A homeland sculpted by love

 

THE SATURDAY INTERVIEW:Imogen Stuart

ON A BALMY summer evening in Berlin, Imogen Stuart walks down a street drinking in the familiar, urban atmosphere.

When she was born here 82 years ago, no one could have foreseen the storm of fascism that would destroy the city and the country and, indirectly, bring Imogen Stuart to her adoptive home of Ireland.

After six decades, she is viewed by many as our most accomplished sculptor and more Irish than many people born and living on the island today.

But Ireland is far away tonight and Imogen Stuart is happy in her memories of the city of her birth.

“I’m hopelessly sentimental about Berlin, it’s the only place I could imagine living in Germany,” she says softly. “The trees, the smell in the summer, the murmur of the people sitting out on the streets . . .” Stuart is a small woman with a tidy grey bob, piercing blue eyes and a slight limp. She has an infectious enthusiasm and an insatiable curiosity for everything and everyone around her.

Approaching her work with the same energy and vitality, she leaves people many years her junior in the shade.

Since leaving for good in the 1950s, she has returned regularly to Germany, but mostly just for short holidays and always to Berlin.

Now she has come back on an extended stay to tour the country she never knew, a journey that has brought back memories – some happy and others less so.

The trip brings Stuart and her younger sister Sybille, who lives in southern Germany, back to the family home in Dahlem, a well-off western suburb of the city.

Neither the street nor the white house have changed much, a miracle considering all that has happened in the years since she was born here in 1927 to a comfortable middle-class family.

Stuart had what she describes as a “golden childhood” in the last years of the Weimar Republic. She was just five when Hitler rose to power, oblivious to the dire consequences for Germany, and her own family.

Her father, Bruno Werner, was a well-known cultural journalist who exposed Imogen and Sybille to all kinds of art from a young age: in their kindergarten, at exhibitions he brought them to and through regular house guests such as dramatist Bertolt Brecht.

“Art was always there,” says Stuart. “We had a very artistic atmosphere at home.” But Werner’s public profile, and the fact that he was a Great War veteran who survived the Somme, counted for little in the new order of the Third Reich.

After the Nuremberg Laws were passed, Werner’s Jewish mother made him and his family unwilling players in a decade-long game of cat and mouse with the authorities. Stuart and her sister say they noticed little of what was going on around them at the time because of the efforts of Bruno Werner and his wife Katharina.

They bypassed the local Nazi school and sent their girls to nearby Grunewald where, they had heard through the underground, the headmaster was as disgusted with the regime as they were.

“There was very little ‘Heil Hitler!’ and we prayed every morning – unthinkable in other schools – until the place was shut down,” Stuart remembers.

When the bombing of Berlin began in 1941, the girls were evacuated to Bavaria and then, after a brief return to Berlin, moved with their mother to a distant relative near Vienna.

“What a Nazi school we had there,” laughs Stuart. “The Austrians were very welcoming to us, seeing that we were from the Reich.” By 1944 their Dahlem home was gone – confiscated for a Nazi officer – and Werner, after narrowly escaping Gestapo interrogation and concentration camp roundups, went into hiding.

Late one night he reappeared before his family in Austria and, on hearing that Imogen had been drafted to help dig tank traps against the advancing Red Army, took her with him to a friend’s house in Bavaria, already teeming with other refugees.

The wartime game of cat and mouse ended for Werner and Stuart with the arrival of American troops in April 1945; it took months for her mother and sister to get out of Vienna, this time while avoiding encounters with raping Russian soldiers.

Late into the night, over 60 years later, the two sisters laugh and swap stories about the war which, as children, they perceived as one big adventure. Their war tales are hair-raising but it all seems so far away, sitting in a courtyard restaurant on a warm summer night in the eastern city of Erfurt.

During the day, the two have toured Erfurt’s medieval city centre and taken a day-trip to Arnstadt, a pretty little town where Bach began his musical career. “It’s all so marvellous and new to me,” says Stuart, “because, in Germany, I only knew Berlin and Bavaria.”

A few days later, on a sunny Sunday morning in Weimar, Imogen and Sybille are listening in rapt attention to a speech about their father.

The city’s Bauhaus Museum has put together an exhibition dedicated to the magazine Bruno Werner edited for 14 years, die neue linie(The New Line).

It was a revolutionary publication that brought to the masses cutting-edge Bauhaus design and literary contributions from Thomas Mann and James Joyce – all with daring design, radical layouts and bleeding-edge typography.

