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Grete Marks: An Intimate Portrait

[ Exhibition )

A watercolour painting of two young boys looking off to the right. The blond haired boy on the left cradles his head with his hands, besides his brown-haired companion.

Grete Marks, Untitled, n.d, watercolour

Grete Marks (1899-1990) was an artist who fought for artistic integrity during some of the most turbulent moments the 20th century.

Marks was one of the first female students to be admitted to the famed Bauhaus school of art and design. She is best known for her ceramics, which were declared “degenerate” by the Nazis. However, this was not her only creative output.

In 2019, ‘Grete Marks: An Intimate Portrait’ showcased a series of intimate portrait paintings and drawings from the 1920s and 30s. It explored how Marks forged an uncompromising path dedicated to making art on her terms – even during a period when her gender, religion, artistic medium and nationality each placed barriers in her way.

This was a women with enormous drive, dispossessed and forced to find other ways to express herself in a foreign country…I’ve come to appreciate what an incredibly talented woman she was.

Frances Marks on her mother, 2007

Also known as Margret Marks or Margarete Heymann, Marks was born in Cologne, Germany in 1899. She entered the Bauhaus school of art and design in Weimar in November 1920, and was one of the first female students. It was here that she first proved her artistic mettle by refusing to conform to the school’s expectations for women. Founding director Walter Gropius attempted to steer his female students towards practicing weaving. This was, in his eyes, a suitable activity for women. Marks, however, fought to study ceramics. Her determination to do things her way soon saw her clash with her teacher Gerhard Macks and she left Bauhaus after only a year.

Despite her short tenure at the school, Marks was heavily influenced by the Bauhaus style and ethos throughout her life. She married Gustav Loebenstein in 1923 and they established Haël Werkstätten, a factory that soon became a leader in pre-war pottery in Germany. When her husband died in 1928, Marks took over the running of the factory.

As a single Jewish mother and artist associated with the left-leaning Bauhaus, Marks soon attracted the attention of the Nazi party. Her work, with its Bauhaus designs and emphasis on primary geometric shapes, was declared degenerate. Some of her vases were derided in an article by Joseph Goebbels in Der Angriff (The Attack) in 1934. A few were also included in the infamous Degenerate Art exhibition in 1937.

In 1935, Marks was forced to sell the factory for a pittance. One of her clients, the London department store owner Ambrose Heal, helped her and her two children leave Germany for Britain. She found work at Mintons pottery in Stoke-on-Trent, where she insisted on joining the board – an unheard of position for a designer, let alone a woman. She went on to found Greta Pottery, which closed when World War II began.

She married the educator Harold Marks and moved to London where she began concentrating on painting. According to her daughter Frances, “ceramics and painting were of equal importance throughout my mother’s life”.

By the 1950s, Marks was a regular exhibitor at the Redfern Gallery in Cork Street, London alongside Ben Nicholson and John Piper. She died in 1990 at the age of 91.

Despite the obstacles she faced throughout her life Marks used her talent and tenacity to forge her own path. Her goals as an artist were to produce works on her terms, even if that meant rejection.

‘Grete Marks: An Intimate Portrait’ revealed a little-known facet of an artist who is inspirational in her determination and individuality. It also marked the centenary of the foundation of the Bauhaus in 1919. and was part of Insiders/Outsiders. This nationwide arts festival celebrated refugees from Nazi Europe and their contribution to British culture.