‘Humanity’, Oscar Nemon’s Holocaust Memorial, returning to Pleasant Land – 80 years after the invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941.
Eighty years ago, in 1941, the world was caught up into the struggle of World War II. With America still neutral, and France already having surrendered to the Nazi, the Third Reich seemed to be steadily expanding its domination of Europe. For those of Jewish heritage whose relatives had been unable to escape Occupied Europe, it was a time of greatest anxiety, as Guardian journalist Hadley Freeman records in her study of her family, House of Glass. Thanks to marrying an American citizen, Freeman’s grandmother had made it safely to America, from where she waited for news of her mother, brothers and wider family in France and Poland. Not all would survive, as was also the case for the sculptor Oscar Nemon, who had sculpted Freud in Vienna before the war, and would sculpt Churchill at Number 10 and Chartwell during the 1950s.
At the start of World War II, Nemon was a newly settled refugee sculptor, trying to make his way in an unknown language and country, as his daughter Aurelia Young writes in her biography, Finding Nemon, (which can be bought through the shop pages of this website). To his considerable alarm, as he feared being rounded up if Hitler were to invade Europe, his partner Patricia Villiers Stuart discovered she was pregnant in 1940. With the greatest poignancy for Nemon, his eldest son Falcon was born in an Oxford nursing home on 27 March 1941. That same day Hitler ordered the invasion of Nemon’s native Yugoslavia. By 17 April 1941, the country had capitulated, sealing the fates of almost all Nemon’s family members. Twenty-two would be murdered, including Nemon’s beloved mother, brother and grandmother. Nemon had last visited them in the summer of 1939, as he did each summer, connecting with the landscapes and communities which had surrounded him and formed his visual sensibility as a boy .
Once war was underway, Nemon continued to write and receive letters from home, and was able to let his mother know that she had become a grandmother. She was so delighted she responded immediately, by telegram. Correspondence stopped in 1942, however, leading him to fear the worst. Nemon would not discover his family’s deaths until the war ended. He was aware of the genocide underway for peoples of Jewish heritage, together with other targeted groups in Occupied Europe, like many European exiles, as Judith Kerr and others have recorded. Nemon had only moved definitively to Britain in 1939, having lived between London and Brussels from 1936, and prior to that in Vienna and then Brussels, travelling on each time as anti-semitism made it harder for him to find work as a sculptor. As an impecunious refugee artist, Nemon inevitably lacked the resources to bring family members to safety. The portrait below of his grandmother, Johanna Adler, was created on a summer visit in the interwar years. She is believed to have died in Auschwitz.
At the time his mother and brother, Eugenie and Deze Neumann, were captured, detained in the brutal Banjica camp and then shot in November of 1942, Nemon was dividing his time between Boars Hill and London, sculpting and fire watching. Nemon had been declared unfit for military service due to heart problems, but showed his work at two exhibitions of Yugoslav art, one in Yugoslav House in South Kensington in the summer of 1943, and on in Burlington House in 1944, and also at the Belgian Institute in 1943. His sitters at the time included Oxford academics such as Professor Herman Fiedler, Ernst Chain, Gilbert Murray, and the Nietzsche scholar, Oscar Levy, then also living on Boars Hill. While Nemon almost never spoke of the Shoah, and his lost family members, through the war years and after, he created many sketches showing mourning figures, grouped together, and consoling each other, some of which became small maquettes.
Nemon’s initial reticence about the Holocaust was echoed by the wider society in the the years immediately following WWII. Many people turned away from what had happened between 1939-45, amid the tensions of the Cold War and the urgency of building new futures. By the 1960s, however, following the trial of Adolph Eichmann, (one of the architects of the Holocaust, in 1961 in Israel), the lives lost to Nazi genocides began to be formally memorialised. Within this movement, in 1965 Nemon would install the memorial, Humanity, in his own home town of Osijek, now in Croatia. The composition dates back to drawings found in his sketchbooks, sketched and sculpted portraits he created of his son Falcon as a baby, and to small maquettes experimented with privately in the postwar years. His visit to install it was his only known trip back to Osijek after WWII. It was a return that his sister Bella, who also survived, was never able to make.
Twenty years on from the war, rather than bowed figures of Nemon’s earlier sketches, turning inwards, away from the world, Humanity shows a mother raising her child to the future. Refusing either defeat or annihilation, she offers up a gesture of defiance and trust – whose strength resides in its coexistence with vulnerability. The sketches below show exploratory drawings, together with a small plaster maquette of the composition.
Eighty years have passed since that March day in 1941 where joy and despair changed places with the suddenness of spring weather – as Oscar Nemon learnt he had gained a son but stood to lose his family in Yugoslavia. That same son, Falcon Stuart, grew up to be a photographer, who took some of the most resonant postwar images of his father’s sculptures. As a photographer, film-maker, and music producer, his work with Poly Styrene helped give us the visual images which have define her legacy, and will feature in the forthcoming documentary by her daughter Celeste Bell, I am a Cliché.
Nemon lived to see Falcon’s success, dying aged 79 in April 1985. Very sadly Falcon followed his father into the Wootton graveyard in 2002, aged only 60. To remember the losses occasioned by the invasion of Yugoslavia eighty years ago in 1941, and more generally the lives lost to genocide in World War II, the Nemon Estate is returning a cast of Humanity the Nemon Studio Museum opened at Pleasant Land, near Oxford, where Nemon had his studio from 1948 until his death. To date, we have raised sufficient funds to restore the plaster from which the 1965 bronze for Osijek was cast. Work is currently underway at Pangolin Editions in Stroud to mould this and then cast a resin of Humanity, which will be installed at Pleasant Land in the summer or early autumn of 2021. To fund this, the Nemon family will additionally be selling some of original 1978 X-Ray Spex posters and memorabilia commissioned by Falcon Stuart when he was managing the band between 1977-8, which have remained with the family.
The new, weather-proof Humanity will be placed in the garden of the Nemon Studio Museum and Archive at Pleasant Land on Boars Hill. For many years, until the rain began to dissolve the features of the mother and child, the original plaster had stood under the Oxfordshire sky, linking with its bronze twin in Osijek. Once it is safe and permitted, members of the public will be able to book to visit the Nemon Studio Museum and Archive, and the newly installed Humanity, through this website. We look forward to welcoming you all there later in 2021. Please check back for details of opening times.
If you would like to read more about the art Nemon made in response to the Shoah, please follow the link to this essay on ‘Marking the Spaces of our Silences by Alice Hiller.
Alice Hiller March 2021