Ruth Borchard first wrote to Hans Schwarz in August 1963, and paid £15 for his c.1950 self-portrait. It shows the artist in his south London studio; he was in his late twenties. Light filters through the net curtains to illuminate the studio with its cosy, complex, orderly, perhaps dusty clutter. The artist himself is a short, stocky, dark figure; the light falls so as to make the right-hand side of his shadowy figure glisten. It is impossible to discover the expression on his face, but his attitude suggests peaceful introspection.
The picture’s palette is ‘near monochrome with very dull colours’. In 1989, Schwarz explained that his palette, early on, ‘consisted of black, white, yellow ochre, Prussian blue, raw umber, burnt umber and Venetian red. They were virtually all the colours I used … I ignored light and shade, cast shadow, sunlight. They, to me then, detracted from and diluted the essential solid reality.’ Later I was ‘freed me from that preoccupation and colour came about without any conscious effort’.
Nevertheless, in his self-portrait, the solid mundane objects around him take on an elusive air. The empty bentwood chair perhaps evokes the tantalising absence of a model. It seems the artist is beckoning the spectator to come and sit for him. Similarly, the appearance of the looming, empty easel suggests this is a portrait of that creative juncture where no picture is being painted but the next is being inwardly conceived.
Hans Schwarz was born in Vienna in 1922. He attended art school there from 1937-8, but, as a Jewish pupil, had to leave when the Nazis came to power. His father, a bank clerk, later died in Auschwitz. ‘When I came to England in 1939, I was 16. For a year I worked as a labourer. Then I was interned with all other refugees, officially as an enemy alien. You couldn’t have had less of an enemy than the lot of us. I went to art school in Birmingham… but it took me until… my forties before I realised how important painting was.’
Schwarz was a subtle and perceptive portraitist. His works (many in the National Portrait Gallery Collection) include a magisterial yet still informal portrayal of three former trade union figures in Trafalgar Square; a portrayal of a flame-haired Janet Suzman, the actress, dressed in even fierier-hued colours; and a baby as a hugely assertive yet still helpless being, under its toy mobile.