Robert Guttmann Gallery, U Staré školy 3, Prague 1
From 29 May until 31 August 2008, open every day except for Saturdays and Jewish holidays 9 a.m. – 6 p.m.
One of the most well-known graphic artists in pre-war Berlin, Michel Fingesten is almost forgotten today. This is a long-term consequence of Nazi persecution in the 1930s, which banned, isolated and drove into exile such artists. Thousands of their artworks were taken out of public collections and destroyed or illicitly sold abroad.
Fingesten (originally Finkelstein) was born on 18 April 1884 in the village of Buèkovice (Buczkowitz) in Silesia (now the Frýdek-Místek district in the Czech Republic). His father, Leone Finkelstein, was an Austrian of Jewish descent, a weaver by trade and a Protestant by faith. His mother, Franzisca Lion, came from a Jewish family in Trieste. At the age of 16, Michel left to study at the Vienna Academy of Art. For reasons that are unclear, however, he left the academy after two years and went to America, where he spent four years, travelling from town to town. In San Francisco in 1906, he was shanghaied onto a merchant ship bound for Australia, where he spent several months.
In 1907 Fingesten landed in Palermo and walked all the way to Munich, where he studied with the painter Franz Stuck. After a year, however, he was again struck with wanderlust. This time he headed for Hong Kong and for another four years he drifted through Chinese and Japanese waters. He returned to Europe in 1912. In 1913, after a brief stay in Paris, he finally settled in Berlin – after ten years of restless wandering.
A new beginning in Berlin
Only now did Fingesten consider himself mature enough to embark upon a career as an artist. In 1914 he married Bianca Schick (1889–1941), with whom he had two children – Ruth (b. 1915) and Peter (b. 1916), who later became a sculptor and art critic. In 1913 he destroyed all his previous paintings and began to devote his time to graphic art, which was his forte.
In response to the outbreak of World War I, Fingesten made a series of large engravings with symbolic themes that conveyed his opposition to violence. He pointed to the revitalizing force of nature and love as a way of immortalizing and giving sense to humanity. At around this time he made a series of witty erotic prints.
During World War I he joined the Neue Sezession group, which had been founded by M. Liebermann in 1910. In 1917 he was invited to contribute to the Marsyas magazine, which featured work by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Heinrich Mann, Hermann Hesse, Alfred Döblin, Ernst Weiss and Stefan Zweig, as well as three new short stories by Franz Kafka. Each issue contained original engravings and lithographs by major expressionists. Fingesten made six prints for the magazine.
Fingesten’s first exhibition in 1918 attracted great attention. The art critic Paul Friedrich published a monograph on his graphic work in 1920. In 1918 Fingesten made graphic improvisations for Arno Holz’s book Die Blechschmiede (Tinsmiths), which were enthusiastically acclaimed by critics. In 1919 he made an album of etchings entitled Aus den Spelunken Berlins (From Berlin Dives) and in the following year he illustrated Adolf Weissmann’s Die klingende Garten (The Singing Garden) with etchings based loosely on musical motifs from Mozart, Schubert, Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Strauss. Also from 1920 is a set of 10 engravings 10 Radierungen über das Thema Mütter (10 engravings on the Theme of Mothers). In 1921 he made 12 graphic improvisations for Alfred Kerr’s anthology of verse Krämerspiegel (Shopkeepers’ Mirror), which was a response to Richard Strauss’s dispute with his Berlin publishers.
At the beginning of 1927, Fingesten became one of the leading contributors to the Künstler-Selbsthilfe magazine, whose aim was to improve links between artists and the public and to help young artists in need. Among its contributors were a number of prominent writers and artists. It also featured portraits by Fingensten, such as of the avant-garde dancer Tatiana Barbakoff and the writer Lion Feuchtwanger.
Journey to Spain
In late 1927 Fingelsten’s old love inspired him to resume painting and to spend time in Spain. Having discovered the Spanish landscape, he made a number of atmospheric paintings in unusual colours. After his return, in 1928, his Spanish landscapes were exhibited at the Neue Kunsthandlung Gallery, which brought him further success. During the economic crisis of the early 1930s he was employed at Sebastian Malz’s Art Printing House, where he worked until emigrating to Italy.
Due to a lack of major commissions after the onset of Nazism, he did not make any large prints from 1933 onwards. His work was attacked by the Nazis early on and Fingensten allied himself with the persecuted artists. He now focused almost exclusively on ex-libris and small prints for private collectors, in which he gave clear expression to his feelings and opinions. Of particular interest to us today, Fingensten’s ex-libris and New Year’s cards provide a diary-like record of his life story.
Exile in Italy
While Bianca and Ruth Fingesten emigrated to South America, Michel Fingesten planned to leave for Prague at the end of 1935. Things didn’t work out, however, and it was probably not until January 1936 that he left with his son for Italy. In Milan he rented a large empty ground-floor apartment at Via Chiaravalle 11. Despite the increasingly difficult conditions of his life, Fingesten’s graphic art in Italy was among his best, producing some 500 prints.
Jointly with the Italian Jewish graphic artist Attilio Cavallini and the art dealer Luigi Filippo Bolaffio, he held an exhibition of graphic art in April 1937. In October 1937 he co-founded the first Italian group of ex-libris collectors, Gruppo Italiani dell’ Ex Libris e del Bianco e Nero, among whose leading members were the architect Gianni Materno, Gino Sabattini, M. Fenini, Battista Bono, Giovanni Krohn, Milton Reinheimer, Seba Sandri, Gigi Raimondo, I. M. Lombardo and Giovanni Botta. In May 1939 Fingesten finally managed to send his son Peter to America.
Foreseeing the threat of war in late 1938, Fingesten expressed his outrage in a series of 13 etchings Essai de Dance Macabre (Essay on the Dance Macabre) which convey a vision of the imminent catastrophe. With this series he sought to warn the public in neutral countries of the true aims of the Nazi regime. The second series of 10 etchings and dry points, Kleine Randbemerkungen zum Thema Krieg (Small Marginal Notes on the Theme of War, 1939/40), is among the most challenging of Fingesten’s works in terms of content.
In internment camps (1941–1943)
Anti-Jewish laws were also introduced in Italy with the outbreak of war. Fingesten was arrested on 9 October 1940 and interned as a Jew in the Civitella del Tronto camp in the province of Teramo. This site was located in an old monastery, from where Fingesten was still able to continue his art work. His last woodcuts – simple prints in oil colours – date mainly from 1941 and are among Fingesten’s most beautiful graphic works.
On 13 November 1941, Fingesten was transferred to the Ferramonti-Tarsia camp near the town of Cosenza in Cabria. This site comprised only wooden huts and living conditions were very difficult there as a result of the lack of food, hygiene and medical care. During deportation, moreover, Fingesten had lost his suitcase with all his art materials and tools. Coming down with malaria and fever in the summer of 1942, he was unable to write or draw. The Ferramonti-Tarsia camp was liberated by the British army on 14 September 1943. Shortly afterwards, Fingesten sustained an injury and was transferred to a hospital in Cosenca. After the operation he developed a wound infection from which he died on 8 October 1943. He was buried in a cemetery in Cerisano.
Fingesten’s memory has been kept alive thanks to the efforts of ex-libris collectors who knew and praised his work before the war. Besides its artistic qualities, collectors are still attracted to the rich imagination, humour, playfulness and diverse symbolism of Fingesten’s work, as well as the at times macabre and erotic elements that constitute part of his artistic expression. In the course of thirty years he made almost 1,000 ex-libris.
Curated by Arno Paøík.
A catalogue has been published for the exhibition >>>