Crossing Borders:

From Danube to the Humber

Alfred Gruber and Friends

Welcome

Watch the exhibition video or scroll down to read more about the story behind Crossing Borders: From the Danube to the Humber. You can also use the dropdown to jump to the different sections on this page.

Alfred Gruber and Friends

Having travelled from the Danube to the Humber, the Austrian-born sculptor Alfred Gruber settled at Welton in East Yorkshire in 1969. Our exhibition tells the story of the artistic journey of this exceptional artist, whose work was invariably experimental, emerging from an exploration of materials and sculptural form. The results, which were often interactive, could be funny, forceful and at times painfully direct.

Our journey begins at the art school in Linz, with Gruber's introduction to modern sculpture, 'degenerate' art and fellow Austrian artists. From Linz, we travel to Switzerland, with its modern churches and challenging sacred art. In 1968 - the year that 'rocked the world' - Gruber was in Prague. He arrived during Prague Spring when a new administration brought a spirit of optimism and loosened the grip of Soviet power for a brief time.

Throughout his journey from the Danube to the Humber artistic friendships and partnerships were forged. They included modern Swiss architects and artists including the young David Weiss. Despite language, social and cultural divides, with a shared passion for art, Gruber formed friendships with Czech artists like Cenek Prazak and Jiri Kolar. But it was the artistic and personal relationship with the English-born sculptor Jacqueline Stieger that ultimately steered him towards Yorkshire.

Gruber in the studio at Arlesheim
Gruber, Wearing the Trousers, 1971 (front)
Wearing the Trousers, 1971 (back)
Peter Kubovsky, Untitled, 1959

Wachsenberg to Linz

Born in Carinthia in 1931, Alfred Gruber was at school in Wachsenberg, when German troops entered Austria and Adolf Hitler proclaimed Anschluss - political union of Austria and Germany - in 1938. War was declared the following year. His father was conscripted into the German Army and subsequently captured and held prisoner of war. When he returned home, Austria was under Allied occupation, controlled by the Soviet Union, United States, United Kingdom and France.

In 1948 Gruber secured a place at art school in Linz. The city was still under Allied occupation. Soviet forces controlled the region north of the River Danube, while the Americans took charge in the south. As the adopted hometown of Adolf Hitler, Linz had been at the centre of political activities during the Nazi regime. In a bid to control all aspects of German society including art, the Nazis had promoted traditional or classical art, condemning the work of renowned modern masters like Pablo Picasso as 'degenerate'. Eager to dissociate themselves from the Nazi regime, the new art school at Linz embraced modernism from the outset.

During his time at art school, Gruber befriended the artist, Peter Kubovsky. Born in South Moravia, Kubovsky arrived in Austria as a war refugee. Alongside his studies, Kubovsky took a job at the new art gallery, which showcased the collection of Wolfgang Gurlitt. As an art dealer trading in Nazi plunder, Gurlitt's legacy has since been tainted. Nevertheless, access to the Gurlitt collection of 'degenerate' modern art was invaluable for Kubovsky and Gruber during their formative years.

A Bike Ride to Switzerland

On leaving art school in 1952, Gruber embarked on a European tour, which included a trip to England and the studio of Henry Moore. Eager to progress as a sculptor, with few opportunities in Austria, he took a bike ride to Switzerland in search of work. After a short stint lettering tombstones, he settled at Arlesheim near Basel, working as assistant to Albert Schilling – a sculptor renowned for innovative sacred or church art.

Throughout the 1950s and early '60s, the use of modern art within the church was a topic of heated debate. However, Schilling secured approval and ran a successful workshop. But the busy workshop left little time or space for Gruber's independent work, so he rented a small studio and began developing his unique style. In 1961 he created Glorreicher Christus, a rebellious work condemned as 'perverse, scandalous and disgusting'. Nonetheless, Gruber's challenging approach appealed to several modern church architects who commissioned his work, including Hermann Baur and Ernst Studer.

