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David Schneuer

Schneuer is now properly recognised as an important artist”

Iain Barratt

Director Catto Gallery

Here is work that celebrates the urban and the decadent”

What a life David Schneuer must have had. Here was a man who was born at the start of the 20th Century and died near its end, a man who experienced first hand some of the defining historic and cultural moments of the era – from the decadent cafe society of 1920s Berlin to the hell of the concentration camps to the birth of Israel. Looking at the paintings on display at his newest Catto show, and it's possible to trace a line from Toulouse-Lautrec via Schiele and the German Expressionists to even some of the Pop Art of the 70s. Here is work that celebrates the urban and the decadent – and does so in a style that blends art-school finesse with techniques borrowed from commercial illustration. 

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 instill 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, and soaking up the influence of the giant of poster art (not a literal giant, the Frenchman was five feel tall). In this Catto show some of the place names in the pieces – Montmartre, Place Pigalle – reflect the enduring influence of this period.

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 and indeed there are strong echoes of Kirchner in particular in some of the works.

During this time, Schneuer 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 1988.

Schneuer is now properly recognised as an important artist whose work reflects some of the key innovations of the 20th century – flattened perspective, a debt to commercial design, a hedonistic subject matter. He's a significant figure.