'Hillsborough'

Georg Eisler (Vienna 1928-1998 Vienna, Austria)

An the chaotic football stadium, three people are climbing on the upper level, where two people are stretching hands to give help.  

Artwork details

Medium and Support: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 132.3 x 152.5cm. (including strip frame) 156.5 x 176.5cm (framed).
Date: 1989
Signed: Signed and dated in upper right corner: Eisler ’89'1|
Accession No: WAG 1998.36

This painting commemorates the disaster at Sheffield’s Hillsborough football stadium on 15 April 1989 when ninety-six Liverpool football supporters died. It is one of a series painted by Eisler in 1989 of a subject that always absorbed him; massed, and often confrontational, crowds. 'Hillsborough' is a prelude to his series of paintings of crowds inspired by the demonstrations that preceded the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. Although he lived and worked in Vienna, Eisler retained the links with north-west England which he had made as a refugee and art student in Manchester and its surroundings in the 1930s and during World War II. His powerful image of Hillsborough is based on a television still, which was broadcast  world-wide, that showed the crowd’s struggle to escape suffocation by clambering on to an upper level of the stadium.2| The straining arms and flailing legs in Eisler’s painting also recall Renaissance artistic imagery such as the figures struggling up to Heaven in the Last Judgement of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. This awareness of the past was an integral part of Eisler’s art.

As Eisler admitted, his ‘impulse to paint’ was often triggered by events, memories and experiences.3| Recurrent themes included social divisions and injustices, and the often violent confrontations between the individual and the state, such as his series on the British miners’ strike of 1984. His ‘profound political commitment’ was also a major stimulus to his creative inspiration. As the son of the Austrian composer Hanns Eisler (1898-1962), who had been Bertold Brecht’s collaborator and composed the East German national anthem, Georg grew up in a milieu in which socialism and communism were vigorously debated and political engagement was taken for granted. In 1944 Georg briefly became a pupil in London of his fellow Austrian émigré the expressionist artist Oskar Kokoschka before returning to Vienna in 1946. When pressed to do so Eisler described himself as a realist painter with expressionist origins. In Cold War Vienna, however, he felt pigeon-holed as a ‘socialist realist’ countering ‘democratic’ abstract expressionism, despite his abhorrence of Soviet painting.4| His friend Raymond Mason described him as a ‘militant figurative painter in the days when European art was moving in another direction’, adding aptly in the case of 'Hillsborough' that he was also an artist who ‘painted swiftly... and could conjure the urgent movement of a crowd.'5|

Provenance

Purchased from the artist’s widow, August 1998, through the artist’s dealer, Galerie Ernst Hilger, Vienna.

Exhibited

  • Galerie Hilger, Vienna, 'Georg Eisler: Ein Bad in der Menge', 1990, p.19 col. Illus.
  • Martin-Gropius Bau, Berlin, 'Realismus-Triennale 1. Künstlersonderbund in Deutschland', 19936
  • Österreichischen Galerie, Belvedere, Vienna, 'Georg Eisler: Bilder aus den Jahren 1943-1997', 1997, p.71, col. Illus.7

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Footnotes

  1. On reverse of canvas in black marker pen: EISLER: HILLSBOROUGH - STADION 1989 130 X 150cm and two labels, one from the Galerie Hilger, Wien and the other entitled “Realismus-Biennale” with no gallery name.
  2. Television camera image taken on 15 April 1989 at 3.06 pm. On Eisler’s death drawings related to 'Hillsborough' were thought to have been with his widow, but no such studies are known (Dr. Susanne Berchtold, Georg Eisler Archiv, Vienna, email 5 July 2004).
  3. Peter Vergo’s essay in the exhibition catalogue 'People Places and Politics: Paintings by Georg Eisler', Manchester City Art Gallery, 23 Sept.-23 Oct. 1988, p.5. quoting from Julian Spalding’s Foreword to the same catalogue. 
  4. 'People Places and Politics' pp. 23-24,19-20. Transcript of discussion between Wolfgang Fischer and Eisler 14 February 1988.
  5. Obituary in 'The Independent' 24 March 1998.
  6. The label for the ‘Realismus-Biennale’ on the back of the canvas relates to the Berlin exhibition which reproduced it in colour on page 121 of the catalogue.
  7. The catalogue of Eisler’s retrospective exhibition at the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna carried a foreword by another friend, Henri Cartier-Bresson, who had photographed him in his studio.