Alongside sacred work, Gruber was exploring movement and abstract form, creating challenging works like Blind Warrior. Over time, he progressed from symbolising movement to creating interactive sculptures or kinetic 'machines' that physically moved. Like several kinetic artists he was intrigued by the inclusion of noise or sound. He befriended Dr Ernst Schlager, a collector and expert on Balinese music and art. Schlager's collection of Balinese musical instruments – notably gongs and bells – provided an unusual creative source for Gruber.

Gruber, A Christian Family, 1957
Gruber, Glorreicher Christus, 1961
Gruber, Blind warrior, 1957 [sketch]
Gruber, Blind Warrior, 1957 [sculpture]
Gruber, Erwagbarer Vorschlag fur plastiche Glocke, 1962
Gruber, Hausuhr, c.1962
Stieger and David Weiss with Northern Dairies Screen, 1965
Jacqueline Stieger, Epitaph on Osgerby, 1965
Gruber, Da ist nichts, 1961
Gruber, David am Wachsenberg, 1962
Gruber, Akustische-optisch nach Einwurf, c.1962

To Beverley and Back

In the summer of 1962, Dr Schlager brought a visitor to Gruber's studio. Schlager had met the artist Jacqueline Stieger in Crete earlier that year. Although born in England, Stieger was of Swiss parentage, so was pleased to accept Schlager's invitation to visit Basel. Gruber and Stieger felt an instant connection and a relationship followed. They travelled back and forth between her studio in Beverley and Gruber's new purpose-built studio and foundry at Laufen near Basel. While, Stieger had studied painting and drawing at art school in Edinburgh, she never studied sculpture. Nevertheless, she had worked in her father's workshop since childhood and was comfortable handling tools, and by 1961 had carved her first abstract sculpture.

Gruber left Albert Schilling's employ in 1961. Although confident with abstraction, he was still searching for a distinctive style. On one of many visits to Laufen, Gruber taught Stieger how to cast in lead. Together they experimented with abstract forms and sculptural processes, like casting lead with wood, resin, glass and bone. They explored the fundamental nature of unusual materials like asphalt, stretching their sculptural possibilities.

In 1966, Gruber and Stieger were invited to stage a joint exhibition at the Galerie Riehentor in Basel. Exhibits included Gruber's interactive sculptures. As the press reported, visitors were encouraged to 'play' with Gruber's 'machines', to create a range of sounds. Comparisons were made to the work of Jean Tinguely – a Swiss artist renowned for kinetic sculpture. However, as the critics observed, while Tinguely's sculptures were assembled from found and used objects, Gruber created handcrafted machines.

Prague Spring

1968 was a year like no other. Described as the year when a 'spontaneous combustion of rebellious spirits' exploded around the world. A year of student protests and anti-war demonstrations. Gruber was invited to contribute to an exhibition in Prague that opened in March 1968. Now married and living in Switzerland, Gruber and Stieger made the journey to Prague to attend the opening. When they reached Czechoslovakia, Prague Spring had arrived. After years of oppressive Communist rule, Antonin Novotny – First Secretary of the Communist Party - was removed from office. He was replaced by Alexander Dubcek, a liberal reformist offering 'socialism with a human face'. There followed a brief period of political and economic reform with less censorship and greater freedom of speech known as Prague Spring.

Arriving at the exhibition, Gruber and Stieger were greeted by the Czech artists Cenek Prazak and Jiri Kolar. Conversation came easy and the suggestion of an exhibition for Czech artists at the Galerie Riehentor in Basel soon followed. Having settled matters with gallery owner, Trudl Bruckner, Gruber and Stieger returned to Prague and plans were made over breakfasts of goulash and coffee.

However, on 20-21 August 1968 Soviet forces invaded Czechoslovakia and Prague Spring was crushed. When Gruber and Stieger returned in January 1969 to collect exhibits for the show, the spirit of optimism, so evident on earlier trips, had disappeared. With their VW van loaded with artworks, they left Prague. Demoralized by the political situation, Cenek Prazak and his wife Anna followed them to Switzerland, where they were invited to share the Gruber-Stieger's home. Jiri Kolar also visited, and life-long friendships were forged.

