Refuge and Renewal: migration and British art || Peter Wakelin

Incomers provide a new perspective on their adoptive territory and also contribute to the development of its art through the integration of styles and techniques. This is not the same as internationalism, where artists from one country observe those in others and adopt and adapt their ways of working. Integration provides a fuller amount of exchange and symbiosis that works both ways. Something as simple as differing light can affect the way scenes are depicted, just as social mores and patterns of dress influence figurative work.

This book is based on a British perspective – to treat the subject from a completely international viewpoint would be enormous and far beyond the scope of this book and the exhibition, at the Royal West of England Academy, it accompanies.

For all that, it goes far enough back into history to look at the Sixteenth Century portraits of Hans Holbein and other artists who learnt their trade abroad. Peter Wakelin also considers the work of fleeing Huguenots such as Marcellus Laroon, whose Cryes of London has given identity to some of the forgotten masses – foreshadowing, in a way, Henry Mayhew’s Nineteenth Century narrative London Labour and the London Poor.

The main focus though, perhaps unsurprisingly, is on the Twentieth Century when wars and upheaval caused many, often large, population shifts. Helmut Herzfeld (who Anglicised his name to John Heartfield) portrayed those sought by the Gestapo in 1930s Germany, while Dobrivoje Beljkašic recorded his native Sarajevo in the 1990s.

Despite the potentially gloomy nature of the subject matter, this is an optimistic book, as reflected in the “renewal” of the title. The narrative is a complex one and Peter Wakelin is aware that he is dealing not with historical shifts but with individuals, each with their own stories and concerns. Ultimately, this is a book about art, not national and social history, and Wakelin marshals his material well, sparking interest at all points.

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