Exhibit of the Week: Red Enigma by Willy Tirr

Red Enigma by Willy Tirr in the Scarborough Collections.
Red Enigma by Willy Tirr in the Scarborough Collections.

It’s called Red Enigma, and to those who don’t like modern art, that’s probably what it will remain.

For those of us who do like it, this is a gorgeous example of abstract expressionism by a much under-rated German/British artist.

The artist, Willy Tirr, was Jewish and grew up against the tumultuous backdrop of Europe in the early 20th century. He was born in Stettin, Germany, in 1915, the son of an artistic father. Georg was, at various points in his life, a window dresser, designer and ran both a cinema and a restaurant.

Georg had four brothers, three of whom were eventually to die in the Holocaust, one in Auschwitz. Georg and his brother Dagobert between them ran various businesses including, in the late 20s, the Kakadu restaurant in Berlin, which boasted the longest bar in Europe at the time.

Georg’s wealth meant that Willy had a privileged childhood, and was taken to school in a chauffer-driven limousine. Artistic, sporty and highly-strung, he enjoyed the cultural life of pre-war Berlin to the full, and spent many hours walking in the surrounding countryside and painting naturalistic landscapes inspired by it.

It was not to last, though – the Nazi persecution of the Jews meant that many were fleeing their homeland, including Dagobert, who had used his wealth to escape in some style by taking a taxi from Berlin to Paris. Georg and his wife, Herta, stayed put, living in relative poverty and making ends meet with a lampshade-making business which Herta ran with Willy’s help.

Eventually Willy also fled, arriving in England in 1938 at the age of 23 and bringing with him his wife, 19-year-old Erika. He was initially interred as an enemy alien in Australia, but eventually allowed to enlist in the British Army, at first working in bomb disposal, and by the end of the war in the Intelligence Corps – his was one of the first units to enter Belsen, which must have had a profound effect on him.

After the war, he and Erika ended up living in Leeds where he put his artistic talent to good use. During the 1950s and 60s he taught at the Leeds College of Art which had the good fortune at the time to have as its Head of Fine Art Harry Thubron, a man regarded by many to be one of the greatest teachers of art this country has ever produced. With Victor Pasmore and Tom Hudson, Thubron set up the Scarborough Summer Schools, which were hugely influential in art education in the 20th century.

In 1957, Tirr held his first exhibition at York’s Austin Hayes Gallery, exhibiting alongside the great abstract artist, Terry Frost. He went on to have numerous successful shows both in the UK and abroad.

In 1970 he began teaching as lecturer and later became Head of Fine Art at Leeds Polytechnic, where he stayed until his retirement in 1981.

Throughout his life, Tirr continued to be inspired by the landscapes around him, as he had been in his early years in Germany. The landscapes changed, though, from the forests of his youth to the Yorkshire moors, and his style changed from naturalist to abstract impressionism. He died in 1991.

A biography of this brilliant but, these days, under-rated artist was published in 2010 – Willy Tirr: Figures in a Landscape, by David Manson, is available from Amazon. We are indebted to it for much of the information above.

You can also see other examples of Willy Tirr’s work on the excellent Art UK website: http://artuk.org/discover/artists/tirr-willy-19151991

Red Enigma is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.dunne@smtrust.uk.com or 01723 384510.