Born in Poland into an Orthodox Jewish family, Jankel Adler trained in engraving in Belgrade and the applied arts in Barmen (now Wuppertal) before enrolling at the Düsseldorf Akademie der Künste. Based in Düsseldorf between 1922 and 1933, he became steeped in progressive art circles, associating with Lyonel Feininger and Wassily Kandinsky amongst others, and teaching alongside Paul Klee at his alma mater. After the Nazi’s declaration that his work was ‘degenerate’, Adler moved to Paris in 1933, where he worked with Stanley William Hayter at the experimental Atelier 17 and met Pablo Picasso - a rite of passage for any artist with serious aspirations to belong to the avant-garde.
Following the outbreak of World War Two, Adler joined the Polish army, with whom he was evacuated to Scotland in 1940. Demobilisation in 1941 was followed by a move to London in 1943. He thus personified the European avant-garde in Britain whilst becoming a central figure in the art worlds of Glasgow and then London. Solo exhibitions were held at T&R Annans & Sons in the former, and at the Redfern Gallery, Lefevre Gallery and at Gimpel Fils in the latter; he was to have a tremendous impact on British artists, in particular Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde, who shared a studio with John Minton two floors beneath that of Adler in Kensington.
Mädchen mit Katze (Girl with Cat) is thus a major example of continental Modernism, painted in Britain. It is one of his most sophisticated and poetic images: a contemplative seated woman in the right foreground holds an enigmatic object to her chest. A companion cat lying on a table to the left directly confronts the viewer, its startling eyes penetrating our souls, whilst the distinctly modernist sculptures to the rear – an homage perhaps to fellow émigré Naum Gabo – introduce a sense of time and place to this potentially timeless domestic scene. Adler’s post-Cubist approach to form is arguably seen to best effect in the sensitively rendered facial features of the female protagonist, although his technique across the canvas surface is as varied as the range of muted and bold tones and colours used to realise volume, perspective and mass.
This work exemplifies Philip Vann’s declaration that ‘finding refuge in Britain in 1941, the forty-six-year-old Jankel Adler embarked afresh on a richly distinctive journey as an artist. The powerful, often stark monumentality characterising his earlier continental period gave way to vibrant new works of most subtle intricacy and compassionate poignancy. All that he had learned and absorbed from the great Modernists he had known in the 1920s and ‘30s – notably Klee, [Max] Ernst and Picasso – was now assimilated and integrated with apparently spontaneous ease into radically original, humane pictures.’1
Such is Mädchen mit Katze’s significance within Adler’s oeuvre that it was selected for reproduction in Stanley William Hayter’s 1948 monograph on the artist, by which time it had been acquired by the legendary British art collector Peter Watson. He and Adler are believed to have met for the first time in Glasgow, with their mutual acquaintance Colquhoun reporting that Watson ‘believes Adler to be quite exceptional.’2
The millionaire Watson was, without doubt, the eminence grise of the London contemporary art world during the 1940s, when many artists struggled to make ends meet: Watson funded the arts journal Horizon, which was launched in 1940; was a co-founder of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1946; lived in a Wells Coates-designed flat in London surrounded by works including by Christopher Wood, Graham Sutherland, Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Joan Miró, Chaïm Soutine and John Tunnard; and counted Sutherland, Nicholson, Augustus John, Lucian Freud and John Craxton amongst his artist friends. Mädchen mit Katze thus joined one of the most remarkable collections of modern and contemporary art in Britain at the time.
The related painting, Woman with a Cat (formerly known as Girl with Cat) of 1944, was presented by the Contemporary Art Society to Aberdeen Art Gallery in 1952 (ABDAG002283).
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