From the Press Release:
This is a first exhibition and survey of the work of Friedrich Nagler, a self-taught émigré artist born in Vienna. After settling in England in 1945, Nagler lived for over five decades in a private world of self-imposed obscurity in rural Hampshire, producing a cornucopia of tiny carved faces, small sculptures, intricate objects, paintings and assemblages of found and modified material that gradually accumulated and filled his tiny bungalow. Nagler’s works were rarely seen, even by friends and family, and he resisted offers to exhibit works in his lifetime, or even to sign them, saying “they will know that it is by me”.
Friedrich Nagler was born in Vienna in 1920 and spent much of his early childhood in foster care and in an orphanage. He was illegitimate, the result of his mother’s ex-marital affair, and although he was later grudgingly accepted by her husband into the Nagler family, Nagler later told his own children that he “knew no love during my childhood”. He found some comfort in his early self-belief in himself as an artist, and had hoped to be able to study at an art school, but the anti-Semitism and rise of Nazism in pre-War Vienna ended that prospect.
Many of Nagler’s friends, and almost all of his relatives died in concentration camps during the War, but with the help of fellow young Zionists, he was able to get out of Austria in time: after a failed first perilous attempt to escape into Czechoslovakia, he soon afterwards managed to get to England, where he joined a farm commune in Kent. He was then interned by the British, and sent to Douglas on the Isle of Man, from where he was deported to Quebec in Canada, on the ship SS Sobieski.
The camp at Douglas was known as ‘the artist’s camp’ as so many German and Austrian artists, writers, and intellectuals were interned there as ‘enemy aliens’. It was at Douglas, and then on the Sobieski that Nagler met the few people that remained his friends in later life, in particular, the graphic artist Hans Arnold Rothholz. In Quebec, Nagler worked as a lumber-jack, and managed to produce some early watercolours and drawings.
After four years, Nagler returned to England in 1943 where he was interned again near Oxford. During this second period of internment, Nagler was assigned a day-job at a munitions factory where he met his future wife, and they settled in Hampshire in 1945. Nagler worked as a gardener and at various odd jobs, and the family lived in a converted railway carriage, with a shed built in the garden where he worked on wooden sculptures.
Around 1959, a bungalow replaced the railway carriage, and Nagler made his wood carvings in the new kitchen, working in the evenings accompanied by loud classical music on the radio. The shed became a repository for the brass fittings and metal scraps that he collected and stored in tins for future use in making a metal menagerie of animals and figures. In the early 1960s, he made clay sculptures which he fired at a local community centre , and around the same time constructed a forge in the garden to make animal sculptures and crucifixes in wrought-iron.
Nagler’s jobs in local sawmills and factories provided him with off-cuts for his carvings and the plastics and black rubber that he used to make large, abstracted masks. He prepared animal bones from the butcher for carving into idiosyncratic, stylized faces and profiles that he would arrange into ‘family’ groups, that were usually stored and ‘displayed’ inside flat chocolate boxes, tins, or small cabinets. When his sons left home, their small bedroom became another workroom that gradually filled with works; and after his wife’s death, he bought down objects and materials that he had hidden in the attic years before.
Constantly making, always ingenious, Nagler hunted for materials in junk shops, and later at car boot fairs, often modifying African tourist carvings that he bought cheaply. A boat-building job In the 1970s gave him access to new materials, particularly the resin he used to make a multitude of brightly painted expressive faces: these ranged in size from miniature to merely small, and he emphasized that “every one of them is different”. From the late 1970s into the 1990s, he returned to painting – stylized compositions on board and a series of images on second-hand plates. Towards the end of his life, he made larger, simpler and more abstract constructions of masks and animals using polystyrene and plastic tubes and containers.
Nagler’s long-standing friend, Hans Arnold Rothholz regularly visited him in Hampshire and encouraged him over the years after the War. Rothholz sometimes gave him art materials, and even persuaded him to once allow a few works to be exhibited at Heals in the 1950s. However, Nagler would vehemently say that he did not want his work to be seen until after his death: this first exhibition at England & Co has been arranged with his family together with the participation of Stephen Rothholz, Hans Arnold’s son, who as a boy had often accompanied his father on his visits to Nagler, and who has maintained his father’s long-standing interest in Nagler’s work.
The home and work of Friedrich Nagler are featured in the April issue of World of Interiors.all images © the gallery and the artist(s)