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A Canadian Artist With an International Reputation



Background of the Artist


Werner Mayer-Gunther was born in Nuremberg/Germany in 1917. and was a student at the art school of Nuremberg when Hitler came to power in 1933. A year later, Mayer-Gunther was expelled from the school because of his part Jewish background. He escaped from the country in 1938, the year of the “Kristallnacht” when synagogues were burning all over Germany. The year before, the Nazis had staged a huge exhibition of what they called “Degenerate Art” in Munich, ridiculing and ostracizing the artists of the Bauhaus and the Expressionist movement, among others. They condemned the modern art of the early 20th century in general as being un-German and “Jewish-Bolshevist.” It was this art, however, that Mayer-Gunther had absorbed when he went into exile, meeting some of the vilified artists on his travels, including Paul Klee.


When the war ended, Mayer-Gunther was back in Germany and appointed to a high-ranking government position in the East German province of Saxony-Anhalt with the mandate to restore the expressionist collection of the Moritzburg Museum in Halle, which had been scattered by the Nazis. He did this very successfully, as the painter Max Pechstein, member of the “Bruecke” group of painters, confirmed in a hand-written statement:


Mr.Werner Mayer-Gunther has done exemplary work for the museum in Halle…. Unfortunately, the gratitude expressed in the beginning by the government and the municipality of Halle was later on denied by the Russian occupation administration, and the museum is thrown back into nothingness.” (March 8, 1950).


What Pechstein is referring to here is the doctrine of Socialist Realism, which the Russian communists imposed on all art, whether literature, the fine arts or music. Again, after Hitler’s denunciation of modern art as “degenerate”, Stalin’s henchmen introduced the term “decadent” to decry all modern art forms of the “capitalist” Western world.


Many artists who had come together in Halle in the artists’ association “Die Faehre” left the city and East Germany. Immediately after the war, they had found orientation in the Bauhaus and in Expressionism. They painted jugglers and circus performers in simple and emblematic forms, experimenting extensively with colour, in their search for balance and harmony. Their teachers were Charles Crodel and Erwin Hahs, the former cultivating the traditions of classical modernity, the latter, in contact with Walter Gropius of the Bauhaus moving on, in his own work, from Expressionism to more abstract forms without ever giving up figurative forms entirely. Wilhelm Worringer, the renowned art historian, was also in Halle at the time. In his book “Abstraction and Empathy”, he argues that abstract art is in no way inferior to “realist” art, and he saw a preponderance of abstraction in times of great spiritual anxiety when a search for new spiritual values became imperative. Mayer-Gunther worked in this environment, and paintings of his were shown in the annual exhibition of contemporary art at the Moritzburg Museum. He left East Germany, as did so many others, in 1948, because he did not want to be patronized by the communist champions of Socialist Realism.


He found a job in Hamburg/West Germany as an illustrator and cartoonist for the daily newspaper “Die Welt”. In 1951, he decided to emigrate to Canada. This was a decision of great consequence, because it disconnected him from his artistic roots in Germany and thrust him into a completely unfamiliar environment where, the first few years, he was busy surviving and had no professional contacts of any kind.


Nevertheless, he eventually bought an old farmhouse near Toronto and started painting again. All the parts of his fragmented apprenticeship now came together, as he gradually developed his own individual style. He made the deliberate decision not to forgo representational motifs, though he simplified them increasingly to characteristic ciphers, embedding them in a miracle of carefully graded and balanced colour: the world of his experience as seen through a prism. He knew sorrow and despair, and he gave two of his works these very titles. He knew the horrors of war and exile and persecution, and he expressed them in works such as “General Senseless” and “In Chains/Political Prisoner.” He knew the hardships of immigration, but also the joys of freedom in a free country, and he expressed them repeatedly in the motif of the “Immigrant Family.” His view of the world and the role of the artist was never enduringly pessimistic. “Art”, he said, “exists to give order to the chaos of life.” And he might have added, in the words of Paul Klee: “Colour represents the optimism and nobility in art.” With these tools at his disposal: the rigorous architecture of form (reminiscent of the Bauhaus, the French Cubists and Paul Klee) and the emotional impact of colour (he must have known Kandinsky’s treatise “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” and his elaborations on the nature and effect of colours), he set out on his patient search for new ways of expression.


Major Exhibitions and Awards


Werner Mayer-Gunther exhibited twice in New York, at the Van Diemen-Lilienfeld Galleries in 1958 and at the Tannenbaum Galleries in 1961, together with Eduard Bargheer and Werner Gilles. Bargheer knew Paul Klee and visited him in Bern/Switzerland in 1936. Gilles was a student of Lyonel Feininger at the Bauhaus. Bargheer and Gilles were many years older than Mayer-Gunther. What they had in common was their celebration of light and colour.


Werner Mayer-Gunther was awarded the coveted Villa Massimo prize by the West German government. In 1960, he was a guest of honour at the Villa Massimo in Rome for a one year sabbatical, where he painted “The Large Angel.” This prize has been described as one of the most sought after prizes for German artists.


There were also exhibitions in Toronto, Canada, a large retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Montreal, a comprehensive exhibition at the Kasseler Kunstverein in Germany, and another major retrospective at the gallery of the Theatre of Esch in the Grand-Duchy of Luxembourg. Mayer-Gunther travelled a great deal in the United States and Mexico, and there were exhibitions in South Carolina and Louisiana. All these shows served to consolidate his international reputation.


Influence and Style


Mayer-Gunther was fierce in the defence of his integrity as an artist and serene in his humanistic outlook on life. He was preoccupied with capturing the exuberance and harmony of movement, which shows in many works such as “New York City Ballet”, the numerous variations of “Family Walks” and “Cyclists” and musical “Quartets”, soccer, volleyball and ice hockey players, “Street Dancers”, “Skaters”, “Gymnasts” and “Acrobats”. Like Paul Klee, he had a wry sense of humour and of sheer childlike fun as in “The Sensitive Ones are Running Away”, “Charles and Diana” and the “Harlem Globetrotters.”


Is Werner Mayer-Gunther a Canadian artist? He is – by virtue of the fact that he lived and worked in Canada most of his adult life. He is not – because he had his artistic roots elsewhere. There were many ruptures in his life, and like Klee again, he generally worked in isolation of his peers. He had his moments of triumph on both sides of the Atlantic, but he never belonged to a movement or a particular school of painters. A new generation will have to discover his lasting merit and significance as an artist. As Guy Wagner, organizer of the exhibition in Luxemburg, says, Werner Mayer-Gunther is an artist who comes across as “subjectively true and objectively honest.”