Tuesday 19 September 2017

Noted painter who defied Hitler found peace here

Jerome Reilly

Jerome Reilly

To his neighbours in the Waterford village of Curraglass, Johannes Matthaeus Koelz was a genteel pensioner who spent the last happy years of his life renovating the cottage he bought, sight unseen, from a newspaper advert.

Few knew he was one of Germany's foremost painters of the 20th Century and fewer still knew his secret.

For Johannes Matthaeus Koelz was the man who defied Hitler -- refusing a direct order from the Fuhrer that he paint his portrait.

And Johannes paid a heavy price for his bravery and defiance, according to his daughter Ava Farrington.

She now lives in Co Waterford, not far from where her father found peace and solitude after a turbulent life.

"He loved it in Ireland. He found he was accepted in Curraglas just as he was and he spent his final years very happy," she told the Sunday Independent.

Her father won the Iron Cross for gallantry during the First World War, but fled Germany after he refused to paint Hitler, who was an admirer of his painting.

His experiences in the trenches during the Great War turned Johannes Matthaeus Koelz into an avowed pacifist.

A warrant was put out for his arrest. Not only had he refused to paint Hitler but he had also penned a series of satirical anti-war poems, which infuriated the Nazis.

But by a strange twist of fate, the Gestapo officer charged with arresting him had been a soldier whose life Mr Koelz had saved in the trenches on the Western Front.

The officer rose to the debt of honour and gave the artist and his family 48 hours' grace. They escaped Germany with the help of the Quakers and made it to England.

But before he left his homeland, the artist had one last job to do.

He had painted a remarkable anti-war triptych titled 'Thou Shalt Not Kill', which he then broke up into 20 pieces to avoid detection. He gave the divided sections of the painting to family and friends for safekeeping.

Many of the pieces are still missing and the only image of the painting has been in black and white.

On Monday night a BBC 1 documentary, part of the acclaimed Inside Out series, which charts both Ava and her father's incredible story, reveals, with the help of computer technology, what the entire painting would look like in colour for the first time in more than seven decades.

Ava, who is now 75, was just two years of age when her family fled Germany in the late 1930s.

He was 76 when he died in 1971 and there are still some around Curraglass who remember the quietly spoken German.

"Because he was so very happy here and because he felt accepted here I am a bit amazed that there isn't that much interest in his life story and more importantly his work," Ava told the Sunday Independent.

The artist had worked as a draughtsman in Staffordshire for much of his life under the anglicised name Matthew Kelts.

But his relationship with Britain was bittersweet. During the Second World War, he had been interned by the British as an enemy alien and sent on the SS Dunera to Hay Camp, New South Wales, Australia.

"He found peace in Ireland, which was incredibly valuable because he had such upheavals in his life. He had never been really accepted in the UK, I have to say. It was difficult, very difficult.

"It was much easier for me. Of course we always spoke German in the house.

"I didn't have an accent but of course he did, which made all the difference between being accepted and not being accepted in England," said Ava, who now spends her time campaigning on local environmental issues and looking after two donkeys, which she "fosters" for the Donkey Sanctuary charity.

Sunday Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News