Work by Hampstead artist who fled the Nazis is bought by museum

Circus Scene

Circus Scene (oil on canvas 1964) by Marie-Louise von Motesiczky has been acquired by the Ben Uri Museum in Boundary Road NW8. - Credit: Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Trust/Ben Uri

A painting by a Hampstead artist who fled Nazi oppression has been bought by a St John's Wood museum.

Circus Scene by Marie-Louise von Motesiczky, was painted in 1964 when the Viennese-Jewish artist was living in Chesterford Gardens. The "important" late career oil was acquired by the Ben Uri Gallery and Museum for £8,125 to join its collection of Jewish and immigrant artists, many of whom were threatened by Hitler's murderous regime.

Curators hope it will go on show alongside other new acquisitions when the Boundary Road museum reopens.

But in the meantime, it can be viewed in their online gallery of works by 442 artists including Frank Auerbach, Marc Chagall, Sonia Delaunay, Mark Gertler and Jacob Epstein.

The modest venue has spent the past two years digitising its collection to become "the first full scale digital museum" -  a move which has allowed them to expand both their reach and  collection, including the painting by von Motesiczky.

Born in Vienna in 1906, she left school at 13, and attended art classes in Vienna, The Hague, Frankfurt, Paris, and Berlin before being invited in 1927 to join Max Beckmann’s masterclass in Frankfurt.

But when the Nazis annexed Austria on March 12,1938, she fled to Holland the following day with her mother, Henriette, and childhood nanny. Her brother, Karl, who refused to leave, continued to shelter Jewish friends and Nazi opponents until he was betrayed. He perished in Auschwitz in 1943.

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Marie-Louise held her first exhibition at The Hague in 1939, leaving for London shortly afterwards where she became influenced by fellow emigre Oskar Kokoschka, befriended Hampstead artist Milein Cosman, and became the lover of writer Elias Canetti. Solo shows included the Czechoslovak Institute in 1944, the Beaux Arts Gallery in 1960, and the Goethe Institute in 1985 – which brought critical acclaim and cemented her reputation as an important figurative painter and portraitist, whose subjects included Iris Murdoch and Ursula Vaughan Williams. 

In 1960 she moved into 6 Chesterford Gardens where her increasingly fragile mother soon joined her along with an Austrian housekeeper who was renowned for her apple strudel. Canetti also moved in, and it became a haven of Viennese decor, cuisine and culture with Henriette installed in a room overlooking the extensive garden, and Marie-Louise in a downstairs studio. The ever closer relationship between daughter and ageing mother produced a series of beautiful, and moving portraits of the fragility of old age and helplessness. Henriette died in 1978, aged 96, and Marie-Louise in 1996, after which the house and studio, run by the Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Trust, became a museum to her life and work.

Circus Scene was among a handful of works offered at auction by the trust and is loosely based on three photographs taken by Marie-Louise at a performance. Although her work was previously exhibited at Ben Uri exhibitions Forced Journeys: Artists in Exile in Britain, and Out of Austria (2018), it is the first example of her work to enter the collection.