Art reviews: Edith Tudor-Hart | Schwitters In Britain

Edith Tudor-Hart: In the Shadow of Tyranny
Edith Tudor-Hart: In the Shadow of Tyranny
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EDITH TUDOR-HART – the name suggests a lifelong Conservative. In fact, born Edith Suschitzky in Vienna in 1908, she was a lifelong Communist and a small-time spy.

Edith Tudor-Hart: In The Shadow Of Tyranny

Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh


Schwitters In Britain

Tate Britain, London


She was also a first-class photographer. Born into a left-wing family, she studied at the Bauhaus and soon afterwards began to take photographs. The idea of the worker-photographer, the clear-eyed messenger of proletarian truth, was current in Communist circles.

Certainly still Edith Suschitzky, she began her career in the streets of Vienna. She took telling snapshots – of unemployed workers demonstrating, a barbed- wire barricade with policemen visible beyond, or an anonymous man arrested in the street. Typically, a photograph of women in a slum humanises them by its intimacy. It is also in pointed contrast to pictures of plump Viennese sunning themselves by the lakeside. When she photographs a May Day parade from a high window, on one side of the street below a column of marchers is in shadow, on the other individual figures stand out against bright sunshine. Thus she takes the first step towards claiming social justice: these are people, not just an anonymous mass. She liked high viewpoints and in another picture looks down on the street far below through the lattice of a giant ferris wheel, the wheel that Orson Welles rides in The Third Man.

One picture is simply a huge shadow falling across a window displaying three swastikas. In 1933 the Fascists took power. She was arrested working under an assumed name as a courier for the Communist Party of Austria and perhaps also for the Soviets. Somehow she negotiated her freedom, married her fiancé Alexander Tudor-Hart – who in spite of his hyphen shared her views – and subsequently emigrated to Britain with him late in 1933. She brought her camera and her radical eye with her.

Conditions here were not so volatile as in Austria, but there was the same unemployment, with the same corollary of poverty, strikes and hunger marches. Many of her pictures are of London, but some of the most telling are of Welsh coalminers. Wherever she went, she found poverty and the same drawn and hungry faces as in Vienna. In London, she looks down from above at two women and half a dozen small children in a tiny cluttered yard. Just a few feet away, a dark industrial building shuts them in like a prison wall. In spite of their circumstances, several children look up at her, laughing.

In Wales she got a similar response. She had climbed up to take a picture of an endless line of unemployed men marching in the rain. The spectacle of this small woman perched on a gatepost has lightened their sombre mood and, laughing, they look up at her. These are not the anonymous masses, her picture tells us, just ordinary people in misfortune.

She was political, certainly, but her radicalism as a photographer reflected the sense of humanity that shaped her politics. It shines through her pictures, though they also certainly had political impact. One of the most famous is a Dickensian image of a girl with a dirty face and ragged clothes pausing to gaze wistfully into the window of a bakery. This little girl Oliver Twist appeared in a newspaper alongside Neville Chamberlain. In the headline he addresses her: “Girlie you can’t have guns and buns! And I want guns.” Then below under the question “who gets the buns?” are listed the share prices of arms manufacturers spiralling upwards as war approaches.

Her reputation meant that it became increasingly difficult for Tudor-Hart to get work, and when she did get a commission, her message was softened or blurred. Excluded, after the war she concentrated increasingly on children. In Vienna she had been a Montessori teacher and she stayed in touch with some of the pioneer educationalists who, refugees like her, brought new ideas about education to this country. One of the most touching sets of pictures was taken in 1949 for Picture Post at Camphill School near Aberdeen, a school pioneering the idea of education for children with special needs started by Austrian refugee and radical educational theorist Karl König. The idealism that drove such projects was the other side of the same coin as her own.

For MI5, she had been a marked woman since she arrived in this country, if not before. She did continue to work as a Soviet spy, though only as a courier and go-between. She had no privileged information, but when Kim Philby fled the country, she destroyed much of her work for fear it might be incriminating. In consequence, many of the prints here have been made for the exhibition by photographer Owen Logan as originals do not survive. Being a Communist and a spy is a pretty deep hole for any reputation to climb out of.

Nevertheless, whatever dark places her politics took her, her pictures are plainly on the side of the just. They seem sadly topical too. The hungry Thirties did not lead to revolution. Instead the unrest was forged in the crucible of war into the post-war settlement of the NHS and the Welfare State. Now once again the rich grow richer and the poor grow poorer as the rich men of the Coalition go about their dirty work, dismantling it all to try to reclaim what their predecessors lost.

Immigration is topical too and Tudor-Hart’s photographs are a reminder what a catalyst it can be and how much we owe to the refugees who came here in the 1930s. As well as educationalists like Karl König, her circle included the modernist architect Ernö Goldfinger, whose portrait is here, and the progressive publisher Andre Deutsch (also a spy.) As a British subject, Tudor-Hart was not interned as many of refugees were. The Dadaist Kurt Schwitters, for instance, was part of an extraordinarily talented group of people interned on the Isle of Man. In Schwitters in Britain at Tate Britain a display of documents shows how the shame of this episode was redeemed a little by the humanity of the camp commander, Captain HO Daniel. He positively encouraged the remarkable people under his charge to deploy their talents far as was possible within the constraints of their confinement. They published a magazine and held exhibitions, and Schwitters contributed to both.

Born in 1887, Schwitters already had a long career behind him when he escaped from Nazi Germany to Norway in 1937 and thence to this country. Associated with Dada and condemned by the Nazis, between 1923 and 1932 he published a periodical called Merz, Its name was a syllable cut out of the word Kommerzbank. He also applied Merz more generally to his signature style of collage made from thrown-away fragments of paper from everyday life – bus tickets, notes, memos and advertisements and the like. It was a kind of social justice for waste paper, though he did also make three-dimensional reliefs. In an aesthetic that is at times close to Paul Klee, these collages are often beautiful and are informed both by his feeling for abstract design and by personal poetic associations. When in 1944, after his release from internment, he showed his work in London and also performed his Dada poems, the impact was immediate. There can be no doubt that they provided a starting point for Eduardo Paolozzi, and possibly for Margaret Mellis too.

At the end of the war, Schwitters moved to the Lake District. There he constructed his famous Merz Barn, a three-dimensional art environment, part of which is now on display at the Hatton Art Gallery in Newcastle, but he also took to painting landscapes and portraits, with which he had some success, proving to some, no doubt, that he had been a real artist all along. He had just concealed his talents.

• Edith Tudor-Hart until 26 May; Schwitters in Britain until 12 May