The unknown side of Winston Churchill | Arts | DW | 14.11.2016
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The unknown side of Winston Churchill

As prime minister, Winston Churchill led Britain to victory against the Nazis. But he was also a writer and artist who painted to battle depression. His works are now on display for the first time in Germany.

There are not many cities that can boast connections to three Nobel Prize winners. Lübeck in northern Germany is one of them.

Writer Thomas Mann, former German Chancellor Willy Brandt and writer Günter Grass were all either born there or lived in Lübeck for a significant period of time.

Now the spirit of yet another Nobel Prize winner has arrived in the city - at least for a time. The works of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill are on display at the Günter Grass House through February 12, 2017.

Churchill exhibition in the Günter Grass House in Lübeck (DW/A. Drechsel)

The exhibition contains 11 oil paintings by Churchill

Churchill was not only a politician, but also a painter and writer. In 1953, at the age of 79, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Günter Grass, who received the award in 1999, was also more than a writer. He drew, sculpted and was politically active. Both Grass and Churchill were impacted by World War II and supported a unified Europe.

Churchill painted to challenge his mind

The exhibition in the Grass House presents 11 oil paintings by Churchill, which he created between 1920 and 1950, as well as writings and documents from his life.

Churchill didn't take up painting until the age of 40, but created more than 500 works in his lifetime.

"We were interested in the paintings that tell stories," Grass House director Jörg-Philipp Thomsa told DW. "Through the combination of words and images, visitors discover an unknown side of Winston Churchill."

The exhibition doesn't aim to redefine the politician as one of the world's greatest artists - after all, he wasn't a professional painter. "He painted to battle depression and challenge his mind," explained Thomsa.

Churchill exhibition at the Günter Grass House in Lübeck (DW/A. Drechsel)

Two men who fought for European unity: Churchill meets Grass in Lübeck

It's the first time that Churchill's works are on display in Germany. Typically, the paintings don't leave his estate in Chartwell, which has been turned into a museum. But the winter break - and insurance coverage totaling a 10-figure sum - have made it possible for the works to travel to Lübeck.

Peaceful landscapes and a political message

Some of the oil paintings depict peaceful landscapes with blue skies. Also included is an interpretation of a painting by American painter John Singer Sargent showing the Cathedral of St. Vaast, which was destroyed in World War I.

A rare portrait depicting pilot Jack Scott is also on display. Churchill rescued Scott's life after a plane crash in 1919.

Thomsa said his favorite work at the exhibition is one depicting temple ruins. In 1956, Church gave the painting to German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer as a gift. "The symbolism is evident," said Thomsa. "The temple ruins recall the destruction of Europe and the spirit of the antiquity. Adenauer understood that and considered the gift a noble gesture."

The European concept connects Churchill and Grass

After World War II, Churchill campaigned for European reconciliation and unity - which is why the exhibition in Lübeck is so relevant today.

Schleswig-Holstein's Premiere Torsten Albig and the director of the Grass House Jörg-Philipp-Thomsa (DW/A. Drechsel)

Schleswig-Holstein's Minister President Torsten Albig and the director of the Grass House Jörg-Philipp-Thomsa

"Churchill has been quoted again and again by the media in the context of Brexit and European unity," said Thomsa.

Churchill's ideas are more current than they've been in decades, commented the state of Schleswig-Holstein's Minister President Torsten Albig when he opened the exhibition. "We are currently experiencing a Europe that is falling apart. Both Grass and Churchill painstakingly worked through the lessons of the Second World War. Both give us important warning signals about what happens if we're not careful." We have to work and fight for Europe, added Albig.

As different as they may have been, both Grass and Churchill embodied the struggle for a unified Europe: Churchill, a conservative British gentleman who drank champagne at lunch; Grass, a left-winger who ran for political office as a Social Democrat and portrayed the "little people" in his texts.

"For Grass, it wasn't the big men who make history, but all of us," said Thomsa. "I think it's very interesting to deal with this antithesis in the Grass House."


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