Internment in Douglas
Between 1933 and 1945 whether for religious, political or artistic reasons, over 300 painters, sculptors and graphic artists fled into exile or immigrated to Britain during the period of National Socialism in Europe. Following Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor in January 1933 and the foundation of the Reichskulturkammer (the Reich Chamber of Culture) – to which all professional artists and designers had to belong – all Jews, Communists, Social Democrats and ‘avant-garde’ artists were effectively banned from working in Germany.
Following the outbreak of war in September 1939, attitudes towards German-speaking émigrés in Britain hardened. Home Office tribunals re-categorised refugees, and in response to Churchill’s order to ‘collar the lot’, transit and internment camps were established on the mainland, the Isle of Man and across the Commonwealth. Eisenmayer, a 19-year-old Jewish refugee fleeing Nazi persecution, had just reached England after being released from Dachau concentration camp, where he had been imprisoned for repeated attempts to escape from Nazi-controlled Austria. Like many so-called ‘enemy aliens’, he was then interned on the Isle of Man.
After Dachau, Eisenmeyer recalled that captivity in British hands was ‘at times, a bit of a lark’, with trips to the cinema, football matches, a choir and a camp ‘university’ offering art classes. For artists, continuing professional practice was certainly possible. Admirably resourceful, they dug up clay for sculpture, ground brick dust with linseed oil or olive oil from sardine cans to make paint, saved brown parcel paper and toilet paper for drawing, and pulled up lino for linocuts which were run through a mangle. Sitters were readily available amongst fellow internees; the most notable portraitist was Dadaist, Kurt Schwitters, whose realist paintings are highlights of internment art, contrasting with his Merz sculptures, assembled from camp junk, porridge, lino and paint.
Despite Eisenmayer’s affirmation: ‘I don’t go along with the presentation by some artists of the clichéd barbed wire […] We were bloody lucky on the Isle of Man, unlike the millions in German concentration camps’, this drawing, accompanied by 29 internees’ signatures, commemorating camp friendships, clearly depicts the wire being triumphantly torn apart by a youth, beneath which appear the words ‘Jungend Siegende Jungend’ (‘Youth Victorious Youth’). On the reverse is a topographical view of Douglas camp, a row of seaside boarding houses, guarded and enclosed by wire, with the town’s distinctive architecture clearly visible beyond.
After release Eisenmayer moved to London, establishing his reputation as a painter, then from the mid–1960s, as a sculptor, living in Italy for a period from 1976. In 1962 Ben Uri held a solo Eisenmayer exhibition at Berners Street, and his painting Strip Poker closed Ben Uri’s 2010 exhibition Forced Journeys which toured to Douglas and Birkenhead to mark the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the Manx internment camps. His work has recently undergone a critical reassessment.