Hein Semke

Hamburg, Germany, 1899 – Lisbon, Portugal, 1995

Born in Hamburg, Hein Semke followed in the footsteps of so many of his contemporaries – he emigrated. From settling in Portugal in 1932, where he showed work at the National Society of Fine Arts in Lisbon the very same year, until his death in 1995, he never stopped producing and exhibiting, commanding respect as a leading figure in Portuguese art without ever losing his marked differences in origin and sensibility.

The journey of this individualist, who in a 1930s poem summed up his existential attitude by asking ‘Around me / Masks – / Grimaces – / Disfigured / And empty. / From where / Do I get / The courage / To be / A Face?’, was not easy.

At age 10, he was sent to an orphanage when his mother died. In 1916, he voluntarily went to war and fought in the Ukraine, France and Flanders. Discharged in 1919, he worked as a mason, dockworker, miner and newsboy. Involved in anarchist circles, he participated in the uprisings that rocked his hometown at the start of the 1920s. Sentenced to six years’ solitary confinement, he was released in 1928.

His experience of war, and disenchantment with revolution, transformed him into a pacifist; at the same time, the political developments in Germany unsettled him. In 1929 he embarked for Lisbon, where he worked in a factory and tried to save money to go to Brazil. A physical breakdown led to him returning to Hamburg. He recovered but was declared unfit for work, giving cause for him to visit an exhibition of Russian icons and, at his friends’ encouragement, he dedicated himself to sculpture. This decision would be for life.

In 1930, he studied at the Hamburg Arts and Crafts School with Johann Bossard (sculpture) and Max Wünsche (ceramics). In 1931-32, he studied at the Stuttgart Fine Arts Academy with Ludwig Habich. Health and political reasons – then more pressing – caused him to leave the country once again.

In 1932, he moved to Linda-a-Pastora and quickly started mixing with Lisbon intellectuals and artists. He met Fernando Pessoa, and was friends with Almada Negreiros, Mário Eloy and Vieira da Silva. In 1933, he exhibited with the Portuguese modernists. His old political activism gave way to aesthetic creation, in a style of art essentially concerned with ethics and self-awareness. His severe, mystical work, clearly influenced by Barlach’s expressionism, suggestive of Roman-Gothic art, was classified as primitivist by critics.

His relationship with the German colony was turbulent. The three sculptures he completed in 1935 for the War Memorial Courtyard at the German Evangelical Church in Lisbon became, whether due to their anti-heroic content or the artist’s past, the target of Nazi censorship, and were considered ‘degenerate art’. With the artist away in Paris at the time, the Camaraderie in Defeat series was destroyed and The Pain and The Ascent of the Warrior were removed. Later they would be reinstated, but the magnificent Prophecy at the German Hospital was also destroyed. Resolved to protest at the Reich Chamber of Culture, Semke went to Berlin in 1936, from where he was fortunate enough to return unscathed.

In 1941, the measures taken to protect national artists in Portugal created economic difficulties for Semke. He gave up his atelier on Av. 24 de Julho in Lisbon, where he had already held an anthological exhibition of his sculptures dedicated to ‘all artists who suffer the intolerance of their time’, and turned to ceramics as a means of supporting himself.

The departure from sculpture weighed heavily; as did the brutality of yet another war. In 1947, he held his first solo ceramics exhibition at the SNI gallery (the Portuguese governmental body responsible for information and political propaganda), featuring unique pieces that were distinctly sculptural, made from red clay and pit-fired. This defined the second phase of his artistic career, when he became one of the main ceramics innovators in Portugal.

In 1949 he left Linda-a-Pastora, storing his work at a friend’s farmhouse and going to live in Lisbon in a rented room. However, until 1953, when he managed to establish himself in the modest atelier where he lived for more than twenty years, he continued to make ceramics and participate in solo and group exhibitions – in Lisbon, Porto and at the São Paulo Art Biennial –, and to write for magazines. In 1950, he published the book of poems titled Und…

In 1955, together with the other Portuguese representatives, he was awarded a gold medal at the 1st Cannes International Ceramics Festival and also received a commission for a large ceramic panel, enabling him to visit Hamburg that same year. It was simply a light-hearted, nostalgic trip, as he had already put down roots in Portugal, with the sea he swam in inspiring forms and colours in his work. In 1957 he created murals for the Ritz Hotel, and exhibited masks. Despite his hard work and frequent exhibitions, Semke sold little – while his work was admired, it did not fit in with the cheerful decorativism in vogue at the time. In 1962 he created a mural, which has since been destroyed, for the Hotel da Baleeira in Sagres. Silicosis forced him to abandon ceramics in 1963.

The third phase of his career focused on other modes of artistic expression; monotypes, paintings on engraved wood, woodcuts, watercolours and, once again, sculpture. In 1966, a grant from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation allowed him to create large oil paintings on the necessity of faith, which he exhibited at SNI in 1967. In 1972, the Gulbenkian held a general retrospective of Semke’s work. In 1977, a trip to Norway and the Lofoten Islands inspired a remarkable series of monotypes. Between 1958 and 1986, he completed thirty-four artist’s journals, which bring together texts, paintings, prints and collages developing his recurring themes – religious, political and aesthetic reflection, the celebration of women and love, a fascination with nature, flowers, trees and fish, social satire as well as self-satire – capturing the essence of his strong, emotive and positive vision of the world. In 1991, the National Azulejo Museum held a retrospective of his ceramic work. That summer he re-visited the Lofoten Islands. In 1995, he exhibited works from the last two years of his life.


Teresa Balté

April 2013