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During his lifetime, the German artist Egon Altdorf maintained a low profile.
“My father was very reluctant to sell his work,” says his son, Dorian Crone. “He never had a dealer—he detested the commercial art world.” As a result, Altdorf’s sculptures, paintings, woodcuts and etchings are almost unknown, in Germany and internationally. But all that is about to change: the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds is opening an exhibition of his art tomorrow, which runs until 26 November. Much of the art to be shown was salvaged by Crone in 2008 from Altdorf’s studio before it was demolished after his death.
Altdorf’s enigmatic abstract symbolism, heavy lines and pronounced Expressionist influence are characteristic of post-war German art. But he was also influenced by the British artists he met in 1953—a trip he described as the most important event in his creative development.
He had won a prize in an international competition organised by the Institute for Contemporary Arts in London to design the Monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner and the work, which has not survived, was exhibited at the Tate. During his time in Britain, he visited Henry Moore at his studio in Much Hadham and met Barbara Hepworth, Reg Butler, Lynn Chadwick and Geoffrey Clarke.
Altdorf’s most important surviving work is the design of the interior of a new synagogue built in Wiesbaden, Germany, in 1966. Though not himself Jewish, he was also in 1953 selected to make a stone monument commemorating the old synagogue that was destroyed on Kristallnacht in 1938.
“We are so pleased to be able to shine a light on this little-known artist and give his work the attention it deserves,” says Clare O’Dowd, the curator of research at the Henry Moore Institute. “His multi-disciplinary practice is an inspiring example of interfaith cooperation and the internationalism of the 1950s, and very much resonates today.”
Having grown up in Berlin, Altdorf was drafted into the army in 1941 and taken as prisoner of war in Tunisia. He was interned in Texas, then took part in an intensive programme to educate administrators for the reconstruction of post-war Germany on Rhode Island. He chose to live in Wiesbaden on his release, knowing that he had lost both his home and his parents in Berlin by that time, and studied sculpture in nearby Mainz with Emy Roeder.
He met a young Scottish artist and model, Diana Wilson, in Munich and they married in 1954. But he could not his support his wife, who was unable to work in Germany, so she took two-year-old Dorian with her to England. Crone did not meet his father again until he was 18.
“There were two pieces of his art in the house that I used to look at as a child and wonder about him,” Crone says. He describes his father as “a lateral thinker and an off-the-wall character.”
When Altdorf died in 2008, a friend of his called Crone to tell him the studio was being demolished. “I rushed over to the studio in Wiesbaden and I saw rolls of paper there that looked like artwork, and I managed to save them,” Crone says.
For his son, learning about Altdorf’s work “has been a wonderful and cathartic way to get to know him,” he says. “I wanted to see whether I could share his art with a wider world.”