The exhibition focuses on a series of small scale sculptural heads which were carved, cast and assembled throughout Nagler’s working life using a variety of materials including bone, metal, ivory, plastic and even non-traditional materials such as bread. This is the first time that these works have been exhibited in a public gallery. The heads have a strong Jewish influence and an Austrian folk art sensibility. The multi-faceted sculptures of bearded men are particularly haunting; with their beards, bearskin hats and profiles they appear to refer to Hassidic Jews. Considering Nagler’s own experiences fleeing the rise of anti-Semitism in 1930’s Vienna and the loss of many of his loved ones in concentration camps, the works evoke the horrors of the Holocaust, and possibly serve as an act of remembrance on Nagler’s part. The arrangement of so many of these works in one room will create the impression of a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ (or Wunderkammer in German).

Marc Steene, Executive Director of Pallant House Gallery said: “As a self-taught artist Friedrich Nagler very much fits the criteria of the non-traditional maker, creating work for himself at the expense of his family and any other material gain. I am particularly drawn to the heads sculpted out of bread - it is always enjoyable when artists use an unexpected material to make their work. The breaking of tradition and the creative freedom that represent make them powerful evidence of an alternative approach to art and making. We are delighted to be able to exhibit Nagler's work as part of our commitment to engage audiences with the best of Outsider Art alongside Modern British, international and contemporary art."

Born in 1920 in Vienna, Friedrich Nagler was illegitimate, the product of his mother’s ex-marital affair. Although he was later reluctantly accepted by his mother’s husband, he spent much of his early childhood in foster care and in an orphanage. Nagler later told his own children that he “knew no love during my childhood”. From an early age he drew comfort in his own self-belief as an artist and hoped to attend art college.

Nagler was never able to achieve this dream due to the rise of Nazism and anti-Semitism in pre-war Vienna. Many of Nagler’s friends and almost all of his relatives died in concentration camps during World War II but Nagler had an extremely fortunate escape. On his first attempt to flee Vienna he was captured by a Nazi soldier who instead of shooting or arresting him pointed him in the right direction. In Nagler’s mind this story grew to mythic proportions, leading him to believe that he had a guardian angel and that his work was directed from above.

Nagler made it to England in 1939 where he joined a farm commune in Kent but was then interned by the British at Douglas on the Isle of Man before being deported to Quebec on the ship SS Sobieski. Known as ‘the artist’s camp’ because so many German and Austrian artists, writers and intellectuals were held there as ‘enemy aliens’, it was at Douglas and on-board Sobieski that Nagler met the few people that remained his friends in later life - in particular, the graphic artist Hans Arnold Rothholz.

Once in Quebec Nagler worked as a lumber-jack, the first of many menial labour jobs he held throughout his life. Even during this period he was creating art, producing some of his earliest watercolours and drawings. He returned to England in 1943 where he was interned again, this time near Oxford. He was assigned a day job at a munitions factory where he met his future wife. They settled in Horndean near Petersfield, Hampshire in 1945 and it was here that Nagler began to produce his extraordinary body of work using the by-products and off-cuts from the places he worked; wood from saw mills, plastic and resin from boat yards and rubber from a shoe factory, to name a few.

Nagler’s desire to produce art was all-consuming. He was an obsessive maker, producing art at the kitchen table in the evenings when the family were in bed and then sleeping on the floor. His garden shed became a repository for the brass fittings and metal scraps that he collected from work. He later began to collect materials from junk shops and car boot sales to add to his materials for his composite metal sculptures.

His commitment to his art often overshadowed his own sense of well-being; on one occasion Nagler’s wife left him money to buy food while she was away on a short trip. Instead, he used the money to buy art materials and barely ate until she returned.

Nagler continued to push his artistic skills by trying new making methods; by the early 1960s he had begun making clay sculptures which he fired at a local community centre. Around the same time he built a forge in the garden which he used to create animal sculptures and crucifixes in wrought-iron. He also began carving faces and heads from animal bone and even managed to acquire ivory to produce some remarkable small sculptures. He took animal bones from the butcher and carved them into idiosyncratic, stylized faces and profiles that he would arrange into ‘family’ groups stored inside flat chocolate boxes, tins, or small cabinets.

In the 1970s a boat-building job gave Nagler access to new materials, in particular a type of resin which he used to make a number of small brightly painted faces all brilliantly expressive and, as Nagler himself said “every one of them is different”. From the late 1970s into the 1990s he returned to painting but towards the end of his life he made larger, simple but more abstract constructions of masks and animals from polystyrene, plastic tubes and containers.

Nagler refused to sell his work or have it exhibited during his lifetime. Since his death in 2009 there have been a small number of exhibitions including at England & Co in 2014 and the Paul Smith Space Gallery, Tokyo in 2015 but there is still an extensive body of work that has never gone on public display.

Friedrich Nagler: Wunderkammer will be on display in the De’Longhi Print Room at Pallant House Gallery from 30 June – 16 October 2016. Entry to the De’Longhi Print Room is free.


About Pallant House Gallery:

Pallant House Gallery is a unique combination of an historic Queen Anne townhouse and contemporary extension, housing one of the best collections of Modern British art in the country. Widely acclaimed for its innovative temporary exhibitions and exemplary Learning and Community Programme which has inclusion at its heart, the Gallery has won numerous awards since re-opening in 2006, including the Gulbenkian Prize, the largest for arts and cultural organisations in the country.

About De’Longhi:

De'Longhi is Pallant House Gallery’s headline sponsor as part of the brand’s continued support of the arts and local community. De'Longhi, makers of premium Italian coffee machines and other aspirational household appliances, established links with the Gallery for the first time in 2009 through a partnership that included a variety of creative projects throughout the year. De'Longhi continues to contribute to the work of the Gallery through its sponsorship of the De’Longhi Print Room, which features a variety of dynamic exhibitions. For more information about De'Longhi visit