebrate his upcoming 100th birthday was held at the Royal College of Art. It was announced that the entire contents of Feibusch's studio will be presented to the Pallant House Gallery and will be on view. Feibusch will have a major body of work permanently available to the public. He will be more surely remembered than many who received much greater appreciation during their lifetime.
His wife Sidonie, whom he married in 1935, died in 1963.
Hans Feibusch , artist, born August 15, 1898 died July 18 1998
Obituary: God's painter: Hans Feibusch