History

Oscar Neumann was born into a close Jewish family in Osijek, now in Croatia, in 1906. The second of three children, he manifested a precocious talent for drawing. The death of his father in his early teens fired him with a sense of urgency, and an awareness of the impermanence of life. From the age of fourteen onwards these feelings found expression in the sculptures and portraits which he first exhibited in 1923 and 1924, whilst still at school.

Nemon's relief of Charles Lindbergh
Nemon's relief of Charles Lindbergh
  Nemon had been both spurred and inspired by Ivan Mestrovic, the pre-eminent sculptor within the new Yugoslav nation, who in turn recognised and encouraged Nemon's own talent. Mestrovic advised Nemon to study in Paris, but Nemon went instead to Vienna, the capital of the old Austro-Hungarian empire. Here he set up a studio and began to sculpt mainly portraits and medals, casting his works thanks to an uncle who owned a bronze foundry.
From Vienna Nemon travelled to Bruxelles where he studied at the Academie Royale des Beaux Arts and continued to establish his reputation, changing his name to N�mon. Shortly after arriving he designed a relief of the aviator Charles Lindbergh, and returned to Vienna to sculpt Freud from life in 1931. Nemon was already deeply engaged by his works, and Freud wrote:
The head which the gaunt, goatee-bearded artist has fashioned from the dirt � like the good lord � is a very good and astonishingly lifelike impression of me.
Portraits of Freud and of Henri Spaak, the Belgian stateman, were exhibited in Nemon's first substantial one man show at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Bruxelles in 1932. Highly successful, it led to a decade which saw Nemon sharing a house with Magritte, and working simultaneously on commissioned portraits of sitters such as King Albert I and Queen Astride of the Belgians, and his own elemental, at times almost Cubist, compositions including the model for a projected Temple of Universal Ethics.   Temple of Universal Ethics
Temple of Universal Ethics
Nemon sculpting his son Falcon
Nemon sculpting his son Falcon
  The rise of fascism made it impossible for Nemon to remain in mainland Europe, however, and he moved to England in 1938, where he was taught English by Max Beerbohm, whom he sculpted, and by whom he was sketched in 1939. Settling initially in Oxford, Nemon moved with his British wife, Patricia Villiers Stuart, and their young son, Falcon, to Boars Hill in 1941 where he established a studio. Two daughters, Aurelia and Electra, would follow. Nemon divided the war years between fire-watching in London and sculpting, exhibiting and beginning to consolidate his reputation in this new land.
News that his mother Eugenie, brother Desider, or Deze, and the greater part of his extended family including his grandmother, had died in Auschwitz impacted devastatingly on Nemon, however. A sense of acute loss, combined with the burden of having survived, led him to question his right to create more personal and experimental works. He focused his attention instead on exploring and memorializing the human figure through his portraiture.   Nemon, Eugenie and Deze
Nemon, his mother Eugenie (centre) and brother Deze (left) before the war
Winston Churchill
Nemon's iconic bust of Churchill
  Meeting Churchill in Marrakesh in 1951 led to Nemon sculpting him in marble for Elizabeth II at Windsor, and gave rise to a deep friendship between the two men. Granted a studio St. James's Palace, Nemon's post-war career is best known for a galaxy of distinguished sitters including Elizabeth II and the Queen Mother, Eisenhower, Truman, Beaverbrook, Montgomery and Macmillan. Dramatically composed, the works show how Nemon seized momentary impressions to melt the boundaries of portraiture, creating pieces which are at once intensely true to the subject, but also explore and question who they are. Alongside these public performances, however, ran a secret, creative life, expressed in the later 1940's and 1950's in the sequence of coloured, lyrical reliefs which look back to the landscapes and mood of the prewar Croatian coast and can be viewed in the Reliefs section of this website and in the studio.
Nemon also continued to sketch and model figurative compositions such as Humanity, a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust in Osijek, and Per Ardua ad Astram, the Canadian Air Force memorial in Toronto. The last in this sequence, a pyramid-shaped composition titled Eternity, questions the relationship between life and art. Created in the final years of the sculptor's life, it has been sited in the garden of his studio on Boars Hill, near Oxford, where Nemon continued to work until his own death in 1985.   Humanity
Humanity

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 charactestics, 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...
Nemon and Pierre de Soete
A young Nemon sculpts his teacher Pierre de Soete in 1927, in a Cubist-influenced style.
  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 harbringers of a new world.

Vienna, 1925.
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 with a relief of himself
Nemon with a relief self-portrait
[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.