Gruber at the furnace in Laufen
Jacqueline Stieger
Jiri Kolar, Untitled (Alfred's Egg), 1969
Cenek Prazak, illustration for 'A Right to Die' by Rex Stout, 1967
Cenek Prazak, Signal, 1968
Jan Svankmajer, Table IV, c.1968
Gruber/ R. Swaine, In Place of No. 7, 1970
Gruber, Portrait of an Architect, 1971
Gruber, Untitled, 1971

A Beginning and an End: Welton, East Yorkshire

Regardless of ongoing success, Gruber and Stieger decided to leave Switzerland and settled in East Yorkshire in November 1969. They acquired an old building at Welton, where they created a workshop, foundry and home. Gruber had been making art jewellery for some time, contributing to the exhibition of jewellery by 'modern masters' at the Galerie d'Art Moderne in Basel in 1968. Fellow contributors included Alexander Calder, Georges Braque and Jean Arp. So, alongside large sculptures, he was now producing distinctive art jewellery.

With an introduction from Beverley-based architect, Richard Swaine, Gruber and Stieger began creating architectural and sacred sculpture for Gillespie, Kidd and Coia – a Scottish firm renowned for cutting-edge architectural design. Again, at Swaine's instigation, they became involved with a campaign to "Save No. 7". Despite being listed as a building of special architectural interest, the historic warehouse in Hull was threatened with demolition. For countless demonstrators, the building was irreplaceable. It motivated a series of photomontages by Gruber and Swaine. Sadly, despite all protest, the warehouse was demolished.

Gruber was ill when he left Switzerland in 1969 but the nature of his illness was unclear. Arriving in England, investigations were resumed but it wasn't until 1971 that a diagnosis of cancer was confirmed. He died on 16 February 1972. Despite her grief, Stieger forged ahead with an exhibition they had been working on for some time. It opened three weeks later at Park Square Gallery in Leeds, when the press declared: 'cancer has robbed us of one of our most forceful and relevant sculptors'.

Acknowledgements

The idea for this exhibition emerged while I was researching the Gruber-Stieger collection in preparation for a forthcoming publication. My initial interest had been sparked whilst curating the exhibition Jacqueline Stieger: Sculptor, Jeweller and Medallist for Beverley Art Gallery in 2011. Numerous people have assisted along the way. I would like to acknowledge the support of Arts Council England and the Anglo-Austrian Society (Otto Harpner Award). I am obliged to Nicole Ackermann (Cenek Prazak's only pupil) and Helena Cox for translating key documents; and to Patrizia Brumen (Neu Galerie, Graz), Richard Kunz (Museum der Kulturen, Basel), Jurgen Rath (MAERZ, Linz), Jan Skrivanek (Museum Kampa, Prague), Emma Stower (Henry Moore Foundation), Oskar Weiss, Pavla Kallistova and Jan Svankmajer for assisting with research. I am indebted to Lindon Mulcahy-Parker (Channel Robot), Patrick Cartlidge (Cartlidge Restoration), R&R Studio Ltd, and to Simon and Amelia Jefferson and Kathryn Sands for contributing to the preparation of bronze sculptures for display. I would like to thank the Czech Centre London, the Friends of Czech Heritage and the Auslandschweizer-Organisation (Organisation of the Swiss Abroad). I am particularly grateful to East Riding Museums, specifically Nial Adams, Sally Hayes, Georgia Broadley, Robert Blaine, Penny Barron, Sarah Hammond and the Friends of Beverley Art Gallery. I owe a particular debt of gratitude to the Gruber-Stieger family, especially Jacqueline Stieger for her ongoing support and encouragement, for which I remain truly grateful.

Gerardine Mulcahy-Parker


The information and images on this page is also used in a printed leaflet available to pick up at the Treasure House during the exhibition in Spring 2022. You can also download a PDF version using the link below. Please note, the download is only available in print style and will not read in the correct order online.

Download Leaflet (PDF 4.88MB)
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