Vienna-born potter Lucie Rie, who is the subject of Emmanuel Cooper’s biography “Lucie Rie: Modernist Potter,” shows how a Jewish artist can express Yiddishkeit in creativity despite repeated assimilations. Rie, who lived from 1902 to 1995, was the daughter of Dr. Benjamin Gomperz, an ear, nose and throat specialist and a friend of Sigmund Freud. Gomperz decorated his consulting rooms in exuberant Jugendstil (art nouveau) designs.
Rie’s maternal uncle was art collector and historian Sándor Wolf, who immigrated to the Holy Land in 1938 after the Nazis seized his collections. He died in Haifa in 1946. Wolf had taken his niece on grand tours of Europe to admire art masterpieces, as well as on a 1923 trip to Palestine, where she observed the millennia-old local tradition of pottery, only one year after she had first tried the potter’s wheel as a Vienna art student. Sometime after her trip to the Holy Land, when Rie told parents she was planning to fast for Yom Kippur, Gomperz wrote to his daughter:
“I am very much for piously respecting old traditions and customs — it is an exercise of the character — but the rule of 24-hour fasting does not have to be followed under all circumstances… fast as long as you feel well; but when you get dizzy, take a little snack. You are, after all, an anemic girl and mustn’t be harmed by fasting… you serve the commandment even if you have fasted for less than 24 hours.”
Despite their prosperity and privilege, the family’s assimilation into Austrian society was incomplete. A 1987 book, “Lucie Rie” by Tony Birks, notes how Lucie’s beloved artist brother, Paul Gomperz (1898–1917) joined the army during World War I “to avoid being called a ‘Jewish coward.’” He was killed on the Italian front, and Rie’s survivor guilt was augmented by further losses during the 1918 flu pandemic, notably that of the Austrian painter Egon Schiele, whose work she much admired. In 1927, Gisela Gomperz, Rie’s mother, wrote to her daughter during a skiing holiday in Obladis, Austria, praising the Tyrolean scenery “if one does not mind the anti-Semitic tendencies there.” In a 1934 letter, her mother added, “One hears a lot about the Nazis, but one doesn’t see them; bunch of blackguards, I must say.”
Decades later, Rie would tell a journalist: “I never liked the Viennese people. They were jealous, not goodhearted, and most of them were Nazis.” After her pottery had received many solo exhibits around the world in the postwar years, Rie still refused to show her works in Austria, responding to any such proposal with, “Only when I am dead.”
After the Anschluss, from which she unsuccessfully sought distraction by reading Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind,” Rie fled to London. There she relied upon a network of émigré Austrian Jewish friends to find clients, and sought out an appropriate pottery studio as part of a decades-long successful quest to become an English artist who nevertheless retained her original identity.
Once Rie had purchased a home in Albion Mews, Bayswater, that also served as her studio, her friend, Freud’s architect son, Ernst Freud, fashioned living and working spaces inside it. In 2009, Rie’s studio would be reconstructed in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. In Albion Mews, Rie behaved like a well-brought-up English lady, observing with religious fidelity the ritual of consuming afternoon tea and cakes. She worked in total silence, with improbably neat and pristine precision. Cooper, a frequent visitor in later years, said, “I was amazed to see that when [Rie] stepped down from the wheel, she was as clean as when she got on it.”