One issue of the magazine contains Stuart’s first public piece of art: a painting she made as a 14-year-old for her father’s birthday, inspired by The Carouselby German poet Rainer Maria Rilke.

When we meet again some days later, on a warm Berlin evening, Stuart recites the verse she learned by heart decades ago, of children with “small hot hands” and “barely begun profiles” spinning around on horses and lions. The poem ends with a “blissful smile that dazzles and dissipates this breathless blind game”.

Stuart’s life took its own breathless turn in 1945 when her father approached a sculptor acquaintance, Otto Hitzberger, about taking on his daughter as a pupil.

An Expressionist with a 30-year career at Berlin’s Academy of Fine Arts, Hitzberger had returned to his home in rural Bavaria after being blacklisted by the Nazis. Six decades on, Stuart recalls the training as “the happiest years of my life: not just lessons, but one long masterclass in a whole lifestyle”. “I was 18 and he was an old man and fell madly in love with me, but a complete gentlemen,” she laughs.

Disregarding the academic approach, Hitzberger got Imogen drawing early, then moved her on to sculpture in plaster, clay and finally wood.

Amid the post-war ruins and food shortages, the 18-year-old Berliner was soon nourishing herself almost exclusively on German art.

FATE BROUGHTA new distraction with the arrival in 1948 of an Irish student, Ian Stuart, son of Francis and Iseult Stuart and grandson of Maud Gonne.

They talked about art, he sang her Irish rebel songs and soon they were inseparable. The two travelled together to Ireland for the first time in 1949.

“As soon as I arrived, I knew this was my country. I was totally taken over by Irish art: the landscape, the ruins, the history of the saints and scholars,” she says.

The dream-like existence was intensified by life in Laragh Castle near Glendalough, living with Ian’s invalid mother Iseult between the weeping, damp walls.

They married in 1951 and began their sculpting careers producing souvenirs, with financial support from Ian’s grandparents.

“Maud Gonne was a lovely family person, though she took to the bed like so many Irish people,” Imogen recalls. “I remember her saying” – affecting a declamatory British accent – “‘There was a golden age and there will be one again.’

“She believed in the golden age – the time when Ireland had all the saints and scholars – that meant so much to me and still does.” At this stage, Stuart had yet to meet the other family celebrity, the author Francis Stuart.

He had separated from Iseult and, after his Nazi propaganda broadcasts, was living with another woman in Germany. There, even Stuart’s father, a survivor of the Third Reich’s anti-Semitic campaign, had heard of Ireland’s most notorious alleged Nazi sympathiser.

“My father met Francis once in Germany much later,” says Stuart. “I know they didn’t get on but my father was so tactful he never told me so.” She would encounter Francis later in life and remembers him as polite but distant.

Her early years of married life seemed like a dream: three young daughters, the move to a house in Sandycove and a growing reputation as a sculptor.

But things appear radically different in hindsight, she says. She had no Irish friends or contact outside the family and, increasingly, she wielded no control in her marriage, making countless concessions to her husband.

Born Lutheran, she converted at the request of Ian, then a devout Catholic. “It was a bit strange for me but I took it all in my stride” she says, dismissing whispers of a link between her conversion to a church that was at the time the only organisation in the country commissioning sculpture.

“People have always tried to pin that one on me,” says Stuart. “But it’s not the case. Like most artists I’ve always had my own spirituality. I simply loved meeting these extraordinary priests. I suppose they viewed me as some kind of exotic European continental, and were more relaxed with me than they were with Irish people. Religious subjects were never discussed.”

Spread across every corner of the island, her church works are as much humanist as religious pieces that marry the primitive beauty of ancient Irish art with the elegant lines of European Expressionism.

Too many to mention here, her most familiar works include the altar of Liam McCormick’s prize-winning church at Burt in Co Donegal; the doors of Galway Cathedral; Ballintubber Abbey stations of the cross, and the metal crucifix in Armagh Cathedral.

Her most recent work is a striking bronze angel for St Theresa’s church on Dublin’s Clarendon Street, doors down from the studio of her painter grandson Sam Horler, whom she describes lovingly as “such a talented artist”.

In recent decades she has stopped taking on commissions but still views them as an ideal way of working and developing as an artist.

“I loved working on commissions because every time it was a new challenge with the same five limitations: subject, size, material, place, budget,” she says. “I believe confinement and restriction are really good for creativity.”

