Born in Berlin to an assimilated Jewish family, Eva Frankfurther emigrated with her family to the UK in 1939 to begin a new life in London. At the age of just 16, she enrolled at St Martin’s School of Art where she studied until 1951, alongside Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. Whilst still studying, Frankfurther repeatedly traveled to the United States and later across Europe, where her interest in black and immigrant communities first took hold. After leaving art school and becoming disillusioned by the London art scene, Frankfurther moved to Whitechapel, where she immersed herself in the local community and began earning a living through non-artistic means. The subjects of her paintings reflected this; often depicting her immigrant co-workers at the Lyons Corner House in Piccadilly, a bustling cafeteria that employed approximately 400 staff.
“West Indian, Irish, Cypriot and Pakistani immigrants, English whom the Welfare State had passed by, these were the people amongst whom I lived and made some of my best friends…”
Frankfurther’s signature style employs loose brushwork and dry paint applied sparingly with a focus on portraiture and the human form. Her use of oil on paper reflects the financial constraints she worked under and equally the way in which she distanced herself from the high-art conventions and middle-class milieu in which she had been raised.
“Her instinctive sympathy for workers, immigrants and other people on the margins was probably due at least in part to her own experience as a German-Jewish exile and an outsider, but also allowed her a remarkable insight into their inner lives, in which she revealed herself to be above all an artist ‘of vision and compassion’.”
– An Excerpt taken from Sarah MacDougall’s chapter – The Lives of Others: Eva Frankfurther, in the exhibition catalogue ‘Reconfiguring the 50s’.
Tragically, Frankfurther took her own life at the age of 29. Her works were regularly exhibited during group shows at the Whitechapel Gallery, and since her death, there have also been several solo shows, including at the Ben Uri Gallery, Clare College Cambridge, the Margaret Fisher Gallery, and Bedford Central Library.
The rise of Hitler and increasingly restrictive environment in Nazi Germany caused hundreds of thousands of people to flee. The German annexation of Austria in March 1938 and increase in personal attacks on Jews followed by the nationwide pogrom Kristallnacht (Night of the Broken Glass) in November and seizure of Jewish property caused around 36,000 Jews to leave Germany and Austria in 1938 and 77,000 in 1939.
On top of Jewish emigration, many academics, artists, authors and musicians whose work was labelled as ‘degenerate’ left for Europe or the United States as persecution increased throughout the decade. Degenerate was a term used to describe nearly all modern art, which was severely restricted.
In 1933 The Convention relating to the International Status of Refugees was agreed, marking the first time in an international agreement the principle that refugees should not be returned to their country of origin. However, although the Convention laid down a duty to grant asylum it didn’t create a right to asylum for individuals; this was seen to infringe on the rights of states to decide who should or shouldn’t be allowed to enter their territory. Great Britain ratified the convention along with eight other states.