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David Schneuer: May 2013

25 years after his death, David Schneuer still casts a long shadow over the contemporary art scene. His work reflects some of the key innovations of the 20th century – flattened perspective, a debt to commercial design, a hedonistic subject matter. Born in 1905, Schneuer was very much a 20th century man, and it's possible to trace in his work a line from Toulouse-Lautrec via Schiele and the German Expressionists to even some of the Pop Art of the 70s. The paintings celebrate the urban and the decadent – and do so in a style that blends art-school finesse with techniques borrowed from commercial illustration.

What a life he must have had. Schneuer was born in 1905 in Przemisl, a village in Poland, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The family moved to America when Schneuer was a child, or meant to. They never got there, deciding instead to settle in Munich. A fateful decision. As a young man, Schneuer became part of the proto-Zionist movement gathering momentum among young Jewish activists in Europe. In fact, he was sent to East Prussia to learn about farming and subsistence as if in preparation for the establishment of a new country in the Holy Lands.

However, for Schneuer the real value of this graft at the time was the discipline it would instil in him, and the effect this would have on his burgeoning artistic talent. “Farming was actually my first preparation for craftsmanship,” he said.

On his return, Schneuer spent six months with a sign painter in Berlin before gaining a place at the Kunstgewerbeschule (school of arts and crafts). He continued to support himself by designing posters and was soon persuaded by fellow students to go to Paris, spending six months in the city of Toulouse-Lautrec.

In the 1920s Schneuer worked as a stage and poster designer in Berlin and Munich, developing a style influenced by the Die Brücke school. This was nearly 20 years after these artists – Kirchner, Schmidt-Rottluff, Nolde, Grosz, Beckmann and others – had evangelised the non-naturalistic depiction of often decadent scenes. There are strong echoes of Kirchner in particular in Schneuer's depictions of louche sensuality.

During this time, the artist also met and befriended some of the towering artistic influences of the era: Thomas Mann, Bertold Brecht, Kurt Weill. Clearly, Schneuer was lucky to be living through such a fertile time for an artist of his type – namely one interested in capturing the vivacity of life and the sensuality of people.

Unfortunately, darker forces were to overshadow this rich cultural scene, and in 1932 Schneuer was sent to Dachau. He was released a year later, and escaped to Tel Aviv, in what was then Palestine. By now, his expressionist style was fixed and in full flower, and Schneuer's paintings, posters and public murals were received with great enthusiasm in the expanding city. He lived there until his death in 1987.

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