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Art

Leo Maillet: Painting with blood and coffee

When his "degenerate" works were destroyed by the Nazis, artist Leo Maillet fled to France to express himself with whatever means he could. An exhibition in Frankfurt showcases the work of the forgotten Jewish artist.

Montmartre,1940s, Copyright: imago/United Archives

Montmartre,1940s

"I launched myself into the air with all my strength, hoping to reach the edge of the opening. I swung hard, straightened out, spun around and hit my head on the rail. I expected the next railcar to run right over my head." This harrowing but straight-forward account of his last-minute escape from a deportation train travelling through France and bound for a concentration camp comes from a 1943 entry in Leo Maillet's diary. The fall from the moving train onto the tracks below cost Maillet an eye and most of his top-row teeth.

Master apprentice under Max Beckmann

Graphic artist Leopold Mayer adopted the pseudonym Leo Maillet later in life. Although many of his works have been lost or forgotten, a new exhibition at the Jewish Museum of the city of Frankfurt is highlighting the artist's life and acheivements.

Born March 29, 1902, to a Jewish salesman in Frankfurt am Main, Mayer couldn't possibly know the terrible plight he would have to endure during Nazi rule. After a period working as a banking and sales teacher, he soon realized his true passion was to be an artist.

In 1925 Mayer enrolled at the Frankfurt Art Academy where he took courses in graphic design and printing techniques. A couple of years later, as a master apprentice under Max Beckmann and with his own atelier in Städel Institute, his career path seemed promising. Owing to his time under Beckmann, Mayer felt deeply connected to expressionism. But he soon came into his own as an artist.

Leo Maillet sketch: House cat, Copyright: Jüdisches Museum Frankfurt

Maillet's "Le Sauvage"

When the National Socialists came to power two years later, the artist set out on an odyssey across Europe that ultimately led him to Paris. Around 50 of his paintings and 100 sketches that he made in Germany had been declared "degenerate" and were confiscated and destroyed by the Nazis. In France Mayer reunited with his wife, and they built a new life for themselves. His mother would never have the chance to see him again - she was deported from Frankfurt to Riga and executed.

Concentration camp in France

In Paris, Mayer kept his head above water as a photographer. He managed to establish a little Atelier with a garden. "We had a lot of photography contracts, especially for children's portraits," recalled Mayer. In the Lacouriere workshop where Picasso und Miro where known to visit, Mayer was responsible for printing and etching. He produced a number of pieces, including "Sauvage," a photographic plate with a sparse outline of a cat that has since been lost to the ravages of time.

World War II later broke out. For French authorities, all German nationals living in France were suddenly the enemy. As a result Mayer was arrested and sent to an internment camp. He managed to escape, but his artwork had no such luck. When the Nazis came to occupy France, they seized his apartment and destroyed more than 200 oil paintings and photographic plates.

Painting in coffee, wine and blood

A self-portrait of Leo Maillet, Copyright: Jüdisches Museum Frankfurt

Self-portrait by Maillet

It wasn't just his art that fell into the hands of the Gestapo. In 1942 Mayer himself was arrested and deported to a concentration camp in Les Milles near Aix-en-Provence. Years later, Mayer would immortalize the oppressive atmosphere of the camp in the etching "Vor der Deportation." The work shows the desperate situation of his fellow inmates at the concentration camp.

After his escape from the deportation train, Mayer fled to the Cevennes countryside where he survived as a humble shepherd. Inspired by his wanderings through the landscape, Mayer felt compelled to make art with whatever means he could, namely: coffee, wine and blood. Today the whereabouts of these 30 works is not known but the motifs from this time resurfaced in his work in 1971.

A portrait of persecution

When Mayer fled to Switzerland in 1944 he adopted the pseudonym Maillet. He marked the transformation with a self-portrait, a self-assurance as an artist. The oil painting can be seen at the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt.

After the war, the artist engaged in the lengthy process of trying to receive reparations from the French and German governments, as a victim of war. He was granted compensation and was able to establish a life for himself in Switzerland until he died, March 8, 1990.

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