Updated: Friday, 09 March 2007
A teacher and fine artist, Hugh Kappel was born in Berlin in 1910 on the eve of world war. The Kappels were an aristocratic family of Jewish heritage though, like many German Jews, they did not practice the religion. In fact, Hugh, his older brother Albert, and younger brother Peter were all baptized Lutheran. The Great War led to the quick promotion of Hugh's father within the military where he soon became a high-ranking officer. Whether or not he was blamed for the ignominy of defeat that would become the hallmark of Hitler's speeches, Hugh's father would nevertheless suffer the wrath of anti-Semitism that later forced the wealthy Kappels from the country and sent most to America. But before the Nazis rose to power, in economically depressed Germany, Hugh enjoyed the fruits of affluence. He prided himself in his excellent German schooling where he received an M.A. in philosophy -- a discipline that became his lifelong passion. His German education was soon followed by Parisian art school where he had the opportunity to work with the greats of 1930s' Paris. This unique exposure to the German expressionists and the artists of the Parisian milieu would enduringly inform his art. But the psychological trauma left by his fleeing of the Nazis in 1938 for New York City would continue to mark the rest of his life and his work, each day haunting his waking dreams.
War intruded to disrupt his grand plan, effectively eviscerating his considerable inheritance and expected life of leisure. One result was the chronic re-emergence of his latent mental illness. As described by Eleanor Quirt, a friend, colleague and benefactor, Hugh was alternately "appealing and appalling," charming and frustrating. His illness, exacerbated by stress, would sometimes emerge at the most inopportune time and leave his life in shambles. But in between schizophrenic episodes, he was a most kind, wonderful friend and sensitively brilliant artist.
It was the charming and mannered Hugh Kappel who in 1940 met Anne Heyneman at a party in New York City's Gramercy Park. They were two souls driven by art: cosmopolitan Hugh and bright, young Anne, an explorer from Berkeley, California who, after graduating from her hometown university, sought out adventure on the East Coast. She found it in a well-educated, well-heeled refugee from Berlin by way of the Sorbonne. Together they wrote and illustrated children's books such as The Happy Hippopotamus and The Whoosits. All the while, Hugh worked to blend his European sensibilities with the New York art crowd. Also in 1940, he became an American citizen, accepting his adopted country as his own. Life in America, despite war's trauma, held so much promise.
However, as time passed and especially after the birth of his child, Karen, in 1946, Hugh fell victim to constant employment pressures. His erratic mental states eventually led to his divorce from Anne and the estrangement from his daughter. Nevertheless, this chaos soon came under his control as he found employment in Minneapolis at the College of Art and Design where he taught art. There, he helped to foster the burgeoning arts community on the American "frontier." Always gregarious, he felt deeply part of the society of artists that were beginning to be embraced by the arbiters of American art.
His life spans the century and, as such, also spans various artistic movements. He was very versatile in his ability to absorb, question, and process the different problems of his current social setting. His earliest work begins with portraiture, naturalistic and unadorned. Subsequently, a blend of both German expressionism and French impressionism guides his work in watercolors, capturing a bold balance of nature and urban life. In New York, he engaged in print-making, his technique applied to the commercial assignments of the day. Much later, his collages reflect postmodern pastiche effects, but his work was also deeply influenced by his abiding belief in surrealism. Hence, his collages, perhaps most honestly, reflect the restrained chaos of his internal life.
I am eager to promote his work because I believe him to be not only a highly skilled artist but also representative of many deeply influential artistic innovations. He was a man at once on the periphery -- since he was not an initiator -- and also at the center, for he was often at the right place at the right time. As we look back to consider post-war or contemporary American art of the twentieth century, Hugh Kappel should figure into our assessment. He was highly regarded by his colleagues and students; I believe history will look upon him with the same high regard.
If you have any information about Hugh Kappel that might contribute to either his biography or an interpretation of his work, please contact me. He was a memorable man and artist whom time must not forget.
For some specific memories from Eleanor Quirt, visit her page.
(Many thanks due to Eleanor Quirt and Stewart Turnquist, without whose stalwart recollections the writing of this biographical sketch would not have been possible. Hugh's friends continue to remember him well and fondly.)
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All materials copyrighted 2003 by Anthony Hale: firstname.lastname@example.org