She has a huge body of non-church work, too. A well-known piece can be found in Stillorgan shopping centre, south Dublin, where a group of sculpted children dance to the music of the nearby Fiddler of Dooney.

“Children love to try and take one of the children’s hands to join in the dance, or feed them ice cream,” says Stuart, with a mother’s pride. “I once saw a child give one of the statues a kiss, another gave a statue a slap.” Visiting her works is always a pleasure, she says, because they remain in the public domain rather than disappearing into a private collection.

Yet for a public artist of such high acclaim, Stuart says she is not always comfortable talking about her work.

“I always enjoy my work, whatever I do, but I’m not an intellectual. It’s really just shapes and forms that go somewhere,” she says. “It’s never an intellectual exercise. People always say lovely things about my works that I’ve never thought of before and then I am always as happy as can be.”

She is understandably cautious in discussing the end of her marriage to Ian Stuart, a difficult period of her life she later described as “like being brainwashed”.

After years of feeling powerless, it was an accident during a visit to Berlin in 1971 and an extended hospital stay that, in the end, was the catalyst for her to divorce her unfaithful husband.

“Ian was something that I had never known before, and I suppose the whole ambience in Ireland was new to me. I can only say that it was always magic,” she said. “That’s what made the break-up so ghastly.”

Tragedy struck the family in 1988 when one of her three daughters, Siobhán, was killed in a car crash. Today her other two daughters live in Co Meath and Co Sligo; she has 12 grandchildren and “seven and a half great-grandchildren: the half is on the way.” Six decades after her first visit to Ireland – after a series of honorary degrees and even a commission to produce a bust of former president Mary Robinson – she says she is “still not 100 per cent Irish”.

“But being a little outside is a good position for an artist,” she says.

A respected figure in the country’s arts landscape, she is a professor of sculpture at the Royal Hibernian Academy and one of the longest-serving members of Aosdána.

She had a ringside seat in 1996 for the scandal that erupted when her former father-in-law, Francis Stuart, was elected a Saoi – the highest honour in the organisation.

Poet Máire Mhac an tSaoi objected strongly to the appointment, citing alleged anti-Semitic content in his Nazi-era broadcasts. She resigned, he stayed.

“I think the whole thing was a bad idea,” says Stuart. “It was embarrassing enough for the president to give him the torc to make him a Saoi. But after that it should have been kept down. Instead of that it was all livened up into a big fuss.”

OUR FINAL MEETINGtakes place on another sunny day, this time in Berlin, as Stuart emerges from the new landmark Bauhaus exhibition.

At a restaurant in the nearby Tiergarten park, her jubilation about the exhibition she has just seen soon turns pensive.

It’s the end of a long trip with her sister Sybille that has taken them around Germany and back to their old home in Dahlem and to their parents’ grave.

Now, after a week touring what she calls “the Germany I never knew” – Weimar, Erfurt and other treasure troves of German culture – she seems restless, like someone who has made a long-delayed emotional realisation.

“When I left Germany after the war, everything about it – besides the art and my family – simply disgusted me,” she says.

“On this trip it has really hit me hard what Hitler did to Germany. All these places I’ve visited were home to great poets and composers and the beautiful Bauhaus, but that had all become abstract to me. But now it has suddenly all become clear to me that this was all German, all this beauty, killed, just like that. I find it a terrible shock.” It’s a moving confession at the end of a pilgrimage to the homeland Stuart no longer calls home.

After 60 years in Ireland, her land of saints and scholars, Imogen Stuart has made peace with her German homeland, the land of Dichter und Denker, of poets and thinkers.

FAMILYBorn in Berlin, daughter of a well-known Weimar, Germany intellectual; married in 1951 to Ian Stuart, son of Francis Stuart and grandson of Maud Gonne. Three children. Lives since 1962 in Sandycove, Co Dublin. Divorced in 1971

BEST KNOWN FORsculptures all over the country from UCD’s Pangur Bánto St Patrick’s Purgatory in Lough Derg and her arches in Ballymore Eustace and Cavan town

CAREERTrained with German Expressionist Otto Hitzberger, worked closely with Liam McCormick on his landmark Burt church. Elected to Aosdána in 1981 and in 1990 to the Royal Hibernian Academy

ON HERSELF“I’ve always occupied myself with art and culture and my family; everything else always got on my nerves.”