When art is not where the home is
A Hungarian refugee, curator Agi Katz says she gravitates to immigrant artists
25 May, 2017 — By Gerald Isaaman
Eva Frankfurther’s The Old Fiddler
MORE people are displaced in the world today than ever before in human history, all going through an unprecedented time of terror and turbulence.
“It is the same horror I went through being repeated, but much, much harder than I ever experienced,” says Agi Katz. “I was very lucky and made welcome when I arrived in London while today there is this animosity, so much anti-semitism and hate.”
And Agi should know.
She was one of some 200,000 who fled as refugees during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, a medical student of 18 who was part of the initial uprising against the Soviet-imposed regime during which more than 2,500 Hungarians and 700 Russian troops died.
One of the last to leave Budapest after all her student friends had fled, she experienced a Soviet tank shell crashed through the window of the block of flats where she lived with his parents and brother. “If I had been 12 inches to the left my head would have gone, blown off,” she recalled at her home on Highgate’s Holly Lodge Estate.
“It was the scariest thing in my whole life. There was complete chaos after the students I was with toppled Stalin’s statue in front of the Houses of Parliament. Three days later the Russian tanks moved in. Everything was turned upside down. I became quite hysterical and my parents heartbroken because I wanted to get out. My doctor father was crying. It was awful, traumatic.”
Agi’s vivid recollections are surprisingly linked directly with the last half of her life. For she has become a passionate promoter not only of art in general but that produced by the refugee artists who made their homes locally before and after the defeat of Hitler in the First World War.
She recounts the names of David Bomberg, Josef Herman, Martin Bloch, Jacob Epstein, Mark Gertler, Mario Dubsky, Jacob Kramer, who she exhibited at the Ben Uri Gallery, where she was curator for six years, and then at her own Boundary Gallery in St John’s Wood, which closed in 2011.
All that happened after a painful life arriving in London empty-handed.
“You don’t crawl out, walk out of a revolution with anything apart from what you are wearing,” she explained.
Indeed, though she was welcomed and supported with refugee political asylum funding and grants that enabled her to study at the LSE, at first she moved 14 times in three years in London, washed the dishes in restaurants and shared a YWCA room with five other girls.
Her studies in international relations and sociology plus her gift for languages won her two appointments as an economic assistant with chemical companies before she married a student she met at the LSE in 1962, moved to Highgate, where she brought up three children.
“I was always passionately interested in art, even in Hungary,” she said. “After my first child was born I wanted to do something, as one does, and took an art course at the Camden Arts Centre. Then I applied to the Chelsea School of Art and got an award to study there from 1973 to 1976 and loved it.
“I had finally found somewhat I wanted to do more than anything else – and that was wonderful.”
Other jobs followed, including running Lauderdale House, Highgate, on a part-time basis before arriving at the Ben Uri and realising her mission to help refugee artists exhibit there and in touring shows at major galleries across the world, among them New York’s Metropolitan and the Israeli Museum, in Jerusalem.
And now she organises exhibitions at Highgate’s Contemporary Gallery, and will highlight the work of Eva Frankfurther, a contemporary of Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach but not so well known, whom Agi first encountered at a gallery in Belsize Park “and was completely blown away”.
Frankfurther, born in Berlin in 1930, fled Nazi persecution to England in 1939 and after becoming an evacuee during the London Blitz trained at St Martin’s School of Art alongside Auerbach and Leon Kossoff.
Her desire was to represent the day to day stories of others, visiting Italy to paint pilgrims, beggars and children, then moving to Paris and subsequently deserting her comfortable family home in Hampstead for a basement flat in Whitechapel. There she worked in Lyons Corner House every evening to observe her fellow menial employees– then drawing and painting them.
Tragically, Frankfurther took her own life, aged just 29, which makes Agi’s promotion of her work all the more poignant.
“After all my unforgettable experience in Hungary in1956, probably that’s why I tended to gravitate towards artists who were also immigrants and Frankfurther is a prime example of that.”
• The exhibition runs from June 6-11 at Contemporary Gallery, 26 Highgate High Street, N6 5JG. Details at www.highgateart.com or 020 8340 7564.