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  • Life and Death in Sublimation: The Artistic Survival of Hans Reichel in World War II France
  • Deborah L. Browning (bio)


On the twentieth of October 1937 in Paris, 18 Villa Seurat of Henry Miller fame was crowded with visitors to the opening of an exhibition of the recent works of the forty-five-year-old, German émigré painter Hans Reichel. [Figure 1] It was being held in the second floor flat of the young American painter Betty Ryan. Miller and Ryan had planned this exhibition when they learned of the extent of financial hardship which had befallen their mutual friend. The guest book shows the signatures of Kandinsky, Miro, Duchamp, and Max Ernst, who adds “tres belle exposition!” The photographer Brassai was there. Others who signed in were the surrealist poet Raymond Queneau, the playwright Henri-René Lenormand, Anaïs Nin, Lawrence Durrell, and of course, Henry Miller. Lenormand would pay an extremely high price—negotiated up by Ryan—for a particular favorite oil the painter had initially been reluctant to sell; [Figure 2] but with that money, Reichel would be able to settle his long overdue account at the Hôtel des Terrasses where he had been living across the hall from Brassai, and to move to new quarters, a tiny room, on a short dead-end street in Paris’s [End Page 563] Montparnasse area. 7 Impasse du Rouet would remain his home for the rest of his life—a good 13 years beyond the end of World War II and Reichel’s five years of war life, internments, and artistic productivity about which this essay is concerned.1

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Figure 1.

Hans Reichel, 1930/1931 photo by Brassaï (Hans Reichel Archive)

[End Page 564]

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Figure 2.

Hans Reichel 1925 No. 26 (Oil on canvas; 45.5 × 39.5) Unterlinden Museum, Colmar

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Figure 3.

Hans Reichel 1927 No. 020 (Oil on cardboard; 21.5 × 23.5 cm) 1941 No. 026 (Watercolor on paper; 18.2 × 23.7 cm)

[End Page 565]

Across the Seine that October, the Germans and Russians had competed to see who could build the largest and most monstrous of the pavilions for the 1937 Paris World’s Fair, while Picasso’s monumental “Guernica” hung in the Spanish pavilion as a memorialization and protest of that town’s destruction as a result of the Spanish Civil War. Yet more ominous, in Munich, the city of Reichel’s childhood and artistic beginnings, Hitler had already opened the exhibition of “degenerate art,” where some 650 paintings, drawings, and books from museums all over Germany, all deemed unacceptably vulgar and offensive by the Third Reich, were on display. And finally, to round out the context, in June of this year Freud had published “Analysis Terminable and Interminable” and by December would publish “Constructions.” As aware as anyone of the coming nightmare, earlier that year Freud had written to Arnold Zweig, “The political situation seems to be becoming ever more sombre. There is probably no holding up the Nazi invasion, with its baleful consequences [...] My only hope is that I shall not live to see it” (Jones, 1957, p. 213).

The above vignette from 1937 is important because six years later, from a safe-house in southwestern France, living under a false identity, Reichel wrote to his friend Herta Hausmann that 1936 and 1937 were the best years of his life. In telling her this, he is conjuring up and writing down for another to read, a memory of a creative period when his career and recognition were at a peak, thus reminding himself of a crucial aspect of his sense of self—that of an artist. Reichel was not Jewish, but as a German living in France he was swept into that country’s response to the flood of refugees pouring across its borders, fleeing both the Spanish Civil War and the rise and spread of Hitler’s National Socialism. Panicked, France had essentially revoked its long-standing position on droit d’asile (right of asylum), also blurring the ambiguous distinction between immigrants and refugees (Caron, 1999...


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